Looking out his office door, Rich Dillard keeps an inquisitive eye on the cast of characters that stream in and out of The Summit Inn. As manager of the building, he has to deal with the typical issues of maintenance and rent, but managing an emerging artist collective and DIY house requires some unique people skills.
“You’re not just managing a building, you’re managing a community that’s wildly delinquent,” he said, re-wrapping his long dreads that sometimes cascade around the tattoos covering his neck and face.
The Summit Inn is a three story, 20-unit building that sits on a crime prone block between E Olive St and Howell — a sliver of Capitol Hill so far mostly untouched by the frenzied development of recent years. The current iteration of the Summit Inn began in 2009 under a simple premise. “We wanted a place where artists are able to sit down together and share a meal,” Dillard said.
On Saturday the third annual Summit Block Party will take place on and around the Inn’s stoop. Adair Tudor, who helped organize the first block party, calls the Summit Inn home. While the building won’t be open to the public, the Summit Inn is a major organizing force behind the event. It’s also a kind of spiritual center for the street where the festival makes its home.
Cynics may see Summit Inn’ers as just the sacrificial artists priming the ground for the block’s inevitable redevelopment. Dillard said there’s some truth to that. He knows the Inn won’t last forever. Nevertheless, the residents of the Summit Inn — a motley crew of artists, musicians, travelers, and crafts men and women — are still trying to forge a dynamic DIY community in the shadow of Seattle’s service industry mecca.
For many years, the building was home to a facility for mentally ill residents. Dillard’s office is teeming with remnants of the Summit Inn Congregate Care Facility’s former tenants, including old patient files and stacks of outdated prescriptions for lithium. Just outside Dillard’s office is a kitchen where Food Not Bomb’s cooks their weekly meals and the one-time patient cafeteria that has been transformed into a sparse performance space.
Dillard, 42, is a longtime tattoo artist who moved into the building in 2011. At that time, Dillard said there were some small efforts to create a more intentional community at the Summit Inn, but building’s reputation as a party house was hard to shake.
“Maybe it’s my age… the things I do need to have more of an impact, ” he said. “We should do something more productive for the community.”
The Summit Inn was originally built as for single-room occupancy apartments (the OG aPodment), with shared bathrooms and common spaces. Today the interior feels like an art installation itself, a building in a perpetual state of destruction and repair.
The Summit has around 20 units, some in various states of being split or conjoined to meet the needs of its varied tenants. There’s a woman in her 60’s who’s a retired art teacher, her son who just returned from Nepal, and a smattering of tattoo artists and musicians.
In recent years the building was known as an addict house, a reputation Dillard said he’s trying to change. New tenants must be actively doing some creative work and be open to contributing to the house in some way. Dillard said he’s trying to organize a house committee to vet new applicants.
The Summit Inn is owned by Pete Siklov, a prolific owner of what some may deem less desirable properties around the city. He’s most known for owning Jimi Hendrix’s disassembled childhood home. Siklov also owns 17th and Madison’s The In Arts Northwest, a somewhat more realized version of Summit Inn with regular art shows and events. Dillard said he hopes to create a similar community at the Inn, though one that’s distinctly Summit Ave.
One advantage of being on Summit over Madison, Dillard said, is being located on a block less perturbed by live music. Dillard has insulated windows in the the former cafeteria turned performace space, adding to the soundproofing offered by the bricked over windows from a former building manager who used the space as a marijuana grow room.
Dillard was born and raised in Seattle. As a teenager in the 1980s he started running the streets around Capitol Hill and the University District, mostly in pursuit of drugs, alcohol, skateboarding, and art. He eventually worked for several years at Capitol Hill’s Super Genius tattoo studio.
Over that time, Dillard said he saw crack and gangs wreak havoc on Capitol Hill, especially around the Summit Inn. While public safety problems persist on the the 1700 block of Summit and other pockets of the neighborhood, Dillard said things have improved dramatically. He hopes in some small way, the Summit Inn is contributing to that.
“People say the new Capitol Hill is dangerous. Compared to what?” he said.
“It used to be a blood bath up here.”