History of the St. John's Building
A Special Report by our former tenant, Aimee Fertman
Written February 23, 2011
The Aimee's Home Addition
In 2007, as my lease was coming to a close on my Bellevue apartment, I began searching craigslist for a new home in Seattle. From my home computer, I found an advertisement for an inexpensive apartment that I could afford on my own. Quickly, I dialed the number listed. After speaking with the apartment manager, Johnny Sidorowicz, I settled, sight unseen, on a $525 studio at the St. John's Apartments. The apartment is located on the second floor of a three story, olive-green wooden building. The top two floors are apartments, while the street level contains retail and restaurant space. The building inconspicuously sits along a busy street on the south end of the neighborhood at the 700 block of East Pike Street. The neighborhood is Capitol Hill, is trendy, progressive and the most densely populated in Seattle (Urban Mapping). Just a block away from two colleges, shadowed by the beautiful towers of the First Baptist Church Seattle, and right across the street from a grocery store, my apartment is the epitome of city living.
After moving in, I quickly fell in love with both the neighborhood and my cozy corner apartment. Its crooked floors, slanting moldings, and spongy walls were just added charm. The most outstanding part of the St. John's for me, other than my wonderful people-watching bay windows and friendly neighbors, is a small framed photograph hanging in the hallway outside my door. The photo, shot in 1937 from across the street, shows the outside of the building looking remarkably the same over seventy years ago, as it does today. Scratched in the corner of the photo are the words, "Sackman Home 1910", revealing to me my new home was built over a hundred years ago. This discovery immediately sparked my curiosity, as anything that has been around this long must have a tale to tell. Who lived here over the years and what is their story?
Casually consulting several neighbors and my landlord, I soon accumulated fascinating tales surrounding the St. John's Apartments and the retail shops below. Prior to the current ownership, a mentally unstable apartment manager filled the building with drug dealers and shady renters; I was informed by a long time tenant. One store owner described scrapped charred wood out off the walls of his shop ten years ago, several years after a fire in the basement. Another neighbor showed me delicately old canceled checks from a no longer existing tire shop from 1919. Through my research, I hoped to unearth the facts behind these and more stories, as well as how the events and people surrounding the building connect it to Seattle's rich history over the past century.
Researching a building that is not government built, an architectural achievement, nor has been declared 'historic' by the Department of Neighborhoods in Seattle (source), has posed quite a challenge to me. While the building itself still exists, many facts have been lost, leaving seemingly simple questions unanswered. I began my search with the origins of the building. My first stop was the King County online parcel viewer. From this, I learned the legal name and boundaries of my building. The St. John's Apartmnets and the included shops are all part of the Sackman Home Addition, residing on the south-east corner of Harvard Avenue and East Pike Street. The discovery of the name Sackman, lead to me to the man, Daniel J. Sackman.
In 1853, after moving from his home in Nova Scotia, Sackman became one of the first white settlers of Bremerton, a city west of Seattle. Marrying a Suquamish woman, he also fathered four children (Caldbick). Sackman, his obituary informs, was a self made man, working up from a Port Blakeley Mill worker to owner of the Bainbridge Hotel. In 1857 his first wife died and eleven years later he remarried a wealthy widow named Elizabeth W. Phillips. Through is new wife, Sackman acquired a parcel of land located in Seattle. Following his death in 1889, this land was divided among his four children (Seattle PI). Plat records from 1893, show a portion of the original Sackman property became a legal subdivision (Seattle Planning and Development), named the Sackman Home Addition, where my apartment stands today. Although he passed away before his land was developed, Sackman's connection to this building remains through his name.
The Early Years: A Growing City
Other than Daniel Sackman, the first legally documented owner of this land was in 1895, when Mrs. White paid a small amount of tax on the undeveloped plot. The Washington State Archive's overly large, leather-bound, one hundred-year-old tax records book also read F. W. West as owner and tax payer in 1900, but reveal little else about neither him nor Mrs. White. The Sackman property at East Pike Street, emerging as an unimportant, undeveloped plot assessed at only $2,000, would have probably stayed vacant if not for transportation's subsequent role in providing a need for a building.
Before the late 1890's, the then called Broadway Hill was not the bustling and metropolitan Capitol Hill we know today. While Seattle's downtown was rebuilding from the Great Fire in 1889, only modest houses and scattered buildings resided on the tree covered hill (Williams). It wasn't until 1891, with Seattle's city engineer T.M. Thompson's Madison St. streetcar, which provided steam-powered transportation to people and goods, that Capitol Hill became more easily accessible. In 1901, Seattle Electric Company extended the Pike St. streetcar to Broadway Avenue - becoming the 'City Park Line' (which was renamed the Broadway line in 1911) further connecting the hill with downtown Seattle (Williams).
