Preservation in Progress

Historic Seattle’s Blog

Archive for the ‘Adaptive Reuse’ Category

Local Small Business Spotlight: Risa Blythe, Proprietor of Girlie Press

Numerous articles and studies have been published citing the critical role that small businesses play in the vitality of cities and towns of all sizes. For example, small businesses help foster community, add to the unique character of a place, provide distinctive opportunities for entrepreneurism, and contribute to economic health. Beyond these significant contributions, there is also an important relationship between small businesses and historic neighborhoods and old buildings. In short, preservation relies on small businesses, and small businesses often rely on historic spaces — a relationship you can read more about in this recently published article by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.

Girlie Press is a woman-owned small business located in an adaptive reuse space in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Read on to hear what the print shop’s proprietor, Risa Blythe, has to say about owning small business, preservation, and more:

After eight years and only two other jobs as an offset press operator, Girlie Press was originally founded in 1995 in the back of a building in Belltown and then moved into a historic Anne Michelson building on 10th Avenue. “I shared a space as an offset printer with BSK, a screen-printing company that did much of the printing for Sub Pop and the grunge music scene. That was fun and insane, and I worked, and worked, and I put money away,” said Risa.

Inside Girlie Press

In 2000, when Risa acquired the building where Girlie Press is now located, it had been subleased to a stone cutting artist and sculptor who essentially fled in the middle of the night – leaving behind a warehouse full of massive, heavy, stone cutting equipment. “One of the companies I did a lot of work for was the Seattle Men’s Choir. Doug Exworthy was on the choir and owned the rights to the building where the shop is now. He knew I did a lot of work for the queer community, and he contacted me and said, ‘you need your own building.’ He became my mentor, guiding me through the whole process. It was adventurous, but I pulled it off! This was back in the day when you could put on a suit and go into a bank and talk things through…with people,” Risa explained.

All of the items left behind were sold off to put money back into the building and to make way for printing equipment. With her penchant and passion for machinery, Risa was just the woman for the task. Her keenness for mechanics, a trait she recalls recognizing early in life, has continued to prove valuable throughout her career. For example, when it came to acquiring her own 10,000-pound press, she was able to purchase a broken machine for a low price and repair it herself.

“I remember at one point, I applied to be a certified woman-owned business,” explained Risa. “A guy called me to ask for clarification about some parts of my application, and he just couldn’t seem to comprehend that a woman was capable of fixing a machine like this! That he believed that this was beyond my…realm, that’s when I knew why it was important to get the certification. There aren’t a lot of women in print, but I grew up in a feminist, entrepreneurial household and I’m thick-skinned. So, I have been able to shoulder discrimination I’ve encountered in the field. I started my own business because I wanted to work with people who had a sense of humor and didn’t mind working for a woman in a male-dominated field. Nobody — no guy — who’s got a lot of issues can work here and go home at the end of the day and say, ‘yeah, I work at Girlie Press!’”

When asked if she considers herself a preservationist, Risa made a surprising connection between her love of machinery and historic preservation. “The part of me that is a preservationist is that I really like a well-built machine. I really like function. Newer things are more disposable, they are meant to have an end of life, whereas with an older machine  its gearbox can be rebuilt again and again and its function is to last long term. I also like new things that are super fancy and have lots of bells and whistles, but I like them to be built on an older mechanical premise,” said Risa.

This historic assessor’s photo shows a building which formerly stood on the site where Girlie Press is now located.

Risa enjoys the location of her current shop at 1658 21st Avenue. While she is attracted to industrial and gritty places like Georgetown (one of her favorite places in Seattle), she appreciates that the shop is not in a strictly industrial area, but is instead nestled within a neighborhood with a commercial and residential mix. “There’s a German philosopher — someone who I can’t recall — who presented the idea that something went wrong when people started working in places that were far away from where they lived. It allows for more tolerable levels of pollution, longer workdays, and less family interaction. I live less than a mile away in Madrona, in a simple 1902 Victorian. Another favorite place is my backyard because my wife is such a great gardener! And I like that I can work in a trade, but still work in an area where people are living too,” said Risa.

The community is very important to Risa. In addition to the long list of organizations Girlie Press supports, she uses her business to promote causes she cares about: “There aren’t a lot of print shops that care about the same things I care about so I have a unique opportunity to use what I do, and do well, to support those things. I like the idea of using the power of the press to help organizations make money or do good things. We’ve printed over 1,000 posters since the most recent events of the Black Lives Matter movement have been unfolding. A lot of times people will ask us to print something for them and we’ll ask, ‘Do you want us to print a bunch more of these and just give them out?’ It’s cool to be part of this ancient history of activism through art.”

