On Friday, March 21, 2014, about 40 women, and a couple of men, gathered at the Harvard Exit Theatre (The Woman’s Century Clubhouse, 807 E. Roy on Capitol Hill) to learn about turn-of-the-century Seattle women who bought, sold, built and owned apartment-house real estate. Diana James, a member of both the Woman’s Century Club and Historic Seattle, shared her vast knowledge in a talk titled “Women in Seattle Apartment-House Real Estate, 1900-1939.”
The idea of women in early Seattle real estate occurred to her when she began researching her 2012 book “Shared Walls: Seattle Apartment Buildings, 1900-1939.” She was struck by the number of times she came across a woman’s name in the real estate sections of The Seattle Times and the Post-Intelligencer, as well as Pacific Builder & Engineer, a weekly construction publication. These were not familiar names that are found today in local history books, on street signs, or in tabloids, however. These women were pioneer entrepreneurs who engaged in all aspects of the booming real estate market, both residential and commercial.
Diana narrowed her presentation to just five women, all of whom had been mentioned in her book on apartments. She carefully researched their life histories–the “dash” between birth and death–then eloquently shared these discoveries, not just about their role in apartment life, but in their individual personas. What they had in common was that all five women had migrated to Seattle: not one was born in the Pacific Northwest.
Josephine North and Corinne Simpson-Wilson were both born in 1867, and by the turn of the twentieth century both were active in Pacific Northwest real estate. In 1925, Mrs. Josephine North, as her customers and peers knew her, commissioned an architect/builder to construct an apartment building at 1617 Yale Ave. This was the North Apartments, which was renamed the El Capitan Apartments in 1932. The Wilsonian Apartment Hotel, on the northeast corner of NE 47th St. and University Way NE in the University District, was designed in 1923 for Corinne Simpson-Wilson. Ellen Monro, born in 1871; Anna Clebanck, born 1878; and Jane Brydsen Saran, born in 1881, were the other three women profiled.
Diana was diligent in her research and passionately shared anecdotal tidbits about their social lives, the clubs to which they belonged, and the marriages and divorces they endured. She articulately summarized encounters they had with a male-dominated business society. Much of their careers were in doing business in a man’s world. It wasn’t until August 18, 1920 that the 19th Amendment was ratified and these women were given the right to vote. We can only speculate how they helped to build a Seattle that today has many women in positions of authority.
The Woman’s Century Club, founded in 1891 in Seattle by suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, currently presents monthly programs on women’s history in the parlor of the Harvard Exit Theatre.