In September, author Diana James is set to lead her thrice sold-out North Capitol Hill Apartments Tour with Historic Seattle. Read on to learn more about Diana, including what inspired her book Shared Walls: Seattle Apartment Buildings, 1900-1939 as well as a perhaps little-known fact about the history of apartment buildings.
Historic Seattle caught up with Diana James in the “Heritage Room” of First Baptist Church on First Hill on a sunny August afternoon. “After I finished my degree in historic preservation, the people who had been the stewards of this for over thirty years were anxious to turn it over to me,” said Diana, a longtime member of the church, in reference to the beautifully curated room containing archives and objects reflecting the 150-year history of the church.
Originally hailing from Houston, Diana’s interest in the built environment was initially sparked overseas. “When we were still in Houston my husband, who was an architect, received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that enabled us to live in England for a year. His focus there was on how new architecture fits in with old. As a result, I saw a lot of great old buildings there and when I returned to the U.S., they stuck with me.”
Her family’s much-welcomed move to the Northwest in 1980 was prompted by an opportunity for her husband to join the locally-founded global architecture firm NBBJ. “It was not until my husband died, and my two daughters graduated from college, that I sold our home in the Montlake neighborhood and moved into an Anhalt [apartment] building at 13th and Republican. I looked out a back window and realized I was surrounded by apartment buildings, buildings that I had never given much, if any, notice to previously.”
It was her curiosity about the surrounding apartment buildings that eventually led Diana to pursue a graduate degree in historic preservation. “All along I had in my mind that I’d like to write about apartment buildings for my thesis.” While the idea was rejected when pitched for her thesis, “The director of the school said, ‘You can write a book about it later,’ and I thought ‘Ok, I will!’” said Diana.
On the process of writing Shared Walls, Diana said, “People LOVE their old apartment buildings. The stories I could tell about gathering information for the book could be a book in itself. You’d think without having a financial investment that wouldn’t be the case, but I heard it time and time again. It was encouraging. I realized all buildings have stories to tell, each one with a life of its own. And as I wrote about them for the book, I tried to honor each place’s unique and individual story.”
“One interesting thing that popped out of my research was how many women were involved in real estate dealing with apartment buildings…owning the lot, hiring the architects, and then either turning around and selling it or keeping it as an investment, I mean in 1905! At first, I thought maybe it had to do with the adventurous spirit of the women that came west in pioneer times, but it wasn’t the case. My research showed that women all around the country were doing the same thing; it was not a phenomenon limited to the West,” she added.
Why and how was this happening? Diana cited several different reasons; one early, local influence was the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850. “The government didn’t want just men to come west, they wanted the civilizing effect that women brought so they gave married women the same land ownership opportunities that they gave men.”
On the role that historic apartment buildings play today, Diana said, “I’m all for contemporary architecture and density, but these interesting buildings save the city from just being a number of boxes lining the streets. They lend character and interest. They embrace and invite community. I have a friend who lives in The Arcadia, and they had a birthday party for their building! Some were dressed up in period clothes. One woman has worked for years writing the history of the building and its residents. The community is like a big family. In another apartment building, a resident that lived there told me he got married in the lobby of the building, and I said, ‘You know what? I happen to know you’re not the only person to ever have a wedding in the lobby of an apartment building!’ We need these tangible reminders of our history, when they’re gone, a picture doesn’t do it.”
Diana’s September tour is sold out. Stay tuned for future talk and tour opportunities. Shared Walls is available at bookstores such as Elliott Bay Book Company.