At the same time, the city was growing as well; from a population of 3,533 in 1880, to 80,671 in 1900, the city increased more than twenty-two percent in twenty years (McNamee). The arrival of the Great Northern Railroad in 1893 led to the rapid redevelopment of Seattle's downtown area, which invited an additional population growth (McNamee). A good portion of this swell was brought upon by the Alaskan-Klondike gold rush in the 1890's. Seattle became the 'gateway to the gold fields' (McNamee); a launching point for travelers and gold seekers to stock up on supplies for their trip north. In turn, the city flourished with the flow of people and goods. By the time my apartment was being built, Seattle's residents had reached 237,194 people (nps.gov).
In response to the population growth and the creation of a city transit system, it is only logical that an apartment and housing boom took place. Known as the streetcar-suburbs, these new neighborhoods were built adjacent to the new business and transportation lines (Williams), including East Pike, where the Sackman property sits. It's clear that my building was part of this expansion, built to supply a growing demand for affordable housing.
Although I now know why it was built, the story behind the building's construction is still unraveling. Allow me to explain; the King County Assessors records, which is where the photo in my hallway is from, state that my building was built in 1910. These records, first taken in 1937 - almost thirty years after the fact - document assessed value and attributes of the building. I would have accepted 1910 to be the correct year built, but I have found no other evidence to confirm this date. In fact, several sources prove otherwise!
The Mysteries of the History
According to the Seattle Daily Times, in 1900 M. W. Kain purchased the property on the southwest corner of East Pike St. and Harvard Avenue - the Sackman Home Addition lots 9 and 10 - from a F. W. West for $3,500 cash. The following year, with permits granted from the city, he hired architects Elliot & West to design and construct a two story, wooden frame, flat top building on the property. The Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of this address, below, illustrates what that building looked like from above. The building incorporates the addresses 717 through 727, in yellow, with the dividing lines being the separate retail shops (represented by the letter 'S') on the first floor. The flight of stairs, represented by the ladder symbol, in blue, still exists today.
In late 1905, another floor of apartments was added (Seattle Daily Times), making it the three story building I know today.
Another mystery is located in the basement of the building. Currently, between the addresses 719 and 721 (on the map you can see a slightly thicker line dividing these shops) is a three foot wide section of earth separating two distinct foundations. In other words, there are two basements for this one building. One explanation for this could be that the building I know today was built in sections. As stated above, the third floor was added a few years later, making this theory plausible in my mind. One reason behind my idea is because the wooden framed building commissioned by Kain in 1902 was only 3,360 square feet, as permit records confirm, which is much smaller than the 7,488 square foot building today (Online Assessment). Although I have not found records, yet, on this second addition, I believe this to be true. This may also explain the incorrect date record for the building's age. Perhaps the Assessors Records recorded the date of the later addition, the one built over the second foundation? This is still speculation, as, unfortunately, I do not have enough research to answer this riddle.
It should also be known, the 1910 date is not the only error on the King County Assessors records. Two other typos are also present. The first being in the heading and name of the addition, calling the property the Sakman Home Addition, instead of the Sackman Home Addition. The second is the misspelling of Charles D. Stimson's name as Stimpson. Stimson, a wealthy and well known business owner of The Stimson Mill in Ballard (History of King County, 392), bought the building from Kain in 1905 for $50,000 (Seattle Daily Times). This transaction I uncovered from newspaper articles in the Seattle Daily Times.
Why this documentation error occurred is unknown to me. Although I make a lot of assumptions about the history, undeniable is the fact that there was a building at this location before 1910, looking and described as very similar to the one here today. Several government permit records also support my theory. Not only that, but the apartments at that time, called the Kain Apartments - whom Simson named after the previous owner - were listed in the Polk City Directory from 1906 to 1911. If by chance, there was an earlier building at this location, and thus explaining the newspaper articles, but was torn down to build this current one - these records bypass 1910, leaving no time for this occur. Based on these facts, I believe I stand correct in my assumption that my apartments and this building are eight years older than presently recorded.
The most convincing source, for me, was the classified advertisements for the Kain Apartments at my address. Most ads were single line with contact information, but others truly gave the reader a sense of the building; as the following reveals on September 1, 1907, "The Kain was one of the first of modern apartment houses built in Seattle. The entire house is completely furnished with fine golden and weathered oak and is conveniently arranged." (Seattle Daily Times).
