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Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

What Researching my Partner’s Grandfather’s Old Home Taught Me About Seattle’s Homebuilding History

By Kelsey Williams

The following is the first 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 [email protected]. Not all submissions will be posted but we appreciate your interest in contributing!

Last spring, I sat attentively in a classroom at the Good Shepherd Center, learning from Historic Seattle’s Advocacy Workshop Series. I was relatively new to Seattle—having lived in this city for only six months—and found myself wanting to join its historic preservation community. After learning how to research properties, I was itching to start a research project of my own and was deeply curious about how Seattle’s neighborhoods came to be.

I had no firm roots in the city yet, so it was challenging to choose a property that felt personally meaningful. I loved the Space Needle and Smith Tower, but selecting those structures for my initial historical dig was perhaps too ambitious—and overdone! My partner’s family, however, has been established in Seattle for four generations. One property tied to his family history stood out to me instantly: in 1948, his grandfather purchased a Craftsman home on 1st Avenue N.E. in Wallingford (the home was constructed in 1911). The first time I visited my then-long-distance partner in Seattle, he proudly drove me past the house. It was a place that found its way into numerous stories he had shared with me. It was glaringly solidified in his life and memory as a landmark (his dad was raised in the home, and my partner himself spent a few years living there in his early twenties before his family made the tough decision to sell it).

With this home in mind, I dove enthusiastically into a three-month research project to uncover every possible detail of its construction, past tenants, and alterations. What I discovered was far more impactful than I anticipated: I uncovered the otherworldly history of the pioneering days of a city so fresh to me.

Although the house has been altered, the address on the historic photograph (taken in 1937 and provided to me by the Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Regional Branch) has been removed to respect the privacy of the current homeowners.

My most ambitious goal was to complete a timeline of the house’s tenants and trace its history back to the architect and commissioner. I thought this would be relatively simple because of the Seattle Public Library’s Polk’s Seattle City Directory collection. An annual printing of the Polk directory listed Seattle’s citizens in alphabetical order by surname, including an individual’s home address and profession. “Reverse” directories began to be searchable via street address from the year 1937 onward, so things got tricky in terms of finding information about the years prior. For those earlier years, I needed to know the name of a person in order to search for the home’s record. I learned that the Soderlind family owned the house in 1937, so I was able to trace their tenancy backward in time. But when I got to the year they weren’t listed as the tenants (1920), I hit a dead end. I had to miraculously conjure up the name of the person(s) they received the home from, which seemed an impossible task unless I was willing to leaf through 1,000+ page volumes of small text.

I searched arduously for possible dwellers of the home by visiting the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections Microfilm Library, and looked through census reports, newspaper archives, and genealogy sites. The other tenants were slowly unveiled. Finally, the names of the first owner and the man who sold the plot for construction were in my possession. But no architect or builder was listed for the project! What did that mean?

The most alluring piece of history that I was introduced to during this project was the existence of plan books. History Link described this aspect of the Seattle building climate of the 1900s-1920s best: “A housebuilding industry began to take shape—spectators, developers, builders—but architects were rare. Instead, architectural plan and pattern books were popular on the frontier. These evolved into more complex and more prescriptive pattern books commonly used by builders and architects through the mid- and late-nineteenth century.” Home construction by the layman became a common occurrence. A plot owner purchased one of these plan books, ordered a design of their liking, and had the necessary materials and instructions delivered. The plot owner had the option to construct the home themselves or hire a contractor or builder. As a new societal endeavor, plan books offered home builders access to building materials and architect-approved drawings to, as Western Home Builder’s 5th edition stated, “secure a design of an attractive, artistic, well-arranged home at a price within the reach of all.”

Design No. 764 in American Dwellings: Bungalows, Cottages, Residences.

Seattleites were able to choose designs ranging from the practical, single-roomed farmhouse to a massive, ornate, Victorian-style residence—all available from the same publication. A standard plan book house design that you’ll see scattered across Seattle’s topography is Victor Voorhees’ design No. 91, now affectionately known as the “Seattle Box.” The closest plan book design I found to the Wallingford house in question was design No. 764 from Glenn L. Saxton’s plan book American Dwellings: Bungalows, Cottages, Residences. Almost identical, both houses feature three front-facing gables, a roof overhanging the front door’s porch, triangle knee braces, and a side dormer.

