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Susan Kaufman: An Open Heart

Last year became notorious for so many famous and exceptional people passing away. Even Eastlake wasn’t immune. One of its stars, Susan Kaufman, founder of the restaurant Serafina and its “bratty little sister,” as Susan called Cicchetti, passed away last July due to complications from cancer. She was 64.

“Creating community was the most important thing for her,” said her niece Kika Westhof, who was part of Susan’s Brooklyn and New Jersey roots.  Kika remembers seeing Susan a lot on the East Coast where the family lived and on the West where she and her sister helped out at the restaurant when they were about five or six bringing customers cups of coffee.

One of the first things Susan did before Serafina was even open, recalled Chris Leman, long-time neighborhood activist and Eastlake Community Council volunteer, was donate a dinner for two gift certificate to an ECC fundraising auction. After Serafina opened, Susan held many community appreciation gatherings at the restaurant, taking out a full-page ad in the Eastlake News in the form of a handwritten invitation to all.

She was involved in countless community events and activism including serving on the ECC board of directors and co-chairing the Main Street committee charged with developing the business district portion of the Eastlake Neighborhood Plan, a plan that was adopted by the city in 1998. In 2015 she helped with the redesign of welcome signs for Eastlake, signs that will soon mark major entrance roads.

Serafina

 

Serafina was a hit from the day it opened in 1991, popular in the neighborhood and regionwide, earning rave press reviews for its food, ambiance, music; known as a place to come for special occasions or to make any occasion special.

Before eating locally grown food became popular, Susan grew vegetables and herbs for the restaurant at her nearby home on Franklin Ave.

As Seattle Weekly contributor, Zach Geballe, noted in a personal tribute to Susan, his stepmom, last July shortly after she died, “… Italian food in Seattle was rarely more than spaghetti and meatballs, or maybe fettucine Alfredo if you were feeling bold. Her embrace of the rustic cuisine of Italy—a cuisine that may not have been hers by birth but was certainly a fixture in her life—helped pave the way for the legion of similar restaurants that have followed in its wake. Yet all I can think about in this moment is the profound impact she had on my life.”

Marilyn and Michael de Guzman, long-time Eastlake residents, echoed that sentiment. “She had a larger impact than most people on her surroundings,” one of them told me as we sat around the kitchen island in their home.

They could recall the exact moment Susan came into their lives and also what had been at the corner of Eastlake Ave. and Boston Street, before Serafina took root.

It had been a deli known as Nick and Sully’s whose owner, Lisa, sold the place to Susan and two of her business associates and took a job as a cook on a fishing vessel, the last they knew of her.

Brown paper went up on the windows of the vacant storefront, but you could tell the place was abuzz with activity. One day as Marilyn and Michael were walking by, the door was ajar. They poked their heads inside where they saw a lot of construction and a short, dark-haired woman working away.

“What’s going on in here?” Marilyn called into the space.

“Oh my god, you’re from New York!” cried the woman, Susan. “Come on in!”

“We loved her from the time we met her,” said Michael, “She was a good person to have in our lives.”

They saw Susan through a lot of life transitions: the opening of Serafina, her original business partners moving on, a marriage, the adoption from Mexico of her daughter, Isabella, divorce, the opening of Cicchetti, and cancer. She never stopped planning for the future, they said.

And “she never bit her tongue,” said Kika with a smile.  “She always said exactly what was on her mind.”

As a teenager Kika worked at Serafina during summers and eventually moved to Seattle to work there full time, rising to a management position. She has since moved on but keeps tabs on the restaurant. We spoke at a café near where she lives in Hillman City.

“In her Brooklyn way, she was a bold force that, maybe people in Seattle especially when she first came here (in the 1980s) weren’t used to. Everyone knew her when she went out in the neighborhood.  She was compassionate and interested in people. She had an amazing way of communicating with people.”

“She had a wonderful sense of humor,” Marilyn said.

She designated a group of her regulars, her consiglio or consiglieri, the de Guzmans told me with a laugh. Do you know what that is? Like the advisor in The Godfather?  Yes!

They explained; Susan’s consiglio was a group of about 12 people including them, whom she met with regularly to get feedback about the business. It changed over the years as people moved in and out of the area, and she was sincere about getting advice and listening, they said.

Not that she went along with everything the consiglio advised. David Weeks, the General Manager for both restaurants, wrote in an email, “When Susan dug her heels in…man!”

 

She had an idea of what she wanted for Serafina – the food, the place, the people, and she never stopped striving to achieve it. She knew how to hire people “who got the culture,” said Kika. A few of the servers have been there for over a decade, and others who’ve left come back to work again.

“She was good to people,” said Michael, adding “she was like an orchestra conductor trying to get each section to perfection.”

 

For inspiration and ideas, she took frequent trips to Europe, especially Italy, visiting wineries and restaurants, taking the chefs, or the wait staff, or the sommelier with her.

On one trip she went to Borgo Antico a restaurant in Florence that the de Guzmans loved and recommended. It was right under the apartment they had stayed at and waiters would shout up to their window when their table was ready. As Michael was telling me this story he pointed out two placemats framed, on the wall behind me. They had two different designs of Borgo Antico, from two different eras. One the de Guzmans had brought back, the other Susan had.

