This is the Ward House, seen in two of the three locations it’s been over the last 120 or 130 years. The bottom half is at Pike and Boren on the southwest corner, seen in the early 1890s. The top half is earlier this week, at Denny and Belmont on the northwest corner. Between the two it was nearby its origin, turned and moved a bit up Boren to make way for the Gallatin Hotel in 1905, and stayed there until it shuffled uphill in 1986.
There are many ways to tell the stories of the secret lives of buildings. The way I like to do it, I start with a crisp date of construction and tell a bit about Seattle and the neighborhood at that time. Then I share how the humans responsible for it lived their lives and whether they were notable, or just notably normal. The Ward House’s early story is more difficult to piece together than I expected. Especially since it’s one of Seattle’s earliest official city landmarks, and because has been known as Seattle’s oldest surviving home. Luckily I had some help, but there is plenty of fertile ground for the next historian to hop to it.
In search of the primary source
The Ward House was built in 1882… or perhaps it wasn’t built until 1889? Check back in a week (I’ll update here and post to Twitter) and I may have a final answer, but for now I have sources that point to two answers.
From the 1975 Seattle Landmark application on, it has been given a construction date of 1882, or sometimes “circa 1882”. Frustratingly, I have not figured out where that date was sourced. The National Register of Historic Places application, filled out by the Seattle Historical Society (MOHAI) just a few years earlier, simply dated it as “1880s”. The body of that application paraphrased a 1966 Seattle Times article and repeated the claim that the land for the house was purchased in 1883.
Like me, you’re confused about how the house was built before the land was purchased. I turned to city directories, censuses, and other documents to track down its owners — the Ward family. I can confidently say that they moved into the house between mid-1889 and before June 1890. I believe the house must have been finished no later than the end of 1889, because my friend Curt and I transcribed a list of every Seattle building completed in 1890, and it’s not included.
Why did we spend our precious time on Earth transcribing that list? Because the Great Fire happened in 1889, and the data on how many structures were built the next year, where they were built and of what type seems pretty important to help tell the story of 1889 and 1890. Because context matters. Look, here’s what I said a few years ago when I corrected the date of construction for Prosch Hall (aka the Assay Office aka German House) from 1886 forward to 1893:
These differences may seem esoteric or quibbly, but Seattle was changing fast. Prosch himself wrote, “The changes of the preceding few years were among the most remarkable in the experiences of the cities of the world… During the period from 1887 to 1893, Seattle increased its population four times and more from 12000 in number to 55000.” 1889, the year of the Great Seattle Fire, stands like a barricade between the two dates. Was it built in 1886, the year of the Anti-Chinese Riots, the year that Montlake joined Seattle, the First AME Church opened, and the first electric light bulb was lit here — or was it 1893, as the first transcontinental train arrived in Seattle, the first basketball team formed here, and financial panic gripped the nation? Was half of John Nagle’s Capitol Hill land claim on sale, or the whole thing? Was it before or after sodomy was outlawed in Washington State? Context matters.
It’s really important to get the date of construction right, or to get it into as close a range as we can, so that the story around the building is correct. I’ll play the same game again and say, if it was 1882, that’s before any streetcar existed in Seattle, even a horse-pulled one. If it was 1889, it was coincident with the introduction of electric traction and a year after electric wound cable cars. Seattle was very small in 1889, but it was tiny in 1882.
For Prosch Hall it took me a visit to the state archives in Bellevue to review their 1880s and 1890s tax rolls in order to work out the answer. This time the archives staff are taking a look for me, and I hope it confirms 1882. Perhaps the house was there when Ward bought the land, and he leased it out? At minimum the story told until now about the Wards building the house and occupying it in 1882 is incomplete. Or maybe the answer will be more dramatic. Or even worse: inconclusive.
Who are these people?