Risa in the shop’s new mezzanine space

Lately, the effects of the pandemic have been felt at Girlie Press. At one point, Risa sheltered at the shop and ran the whole press herself in order to execute print jobs (including Historic Seattle’s emergency appeal) for grocery stores and other essential businesses. Many of her staff have recently returned to the shop after many weeks working remotely. Upon their return, staff were able to spread out further, occupying space in the mezzanine that was fortunately recently built in the warehouse.

In the previously referenced Washington Trust for Historic Preservation article, Breanne Durham wrote, “There has never been a more poignant time to reflect on the value small businesses have in our lives and in our work. The onslaught of COVID-19 has taken our local economies by storm…Small businesses employ about half of the private workforce in the United States. And without them, our historic commercial districts lack the activity and commerce that creates healthy, socially cohesive, and economically viable communities. If the preservation field is looking for its place within the COVID-19 crisis, here it is.”

Looking for other ways to support small businesses? Intentionalist.com allows you to search for Asian-owned, Black-owned, disability-owned, family-owned, Latino-owned, LGBTQ-owned, Native-owned, veteran-owned, and woman-owned businesses and social enterprises in select cities, including Seattle.

Stimson-Green Carriage House Lives On As Birch Road Cellar

By Ryan Donaldson

The following is the sixth in a series of guest blog posts submitted by members of the Historic Seattle community. The views and opinions expressed in guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Historic Seattle.

If you have an idea for a future post, please send a draft to info@historicseattle.org. You can review the guidelines here.

Collectively I’d walked by the Stimson-Green Carriage House hundreds of times, never stepping foot inside.The neighboring namesake mansion’s signature English Tudor Revival-style high-pitched roof, pronounced chimneys, dramatic gables, stained glass windows, and half-timbering overshadowed the smaller matching carriage house tucked behind it. Scaling up and down First Hill for my high school commute to O’Dea, the building blended in with the more substantial landmark next door.

As a teenager in 1990s Seattle, there was little chance of getting a peek inside the imposing mansion or carriage house unless you were invited to a wedding or special event. Located at the corner of Minor Avenue and Seneca Street, the mansion served as home to lumber magnate C.D. (Charles Douglas) Stimson’s family at the turn of the century when First Hill was known as an exclusive enclave for the city’s “first families.” The crest of the hill where the Stimson-Green Mansion stands was in the company of over 40 prominent homes that dominated the steep slope, including the Dearborn House (1907, Historic Seattle’s home today) and the W.D. Hofius House (1902, until recently the home of the Roman Catholic Archbishop).

A hundred years prior, the multitude of mansions lining First Hill were the result of fortunes made from timber resources, real estate, and other emerging industries, which led to the commissioning and creation of fashionable residences in a variety of eclectic architectural styles. As noted on a period postcard, First Hill was known as Seattle’s “[f]ine residence section” offering widescreen views of Elliott Bay and within walking distance from Seattle’s bustling downtown. A public exhibit, “The First Hill Exhibit: Seattle’s Boom Years, 1880-1925,” permanently on display in Swedish Hospital’s lobby at the corner of Boren Avenue and Madison Street (incidentally also the site of the former 1884 Carkeek Mansion), vividly illustrates what the neighborhood was like, replete with cable cars and ornate residential architecture.

Panorama of First Hill, n.d. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, SEA1910.

Stimson himself had come to Seattle in 1888, drawn by the abundant natural timber resources that had already been depleted in Michigan where his father had first attained the family’s legacy in lumber milling businesses in the mid-nineteenth century. Setting up operations in Ballard to take advantage of the increased demand for lumber after the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, Stimson quickly came to city prominence, also serving as director of the Metropolitan Building Company, Metropolitan Bank, General Insurance Company of America, and the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. It took two years for Spokane-based architect Kirtland Cutter to complete the building, which the family moved into in 1901. Stimson, his wife Harriet Overton Stimson and their two children Thomas Stimson and Dorothy Stimson Bullitt, began living in the stately residence before any landscaping or tree cover, the land having only recently been cleared of its original growth Douglas fir trees.

Stimson’s mansion included a two-story standalone carriage house just north of the main estate, a common form of outbuilding purpose-built for horses and carriage equipment. In one particular historic photo, we can see Stimson’s young daughter Dorothy with her pony, Doctor, on Minor Avenue.

Dorothy Stimson Bullitt on her pony cart with Doctor. Courtesy the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.