Michael took it off the wall to show me. Across the bottom, as if she wanted to get a word into the conversation, was her hand-written note, “Some memories stay with you forever. This one we get to share. Love always, Susan.”

Cicchetti

Eighteen years after opening Serafina, Susan opened a new restaurant, Cicchetti, next door. The following year, 2010, she was feted with the Nellie Cashman Business Owner of the Year award given by the Women Business Owners association. The legendary Cashman had been a nurse, restaurateur, gold prospector, and philanthropist.

Susan similarly had a wide variety of interests and passions she made successful. As a teenager she designed and made handbags that were sold at Bergdorf’s in New York. She started numerous businesses over the years; the seed money for Serafina came from selling off a salad dressing business; and she was an incredible photographer, said Marilyn.  Some of her photography is on display at Serafina.

“She was very empowering for other women,” said Kika. “She was a self-made woman who did everything on her own. She advised a lot of people. It was important to her to be a role model and help people figure out careers or personal things.”

“She was a mentor to hundreds of people,” added Marilyn. “If you had a problem, you went to Susan, and she helped you. She was a fast friend and took care of a lot of people.”

“She had a huge heart,” added Kika. “She cared so much for other people and it showed in how she managed the business, cared for employees and took care of her daughter.”

 

Last summer, when she heard the news that her aunt had just three weeks to live, Kika flew home from a sojourn in Spain. She helped her mother and Susan’s close friend Kokie take care of Susan. At first Susan was fine joking about how well she felt. “Are they sure I’m dying?” she asked. She saw friends and entertained just about every night as she always had; many people came by.

It was a good time, but by week three Susan was slowing down. She was ready, said Kika. She had fought breast cancer for twenty years, a recurrence happened every four or five years, but she would largely brush it off. “I haven’t finished yet,” she would say. But this time was different. She accepted she was dying, which made it easier for her inner circle to accept. Easier but not easy. A role model to the end.

chandelier

“Serafina was never better than in the last couple of years,” said Michael. “It was as if all the instruments seemed to come together.”

Always planning for the future, Susan had a succession plan in place for the restaurants.

It was her intention that the people who had been with the restaurant a long time, including her lawyer and accountant, carry on Serafina and Cicchetti. She did not want an outside buyer, Kika noted.

She set up a board of directors, which Kika’s mother, Lisa Frigand, serves on. Last spring, Susan hired David Weeks as General Manager. “She was looking for someone she could trust to carry out her legacy.”

Weeks along with Christian Chandler, Executive Chef of both restaurants, Cody Westerfield, Head Chef of Cicchetti, Annie Kuclick, Manager of Cicchetti, Kelley Kieser, Assistant General Manager for both restaurants, and Salomon Navarro, Sommelier, are involved in the day-to-day running of the restaurants.

The board of directors helps guide the bigger picture and of course there is the consiglio, and all the regulars, to keep everyone on track.  No one is shy about speaking up if they think things aren’t going the way Susan would have wanted them.

Susan left a big hole, said Kika, and it is still difficult for the people who worked with her, but everyone is helping out.

“My vision and ambition were greatly influenced by Susan prior to her passing,” wrote Weeks in an email. “We discussed many things about the culture and business that she had worked so hard to develop over the years. So her coaching me from the beginning, helped me understand what it is that she would have wanted. Susan welcomed every guest into these restaurants as if she were opening the front door to her home.

“All I want to do is freshen up both spaces and continue to offer great food, excellent hospitality, and wonderful drinks!  Christian and Cody have their menus dialed in,so I feel like we are doing well on that front.”

Most of the updates over the next few months will be aesthetic, he notes. Serafina is well-established, Cicchetti is the big focus.  “It is such a special place that Cody, Annie, and the rest of the crew have worked so hard for the last seven years to build.” He encourages the 98102 neighborhood to check it out.

The restaurants are in really good hands, added Kika with a smile, with their distinct vibe and atmosphere and where Susan would want them to be.

“Nothing’s changing,” said Marilyn, “She’s still there!”

 

 

 

Photo of Susan Kaufman above. Sketches of Serafina, Cicchetti, and Cicchetti’s chandelier by Karen Berry.

 

A real dump becomes Seattle’s best piece of architecture for 2016

The best piece of 2016 Seattle architecture is located near Lake Union and is, according to former Seattle Times architecture critic, Mark Hinshaw, writing for Crosscut, “a total dump.”

He’s talking of course about the new replacement transfer station on North 34th Street in Wallingford, a place that since 1966 people took their hard-to-dispose-of trash.

The new transfer station didn’t appear to be an architectural winner right away. It sort of came from behind, a long shot if you will. But when completed it showed itself as “sleek, serene and sophisticated,… it would make a foreign embassy envious,” writes Hinshaw, and it hasn’t lost its utilitarian mission looking like “a cross between a diplomatic compound in Eastern Europe and a border entry into Canada.”