Now, after learning about this old-time process of home construction, I have a newfound wonder for the homes in Wallingford and other Seattle neighborhoods. Whenever I drive past or walk by a residence that mimics Home No. 764’s style, I wonder if a family over 100 years ago bought that plan from a book for $1.00*. In the case of my partner’s grandfather’s home, that one dollar sure went a long way—it traveled sentimentally through generations, disguised as a 1.5-story vessel for living.

*The cost of the plan book was $1.00; however, that particular house design had a materials cost of $3,000.


Kelsey made her way to Seattle nearly two years ago by way of Los Angeles. She is the Photography Archivist for the Eames Office and a historian for the Eames House. She spends much of her free time researching, stalking, and photographing mid-century modern architecture—both locally and nationally.

People in Preservation: A Look Behind a Landmark Nomination

If you’re reading this, you’re probably somewhat familiar with the City Landmarks Preservation Ordinance. You may know that landmarking is generally a two-part process —  the first step is a nomination; then, if the nomination meets certain criteria and receives enough votes, it goes on to designation consideration. (Psst… if you want to know more about Landmarking, join our March 9 Advocacy Workshop 2: Landmark Nomination).

But, do you know how nominations are initiated in the first place?
Nominations come from a range of sources. They can be a requirement triggered by a permit application or submitted by property owners, consultants, or organizations like Historic Seattle (to name a few examples). Perhaps most inspiring of all are those that come from citizen advocates.Meet Dr. Ruth Fruland and Cynthia Mejia-Giudici, the team who recently presented a nomination for the Shearwater Community School/Decatur Annex (7725 43rd Ave NE) in the Wedgwood neighborhood. What inspired these two women to nominate this place?
A white one-story building with green windows sits back from a tree-lined street

The Shearwater Community School/Decatur Annex

If you think this building lacks the beauty you might envision in a landmark, you are not alone. However, a place does not necessarily need to possess remarkable architecture to qualify as a city landmark. What it does require is to: 1) be over 25 years old, 2) possess integrity or the ability to convey its significance, and 3) meet at least one of the six criteria for designation outlined in the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Ordinance. Ruth and Cynthia’s Decatur Annex nomination focused on the cultural and historic significance of the place, which is too rich and complex to do justice in this short piece. To get a better idea of the scope of that significance, read their landmark nomination and explore related blog posts in Wedgwood in Seattle History.

To summarize, the Shearwater Community Center, now called Decatur Annex, is the last remaining building from the Navy’s Shearwater Housing Project, which was built in 1945-46. The Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) was contracted by the Navy to build the housing project (which included the community center) for military families at Sand Point NAS. The Shearwater Housing Project was unique in that it strategically and successfully implemented racially-integrated housing during a time when discriminatory housing policies were systemically enforced both at the federal level as well as in Seattle in the form of neighborhood covenants, exclusionary redlining, and “sundown” laws. The onset of WWII prompted the Navy to establish a policy of racial and gender integration of its service. The Shearwater Housing Project was the Navy’s first integrated housing project under this new policy, which happened to coincide with the equalitarian vision of Seattleite Jesse Epstein, a lawyer who created the SHA to qualify for federal funds for low-income housing under the Wagner-Seagull Act of 1937.

According to Dr. Fruland’s nomination, “The Shearwater Administration and Community Center embodies a fascinating, but under-reported history, not only of the Navy’s new policy of racial integration, but also of how it leveraged Seattle Housing Authority’s integration policies under Jesse Epstein (and vice versa). One might say his appointment as the first Executive Director of the SHA in 1939 was ‘just in time.'”

There is much more to the Shearwater story, but the question still begs: how did these citizen advocates come to spotlight this significant piece of history? The answer is history, education, and – in part – geology!

With a PhD in Education Science and Technology and a background in geology, Wedgwood neighborhood resident Dr. Fruland’ s interests lie both in education and in “the passage of time and its effects on things.” Her inclination to preserve the Decatur Annex was initially sparked by a postcard she received in the mail from the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) regarding demolition of the annex. SPS, which now owns the property, redeveloped most of the former housing lot into a large new public elementary school and is seeking approval to demolish the annex for “outdoor education use.”

