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Project to document — and sometimes protect — Capitol Hill’s midcentury modern apartment buildings gets boost

Camellia Manor (Image: Lana Blinderman)

The Capitol Hill Modern project led by photographer Lana Blinderman and historian Tom Heuser focuses on documenting and protecting Capitol Hill’s midcentury modern multifamily residential buildings and the relatively affordable housing they have provided for decades, has wrapped up it first phase and is moving on to a second phase that will expand the research and, they hope, set the stage for expanding the effort across Seattle..

“These are the types of buildings that allowed people to live here and create the culture on Capitol Hill that we so love,” Blinderman said. “It’s the working people, it’s the queers, it’s you know, people of all walks of life.”

Through a new grant received from King County 4Culture, Heuser and Blinderman will research and photograph 28 more midcentury architecture buildings in the second phase of their project.

The project began in 2020 with the Capitol Hill Historical Society and is broken into two phases with each phase concluding with a report of their findings. Phase 1 of their report focused on going in depth, building context (PDF), and identifying (PDF) as many mid century buildings in Capitol Hill. They also did an in-depth documentation (PDF) of 11 buildings and provided walking tours.

Heuser first identified buildings in Capitol Hill that appeared as midcentury modern multifamily residential buildings on Google street view. He then verified if the building’s construction period was between 1945 and 1978 through the King County Parcel Viewer and identified 269 buildings fitting the architecture style.

Blinderman then went to photograph the buildings to capture every side of the building, street view, textures, and landscapes.

Post World War II and Seattle’s rising population created the perfect breeding ground for the rise of modernist architecture during the mid twentieth century. This style focused more on function than form and prioritized multi-family housing.

“They have their own sort of unique sense of style,” Heuser said. “Once you really kind of see that I think that’s when you can come to appreciate it.”

During phase 1 they found clear waves of development with strong correlation to major events impacting the city such as the creation of I-5, the 1969 World Fair, and the expansion of Boeing.

One important identification in their research was Benjamin F. McAdoo Jr. who was a prominent architect at the time who set up his office in Capitol Hill and openly challenged racist housing practices.

McAdoo became the first Black architect licensed in Washington in 1947 and he designed and owned an apartment building called Ben-Mar at 315 23rd Ave E and offered unrestricted tenancy there.

The Ramayana (Image: Lana Blinderman)

Midcentury style apartments were initially never meant to be luxurious. They have simple designs and were meant to be affordable. Heuser contends that if adjusted for inflation, some of these apartments would have cost around $350 in 2021 dollars. However, many apartments are drastically marked up in today’s market. Still, in comparison to new construction, the older buildings can be a relative bargain.

Once Blinderman and Heuser finish phase 2, they hope to create a task force team of photographers and historians to document all midcentury architecture buildings in the city and county and create a publicly accessible database of all the research.

“The buildings are endangered, not always as far as demolition but a lot of times they get remodeled so the more we can capture… the more records we will leave for further research,” Blinderman said.

Future updates on this project will be posted on Heuser’s blog and the Capitol Hill Historical Society website. If anyone has any stories or interior features on midcentury buildings, contact Blinderman or Heuser.


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1 year ago

So often undervalued. The renovations to my mid–cent building with Obama admin subsidies to SHA ruined my building’s exterior/interior value in my estimation. Could have been handled far more successfully with an historical sensitivity that would have enhanced resident pride where it’s sorely needed.

j z
j z
1 year ago

Hmm yeah Zack Bolotin, owner of Hill mainstay Porchlight Coffee, has been documenting the same thing for many, many years.

Tom Heuser
1 year ago
Reply to  j z

Great to know there are others who are doing this! The Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation and Docomo Wewa have been doing this in their own way as well. Also Zack Bolotin… I wonder if he’s related to architect George Bolotin!