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CHS Re:Take | The lost community of Boren

Boarding house and brick apartments replaced by blah

The Pickwick on Boren at Union, c1980 and 2016. Looks occupied still, with a resident on the chair on the lower porch (Stephen Cysewski and Rob Ketcherside)

Some of my blended old and new photographs are more subtle than others. For this month, I started with Stephen Cysewski’s great photo of the west side of Boren between Union and Pike (undated, but around 1980), and then tried to figure out which interesting half to blank out with the terrible looking Avanti building or the Homewood Suites hotel at the end of the block. In the end I chose to include very little of today.

When they were demolished, these buildings were known from left to right as the Knickerbocker, Pickwick, and Thayer apartments. The Knickerbocker was built in 1905. The Thayer was built as the Donaldson, named after its 1906 builders Robert and Charles Donaldson. Just off frame were more apartments, the Berquest to the north built by Edwin Berquest in 1909, and the Lawton around the corner on Union built in 1905. Apartment buildings hugged the slope that led up to First Hill’s spread out mansions.

The Pickwick Hotel, center, was built in 1904 under the rather ridiculous name The Puritan. It would be fun to think of a worse name for rental housing. Maybe the Spartan? The Ascetic? The Detached House? A few years later H. L. Mencken described Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Who would want to live in a building with such an aura?

So it’s no surprise that when sold in 1905, the building’s name was changed. But the inspiration for the new name, The Firmere, is also a mystery. It’s apparently Latin, meaning something like “firms [up]”. Not great ad copy. Weird even.

So it’s no surprise that when sold in 1906, the building’s name was changed. This time, it took on its moniker of the next 80 years: The Pickwick Hotel. Now, you may be a fan of the Seattle band Pickwick — their KEXP live performance is the official soundtrack to this article, so go ahead and open it in another browser window — and you’re right to suddenly be more interested in this prose. The names come from the same place. The band took their name from the record label that Lou Reed got started at, which took its name from Charles Dickens’ first novel, the Pickwick Papers. (That’s the official 1800s serial novel of this article, so go ahead and open it in another browser window and read it in parallel.) Now, I’m not positive if the hotel took its name directly from Dickens, or if the owners perhaps lived in one of the American cities named after the book and they named it after their hometown. But I’m pretty sure it all started with Dickens.

The Pickwick had 42 units crammed into its three-story frame, a large number for a boarding house. It had a shared dining area with catered meals that brought residents into a “nice, homelike” atmosphere. Over the years advertisements described various attractive features: “hot and cold water”; “furnished”; “every modern convenience; marine view, large verandas”; door buzzers and telephones; and later, “TV”. The 1910 census showed it housed a wide variety of professionals: a real estate salesman, two stenographers, three Seattle school teachers, an auto mechanic, a magazine journalist, a draftsman, a department store saleswoman, a theater manager and the staff of the hotel itself. The share of single female residents working in offices increased by 1920, and they remained a major portion of renters through the 1940 census at least.

The Karns family managed the hotel from the 1910s to the 1930s. Their daughter, Elaine Karns (Feek) made news in a beauty pageant in 1921, and later in life created beautiful handmade Christmas ornaments that were sold at Frederick & Nelson during the 1960s and 1970s. Elaine passed away in 1992, not long after The Pickwick itself.

For its part, the Pickwick continued as a large, successful “family” or “residential” hotel through the 1960s. By 1970, though, it had fallen into the hands of Archie Katz and Herman Ginsberg, who let the building fall apart and ignored city inspector orders to make improvements for fire safety. Sometime after 1975 the Pickwick was vacated. In 1982 squatters started a fire that was put out, but it happened again in 1984 and this time it raged out of control.

Pickwick Hotel fire, 1984

Pickwick Hotel fire (Seattle Times , August 13, 1984)

The buildings on Boren had gone vacant as the real estate company CHG assembled properties around the planned Washington State Convention Center. They held 10 buildings within a block of the site, all low-income housing. The eviction of residents, long vacancy, and eventual demolition of these buildings were blows to renters in Seattle, part of a narrative that deserves more attention. Along with development across downtown, in First Hill, and in other nearby neighborhoods there was a serious low-income housing crisis. For a glimpse, check out the history timeline at the Tenant’s Union.

In 1987 another major fire broke out. The block still lay mostly empty, waiting for the apartment and hotel project connected with the convention center to proceed. The building north of Pickwick, the Thayer, had a 35-year tenured grocery store at ground level but otherwise was occupied only by squatters. One of them started a fire, which “raced through the the old wood-and-brick building, blasting windows out of their frames.” Another squatter alerted the grocery store owner, who escaped unharmed. One firefighter, Robert Earhart, died as the department struggled to stop the fire after it jumped to the abandoned apartment to the north, the Berquest. Even as the case against the arsonist proceeded, another fire started at the Thayer in November 1987. Fire department officials said it was the fourth blaze since the Thayer was vacated in 1983. Squatters continued to enter the buildings nightly, despite attempts to keep them out.

The Pickwick and its neighbors’ story ended with demolition and the 1990 construction of Avanti Apartments and the Plaza Park Hotel, now Hilton’s Homewood Suites. To put it nicely, the new buildings are architecturally uninspired. The variety and character of the old housing was lost to a big, boxy, functional, bland, monotonous, homogeneous investment.

Not every building on the block was lost though. At the north end of the block was the 1880s Ward house. It was already a declared city landmark: dilapidated but obviously salvageable and worth saving. Historic Seattle stepped in and brokered its sale to lawyer David Leen who moved it up to Belmont and Denny. It remains there today, one of Seattle’s oldest buildings.