That same postcard landed in the mailbox of another Wedgwood resident, Cynthia Mejia-Giudici, an oral historian and special education teacher at nearby Roosevelt High School. Cynthia lived in Shearwater housing as a child, and her Filipino family has lived in Wedgwood since 1956. She was driven to preserve the Decatur Annex not only because she remembers it vividly from personal experience, but also to honor and represent its broader meaning in a larger cultural context, and to raise awareness about the historic ties the Wedgwood neighborhood has to the former Navy base, now Magnuson Park. Cynthia is “passionate about honoring the multi-cultural community that Sand Point created with the Housing Project, and about paying tribute to the US Navy.” To quote Ruth’s words in their nomination, “It is Cynthia who knows the feeling and meaning of racial discrimination, and the true significance of Decatur Annex in Seattle’s history.” Again, Cynthia’s family’s story and the significance of the community that formed at Shearwater warrants much more space than this piece allows. Read more about Cynthia’s story here.

On January 2, 2019 the Shearwater Community Center/ Decatur Annex came before the Landmarks Preservation Board (LPB) for designation determination. Landmark designation requires a majority vote among the 10 seated LPB members. So, although 4 of the 6 LPB members present voted in favor of landmarking, the annex failed to receive the requisite 6 votes required for designation and The Decatur Annex will likely be demolished in the coming months. Ruth and Cynthia are now working to hold SPS accountable to promises made for a plaque or statue to honor the significance of Shearwater – a significance many SPS representatives denied in their public comments opposing designation.

Cynthia and Ruth at the Landmarks Preservation Board meeting at Seattle City Hall, January 2, 2019. Courtesy of Wedgwood in Seattle History

Despite this outcome, Ruth and Cynthia’s passion and important work on this nomination calls attention to significant and perhaps lesser known pieces of Seattle’s collective history. Their work also closely relates to Beyond Integrity, an emerging local movement in preservation that seeks to shift emphasis from architectural integrity toward cultural significance to ensure the places we honor as historic landmarks tell a complete and inclusive story. We commend Dr. Fruland and Cynthia Mejia-Giudici for their outstanding grassroots advocacy and for furthering the conversation about whose history we preserve.

Digging Deeper in 2015

Digging Deeper Research Series: a program that helps you explore buildings, architecture, and history

digging deeper_02_2015In 2014 Historic Seattle launched a program titled “Digging Deeper – Built Heritage.” The multi-session program was designed to provide attendees with behind-the-scenes insight to primary research materials in archives and libraries in Seattle and King County. The first session was held in February 2014 at the Dearborn House in the Patsy Fleck MacKay Library. Subsequent tours took place, one each month, at the Special Collections Division of the University of Washington, Sophie Frye Bass Library–MOHAI Resource Center, National Archives at Seattle, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle Room at the Seattle Public Library, Puget Sound Regional Archives, and concluded at the King County Archives.

The program was a major success! We received very positive feedback from both tour participants and from the archival staff that hosted visits. The program was even reported on at a joint AKCHO-SeaAA (Seattle Area Archivists) meeting in February 2014, as a “good example of a cultural organization promoting (and to some extent demystifying) the use of archives in research.” Additionally, Jill Morelli, one of the participants, blogged about her participation in the series on February 8March 8June 19, and September 13.

In 2015 we will again offer the Digging Deeper Series, this time with a new set of archives located in both King and Pierce County. Each month we’ll visit a selected archive or library and receive expert advice as to what is available and how staff can assist with research projects. The first site visit is scheduled for Saturday, February 7th with a visit to the Seattle Public School Archives in the SODO District. Archives Manager, Aaron Purcell, will provide us with insights as to the records that can be accessed, such as school board meetings/correspondence, building architecture, and student life.

In the following months, March through September, we will be visiting these archives / libraries:

Seattle Department of Planning and Development, March 5

University of Washington Built Environments Library, April 4

Fiske Genealogical Library (Madison Park), May 9

Washington State Historical Society History Research Center (Tacoma), June 4 or 6

Tacoma Public Library, Northwest Room (Tacoma), June 6

Eastside Heritage Center (Bellevue), August 8

Providence Mount St. Vincent Archive (West Seattle), September 3

You can learn more about the entire series and sign up to attend on our website.

Photos from the 2014 Digging Deeper Series by Luci Baker Johnson

Digging Deeper – Built Heritage Historic Research Series

Seattle Municipal Archives / Photo: Bonnie Jean MacDonald

Seattle Municipal Archives / Photo: Bonnie Jean MacDonald

Historic Seattle is offering a multi-session program designed to provide attendees with behind the scenes insight to primary research materials in the many archives in Seattle and King County. Each month we visit a selected archive and receive expert advice as to what is available and how staff can assist with research projects. This program helps you to explore buildings, architecture, and history. By the time you are through, you will want to attend one or more of the events during National Archives Month in Seattle in October 2014 and attend Historic Seattle’s Advocacy Workshop on November 8.

