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.