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In the three decades following World War II, a group of architects centered in the Puget Sound region were designing buildings of extraordinary quality, whose most evident commonality was the use of wood in profusion, as exposed, meticulously detailed structure and as interior and exterior surface. Gene Zema, a 1950 graduate of the University of Washington and a student of the legendary Lionel Pries, was one of this group. In a career that spanned twenty years, Zema designed forty-six houses, seven clinics, two architectural offices, a nursery, and a golf clubhouse, and he participated in the design of two University buildings. He built several buildings with his own hands, developing a consummate sense of appropriate design in wood. The luxuriantly crafted details and uniquely dramatic spatial compositions of his work place it at the forefront of that remarkable movement.
Zema was also a distinguished collector and retailer of Native American and Japanese antiquities. In 1983, relying on the sale of antiquities for income and limiting his architectural practice, he and his wife, Jane, bought a 70-acre meadow on Whidbey Island. On their property Zema built a workshop, a windmill and pump house, a chicken house, a home, a peacock house, and a kiln, all of which are as remarkable as his earlier masterpieces.
Gene Zema is an iconic figure among those who know his work, but the region to which his work is intimately bound is far from the centers of architectural journalism and his story is little known. It is the story of a unique figure in an extraordinary American architectural movement and an exceptional figure in the history of the Pacific Northwest.