Later, when horses gave way to automobiles, the Stimsons expanded the carriage house to its present 2,000 square foot size for their fleet. “Doctor had one corner [of the carriage house] and a little red Autocar (model 1900) had another,” recalled Dorothy. “Over the ensuing years, the car models changed, but not the pony. We had a cow, too. There’s a little back door in the garage that opens onto the alley and that’s where the cow lived.” 1

C.D. Stimson (on far left) greets an unidentified group in front of his carriage house, ca. 1910. Image courtesy Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.

In 1915, a year after the Stimson family moved to a larger home in The Highlands, Joshua and Laura (Turner) Green acquired the property. Joshua Green’s business was in the steamboat and ferry industry, which evolved into the Washington State Ferry System. What is remarkable was how little of the mansion and carriage house was changed or altered during the Greens’ 60 years of ownership. In contrast, the surrounding neighborhood was quickly transforming. Apartment buildings and medical facilities rapidly replaced the mansions as the “first” families moved away. For the Greens’ carriage house, rather than be torn down or radically remodeled as was the fate of other carriage homes, the building remained as an automobile garage, even retaining its original back alley door, though the cow was long gone.

View of the carriage house in 1969 which includes a car facing out from the garage door. Image courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives, Identifier: 78250.

In 1975, following Joshua Green’s death at 105 years old, the Historic Seattle Preservation and Development Authority purchased the property, which included both the mansion and the adjoining carriage house. The site was then acquired by Priscilla (Patsy) Collins (C.D. and Harriet Stimson’s granddaughter), and the mansion was reopened for the public to enjoy.2 No longer a private residence, mansion programming in the following years included behind-the-scenes tours, weddings catered by in-house staff, theatre performances, and other special events. In the late 1970s, the carriage house was converted to offices and housed a series of tenants, including the Bullitt Foundation – the nonprofit conservation organization founded by the adult Dorothy Stimson Bullitt.

Since 2001, the site has been owned and managed by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. In 2016, the Trust oversaw the carriage house’s renovation, which included polishing the concrete floors and exposing the open beam ceiling and brick walls. Soon thereafter, the Chicago-based Birch Road Cellar leased the carriage house with a vision to build community through providing space for members to entertain guests outside of their homes, securely store spirits and wine in a climate-controlled cellar in a self-service environment, as well as utilize co-working space (members pay a monthly fee for the opportunity to work and host guests in the well-appointed space). Opened in May 2019, the major tenant improvements to the carriage house transformed the raw space into the stunning interiors that can be seen today.

View of remodeled self-service bar. Image courtesy Birch Road Cellar.

When I first heard about this new chapter for the carriage house, I happened to be seeking a new co-working space and quickly scheduled a visit. Several decades after those walks past the landmark in my high school days, I finally stepped foot inside. I was not disappointed: Upon walking in the door and being warmly greeted by co-founder Sharon Provins, I immediately knew this was the right place for me. I admired the historical elements and the adaptive reuse of the space, providing inspiration for my working environment. There was no question the building was once a carriage house. In the upstairs bathroom you can still see the hay door next to the toilet (don’t worry, the door is now welded shut).

After becoming a member and enjoying the space as if it were my own, what surprised me was how quickly I felt connected to the Birch Road community. I recall the photo of C.D. Stimson over 100 years ago, cigar in hand, sharing a mirthful moment with visitors outside in front of the carriage house – and it occurred to me that one of my favorite things was welcoming guests for the first time too. I was not expecting to make friends and form bonds with other members, but have since been delighted to meet both newcomers to the area (like the Stimsons once were) to those who had grown up in Seattle like myself. We all had something in common because we were drawn to the same storied space.

Upstairs meeting & dining room with view overlooking First Hill Park, currently under renovation. Reservations for the room can be made by members online. Image courtesy Birch Road Cellar.

As Washington State’s “Stay At Home, Stay Healthy” order remains in place, Birch Road Cellar will begin a pilot reopening program in June. To keep the members engaged, the club has offered virtual events, such as trivia nights, cooking classes and wine tastings, though I can’t wait to visit again in person. The Stimson-Green Mansion and Carriage House share the opportunity to be accessible to new audiences and to be recognized as places that matter, especially to those like myself who ventured by many times in the past and wondered what was inside. First Hill has other examples of creative collaborations that have helped to preserve the quality of our historic spaces, including the Museum of Museums, the Sorrento Hotel, and St. James Cathedral. It is a tradition that I hope will continue, as innovative partnerships between historical preservationists and private capital will become increasingly necessary approaches in the bid to honor and cherish our city’s past.

Ryan Anthony Donaldson is a cultural heritage strategist, digital asset manager, and archives consultant. Ryan currently works as Senior Consultant with The Winthrop Group and Collections Strategy Manager & Archivist with the Washington State Jewish Historical Society