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CHS Re:Take | Berlin bakery beatdown at 9th and James, 1905 and 2011

1905 meets 2011 (Image: Rob Ketcherside)

Kafe Berlin‘s new home is one of the most important, and least well remembered historic buildings left on First Hill. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places, but the facts are all wrong. So National Park Service, prepare for a beatdown — history style. (Really more of a light slap followed by a pinch on the cheek.)

613 to 619 9th Avenue, on 9th between Cherry and James, was built by Thomas Prosch. Prosch was one of the fabled Sons of the Profits. These guys got rich off of early Seattle as an outpost of the American empire which was spreading quickly across the Pacific. His story — and our building — was tied through the gold rush to the statue of William Seward we saw last time, and Samuel Archer‘s Klondike hidden story of love.

Prosch was a newspaper man from a newspaper family. He came to Seattle in 1875, sold the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1886 for a fortune, and then dinked around as a local historian before dying in a car accident in 1915. Here’s more from HistoryLink. When he sold the P-I he bought a chunk of property up on First Hill at 9th and James and built a home for his family. He put up our building right next door, one of First Hill’s first commercial buildings.

The stage is set to begin the beatdowns.

Beatdown #1
NPS says that Prosch constructed our building in 1886, at the same time as his house. I say it was 1893.

Here is the source of their date, a property card written in 1937 and on file at the Puget Sound Regional Branch of the Washington State Archives. Phil Stairs, a research assistant at the archives says in e-mail, “An independent researcher has determined that at least one third of the dates are completely wrong and some are off by a few years.” That’s a shaky place to hang your hat.

My dates come from Seattle Times articles ranging from the 1910s to the 1970s, including the obituary of Prosch’s daughter and last remaining heir in 1973. A 1966 article on the building’s history mentions the debate between 1886 and 1893 but specifically points to the property card as the only evidence of 1886. In addition, I’ve searched through digitized city directories and find no business on the block until magically Prosch’s Hall appears in 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.

Beatdown #2
How was the building used? Upstairs was a meeting and performance ballroom creatively named Prosch’s Hall. The official word is that downstairs was used as “offices”. Yawn, I’m going back go bed! No, there was at least one real business here. Those old Seattle Times articles all mention a bakery sometime before 1898. The city directories support them, showing that Bate W. Alexander and John W. Searight ran a bakery and lived in this building in 1897.

Those are the seeds of a great story. Think about it: Kafe Berlin has brought a pastry oven to 613 9th for the first time in 113 years. That’s a big number for Seattle! It’s like reintroducing the grey wolf, or teaching a tribe their forgotten language. And we’re talking about real people, so who were Alexander and Searight, why did they live together, what kind of bread did they make, and who might their customers have been? These are the kind of pre-hospital tales of First Hill that are hard to come by.

(Image: PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection, MOHAI)

So what happened to the bakery? Well, in 1897 gold was discovered in the Klondike, and freighted by the ton to San Francisco to be officially melted down, purified and weighed by the government at the U.S. Assay Office. Seattle wanted that gold and in 1898 convinced Congress to put a new Assay Office here. Thomas Prosch played a pivotal role, and was rewarded with a high-paying, high-security tenant. The United States government rented Prosch’s Hall to locate their Assay Office. The bakery was displaced.

End of story right? Here comes another.

Beatdown #3
The NPS page says that the building was sold in 1935 to Deutches Haus, an organization for Seattleites of German heritage. Again, this was extrapolated from the property card which says that a remodel was done in 1935. But contemporary newspaper articles show that the building was purchased by the Order of the Sons of Hermann two years earlier, in 1933. They then banded together with the German Society and other groups in 1934 and finally opened Deutsches Haus in 1935.

The difference is huge in world history with the march towards World War Two. In 1933 Adolf Hitler was first appointed Chancellor of Germany. By 1935 he had already ordained himself Führer. In 1933 there were acts of vandalism against Jews in Germany. Contrast that with 1935, when the Nuremberg Laws removed all rights from Jews.

I am certainly not claiming that the members of the Deutches Haus were Nazis. Indeed, in 1941 a spokesman profused, “We are not Nazis. We are Americans and we are pro-America, but we are also humanely sympathetic with [prisoners of war]. They are our kin.” So it’s important to know what events affected their thoughts of Germany as they purchased and remod
eled this building.