Seattle's Oldest House

Still, the story has troubling parallels to our struggles today. A landmark was disregarded as an annoyance by an uncaring developer. Useful buildings became a blight, left derelict in spite of a low-income housing crisis. In turn these buildings became a health and safety threat to first responders as squatters took them over. 30 years later we find ourselves in a similar set of crises: unable to provide reasonably priced shelter, unable to protect our city’s landmarks, dissatisfied with our inability to control bad acting developers.

What do we change now to make things better in the short run, and to make Seattle a better place 30 years down the line?

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17 thoughts on “CHS Re:Take | The lost community of Boren

  1. Thank you! For many years in the late 90’s I lived kitty-corner to the Avanti in the Stockbridge Apartments. I hated looking at the uninspired Avanti Apartments (although I like the floor plans are huge by todays standards) and always wondered what once stood on the site before.

    I enjoyed living in that area and loved living at the Stockbridge. Thank you for rekindling some great memories of a simpler time.

    • I’ve been living in the Stockbridge for the past 3 years. Sadly they’re updating a lot of units and getting rid of a lot of the vintage charm. When I saw the title of this post I was hoping to read something about the history of the Stockbridge.

    • Thats sad to hear, William. With the loss of vintage charm usually means an increase in rents. No one wins in this scenario except the property owner.

      They had updated my kitchen a bit (unit 505) with new countertops that looked like they came from the 60’s (metal piping and all) and new appliances. I think I was paying $625/mo when I left in 02.

      Some of the best times of my life were there and I had an amazing Space Needle view

    • Ryan, I don’t know for sure. David Leen’s firm is still in the Ward House, but I didn’t contact them for this story. I’ll shoot them an email and reply here if they get back to me.

      My guess is that it was a parking lot. Seattle must have been at about peak parking lots in 1986. There were two houses (built c1905) there until at least 1969.

  2. This is some great research into Seattle history, but I don’t see the purpose of including hate speech on developers and slanting architects for ‘uninspiring’ designs. If this were music you’d be that guy trashing the band Pickwick because you cling to a dead era of music. It’s time to let her go, man.

    • George, do you have a perspective that you’d like to share to broaden the conversation? If not, I invite you to read the Seattle Times articles from the late 1980s about the Pickwick, Thayer, and Avanti (no history has been written that I’m aware of) and share your own conclusions.

      Maybe you interpreted this as an attack on all developers. That is not my intent. However, I do believe that not every developer cares about the public interest. Some are willing to stretch the boundaries of law and ethics to achieve their vision. We are honestly dealing with this on some projects today. If you can’t think of a project with squatters, fires, and a landmark at stake, then go search this year’s stories in the Seattle Times.

      I’m curious about your comment about design. Are you seriously defending the architecture of the Avanti and Homewood Suites vs the 1904-1909 apartments that it replaced? If so, on what grounds? The current buildings are ugly. Recently the defense for big ugly buildings is that they bring density (this wasn’t brought up in the 1980s), but that argument doesn’t apply here, as the prior buildings had more tenants than the Avanti and Homewood do.

    • As a fellow Capitol Hill history enthusiast I always enjoy reading these pieces about the past in our neighborhood. Thanks for writing them.

      I moved to Seattle in 1984 and remember the Pickwick and the Ward house when they were still there. Both were in very poor condition at the time. (the Ward house sat high up on the hill like the house in Psycho) I agree that the buildings there now are really really ugly and cheap looking.

      A small reminder of the Pickwick hotel still remains on Capitol Hill on the back porch of the Gaslight Inn. Owners Steve and Trevor salvaged the handrail spindles on the second floor porch of the Pickwick and made a new porch railing with them at the Gaslight.

      With so many things being torn down right now I really hope that the buildings are being salvaged properly. Many have some cool details that can be incorporated in new OR old buildings.

  3. I just discovered your amazing blog and have been pouring over it. I have a question about one of your comments from last year. You wrote some instructions on finding original plat maps on Parcel Viewer by ‘clicking the link on the right bottom of Parcel Viewer to find the original plat map. It includes the the person who filed for the plat, year of filing, etc.” I’ve been on Parcel Viewer and can’t figure this out. What am I missing? Thanks.

    • Thanks for the compliments and I hope you’re having fun!

      They broke this during an upgrade recently, but I double checked and it is working right now. Here’s how to do it.

      Start at a property’s detail page. In Parcel Viewer you click on the property and then click Property Details in the box that pops up. Here’s Avanti Apartments, for example.

      If you look at the far right hand side there is a column of Reference Links. At the bottom is “Scanned images of plats”.

      For most properties, within the list of the results is a link to the original plat for the neighborhood. It’s not their for Avanti for some reason!

      If I go back and look at the property description page, I can see why. The “Legal” line is blank for some reason. Maybe it’s because it’s a condominium, I’m not sure. You can try one of the 1990s survey maps by clicking on the image icon to the far right, then choosing pdf, then pdf link again. Definitely unrelated.

      For this property I’d go back and click on one across the street and hope that it’s in the same plat.

      Try those steps on Oxford Crest for example, and you’ll see the 1890 plat,

      You’ll need to use my street name converter, though, because Boren wasn’t named until 1895. Here’s a link to that,

      Then you can see that Avanti was lots 9-11 in block 113 of A. A. Denny’s Broadway addition.

      And you can see that it was signed by A. A. Denny, Mary (Boren) Denny, Elizabeth Stacy and M. V. B. Stacy. Looks like it’s signed July 2nd, 1890.

      • Aha, I get it now. I’m looking forward to keeping up with your posts; it’s fascinating material. Thank you!