The first session takes place Saturday, February 8, 2014 (10:30 am to NOON) at Historic Seattle’s headquarters, the Dearborn House on First Hill (1117 Minor Ave). Presenters are Luci J. Baker Johnson and Eugenia Woo of Historic Seattle. Learn about the printed resources available at Historic Seattle’s research library and how to navigate various online databases that contain golden nuggets of historical treasures. To register online for this session and to learn more about the entire series, go to our website. Cost – Series of eight sessions: $65 general public; $50 Historic Seattle members; $20 students. Individual sessions: $10 general public; $8 Historic Seattle members; $5 students.

Research You Can Use: The Historic Seattle Times, 1896-1984

Seattle Times, October 29, 1929

Here’s a great new research tool from the Seattle Public Library for all you lovers of history–you can access issues of the Seattle Times from 1896 to 1984 online! 1896 – 1899 will be available starting January 2011. Go to the ‘Local History’ sub-page (within the Database and Websites page) of the Seattle Public Library’s website and scroll down to ‘Seattle Times Historical Archives (1896-1984)’ under “Newspapers and Other Indexes (Local History).” You’ll be able to easily choose the year, month, and day (if you already have a specific article reference) and download a pdf of the article. You can print as well. The database also provides a search function so you can search for articles by subject/topic. A list of relevant articles comes up that include your search term.

This is an amazing resource. No more messing around with microfilm machines at the central library. You can do this research in the comfort of your own home or office! This resource was made possible through a generous grant from the Seattle Public Library Foundation. Thank you SPL and the foundation!!!

Research You Can Use: The Magic of WISAARD

Access National Register of Historic Places Nominations, Washington Heritage Register Nominations, and Historic Property Inventory Forms On-line!

The Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP) has a GIS-based map tool called WISAARD (Washington Information System for Architectural and Archaeological Records Data) on its website that allows the user to search and locate historic sites listed on the state and national registers. There are also historic property inventory forms available for view. You can download pdfs of nominations and inventory forms for places throughout the state; view photos of listed historic sites; and obtain lists of sites by city or county. You can also search by the architect’s name and find out which properties throughout the state were designed by the same architect. This is an amazing research tool available to all.

Though WISAARD has been around for several years, the current version is a vast improvement over the previous version and provides extensive information to the public. So although this is not a new tool, it’s an incredibly useful one that not many people know about. It takes some messing around with the database to figure it out but once you do, it’s easy.  



Research Tips for Finding Info on Seattle Architects

Architects Card Catalog, Seattle Public Library / Photo: Eugenia Woo

A lot of historical information about Seattle architects can be found online these days which makes research much easier. But there’s more info available only at the Central Branch of the Seattle Public Library and at UW Special Collections. Some history detective work is needed but that’s part of the fun. Here are some tips for researching architects using local resources (not an exhaustive list, but a good start).

Seattle Public Library Architects Card Catalog and Scrapbooks:

These resources are located on the 10th floor Hugh and Jane Ferguson Seattle Room of the Central Branch Seattle Public Library. Many of Seattle’s architects from the twentieth century (particularly the mid-twentieth century) are represented in the catalog. You can find index cards of architects by alphabetical order that feature references about their work or biographical information. The Architects Scrapbooks contain news clippings about Seattle architects and their projects.  These scrapbooks (now contained in archival boxes), are locked up in a glass case in the Seattle Room near the Architects Card Catalog. Just ask the reference librarian on duty for assistance. (more…)

Research Tools You Can Use: UW Architecture of the Pacific Northwest Database

Seattle Art Museum, designed by Bebb & Gould, 1931 / Source: UW Special Collections, Architecture Collection

Researching history and architecture can be labor intensive and time-consuming but the rewards that come with it can be really satisfying especially when you find what you’re looking for. Architectural drawings are very useful research materials for restoration or renovation projects. Hand-drawn architectural plans can also be artworks in themselves. A great resource for plans is the University of Washington’s Architecture of the Pacific Northwest Database. You can search for drawings by building style or by architect.