Enough? Not quite.

Beatdown #4
The NPS page says this building was a “social center” during World War Two. They word-smithed the Seattle City Landmark Nomination application which called it an “entertainment center.” What in the heck is that? The truth is that it was a civilian-operated Officer’s Club.

There’s an untold — unresearched, really — story here. The United States declared war on Germany on December 11, 1941. With faint echoes of the illegal incarceration of Japanese Americans, the U.S. government went after German Americans as well. For example, UW grad and local ski- and mountaineering-hero Hans Otto Giese had his citizenship revoked. One piece of evidence used against him was his role in founding the German Society of Seattle and Deutsches Haus. The government was even more concerned about his brief membership in the pro-Nazi Friends of New Germany, which later became the German American Bund. Occassional GAB meetings in the upstairs hall marked Deutsches Haus as the only Washington State location monitored by the Committee on Un-American Activities.

Deutsches Haus itself was closed down at some point in 1942. It didn’t make the Seattle Times, and I haven’t yet dug up a date. Somehow an umbrella of Seattle women’s groups got control of the building, and redecorated it as the Seattle Officer’s Club. There’s no word in the Seattle Times about what actually transpired there. And also no word on when it was returned to the German Society after World War Two — sometime before the end of 1947. These are all worthy areas for research by local historians.

Since city staff put together the City Landmark nomination in 1983, there has been a whole lot of copying, pasting, and rewording in the telling of the history of 613 9th Avenue. There are so many interesting and unexplored angles to this building, though. The National Parks Service has just been one of many preservation organizations, historians and travel writers who have skipped the opportunity to find and share these stories.

Hopefully history will be corrected in the future.

In case you missed them, here are the last few Re:Takes on CHS:

Local history expert Rob Ketcherside shares his vision of the past and present with his Re:Take series of works on CHS and other Seattle sites.

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19 thoughts on “CHS Re:Take | Berlin bakery beatdown at 9th and James, 1905 and 2011

  1. I used to walk by this building when I lived on 9th Ave. There was a plaque affixed to the building describing it as a social club for German Americans. Glad to see the new tenants (Kafe Berlin) are honoring the building’s history. I’ll be sure to stop in. Hoe they have sachertort, a favorite from my childhood! Tschus!

  2. In a memoir called Charlie Frye and His Times, Helen E. Vogt mentions this building: “There were two attractions during our childhood on First Hill’s Ninth Avenue. The dark, heavily-barred windows of the Assay Office, which we called “The Mint” because there was much gold inside, lured us on short walks south on Ninth. The Prosch house on the southwest corner of Ninth and Cherry was also a mysterious place as we pondered from which upstairs window a young girl in the family was said to have jumped or fallen during a night of sleep-walking.” p. 144 The author was recalling spending time at the Frye residence just a block north of the Prosch residence. Although she doesn’t date these memories, she is likely speaking of the 1920-30s.

    Rob, these pieces are delightful.

  3. With all due respect, while the Property Record Cards do have mistakes, an 1893 date gleaned from a 1910 Seattle Times article could be just as incorrect. There are mistakes in newspapers, as well. While the 1893 nomination may not be perfect, I would not be too hard on it.

  4. Kam, thanks for the note.

    After writing this article I visited the Washington State Archives and looked at the old 1880s and 1890s tax records for these parcels. The building was not constructed until 1893. The parcels were empty until then.

    My problem really wasn’t with the 1983 landmark form — you do your best with the information you’ve got. I just am a bit amazed that everyone has accepted that document unquestioningly.

    Regarding the newspaper article specifically — I agree with you, there were mistakes in articles all the time. In this case though I had no reason to trust the property card, and some reason to trust the string of other evidence. Luckily the tax records still exist so I was able to prove it!

    I sent the information to the National Park Service and city, so hopefully the dates get corrected.

  5. I really appreciate the extent you went to find out the history on the building I have been calling home now for the last 8 months. I have inquired a few times about the history from some of the German club members but they don’t have much to offer only bits and pieces here and there. I’ve seen a few Nazi official looking documents in the basement and never really looked at them because I don’t speak or read German. However it is rumored that there was meetings held there before the war and up to the 1970’s. Again when I ask about things like that the Germans just laugh and shrug it off. They are usually only interested in seeing their family and friends during the German House events. I love them all but they are a rather odd group of old German people.