A window to St. Petersburg

In 1703, Peter the Great, czar of Russia, founded St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea. It was to be a "window to Europe."

The czar wanted to modernize his country, so he imported the best architects from western Europe and gave them free reign to create what would become one the most beautiful cities in the world.

Three hundred years later, Vadim and Valentina Tsemekhman wanted to build something special, something that would be a window to their former home of St. Petersburg.

That is exactly what they have done on the corner of McGilvra Boulevard East and East Lee Street in Madison Park.

Inspired by the neo-classical elegance of St. Petersburg, the three-story house they designed and built dominates the intersection.

Coming to the land of 'dreams'

The Tsemekhmans came to Seattle in 1992. Both had advanced degrees from world-renowned universities in St. Petersburg.

They had met while attending the Polytechnic Institute, where Vadim went on to receive a doctorate degree in physics, and Valentina received a master's degree in biochemistry.

She also holds a master's degree in interior design from Russia's top art school, the Mulkina Institute.

Nonetheless, both attended school at the University of Washington so they could work in this country. Vadim received his master's degree in physics, and Valentina received another master's degree in biochemistry.

They have been busy since moving to the United States. Valentina has pursued biochemistry and architecture. In the mid-'90s, she helped to restore several fountains and buildings in St. Petersburg, while also learning the principles that would guide her through the design process for the new house.

Vadim worked at the UW's Institute for Applied Physics for five years, started two software companies with his brother and still found time to remodel their house and another one in Leschi.

"From time to time, I wanted to depart from science," Vadim said. "This is the land of dreams, so I followed my dreams."

Creating something old yet new

The couple wanted to merge the old, refined style of St. Petersburg with the space of modern living, but it was not easy. They required the help of three different architects in designing the house.

The Tsemekhmans wanted stylistic harmony but had to adjust the design to modern American living. The floor plan had to be opened up much more to allow the easy flow from room to room that is expected in modern Seattle homes.

"We still defined the areas by the ceiling beams, but the space is much more open and common," Vadim said, as he stood in the living room that is connected to the kitchen with a small breakfast nook off to the side.

The house also showcases the work of three Russian artists: Aleksandr Maltsev, Alla Goniodsky and Vaho Muskheli. Since St. Petersburg is the cultural center of modern Russia, the Tsemekhmans immersed themselves in the art community when they lived there. Many of their friends were artists who belonged to art groups known as kochyli (nomads).

In St. Petersburg, the couple remodeled their apartment that was in a 200-year-old building. Stripping the walls, they uncovered newspapers from the 1910s that had been used as wallpaper.

"There were all these layers of history, literally on the walls," Valentina recalled.

At first the community's reaction was less than favorable, but the Tsemekhmans held an open house two weeks ago that drew a couple hundred local residents. "I feel we have more friends now," Vadim said, adding, "The neighborhood is still suspicious somewhat."

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