The house takes its name from its first owners: George Washington Ward, his wife Louise Van Doren Ward, and their three children Arthur, Susan and Mabel. The best biography of George Ward available publicly was published in 1903 and was probably paid for by him. That means that it was the picture he was trying to present of himself, and later biographies did not add description of his life afterwards. Between breathless descriptions of George leading a life “of untiring activity” and “emphatically a man of enterprise” there is some really bad math. It says that he arrived in Western Washington in 1871 from Illinois, spent a few years farming (1871-1874?) and then five years doing carpentry of interior finish (1874-1879?) and then he entered business with partners to sell insurance, real-estate and loans. Really, he entered the partnership in 1890, when he and William Llewellyn bought out William Hardin’s other two partners in an existing firm. So there are 10 years missing from that timeline.
There is another, better biography, written in a genealogical memoir by Mabel’s daughter Lucile Olney, A Chronicle of My Family. This was self-published by her family after her death in 1986, and lent to me by David Leen (more about him later!). The Library of Congress is unaware this book exists. The Seattle Public Library does not have a copy. There is no entry in WorldCat, which I believe means that no library anywhere has a copy. There is one for sale through abebooks, otherwise this is completely off the radar.
Lucile Olney paints an internally consistent portrait of the Wards that is very different from the 1903 biography and the decades of regurgitation that followed it. Also her story finally makes sense of a confusing paper trail for the Wards. The family moved to Washington with Louise’s parents, Cornelius Marshall and Delia Van Doren in 1871. They purchased land near Kent on the Green River and built a hop farm. Mr. Van Doren opened a store and post office on the river selling to passing mosquito fleet steamers. Today it is Van Doren Landing Park. Matching the 1903 bio, Lucile says that the family was in Seattle within a few years, in time for the birth of her mother Mabel in 1875.
Lucile goes on to say though, that the family split time between city and country.
Mabel spent much time at Van Doren’s Landing as a child. She enjoyed her grandparents and the farm life and became acquainted with the Indians who were employed on the hop ranch during harvest season. All the family learned to speak and understand the Indian jargon [Chinook], which they years later used in their speech among themselves, and, I recall, employed at times when they preferred we not quite understand what they were saying. – A Chronicle of My Family p 39
Newspapers and city directories show that George Ward continued to be involved in farming in Kent into the 1880s while his family lived in Seattle for its schools. As late as 1886 he was deacon of the White River Baptist Church (the Green River through Kent and Tukwila was actually the White River until 1906). In the late 1880s George apparently focused on carpentry as his primary source of income, a valuable trade as homes were built to match Seattle’s rapid growth. And he used that skill on his own home. The remaining interior woodwork is very fine, and it was regularly praised by writers through the years. Lucile Olney described the home as “carpenter Gothic.”
George and Louise were devoted members of the Baptist church in Seattle, just as they were in Kent. Being active with Seattle First Baptist broadened their opportunities for service even wider, though. From 1891 George and Louise helped Fukumatsu Okazaki, Yoshigoro Akiyama and Yosaburo Nakayama to create a Japanese Baptist mission in Seattle, including night classes taught by Louise to prepare Akiyama and Nakayama for baptism. The Wards remained advisers for the mission and helped when they were ready to create a Japanese YMCA and then to build a church in 1899. The Japanese Baptist Church congregation remains, now on Broadway on First Hill. Louise wrote a letter to her daughter Mabel sometime before her death in 1916, describing her involvement with the Japanese mission. The UW has a microfilm reel of it in special collections that I did not have time to review. The Wards also apparently helped with the founding of the Chinese Baptist mission in the 1890s, whose church is now on Beacon Hill, but I was unable to find details of their involvement.
We can confidently say that the Wards lived at the Ward House while helping to create the Japanese Baptist Church. Many of the church’s leaders and members of its congregation must have visited the home while the Wards were there.
Restless on Boren
By 1896 the Ward family had left the house at Pike and Boren, reportedly suffering in the lingering after effects of the 1893 financial panic. George’s real estate partnership survived, although William Hardin dropped out in 1898. He continued with William Llewellyn at least until 1909, perhaps right up until George’s death in 1913. He suffered a stroke while working on his new Ford horseless carriage and died suddenly.
