About Tom Heuser

I'm a co-founder of the Capitol Hill Historical Society and I occasionally research and write about neighborhood history for my column "The Capitol Retrospective" featured here on Capitol Hill Seattle and on my website tgheuser.co. You can also follow me on Facebook and Instagram where I share additional content.

Capitol Hill Historical Society | What happened with Galbraith House

Galbraith House as of January 26th. Photo by Tom Heuser

When I saw the headlines last month that Galbraith House, a protected landmark would be demolished, my heart sank and I had to do a double take. How does a Capitol Hill landmark get cleared for demolition? The whole point of the landmarks ordinance is to prevent demolition not to enable it. I read the articles and the comments, and asked around thinking I had missed something, but only found misconceptions, half-truths, and dead ends (quite literally in one case). So I went straight to the source.

I scoured the Landmarks Preservation ordinance and the past 12 years of board meeting minutes, spoke extensively with city staff and other preservation advocates, and put all the pieces together. What I learned is a serious one-two punch to preservation that deserves our immediate attention. Now for those not familiar with the whole process, let’s start by taking a tour of the city’s landmarks ordinance. I will only cover the most salient points. Consider this a quick crash course.

The Ordinance: Landmarks designation is a four-step process and the city’s website lists and summarizes each very clearly. Continue reading

Capitol Hill Historical Society | A 3-D story map of Broadway and Denny in 1893

At a meeting this fall of the Capitol Hill Historical Society, geographic information system expert Lorn Fant left quite an impression after introducing his atlantean effort to build an historical and explorable 3-D map of Seattle using ArcGIS technology. His project is still in its early stages, but it has the potential to significantly alter the way we view and experience the history of the city. Continue reading

Capitol Retrospective | The motorcycle hill climber who climbed Capitol Hill — Part 2

Ira Ordwing, circa 1940. Image: Seattle Cossacks Stunt and Drill Team

Part 1 / Part 2

In Part 1, I told the story of Marion Diederiks and his rise to regional fame as an expert motorcycle hill-climber. This week the story continues with the introduction of Ira Ordwing, Marion’s business partner, and the Capitol Hill Harley Davidson dealership they started with their fellow riders.

Ira Ordwing: Ira “Shorty” Ordwing was a free-spirit and a showman who had built his career as a motorcycle salesman and events organizer without any long-term loyalty to city or brand. He had been selling Harley and Indian Motorcycles for dealers across the country since 1920 and developed a skill for entertaining people along the way.

While in San Francisco in 1923, he organized motorcycle stunt shows that included polo, chariot races, and even mobile pie-eating contests. When he and Marion Diederiks met around 1938, Ira was selling Harleys for Hirsch Cycle Company on Capitol Hill and organizing regional races as chairman of the Seattle chapter of the American Motorcycling Association (AMA). He’d also taken his showmanship to a new level when he and many of his fellow stunt riders formed their own club devoted exclusively to stunt performance called the Seattle Cossacks in early 1938.

Seattle Cossacks in stunt formation, date unknown. Image: Seattle Cossacks Stunt and Drill Team.

Continue reading

Capitol Retrospective | The motorcycle hill climber who climbed Capitol Hill — Part 1

May 15, 1945. Image: WA State Archives.

On Labor Day weekend of 1929, 300 motorcyclists and their families roared into the sleepy resort town of Long Beach, WA for a motorcycle rally known then as a Gypsy Tour.

Aside from the three days of two-wheeled camaraderie that ensued, one rider raced ahead of the rest. His name was Marion Diederiks, an unknown motorcycle messenger from Portland who became “grand champion” after winning 8 out of 12 races over the weekend.

His victories included various pursuit and get-away races, the two-mile open, and a broad jump. Although a promising start of a career in racing, he curiously never won any other speed races like these hereafter. Instead he later found his true calling in a different form of racing known as the hill climb — a race to the top of rough hills that were so steep they were practically vertical.

Marion’s career negotiating these hills spanned two decades and culminated in the establishment of his own Harley Davidson dealership on a most unique hill — our very own Capitol Hill.