Unlike Hinshaw, I have rather fond memories of the old transfer station, not that it would be my first choice of destination. It was a chore having to go there and boring waiting in line, but if felt cathartic, throwing things into the pits once we arrived, watching living rooms unfold and disappear before your eyes.  A couch, a chair, a lamp, a rug, even TVs back then, and the scene would disappear, churning, as more items poured in. I’m not so sure the new transfer station will offer quite that same experience…

It was closed the day we visited, New Year’s Day. “Let’s go see 2016’s best architecture,” I suggested to my husband. But even closed there was a lot to see – a bright new playground across the street with half a dozen kids running through the treehouse/slide; an adult playground, so to speak, around the parameter of the station, made up of about seven exercise stations that are part of the landscape; a basketball court; and a court yard with benches directly across the street from Essential Bakery, on Woodlawn, creating additional outdoor seating for the cafe. Then along 34th toward Stoneway more benches, this time designed into the building, accenting the sidewalk with views of both inside the building and the street. And to top it all off there is the public artwork, RECLAIMED by Jean Shin, made from the rebar of the old structure and capturing the soul of the place as its plaque describes, “….RECLAIMED highlights the potential of waste material to be reimagined into a vibrant second life within the community, and echoes the sustainable principle of reuse at the transfer station….”

The new building “may not be truly ‘civic’ but it is entirely civil to its neighbors,” writes Hinshaw.

It’s much less of a chore to come to, which is probably just what the designers, Mahlum, had in mind, and more of a treat.

The ages 5 to 12 playground across the street from the new transfer station

The ages 5 to 12 playground across the street from the new transfer station

 

Lake Union Floating Home Featured in the New York Times

A Lake Union floating home in Eastlake was featured in Last Sunday’s New York Times Business/Real Estate section column What you get – $950,000.

As it turns out there’s a front door and a back door to this story.

First through  the front door – “It was quite exciting” says Melissa Ahlers the broker for the property and an Eastlake resident of 16 years, “to get that call from the New York Times.”

The column picks a price point and researches what kind of homes you can find around the country, so the one bath, two bedroom floating home on the lake for $925,000 was contrasted with a home practically in the desert – a three bedroom, three and a half bath stucco in Santa Fe, NM, for $895,000, and with a seaming mansion – a six bedroom, six bath Greek Revival in Asheville, NC, for $930,000.

The floating home had been on the market for about two months when the feature appeared. “People don’t think of a floating home right away when they’re thinking of residences,” says Ahlers. It takes the right buyer, she added, and that buyer has turned up. There’s a pending sale on the property now.

floating-home-sign

And through the back door – The New York Times photographer for the feature, Ruth Fremson, lives in Eastlake.

Her assignments come from all sections of the paper, and she works with NYT Seattle correspondent Kirk Johnson on Pacific Northwest stories. While she’ll also generate stories, she didn’t have anything to do with this one. It was assigned.

Just like a fateful assignment she had in 2015 for a cross country road trip that was chronicled in the NYT and ended with a planned three-month sojourn in Seattle.

But she liked it here so much she stayed.

“We felt very lucky that we found a place in Eastlake,” she wrote in a Facebook message from Alaska where she was on assignment. “I only wish I had more time to meet our neighbors and get involved with the community.”

So do we!

From Parking Lot to Public Park: City Awards the East Howe Steps Plaza Project a $100k Construction Grant

Although you may not be able to tell right now, a new public plaza is taking shape in Eastlake. It will be on a triangular piece of public land that has been used as parking by businesses over the years, east of Fairview Ave. and where Howe St. might have been had it continued west across Eastlake Ave. That bit of Howe Street right of way is opening up with the private development that is happening there and will connect with the new public plaza.

The plaza will be the base of what will form a grand stairway up Howe St., connecting Lake Union to the historic East Howe St. staircases that run through the I-5 Colonnade Park and up Capitol Hill along the Streissguth Gardens.

The project has been in the works for over ten years and just last week got a huge boost with a $100k construction grant. Last Saturday morning the project steering committee, made up of Mary Hansen, Ron Endlich, Linda Furney, Leslie Silverman, Ariah Kidder, Judy Jopling, and Tom Kipp, hosted an impromptu celebration with coffee, pastries, information and tours on site.

East Howe Street Plaza Steering Committee from left: Mary Hansen, Ron Endlich, Linda Furney, Ariah Kidder, Judy Jopling, Tom Kipp and Leslie Silverman.

“It feels like we’re suddenly lurching forward as opposed to inching along,” said Tom Kipp.

The grant provided the group with a new momentum. The project had leapt forward in late 2014 and early 2015 with three public open houses at TOPS to gather community input on design concepts. But final design work on the winning public choice,  “Front Porch” concept, took a longer than expected.

That design will feature trees, plants, seating and open space and (like stepping out to a front porch) will be a place to stretch, sit, reflect and hang out, wrote Mary Hansen in an email . The plaza will fan out to a stretch of the Cheshiahud Loop, connecting with the trail there.

Ron Endlich, another committee member, who was key to securing the $100k construction grant explained that the project had received a $25k planning grant (funding the open houses), a $25k site survey grant and a $50k design grant.  All those grants also had to be matched 50 percent by the neighborhood, and a lot of the match was made through volunteer hours with some cash fund raising.

But now the stakes are a bit higher. The $100k construction grant will require a 100 percent project match with a good portion of it needing to be in cash. “It needs to be secure funding,” Ron explained, for construction. While volunteer hours will also count, the steering committee will be looking toward neighborhood businesses to help make this match. Construction could start as early as next spring with the first phase completed by next fall.

