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

Capitol Retrospective | The Bluff Building: A lesson in escapism at 10th and Pike

The Bluff Building.  Oct. 2015.  Photo by Tom Heuser.

The Bluff Building. Oct. 2015. (Image: Tom Heuser)

On May 29, 1889 the graduating class of MIT in Boston gathered in Huntington Hall to hear the commencement speech of the renowned reverend Phillips Brooks. Towering over them at 6’3” and 300 pounds, he thundered “the water of the river is at first distinct and separate from the sea, but with time… is embodied into one vast whole; and so… will your course in life pass away until nothing but the knowledge that something of new good and of new strength has been added to the world will remain.” A straightforward metaphor for life, death, and the contributions one leaves behind, but who was to say one couldn’t take their existing course, cast it into the void, and anonymously reemerge on a distinctly new one all in a single lifetime?

Huntington Hall, MIT. Estimated early 20th century. Image: MIT

Huntington Hall, MIT. Estimated early 20th century. Image: MIT

Reverend Phillips Brooks circa 1891

Reverend Phillips Brooks circa 1891

One of the graduates that day, named Charles Dodge, eventually believed exactly that and it led him to Seattle where he ran off with his mistress 13 years later. Together they established a considerable real-estate empire that included the land on which the Bluff Building stood at the northwest corner of 10th and Pike: home of the Comet Tavern since the early 1950s. Even here, Dodge’s ethos of escapism has endured in one form or another through its well documented history as a popular dive bar and music venue where many have gathered to escape everyday life through loud music, alcohol, and often illegal drugs. But long before Nirvana performed there in 1988, the whole building was a hub for many who shared Dodge’s outlook on life.

His life began in Skowhegan, Maine where Charles Benjamin Dodge was born on July 13, 1867 to Benjamin Franklin Dodge, a harness maker turned banker, and his wife Jane Philbrick. After earning his degree in the since discontinued “general course” at MIT, Charles joined the ranks of Boston real-estate brokers working for the New

The red arrow points to the estimated location of the New England Real Estate Agency.  Circa 1906. Image: Shorpy

The red arrow points to the estimated location of the New England Real Estate Agency. Circa 1906. Image: Shorpy

England Real Estate Agency at 258 Washington St. Here he amassed considerable wealth over the next decade during which he met and married the highly-cultured and progressive Willietta Johnson in 1893 who was an active suffragette and world traveler. They reared two daughters, Dorothy and Katherine, and lived together on a 30 acre farm in Concord where the Revolutionary War began. A seemingly happy life from an outsider’s perspective, which it very likely may have been.

However, by 1901 that all changed after Charles had fallen in love with another woman named Annie MacConnell who positively dazzled him with her compassion, ideals, and youthful beauty (she was 10 years younger) and so much so that they ran away together later that year and reappeared in Seattle in early 1902. No lengthy divorce or custody battle, nothing. So what happened?

One can speculate that Charles must have been deeply conflicted, ashamed, and fearful of the consequences. He really did have a lot going for him, but perhaps there was just an element of banality and resignation to it all. For one can imagine that his career and Concord estate were effectively handed to him by his parents–and perhaps his wife, while certainly dazzling in her own right, was a bit too strong and intimidating for him, such that he feared she’d destroy him in a divorce. So what did he do? Continue reading

Capitol Retrospective | The Roycroft: A quest for independence at the confluence of speculation, regulation and panic

Seattle, 1899-1901.  Composite of two maps with Roy & Roy Mill circled in red.  Courtesy Office of Coast Survey and Burke Museum

Seattle, 1899-1901. Composite of two maps with Roy & Roy Mill circled in red. Courtesy Office of Coast Survey and Burke Museum

In 1899 the quickest route to West Seattle was by train over a wooden trestle that ran along the northern edge of the Duwamish Bay tide flats crossing what would later become Harbor Island. That May, Edward Roy, his older brother Charles, and father Lucien would have taken this train out to the trestle’s midpoint to tour the lumber mill they would purchase later that month.

Peering out the train’s window to his left while his brother and father talked business, Edward would likely have been distracted by the countless array of shifting channels and tide pools glistening over hundreds of acres of mud. It was here that he saw one of many opportunities to reinvent himself instead of living in his brother’s and father’s shadow.

It was here, and elsewhere throughout the city, that Seattle would experience one of the greatest real estate booms in its history granting Edward both the independence from his family he so dearly desired and a refuge from the coming collapse of the lumber market. This is the story of Edward Roy and The Roycroft Apartments on Harvard Ave E. Continue reading