His fortune in cash prizes, his regional fame, and the tightly-knit group of riders he bonded with along the way made it all possible. The result was a dealership with a unique business model that wove standard sales and service and the spectacle of professional racing into the same fabric. And although this fabric abruptly unraveled with the onset of war and personal dramas, Marion kept the dealership going in one form or another for three decades on 12th Ave and later on Broadway. Continue reading

Capitol Retrospective | Dodge’s Triangle: Seattle’s smallest known piece of private property

1949-08-23 Sea Muni Archivces - Madison at Union and 12th (triangle)

Looking Northeast where 12th Ave E and E Union St intersect with E Madison St. Approximate dimensions of Dodge’s triangle highlighted in yellow. Image courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives

I want to say this Capitol Hill triangle spun me around in circles all week, but it’s a triangle, not a circle, so that won’t do. However, I can say that much like ships and planes are rumored to have disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle, historians and cartographers are rumored to have done the same trying to figure out what the hell the deal is with this triangle. What is it, how and why does it even exist? Well, you’re in luck, because after spending a harrowing week confined within its absurdly narrow boundaries, I’ve emerged to tell the tale.

It all started as a joke.

On April 16, 1916 Seattle Times broke the humorous story. They described it as a small triangular strip with about 6 feet on E Madison and about 5 and a half feet on E Union with a depth at the widest of approximately 4 feet. It baffled expert appraisers and architects alike who would dare attempt to price it or design a structure suitable to its size. Real estate mogul Henry Broderick claimed it was probably worth less than it would cost for him to properly appraise it and it would be hard to sell because a for sale sign would entirely obscure it from view. Someone suggested you could maybe install a gas pump, but the attendant would be obliged to rent the sidewalk from the city just so he could operate it. Jokes aside, things start to break down when you take a closer look at the matter. Continue reading

Capitolhillpast.org — Capitol Hill Historical Society forming

capitol-hill-historical-society-preview-image-finalCan you believe Capitol Hill doesn’t have an historical society? No? Well, CHS history writers Tom Heuser, Rob Ketcherside and local archivist Devon Olsen are talking about starting one. Their goal is to form “a long-lived group that will gather, preserve, and share stories of the area’s people and enterprises” and they want to you get involved!

Share your own stories and records of the neighborhood and its residents or help shape the society and its mission from within. Visit capitolhillpast.org and leave them a message if you would like to participate or learn more.

Capitol Retrospective | 1827 Broadway Part Two: A story of iron and blood

1937 WA State Archives - 1827-1829 Broadway

1827-29 Broadway. Circa 1937 Just a couple years after the Cordes Family moved out. Image: WA State Archives.

Otto Von Bismarck. Circa 1862. Image: Hamburg.de

In September 1862, Prussia’s newly appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, Otto Von Bismarck, made his most famous speech to the Prussian assembly.  Seeking approval for military reform, he said “not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided… but by iron and blood.” Continue reading

Capitol Retrospective | 1827 Broadway Part One: A house divided

The saying “a house divided against itself cannot stand” rings true for many as the Brexit controversy continues to unfold.  Now that’s not to say that I expect Britain to fall, but it’s just that whenever the iconic phrase is invoked, it often, if not always, comes packaged with the assumption that the house in question is necessarily better off united rather than divided.  Not always so.  And such, I hope, will be the case here as I experiment with looking at the history of 1827 Broadway (now a light rail entrance) in parts rather than as a whole as I’ve done with other buildings before.  And such was the case similarly for its first occupants, two grocers, the brothers Peter and Nicholas Kootros of Sparta, Greece whose dramatic falling out with other family members and eventually with each other, lead them each to greater success.

The D.C. Days

1915 Shorpy - George Chaconas in Washington DC

George Chaconas, circa 1915. Image: Shorpy

As it appears, Peter immigrated to the U.S. in early 1900 while Nicholas followed later that year passing through Ellis Island.  Their destination was Washington D.C. where many Greek immigrants had been gathering.  Prominent among those was the Chaconas family who had been in D.C. since the early 1890s and had carved out a small, rough and tumble, commercial empire in the push-cart fruit business there.  In a word, they were hucksters.  As such, they frequently sent for younger relatives from the old country to join the business with vague promises of wealth, opportunity, and independence that often resulted in stolen wages, fines, cuts and bruises, and even jail-time. But to them it was all just the cost of doing business. Continue reading

Capitol Retrospective | Two months of carnage that brought light rail to Capitol Hill

When I first heard about the light rail plan in 2006, I lived right across the street from the proposed station — as I do now. 2016 seemed so far away that I didn’t think I would even be living in Seattle by then.  And when I moved to Eastlake a year later and focused most of my attention on finishing my history degree, I more or less forgot about light rail. But after graduating into the worst recession in decades and entering a quarter-life crisis, Capitol Hill Station unexpectedly became the center of my universe.

