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.
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