Shared Walls — A history of Seattle apartment living

Capitol Hill’s own Diana James has just published Shared Walls, Seattle Apartment Buildings, 1900-1939. This book is unique. Seven years in the making, it is a book that answers many questions about why there were so many apartment buildings built in Seattle during the first thirty-odd years of the 1900s, and to some extent answers questions about why people chose to live in them early on, and still do.

What makes the book unique is not only that it is about apartment buildings in Seattle, but that it is an affectionate description of apartment buildings and apartment living. It is also unique in crediting and describing the architects of the buildings. Most previous reviews of the work of architects here have not recorded the contributions of those architects to apartment buildings – part of a prejudice against apartment living of long duration. Apartment buildings just didn’t count, usually, when extolling the contributions of architects to the cityscape. This is odd, because so much of our cityscape here on Capitol and First and Renton Hills is, in fact, made by apartment buildings.


The San Marco’s stairwell (Images: http://dcollett.net/SanMarco)

James describes apartment buildings inside and out. (The book reads easily, so one is tempted not to notice just how much research has gone into it.) Not only did she go and look at apartment buildings, she also found plans for a number of those still standing, researched an amazing number of what historians call “original sources” – and was able to interview former and current tenants as well. The notes at the end of the book and the bibliography are extensive.

I live in the San Marco, as you will discover when you read the book. And I’ve always wondered just exactly why people describe this building as a “luxury” apartment building. Now I know. It has always had bedrooms. Many apartments, as it turns out, did not originally have bedrooms at all. However, they did have kitchens, or “kitchen-ettes” and that is a defining characteristic of apartments.

James tells us much about the plans of apartment buildings and their materials, whether for luxury apartments, intermediate apartments, or “efficiencies”. She selects apartments to discuss primarily from the downtown, First, Capitol, and Renton Hill areas, although the last chapter also highlights apartment buildings in many other neighborhoods.

The first apartment building built in Seattle is still standing on First Hill. Pretty amazing. It has been around since 1901 and is still in use as an apartment building. James’ book gives us detailed portraits of this and 99 other apartment buildings, along with information about others along the way. Maybe the building you live in is here, or one across the street or down the block?

Diana James appears at Elliott Bay Book Co. and will lead a walking tour on January 28th:

Start: 01/28/2012 2:00 pm
Historic preservationist Diana E. James’ book, Shared Walls: Seattle Apartment Buildings, 1900 – 1939 (McFarland), began as a collaborative project with famed local historian Jacqueline B. Williams, and in the intervening years became a solo project. Now finally complete, this fascinating and essential volume offers a comprehensive account of apartment building history, styles, designs, and an account of some key individual building histories. Diana James will give a brief overview and also provide tips for researching your own building’s history. Following the talk, Diana James will lead a short walking tour and discuss the history of some of the buildings in our Capitol Hill/First Hill neighborhood.

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13 thoughts on “Shared Walls — A history of Seattle apartment living

  1. This building is the first place I lived in Seattle 27 years ago. I lived in the top floor apartment on the west side and looked down Spring Street. I shall always cherish that building an the time I lived there. It’s charm stays with me always. Thank you for the beautiful photo of it’s entrance. Long live our memories!

  2. Yeah, this will surely be the nerdiest thing that I get excited about for awhile. Our specific apartment is uber cool but the building itself probably won’t make the book. lol… It’s probably a good thing to examine and preserve this area of Seattle history now, lest the cool old buildings be completely replaced w/ condos.

  3. I’d never even heard of Renton Hill before. I considered that area First Hill. Not sure if I can post links here but here’s an old map that shows it. It also indicates that at some point Wallingford seceded from Fremont :)

  4. We lived in the San Marco for two years, and it’s truly a remarkable building. I miss the huge, gracious living and dining rooms with many bay windows and views of squirrels frolicking in the trees outside. It’s remarkable how well the original inlayed floors and molding have been preserved. It’s clearly been a beloved building for everyone who has lived there.

  5. The tour will take in only some apartments in the very near vicinity of the bookstore, but there is no limit to the number of people who may participate. Please join us.

  6. I will! Thanks.

    Have you thought about partnering with Seattle Architecture Foundation to provide a longer walking tour to go with your book? They provide all sorts of architectural walking and house tours.

  7. I spent my early childhood living in an apartment on Captitol
    Hill, the Roycroft on Harvard Avenue.
    Just wondering if you wrote anything about
    that one?

  8. My partner and I started out our 33 years together in the apartment on the top floor, facing west. I think it is the same unit Shirley is speaking of. We loved the building. We had beamed ceilings at the time, in laid oak floors, bay windows, a spiral staircase off the hallway that went to the basement laundry facility. Our fridge was in the hallway and there was a frosted glass half wall at the dividing the kitchen from the hall. We did have a gas range and glass door cabinets in the kitchen. We became good friends with other tenants and still to this day we are friends. We moved from here to the Grand Pacific Building on First ave. when it was refurbished and we rented there a couple years before buying our first home in Phinney Ridge. We now live in Scottsdale Arizona but still have fond memories and feel being young and in the city living there was one of our most memorable experiences.
    Dick