After they left, the Ward House was then rented as flats for almost a decade. In 1903-1904 Pike Street was regraded, and then Boren Avenue as well. This caused parcels to be flipped quickly between investors. After three or four resales, one of which netted 25% profit in four weeks to a State Senator, the building entered the hands of Rautman & Carrick. They needed the house out of the way for their planned new apartment building, the Gallatin (later known as the Crest Hotel). They took advantage of the regrade, which at last made the steep crag of Boren accessible. The Ward House was moved uphill a bit and incorporated into the Gallatin as additional rooms.
By the mid-1970s it was in disuse. You’ll recall from the last Re:Take that this house is the only survivor of its block. Through the 70s and early 80s apartments were one by one left derelict or underused. They suffered from arson and accidental fires of squatters, and were all demolished in 1986 to make way for Avanti Apartments and Homewood Suites.
Not the Ward House though. It was already a city landmark, so Historic Seattle tirelessly worked with the property owner to arrange its sale, and then looked for a buyer who would move it to a new home. Amidst an assortment of applications with imperfect plans to somehow turn it into a bed and breakfast or return it to a single family home, one stood out for its strength and a different type of reuse.
David Leen and Bradford Moore proposed to buy the house, move it, and convert it into offices for their law practice. They had already worked out the financing and a location at Denny Way and Belmont Avenue, and their application was chosen by Historic Seattle. The difficult part then would be hauling the building up Capitol Hill through trolley wires and power lines and placing it in one piece on the new foundation. It was ridiculously expensive and complicated.
One of the lesser complications involved removing the two houses that were already on the property at Denny and Belmont. They were built in about 1909, and were in good enough shape in 1986 to consider reuse of their own. Leen and Moore donated them to the housing non-profit Environmental Works (which is still headquartered in the former fire station at 15th and Harrison) and paid to have them moved as well to land that the organization owned on 19th.
Because of David and his partners’ loving ownership of the Ward House from 1986 to 2016 — 30 years and a couple of weeks — we have a building that is more beautiful than it was for most of its existence. And we know much more today than when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. David shared a stack of materials with me, without which I would be left to simply parrot Paul Dorpat’s word-capped history in the Seattle Times in 1999 (about 2/3 of the way down on this page).
David Leen retired at the end of March, ending thirty years and a month with the Ward House. He sold it to TOLA Ventures, a new venture capital firm founded by former Microsfties that focuses on cloud-based startups. VC activities are kept under pretty tight wraps, but industry tracking sites say that TOLA has funded an array of still-little-known companies with obtuse names so far: SignalSense, ProtectWise, SaleMove, minubo, Wecker, Parstream, Opera Solutions. Hopefully they are successful, but not so successful that they’re forced to find larger quarters. Landmarks flourish with stable ownership who learn to love even their oddities and difficulties.
There’s plenty more to learn about the Wards. I know I’ll be surprised at whatever the next historian writes. Certainly I’d like to find out about hop farming in the Green/White River Valley in in the 1860s and 1870s. Did George or his in-laws farm hops in Illinois before coming here? I didn’t tell you that two of George’s siblings were already in Washington State in 1871, mainly because I have no idea when they got here or what they were doing and how much influence that had on the Van Dorens and Wards moving here. I really want to know exactly when the Ward House was built. I can’t believe I didn’t even research the two decades of real estate transactions, insurance sales, and other activities of George Ward in Seattle. Plus, David Leen owned the home for two to six time longer than the Wards did. We really need to capture a profile of him and his law firm, and attach that to the house.
The best and shortest answer for “what’s next” though, is “nothing”! The Ward House will continue to grace the block with Goodwill, a welcome site to neighbors walking to bus or subway stops, headed to a bar or diner, or cutting through quiet streets across the Broadway area.
Thanks to David Leen for sharing his story (which I have barely even touched on!) and his resources; to Anne Frantilla and the Seattle Municipal Archives for research assistance; and to Midori Okazaki and the Puget Sound Regional Branch of the Washington State Archives for advice and research assistance.