Daly Partnership construction on Eastlake Ave. of East Howe Steps

Daly Partnership construction on Eastlake Ave. of East Howe Steps

In the meantime Daly Partnership, a private developer, is constructing a project on Eastlake at East Howe St., known as the East Howe Steps. That project is well underway and will add two apartment buildings with retail on the ground level. The two buildings will border, south and north, the pedestrian thoroughfare linking East Howe St. and Eastlake Ave. with the plaza.

For more information visit:

http://easthowestepsplaza.com/

https://www.seattleparksfoundation.org/2014-pages/step-up/east-howe-steps

Looking west from Eastlake Ave. toward steps under I-5 Colonnade Park

Looking west from Eastlake Ave. toward steps under I-5 Colonnade Park

The parking lot where future plaza will be.

The parking lot where future plaza will be.

And another view of the triangular lot.

Lake Union Mail changes carriers; so what’s on the horizon for the former owner?

On July 2 Jules James quietly delivered Lake Union Mail to a new owner. He had owned the small storefront shop that packed and shipped boxes, sold stamps and rented out some 500 private mailboxes on Louisa St. behind Louisa’s Café in Eastlake since 1989. The news came as a shock to the neighborhood.

Jules too was still reeling a few weeks later when I talked to him about the sale and his plans one beautiful Sunday morning on the deck of his home on Franklin Ave. The deck had a window view between two tall lush green trees of not only the business’s namesake but also a central focus of Jules’ life – Lake Union.

The sale transition had been an extremely stressful time, of keeping up a normal front, while dealing with changes behind the scenes, such as training a new manager, and keeping it all secret, which he felt was necessary for the sake of the business. He was running the gamut of emotions — both elated and whatever its opposite is. But he didn’t have any doubt that it was the right thing for himself, the business, and Eastlake.

Why sell? Because “the way the world is thinking I’m not thinking,” he says.

He’s a shoot from the hip type person, he admits, and he announced the news on the business’s Facebook page that way writing, “Approximately every six months since a decade ago, Joe Davis (PMB 339) has said: ‘If you are ever ready to sell Lake Union Mail, I’m ready to buy.’”

Then he fired, “Joe Davis is the new owner of Lake Union Mail. Amy Sjoberg is the new boss.”

“I understand crumpled cash and multi-page hand-written personal letters. I’ll never comprehend buying toothpaste on-line,” he added.

“It’s an analog business with digital on top of that,” Jules says. The mail business needs to change to keep up with the times. He speculates on what that might be, apps telling you when a piece of mail has arrived…, but he no longer needs to try to figure it out. That’s up to the new owner.

While we spoke a seaplane flew overhead in a low northeast direction.  I had to stop the conversation because my hearing is shot and wait for the plane to pass.  “That’s Yvette,” he said.

“You know who flies the planes?” I asked.  He nodded. He could tell by the time of day and the way the plane was being flown.  He could write a book about seaplanes and their history on Lake Union, in fact he has been ever since his son Alex was two, he’s now 21; maybe he’d finish it, he said with a smile and a shrug.

*

Over a quarter of a century is a long enough time to start a business, become stable enough to get married and have a son, have that marriage not work out, find love again and marry and gain a blended family, watch your kids grow and cut their teeth on the family business, watch neighborhood kids grow and give them their first job. My daughter for instance, on her own initiative, asked Jules for a job, during that difficult Catch 22 time when you need experience to have a job, but can’t get experience without a job; he gave her that break. He’s given many a similar break. Lake Union Mail has employed about 100 people over the years. He knows mail clerk is not a dream job for most, but it’s a job that can help build a dream. “Money is essential but not important,” he says. With that in mind he tried to schedule work around his employee’s priorities.

But as owner that meant working pretty much all the time; even when he was not working he was thinking about work, he says.  It was a six day a week job, and even Sunday his day off, today, he’s still fussing about a $10 package that is reported lost because even though he sold the store he’s still on as consultant, turning over all that institutional knowledge, but if he were an employee he wouldn’t be thinking about that package, he notes with a laugh; it would be something he’d deal with in twenty minutes on Monday.

*

Lake Union Mail was born of a letter, a newsletter, as Jules tells it on the business’s website. He was looking for another small business to start while he grew his recycling business in the 1980s. At the same time he was on the board of the Eastlake Community Council, which was trying to encourage good development in the neighborhood. The ECC ran a survey in The Eastlake News asking residents what type of businesses were needed.

One of the top three suggestions was a post office. And one of the first things Jules did when he opened Lake Union Mail was donate mail box #1 to the ECC for perpetuity.  Then the city took on recycling as part of its waste management program. Almost overnight recyclers were out of business. The recycling store front that also sold stamps and shipped items suddenly flipped priorities. “Your grand plan is not always what you do,” says Jules. Fortunately a post office is just what the neighborhood needed (so much so it could over the years support two). Besides Jules who had also been a building manager says just about all his jobs ended with him sorting mail.