The story continues in 1912, when Charles D. Stimson sold the building to his brother, Thomas D. Stimson for $53,000, who then sold it back to him a year later for the same price. As I only have short news paper articles revealing the transactions but not the motives, the reason for this switch is not clear. Another obscurity are the apartment's name changes. In 1914, they become the "Motor Apartments", the "Alton Apartments" in 1915, and finally the "St. John Apartments" in 1917 (Seattle Daily Times), which it stays until the 's' is added to create the "St. John's Apartments" in the 1980's by Sainsbury Strack. These names, listed in the Polk City Directory under apartments at my address, are all I know of the story. Charles D. Stimson continued to own the property during this time, until his death in 1929 (Sackman Obituary).
Change of Hands
Following Stimson's death, the ownership of the building becomes less lucid. The records kept between 1928 and the 1970's are pencil scribbles in the King County Assessors Records. Due to earlier discovered mistakes, I would not put too much faith in the accuracy of the dates. Some names that appear in the records are James McDonald, who signed as owner on tax records in the 1940's, Chester and Myrtle Duett, the grantees of repair permits for the building in the late sixties, and a Fay Etsell, the tax payer in 1973. Helen and Sainsbury Strack owned and ran the building from 1979 to 2000, as revealed in the more current assessor's records (Online Service).
Still alive today, I unfortunately do not know much about their time as landlords. I can infer, from a permit granted to Strack in 1979 to repair fire damage to the south east corner laundry room in the apartments, they bought the building right after this fire took place. Although I have found no supporting evidence for the following fact, it explains Strack's role in the current naming of the building, as mentioned earlier in the paper. As told by a shop owner, In order to avoid the large price to purchase the name which was legally owned by the previous landlords, the Duetts - the Stracks add an 's' to the name John in "St. John Apartments" (Veeder). I have several other stories of their time as owner, through previous tenants and shop keepers, but none are very complimentary. One unnamed source informed me they did not rent to African-Americans, and would perform illegal viewings of the apartments - such inspections needed 48 hour notice, according to the Washington State Bar Association. I attempted to contact the couple, but was unable to reach them for an interview.
Under the Strack's ownership, on November 17, 1997 an electrical fire broke out in the basement of the Rosebud Restaurant and Bar - located in the western most retail space at 719 E. Pike St. The Stracks had previously rented out a portion of the basement to be used as an artist studio. The artist, I am told, moved to Mexico to follow work and proceeded to sublet his studio out to another artist. This second artist moved in and began live there permanently. He ran multiple extension cords from the first floor to the basement, and according to Joe Veeder, owner of a small jewelry shop in the building, "the electrical fire was started by sparks from the improperly used cords when they were exposed to water, helped along with paper and trash in the basement". An article in the Seattle Post Intelligencer reveals the, "firefighters responded to a report of smoke at 7:36 p.m.," and, "at the height of the blaze, nine pumpers and six ladder trucks were arrayed on Pike St." Government fire reports confirm the severity of the fire, as twenty seven units were dispatched that morning, causing quite a fright to both the shop owners and residents (Shukovshy, B3). Luckily, there was little damage to the structure of the building or the second and third floor apartments. The Rosebud, on the other hand, along with smoke and water damage, had a great deal of property damage and several walls were destroyed from the fire fighters chopping at the walls to get to the fire. Many residents had to sleep elsewhere for a few nights, and the Rosebud was unable to open again until March of the following year (source).
The St. John Property Investments LLC purchased the building from Strack for $3,187,000 in March of 2000. I have not located the people behind the limited liability company (LLC), which was created to purchase and own the St. John's Apartments, and was soon dissolved when the building was sold five years later. During those years of ownership, they employed the Cornell Management Company to run the apartment building. Cornell, in turn, hired Connie Hartman, an experienced manager of several Capitol Hill apartments.
At the time, one such apartment was the Quinault Apartments, on the corner of Mercer and Boylston. I was very lucky to find in 1996, in The Stranger - a weekly Seattle newspaper - an article by Eli Sanders about Hartman's work at the Quinault Apartments. Sanders, describing Hartman as being both neglectful in her duties and misusing of her position as manager uses as example, "she admits to having recently dated a homeless crystal-meth user whom she brought to the Quinault on occasion, and also admits that there was a homeless man living for a time in an unsecured storage room in the building's basement, directly across from the tenants' laundry room." In the article, responding to the accusations that she was colluding with drug dealers and users, Hartman declares: "I have been in this business for 14 years, and in those 14 years, if this was something I do, then this would have happened everywhere I went." Unfortunately, this did happen in another apartment she worked - the St. John's.