While passing through Capitol Hill on March 15, 2009, I saw a bulldozer tearing into the former location of Twice Sold Tales, on John, east of Broadway, like a wafer.

It was tragic and disturbing yet somehow incredibly exhilarating to watch.  And it wasn’t just for the pleasure of idly absorbing the carnage unfolding before me, it was more meaningful than that.  It was an external manifestation of my quarter-life crisis, an effort to deconstruct and outright demolish parts of my past, even ones that were near and dear to me in order to get to a better place. It also offered me a sense of purpose, which I desperately needed.  I had lost my Eastlake apartment, was couchsurfing, and only working 8 hours per week leaving me with a lot of free time.  So starting exactly 7 years ago this week, I spent 26 out of the following 42 days photographing the demolition as much as possible. At the time, I never saw the demolition as anything more than the mechanics of tearing down buildings and my effort to capture that as only an exciting way to keep myself occupied.

Fast forward to the present and I’ve come to view its importance more broadly.

Like me, Capitol Hill had to part with a significant portion of its history before it could reach this point. 16 buildings, some over 100 years old that served as the homes, small businesses, and work places of roughly 200 people, were demolished in the spring of 2009 to make way for the light rail.

These people and places have stories. So last month, I committed myself to telling as many of these stories as possible because I think knowing how unique and thus valuable these stories are helps demonstrate just how important this moment in Seattle history really is. I don’t think we can fully grasp how much we’ve gained unless we know what it cost us — the light rail didn’t emerge in a vacuum and realizing that, I think, will help us appreciate it all the more.  Although I barely scratched the surface and will likely return to them, this is the final chapter to all those stories: demolition photographs and a few of the fading memories I have attached to them.

Twice Sold Tales – 905 E John
By the time I caught wind of the demolition, most of the insides of Jamie Lutton’s pride and joy since July of 1990 had already been pulverized and were pouring out the back side. The air was saturated with the smell of twisted wood and crumbling concrete. Continue reading

Capitol Retrospective | The Biltmore’s doomed builder reached high before fall

The Biltmore, circa 1937.  Image: WA State Archives

The Biltmore, circa 1937. Image: WA State Archives

In the Tower of Babel, a biblical tale which describes a time when humanity spoke one language, a group of builders gathered to build a city and, more importantly, a tower — one that would reach high into heaven, make them world famous, and serve as a beacon for their people who were dispersed across the Earth. However, God realized this would make them too powerful so he caused them to speak different languages, resulting in confusion and ultimately their separation. As a devout Lutheran, Stephen Berg would have been familiar with the myth and in some ways he experienced it himself. As a member of large Norwegian-speaking community in Seattle, Stephen built hundreds of homes in north Seattle between 1909 and 1922, therefore establishing his own city of Babel. However, it seemed what he really needed was a tower, one that would make him known and maybe even guide his people — particularly the family he left in Norway. So he feverishly set himself to the task of building one that ultimately did just that and his first major attempt was The Biltmore Apartments at 418 E Loretta Pl. However this was only one of his increasingly colossal projects culminating in his crowning achievement, The Bergonian, a 12-story 240-room luxury hotel located in downtown Seattle. But, as the myth goes, this feverish effort ultimately spelled his downfall.

Prelude: The eldest of eight children, Stephen Berg was born on March 17, 1887 to Kristian and Anna Corneliussen in Trondheim, Norway, a small medieval city situated on a serpentine river feeding into the south shore of Trondheimsfjord.

Trondheim, Norway.  Late 19th Century.

Trondheim, Norway. Late 19th Century.

His father was a carpenter and from an early age Stephen worked closely at his side, but sadly not for long.  At some point, either in 1904 or 1905, near the time Norway declared independence from Sweden, his parents died possibly from Tuberculosis, which was still common at the time. So these were probably some the most formative and emotionally challenging years in his life especially as a teenager. Like with most Norwegians, the push for independence would have been a source of pride and excitement for Stephen, but as a recent orphan who was too young to participate in politics (the voting age was 25), he would likely have felt more devastated and uncertain of his future. So, he did like many other Norwegians whose futures were similarly uncertain at the time: he left for America and took his carpentry skills with him so he could better support his family.  And perhaps needing a fresh start, he took the more common Norwegian name “Berg” upon arrival in Boston in 1905. Continue reading