Sketch of Lake Union Mail, Jules James and Scout by Karen Berry

Sketch of Lake Union Mail, Jules James and Scout by Karen Berry

Lake Union Mail became known for building community and for its old fashioned customer service, earning it a feature in the Seattle Times 2008 Small Business Scene. Although we didn’t talk about specifics of the sale, keeping the customer service spirit of LUM was undoubtedly part of the deal; keeping that first mailbox for the ECC definitely was.

All the same, there will be changes. “I told Joe during closing, ‘you need to disrespect the old owner.’” It’s necessary for the business to evolve, he says. Of course when the new owner actually takes the advice, it’s a bit jarring. Some of the changes have already taken Jules by surprise, he admits but shrugs it off. LUM may even have to move, he adds, which seems almost unthinkable.

*

For a history major Jules appears to have stumbled on a perfect line of work, one that’s historical in its own right. The post office was once where everyone came to get their mail before there was home delivery; it was a central spot for communication. And Jules has been like an old time postmaster.

Working at LUM felt like being inside an encyclopedia, says Jules. Five hundred experts coming through the door to collect their mail. Conversations that got started, cut short, and picked up a few days later.

The store’s location too was just up the hill and a few blocks away from where Bill Boeing launched his first plane, a seaplane, off the end of Roanoke St. A historian didn’t have to travel far for a vein to mine.

In between licking stamps, Jules would sometimes send his employees off to do historical research. “That was definitely one of my favorite parts of that job,” wrote former employee Kitty Gibson in a Facebook comments exchange. (Kitty assisted Jules in writing about the history of street cars on Eastlake Avenue for the Eastlake News.)

Neighbors have dubbed him the mayor of Eastlake thanks to his local activism. But then again, Eastlake has had no shortage of neighborhood activists. One, Susan Kaufman, owner of Serafina and Cicchetti restaurants, had just passed away a few days before we talked, sending another shock wave through the neighborhood. I mentioned her. Jules nodded, “Whenever any issue came up, I would march right down to Serafina’s to talk to Susan about it, and we would brainstorm what to do.”

Over the years there have been many fights with city hall over countless neighborhood land use battles. From saving the Lake Union Steam Plant building that now houses ZymoGenetics, to halting the construction of large buildings over the lake, to establishing basic standards for micro housing, Jules has had a leadership role in them all.

But he’s tired of fighting city hall, especially when it comes to small business issues; however, there is one battle he’s eyeing because it’s fighting for something rather than against and that’s restoring the floating sidewalk along the Fairview Bridge. He doesn’t fully trust that the city will replace the unique walkway when they tear it and the bridge out for a new bridge in 2017.

He’ll be keeping tabs on that and on another unique feature of Lake Union, the historic Virginia V, the last operating vessel of the Mosquito Fleet, a fleet of steam ships that ferried goods and people around Puget Sound during the 1920s and 30s. He has done every volunteer position there is from crew hand to bartender and regularly give history talks as the vessel tours Lake Union. “In this neighborhood people do not understand what we have on this lake,” Jules says.

But for now, he and Scout, his faithful dog who has accompanied him to work every day, are taking a breather.

What about starting a new business? Nah, he says, although he does keep a file of “semi-bad business ideas” for every time the thought comes up.

He’s thinking actually he might like to be an employee. He might start looking for a job at the beginning of January. The grass is always greener.

He’s looking forward to doing everything he wasn’t able to do while working – getting to the Saturday Farmers Market in the U. District; he was planning to go out for his first Duck Dodge on a customer’s boat that week; and travel, who knows where, now that there’s time.

The sale at the beginning weekend of July couldn’t have been more fittingly planned to mark Jules’ newfound freedom. By the time the ink was dry on the closing documents that Saturday, Lake Union Mail had changed hands, and Lake Union itself would raise a toast. Monday was a holiday with the crowds descending around the lake for that annual celebration of independence where the evening fireworks explode and light up the sky.

 

Can this house (and garden) be saved?

Some things keep Cass Turnbull up at night. The fate of the historic Bittman House at 4625 Eastman Ave. in Wallingford is one. She wrote a blog post about it for Wallyhood:

It’s keeping me up at night thinking that a developer is going to raze the garden, chop down her Heritage Trees and bulldoze that wonderful house–the likes of which will never be made again in Seattle…

A lot of other people are losing sleep over it as well. The post has gotten 249 recommends and 68 comments so far.

At the time the post was published, April 23, the home was in limbo, the owner, Marilyn Bechlem, had recently died and Cass who had been Ms. Bechlem’s gardener grew worried that this house would slip through everyone’s radar and be demolished for Seattle’s latest construction boom.

Marilyn’s Wallingford house is a sort of legend among neighbors. People have wondered for many decades who owns that house, and what is hidden by the overgrown trees and shrubs. It has the air of a mansion in a romantic novel and it has cast a spell over many people.

The house is now for sale with a gentle "No Trespassing" sign on the gate.

The house is now for sale with a gentle “No Trespassing” sign on the gate.

Neighbors have rallied under the spell of this house with an outpouring of love and nostalgia for it, its owners, and the garden. A landmark nomination form was quickly written up and submitted. Talk of crowd sourcing to pay for the over 50 years of deferred maintenance was bantered about. People pledged their time in the form of free labor for work around the place. People who had walked by and never noticed the home before were in awe. A Wallingford gem had been discovered.