My interview with Mark Chambers, the present owner of the St. John's, not only acknowledged Eli Sanders' points, but provided even more insight to Hartman's illicit doings. Under Hartman's care, Mark attests, the St. John's apartments was filled with questionable characters and illegal activities. Disregarding credit, employment, mental-stability, or even criminal history, as well as using questionable tactics to achieve full occupancy of the building - such as free rent for friends, minimal deposits of $100 or less, and no background checks - her main goal was to show full occupancy in order to sell the building. When Mark Chambers, a first time rental-property owner, bought the building in 2005, Connie Hartman had every lease signed. As Mark explained:
"She went out into the streets of Seattle and collected the most incredible group of people I shall ever meet. She couldn't have done better if she'd tried. She found: two drug dealers, maybe three, and another four or five junkies, a male prostitute, one very confused woman and her abusive boyfriend, a meth /coke head that let, for a free high, a dealer use his apartment to sell drugs out of. She had a hoarder in one apartment that kept so much stuff it sunk the floor on that side of the building three inches. Connie found a perfectly nice woman in her 60's, put her in the nicest one bedroom and never mentioned it was surrounded by angry, crazy wasps. A doctor, who worked at the nearby hospital, was talked into signing a year lease in this crazy building. And to round off the list, two guys who moved in right from the street." (source).
Stories are still surfacing as to what went on following Hartman's time as manager. The back deck, I've been told, used to be occupied by several unwelcome homeless people every night. When Mark first purchased the building and asked them to leave, the back windows were smashed when a cinder block came flying through one night, presumably sent by one of the unhappy bums. For another example, when I first moved in to the building in 2007, I was given a key to use to enter my hallway bathroom, which I share with my two neighbors. The reason for the locked door, I was told, is because drug addicts previously used the bathroom to shoot up, or even spend the night in the tub - sleeping off the high they got from the drugs bought in the building. The lock was soon removed, since luckily this drug problem no longer exists under the current management.
After purchasing the building, Mark Chambers and Johnny Sidorowicz, his apartment manager and superintendent, had a big job ahead of them. The retail space was thriving, but the top two floors had received very little maintenance in the previous five years. The building, when Mark and Johnny first acquired them, had thirty little apartments and twenty-two of them shared six bathrooms in the halls. Spending over two years renovating, they combined many of the smaller apartments, added bathrooms, replaced carpets and layers of paint, and transformed the building into the very lovely, twenty five unit St. John's I know today. My own studio is one of the five remaining apartments to share the three hallway bathrooms.
Not only did they structurally clean up the apartments, they also asked unwanted renters to leave as well. An intimidatingly large man named Tommy and his non-house trained rottweiler where the first to go. Another such occupant was the drug addict nicknamed Bear, who allowed his dealer to sell drugs out of the building. The dealer, I am informed by a long-time tenant of the building, set up surveillance cameras by the back door, where the intercom and buzzer system used to be located. He used the cameras to keep track of who went in and out of the building, to keep an eye out for cops, and to serve as a form of intimidation. When asked to vacate the apartment, Bear threatened violence from himself, his dog and his dealer, but later accepted cash to move on.
Nowadays, there is a lot less excitement in the building. The apartments are mostly rented by students and younger, working-class people looking for affordable rent in the city. As neighbors, everyone is friendly and respectful, and there are almost never any problems in the building. Johnny keeps the apartments well maintained, and continues a steady pace of renovation, updating the building when needed. Johnny and Mark have also added to the building, hotel suites, in the form of day or weekly rentals. Converted from several of the larger apartments, the suites are fully furnished with stocked kitchens, and are often rented by middle-aged, well-to-do ladies visiting the city for a weekend. If only they knew about the types of people that lived in their now polished hotel rooms, less than ten years ago.
