Women were some of the most prolific early 20th Century developers to shape Capitol Hill into the neighborhood we see today. Author Diana James documented some of the more interesting female characters behind Capitol Hill’s classic apartment buildings in her 2012 book Shared Walls: Seattle Apartment Buildings, 1900-1939. In a 2014 talk, James said that while she was researching for her book, she was struck by the number of women who popped up in the real estate business.
“Researching women’s involvement in the business of buying, selling, and building apartments was a worthy pursuit,” she said. “The accomplishments of these women would be commendable today, but the fact that they occurred over 100 years ago make them even more remarkable.”
While women in many other parts of the country rarely worked in real estate, James said it was fairly common in Seattle. That didn’t keep local reporters from making special note of what these pioneering women were up to. When Ellen Monroe bought an apartment building at 15th and Republican, a Seattle-P.I. reporter made certain to note that she bought the apartment with her own money. A year later Monroe bought the Fredonia, the building one block north that now houses the Canterbury Ale House.
Like many developers today, the women James researched often had an affinity for specific neighborhoods and blocks. Jane Brydsen developed and owned several buildings around 6th and Madison in the early 1900s. However, one of her first developments was a 5-story apartment building at 1202 E Pine. When she built it in 1906, The Gordon featured attractive outdoor balconies and detailed exteriors. Today, the building is among the more forgettable in Pike/Pine, redone in a characterless, khaki facade.
According to James, many of Seattle’s women developers worked together by forming professional associations and close working relationships. After having recently arrived in Seattle in 1901, Josephine Baker bought two parcels of land near Broadway and Mercer and an apartment at 8th and Mercer.
One of the most prolific developers James uncovered was Corinne Simpson Wilson. Wilson came to Seattle in 1906 and quickly got to work buying properties around First Hill. In 1907 she put out a classified ads for “first class real estate men” and “20 live, hustling real estate salesmen.”
For several years, Wilson lived at the Roycroft on Harvard Ave. In addition to having an office on Madison St and properties around central Seattle, Wilson also had properties in Edmonds, Bainbridge, and Yakima. Wilson eventually retired to a house near St. Marks Cathedral, James said.
Women also showed financial savvy with their developments. James found a newspaper article that reported Anna Clenbenck had bought The Highland apartment building just south of Volunteer Park as a strict investment opportunity. Clenbenck also owned The Penbrook on First Hill and The Highland just south of Volunteer Park.
Of course, women continue to shape Capitol Hill’s landscape with developers like Maria Barrientos and Liz Dunn. Hopefully, 22nd Century reporters and authors will someday find something useful on their exploits in the CHS archives.