The house was designed and built by Henry W. Bittman, a famous Seattle architect, whose work, writes Caterina Provost-Smith in Shaping Seattle Architecture, “adorned the north end of Seattle’s downtown with a string of terra-cotta jewels and contributed more than 250 new and remodeled buildings to business and civic districts throughout Washington and Alaska.”

He is best known for the United Shopping Tower, now the Olympic Tower, an historic landmark, and the Terminal Sales Building. He is also responsible for the King County Court House and Eagles Temple.

The Tudor house at 4625 Eastman Ave. is believed to be his “first foray into residential architecture.” He built if for himself and his wife, Jessie, “an active, college-educated woman and an award-winning horticulturist,” writes Provost-Smith. The gardens she planted on the property’s .33 acres were the ones Cass would eventually tend.

For the Bittmans, who never had children, the house was a social gathering place, where they entertained lavishly. Notes Provost-Smith, “They crowned each year with an elaborate New Year’s Eve party, where, at the stroke of midnight, a specially designed dining table would split open and a sculpture commemorating the year would arise and revolve.”

Today hidden within the overgrown garden the house is like a battered time capsule. It’s little changed from the time when the Bittman’s lived in it over a half a century ago.  True,

The copper downspouts have been stolen, the irrigation doesn’t work, there is a tarp over the greenhouse, the walkway is buckled, a concrete retaining wall leans outward toward the ally.  But that neglect also means that everything is still original. The gutters are made of wood. The shingles are wood. There are original appliances in the kitchen. The outside is nice but the impressive part is inside–there is a painted mural and leaded windows, incredible wood work, vaulted ceilings, and bay windows in the study that open outward….

Beneath the wood-beamed Cathedral ceiling, amongst the stain glass windows and doors, between the original light fixtures and sconces, are murals of Lake Union, how it looked before all the development, how it must have looked just as Seattle was rising.

I only got brief looks inside the house because Marilyn (only the second owner of the house) was an extremely private woman. Even those neighbors with whom she spoke regularly were never allowed inside. As I entered the living room for the first time, I stopped, looked around and said, “Wow.” Marilyn said, “People always say that.” I took in what I could while following Marilyn to the underground garages to get to the water shut off (I was going through a secret passage!). She took me upstairs to the bedroom so I could see if we could improve the view from her tiny balcony (a real balcony!).

The heirs to the house also spoke up in the comments section of the blog both surprised by the neighborhood outpouring and a little taken aback. They explained it was complicated estate, but they were on it and considering the house in light of what their sister and aunt would have wanted.

Long before seeing the inside of the house  I had fallen  in love with the garden, which was why I had been hired. It had been totally overtaken by invading holly, laurel, Oregon grape, blackberries, and vines. Beneath it all hid a collection of perfect, 60-year-old ornamental shrubs and trees. My crew and I worked there one day a month for over a year to dig it out. It was the secret garden, and it was my job to restore it to Marilyn’s satisfaction—not an easy task. It was both hard and delicate work. Marilyn liked the overgrown look and was quite protective of every plant that the original owner, Mrs. Bittman, had planted there. Marilyn, a spry 82 year old,  knew where each plant was and would walk fearlessly through the tangle on uneven ground to show us things and to check on our work. She could hear a comment made 15-feet away. So it was quite a challenge.

The house is up for sale now, and the chief selling point is, fortunately, not the development rights, but the history.

(Click the following link to view the listing and lots of great photos of the property:
http://www.matrix.nwmls.com/DE.asp?ID=14286202580 After you open it up click on the small camera.)

As pricy as the house is, a cool $1,800,000, plus the cost of all the needed improvements to bring it into the 21st century, new wiring, plumbing, some new configuration inside too, it has one modern selling point–in the form of three classic garages. For a house that has a walkability rating of 90 that’s a lot of parking.

But Cass is still nervous, she worries that potential buyers will split up the property, keep the house but sell off the two plots beside it to pay for the renovation. “That would be a terrible shame,” she writes.  “The two really need to be kept together, like an old married couple.”

If that happen, says Cass, if they stay together and both house and garden get landmark status, “Then I’ll sleep like a baby forever.” A lot of other people will rest easy too.

 

A double garage (pictured) and a single garage are part of the property.

A double garage (pictured) and a single garage are part of the property.

From Charm to Ruins to Waste

Eastlake is seeing a lot of demolition, but the hardest to watch fall are the old vintage houses and apartment buildings. I’ve probably been watching too many “Rehab Addict” reruns, being addicted to “Rehab Addict,” but something about seeing those old houses brought back to their former glory makes me high. Nikki Curtis, the show’s star, goes out in search of old wood flooring, doors, and built-ins to replace what’s been torn out of old structures, that cry, according to her, “Make me pretty again!”

So when there was a recent post on the Eastlake Social Club Facebook page about the sunny yellow bungalow on Minor Ave. being brought down (pictured above), I hoped that at the very least parts of it would be recycled or salvaged to find a new home in a house being restored or maybe repurposed to add some character to new construction.

After the demolition of the house on Minor Ave.

After the demolition of the house on Minor Ave.

But it turns out that was not the case as neighbors commented. Well how hard could it be to salvage the special architectural features of a house, was there a demand for it?

Not hard at all, and yes.

