Gene Zema was born on September 2, 1926, and grew up on a farm in the Sacramento Valley in California. He began studies at the University of Washington in 1944. Although he initially studied Engineering, he changed his course of program to Architecture after returning to school from service in the Navy during World War II. He completed his Bachelor of Architecture degree at the University of Washington in 1950.
Zema received his architectural license in 1951 and joined the AIA that same year. He worked for a variety of architectural firms before opening his own practice in 1953. Located in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood (200 East Boston), the office was a strong testament to the skills of the young designer and helped him receive many notable architectural commissions over the next thirty years. Zema shared this office with A.O. Bumgardner, and they formed a partnership to work on larger projects. They each maintained their private residential practices during this time and the partnership lasted only a few years. As partners, the two were invited in 1955 to produce a prototypical residential design for the Grand Rapids (MI) Homestyle Center exhibit featuring nationally known architects. Their design represented a “budget house for…the Pacific Northwest utilizing natural materials.” In the early 1950s, Zema had designed a number of standard builder’s plans for the development of Bridle Trails Park in Bellevue, WA, which were very similar to the Homestyle Center model he designed later with Bumgardner.
Zema holds the distinction of receiving the first Seattle AIA Home of the Year award in 1955 for his own dwelling completed in 1954 (16040 35th NE, Sheridan Heights). Other award-winning homes were the Holm residence in Richmond Beach (built 1956, AIA honor award 1962), and the Lupton residence (1961) on Mercer Island, which was awarded both a Home of the Year award in 1961 and an Honor Award in 1962. Other notable residential buildings in and around Seattle included the Stephen House (1970) and his own home in Laurelhurst (1965).
Zema’s residential and non-residential work was heavily influenced by the work of Paul Hayden Kirk. Zema especially drew direct inspiration from Kirk’s “how-to” book about clinic design (Doctors’ Offices and Clinics, 1955) for the eight medical and/or dental clinics he designed. These included the Jefferson Park Medical Clinic (1957) on Beacon Hill, the Rice Dental Clinic (1961) in north Seattle, and the Overlake Park Clinic (1963-65) in Bellevue.
His other non-residential projects also include the Wells-Medina Nursery (1968) and Gould Hall at the University of Washington (with Dan Streissguth, 1972). Zema had opened a Japanese antiquities gallery in his office in 1968, which remained in operation through the 1990s (under different ownership). Zema retired from practice in 1976 and built a third home for his family on Whidbey Island in 1983, where he currently resides.
- Beth Dodrill