Retail at the Sackman Home Addition
On the topic of shops, since the early 1900's, the East Pike location has made this building a prime retail space. As mentioned earlier, increased transportation brought many new people and goods to Capitol Hill in the early 1900's. This growth, paired with new automotive technologies, lead to many new businesses on the Hill. Paul Dorpat, in his History-Link essay on the origins of Capitol Hill, reveals "by 1912, three trolley lines climbed the gentler grade along East Pike Street that along with Broadway was then becoming Seattle's 'Auto Row', lined with motorcar showrooms, parts stores, and service stations." (Source). While this building doesn't have the distinctive garage door openings on the ground level as several other Capitol Hill Buildings made during this time do, there was a tire shop in one of the retail spaces. Canceled checks from an 'Emery Retread Company' dated 1910, were found in the basement several years ago. After researching, I believe these checks originated from the E.J. Jaeger Tire shop located at 719 E. Pike in the early 1900's. In 1938 there was another auto-supply shop, called the Campbell Company, an auto access wholesaler. Between 1939 and 1996, a wide variety of stores filled the space. From dry-cleaners, to hair salons, the first offices of the Red Balloon Company, and the Outrageous Taco Company headquarters were located there. It was also a coffee house and a bakery for many years in the 1980's and 90's. In 1996, the Rosebud Restaurant and Bar moved in and remains there to this day (Sondheim).
From oyster advertisements in the Seattle Daily Times in 1906, I learned the first shop, next door at 721 E. Pike, was the small Zehring Grocery. Two years later, in 1908, a Japanese-American family took over, renaming it the High School Market. Most likely named after Seattle's first high school, the grocery was just one block away from Broadway High School, which opened in 1902. Edward and Sumi Matsuda (Polk) owned and ran the shop until1943, when they were sent to Camp Harmony in Pullayup and then to Camp Minidoka in Idaho for internment during WWII (NVC Foundation).
The space remained vacant during their absence, records show, but when they were released from the camp a few years later the High School Market did not reopen. That is all I know of the Matsada family. In 1951, The Campbell's Food Shop moves into that location for ten years, before becoming vacant in the 60's and 70's. Between 1980 and 1994, The Norman B. Sandler Architects office moves in to the location for nine years, and then becomes the Kaleidoscope Handbag Manufacturing store for a few years as well. The Martin-Zambito Art Gallery took up shop from 1994 to 2010, which specialized in Northwest artists from the 19th and 20th century. As of earlier this year, The Other Coast Café now resides there, serving East Coast style deli sandwiches.
The neighboring 723 E. Pike St. also housed a wide variety of shops throughout the years. The Trade Winds Tavern which sponsored a soft-ball team, as well as had a Wednesday afternoon radio show named after it. The longest running bar on the block, the tavern opened in the 1940's and remained there for almost thirty years. In 1968, one of the owners of the Trade Winds Tavern, Jack A. Novak, was shot in the mouth after being robbed of his 1967 automobile and $300 cash by a twenty-two year old student (Seattle Daily Times). In the basement of the Other Coast Café, a postcard addressed to the Mother's Tavern was found. This tavern resided at 723 E. Pike for just one year after the Trade Winds closed. In 1986 the first of several hair and beauty salons moved in. They include the Rubles Salon, followed by Connie G. Hairdressers, Dyan Christy Salon, and finally the Salon Chemistry, which opened in 2006 and still remains today.
The first stores to occupy the south west corner, at 727 E. Pike St., was the Newman J.M's grocery and a small, unnamed furniture store in 1902, both with living and sleeping quarters in the back (Seattle Daily Times). For a short time in the 1920's it was the Pike Dye Works, followed by Chet's Barber shop. For over twenty years, Chester Barnes cut and shaved the hair of Seattleites, until he retired in 1967. After that, it became the St. John Barber Shop for almost a decade. In the 1980's the space remained vacant for some time. Finally, in 1985, the family owned and operated Ayutthaya Thai opens and remains there today.
The last but not least business at St. John's is a 115 square foot shop, on the corner of the building on the Harvard side, Minervini Jewelry. Joe Veeder has owned and ran the shop since 1998, where he sells and repairs jewelry, in addition to preparing espresso drinks. In 2008, when he renovated the shop, ash and charcoal still coated the inside of the walls, remnants from the 1997 Rosebud fire (Veeder). While Joe's shop may not be a large one, it is still an important part of the building.
In addition to the building changing over the years, Capitol Hill is shifting as well. Entire city blocks are being torn down, and new condos and shops are being erected in their place. The new metro tunnel, opening on Broadway in a couple of years will continue to transform the Hill - much like the streetcars did in the 1900's. The continued evolution of this diverse and every-evolving neighborhood in Seattle will no doubt be reflected on this property. Shops will carry on closing and new ones will open in their place. I can only hope, with its crooked floors and a century of diverse history, that my building will continue housing renters and shop owners for years to come.