The demolition debris -- in it: smashed windows, iron railings, lots of old wood, and even a new washing machine, according to a neighbor.

The demolition debris — in it: smashed windows, iron railings, lots of old wood, and even a new washing machine, according to a neighbor.

The city of Seattle encourages it. And there are all kinds of good reasons for doing it – keeping the waste out of a landfill for one, providing jobs for the local reuse and recycling industry for another.

And that industry is hungry for salvage – architectural, plumbing, lumber, you name it.

The salvage shop closest to Lake Union, RE Store, over in Ballard no longer exists (although they do have a store in Bellingham), but there are two others, both in the SODO district, that are doing a lively business. Earthwise is a little hidden gem on 4th avenue near the West Seattle Bridge; it’s fun, like stumbling onto a Pee-Wee Herman set, and vast. Items are haphazardly and creatively arranged drawing you in.

Earthwise in SODO -- happy to salvage.

Earthwise in SODO — happy to salvage.

A few blocks away on 6th Avenue, the arty setting of Earthwise, gives way to a Home Depot-like atmosphere at Second Use. Second Use is huge with aisles and aisles of items inside and out, and was busy, this Saturday, with a line of pick-up trucks out front and customers loading goods.

A helpful clerk at Second Use let me know that stock turns quickly, usually within two weeks, so if I wanted something, I shouldn’t wait, and that the website is updated with some two hundred items daily, with measurements down to the eighth of an inch.

So what to do when there’s word of a vintage, unique structure that’s going to be torn down? The store manager for Earthwise told me over the phone that they’d love to hear about it. They’d be happy to reach out to the owner or contractor for permission to remove whatever non-structural items might sell. And Second Use had large moving vans in the parking lot at the ready waiting for calls.

Second Use, also in SODO, with trucks at the ready.

Second Use, also in SODO, with trucks at the ready.

Another option before demolition, one in the architect’s hands, would be something like Ada’s Technical Bookstore on Capitol Hill. It’s a wonderful example of combining new and existing architecture, taking the old Horizon House bookstore and morphing it into something bigger and modern. Ninety percent of the original wood was reused in the new structure. Last year, Ada’s won a Historic Seattle award for “Preserving Neighborhood Character.”  It would be great to see more of that kind of creative, adaptive reuse of old houses and apartment buildings that adds density but keeps the neighborhood charm.

 

Breaking News:  A little more searching on the web, and it turns out that the RE Store itself has been salvaged. It has a new life as Ballard Reuse.

 

Lake Union Photographs on Display at Cafe Senso Unico

A wonderful display of Lake Union photographs that look like watercolors is on display through March 28 at Cafe Senso Unico in downtown Seattle, 622 Olive Way, Seattle, WA 98101. I just happened to stumble across them on my lunch hour while doing errands and ducking into the cafe for a cup of caffeine to get me through the second half of the day.

The jewel color prints caught my eye as familiar houseboats, but I didn’t realize how familiar until I got up close.  They’re by Thea Yeannakis, a 28-year-old artist, who grew up on a Eastlake houseboat, went to TOPS-Seward School, Nathan Hale, and the UW, and still lives on an Eastlake houseboat.

The photos all framed and for sale at reasonable prices, capture that magical feel of Lake Union and are definitely worth the visit to the downtown cafe.

For more info contact Thea at M.Design.Thea@Gmail.com

Here are a couple of the images I snapped on my cell phone, though it doesn’t really do them justice:

 

Houseboat 1 photo

Houseboat 2 photo

Lake Union Steam Plant building turns 100

The Lake Union Steam Plant that now houses ZymoGenetics turns one hundred years old this year. It’s been called the monument on Lake Union, and its story is, well, monumental. It’s one of auspicious birth – built at the start of the electric age; heroic life – providing emergency power for the city; shocking death – discovery of toxic waste; and finally resurrection – the renovation into a modern biogenetics laboratory. It begins like many great stories with a prequel – the Hydro House.

Hydro House

Squeezed between ZymoGenetics and an old renovated warehouse the gnome-like structure of the Hydro House on Eastlake Avenue is easy to miss and a delight to find. It was built in response to a young city’s growing energy needs and to a possible failure in the Cedar River dam.

Hydro House in 1912; notice 40" pipe being installed on left. Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives

Hydro House in 1912; notice 40″ pipe being installed on left. Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives

At the turn of the 19th century, electricity was changing people’s lives in ways analogous to today’s technological revolution. As with information technology, Seattle took a leading role in electrical power. The first light bulb in Seattle, also the first west of the Rockies, “flickered to life” in just 1886, according to a HistoryLink essay. Some twenty years later, in 1905, the Cedar River Falls hydroelectric facility became “the nation’s first municipally owned hydro project,” according to Seattle City Light.

The early users of electricity, industry and commerce provided steady growth for the utility. But by the end of the first decade, a new market was opening – the home. No sooner were additional generators planned for the Cedar River station than it was apparent even more would be needed.

“The support given the municipal plant by the Seattle citizens was so enthusiastic that it became necessary to plan extensions almost as soon as service began,” a 1931 City of Seattle Department of Lighting Annual Report notes in its history section.

