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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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