By 1910 city engineers decided to just tap all the energy potential of the Cedar River site by means of a large concrete dam. But there was a risk involved with the dam, a potential failure of one of the dam’s reservoir walls. To provide enough power to the city while resolving that issue, Seattle needed a back-up power source and planned for a coal-fed steam plant on the south end of Lake Union.

In 1911 voters approved financing for the initial phase of the Steam Plant. Yet it too couldn’t be built fast enough. Since actual power from the Steam Plant was still a few years away, the possibility of building a small hydro facility on the site was re-introduced. The idea for a hydro project on Lake Union had first been raised in January 1902 to power city street lights. But its funding instead went toward the much larger Cedar River Falls hydro electric project.

Now the timing was right. The Hydro House was quickly built and put into service by 1912 for a cost of about $30,000.

The Hydro House was innovative. It used the latent power of the Volunteer Park Reservoir. Overflow water propelled by gravity fell through a 40-inch pipe some 3,400 feet long with a drop of 412 feet to generate 1,500 kilowatts of power. Technically it was the city’s second electrical generating facility.

In reality, “the unit was too small to be a real factor in supplying the rapidly increasing demand but it was the first auxiliary power source for the City,” again according to the 1931 report, “and paid for itself many times over during its first three years as a standby plant in emergency.”

The Hydro House as it is today viewed from Eastlake Avenue.

The Hydro House as it is today viewed from Eastlake Avenue.

The Hydro House, originally called the Power House, is now a local landmark structure. In 1987 architect, preservationist and former Eastlake Community Council board member Susan Boyle nominated both it and the adjacent Steam Plant for landmark status in a well-researched, 15-page, single-spaced, typed nomination form.

The building was designed by Daniel Riggs Huntington, the City Architect from 1911-1925, who also designed many other still-standing historic structures. The Fremont Library, also a Huntington design, bears a familial resemblance to the Hydro House. Both are Mission Revival Style structures. Although, “the Lake Union Power House was a contradictory hybrid,” notes Boyle, “a new building type [electrical] clothed in an old style.”

Boyle describes the Hydro House as “a single story, wood and concrete frame structure with a basement level below the grade of Eastlake Avenue. The primary elevation is the east one on Eastlake Avenue (original drawings show no indication of Fairview Avenue, which was built later on pilings). The building is stucco-clad, clay tile, gable-roofed structure, with its ridge running parallel to the street.”

She notes that there are two small concrete towers on the structure that originally contained cross arms for transmission lines.

“The original roof towers clearly expressed the use of the building and the simple symmetrical arrangements of elements spoke of its utility, but the building’s size and style gave it a domestic character.”

A window outlook sat squarely on the roof ridge, for visually monitoring those early transmission lines. The thick north and south concrete walls of the Hydro House rise to form low roof parapets that were likely “designed to serve as fire walls to separate the Power House from neighboring buildings.”

An inset entryway was changed shortly after construction. “A pair of panel doors with a glass transom was originally set into the front opening at the east elevation to provide a small covered entry,” writes Boyle. “This was changed in 1914 when the doors were moved forward to their present location on the face of the building.”

Other changes include “the removal of grillwork and installation of windows at the two dormers and gable ends. When the building ceased to operate as a generating plant, the cross arms and exterior wires were removed. But for these changes, the exterior of the Power House today is original.”
As for the interior, only the original concrete walls and roof trusses remain.
Comparing the design of the Hydro House with the neighboring Steam Plant “clearly suggests the revolutionary character of the later building.”

The Hydro House was quickly eclipsed when the initial phase of the Steam Plant was completed in 1914. The Hydro House’s main floor, formerly a storage area (with the generators in the basement), became a lunch and locker room for Seattle City Light steam plant employees. And its loft became a darkroom for the city’s Engineering Department staff photographers.

The Hydro House continued to serve as an emergency back-up power source for some 18 years. In 1932 it was finally shut down entirely. Its generators were said to have been sold to a Christian radio station in Ecuador calling itself “The Voice of the Andes.”

“The only remnant of power generation within the Power House,” writes Boyle, “is a braced concrete pier in the basement that once supported the turbines.” Another remnant exists outside, beneath Fairview Avenue, amidst the pilings and partially submerged in Lake Union’s shallow waters, the large outflow pipe of the generators.

Hydro House today viewed from Fairview Avenue. Sketch by Karen Berry.

Hydro House today viewed from Fairview Avenue. Sketch by Karen Berry.

Today the Hydro House has a new life, owned by ZymoGenetics, and leased out as a restaurant to The Great Northwest Soup Company. In this way it still functions as it once did as a lunchroom to employees in the larger building. The restaurant is open to the public Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. While enjoying a breakfast or lunch at the Hydro House, you can look up to see those original roof trusses and also wander outside onto a modern patio for a view of Lake Union.

Next: “Life of a Steam Plant.”

A version of this article was first published in the Eastlake News, the Eastlake Community Council’s newsletter.

Lake Union resident one of five  arrested in Everett for blocking oil train Sept. 2 tells why they, and he, did it

I am a veteran climate activist.  I have written about the climate crisis for over 25 years and for most of the last 15 worked full-time to advance climate solutions.  I have spent a lot of time trying to stop global warming sitting in front of a computer.  On September 2, 2014 it was time to sit in front of a train.

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