The Colman Automotive Building entered the National Parks Service's National Register of Historic Places very recently -- in 2013. It is not currently a City of Seattle Landmark, but the national listing is good enough for it to make our Landmarks Profile roundup.
The two story commercial building's exterior was lovingly restored by Hunters Capitol in 2012. They took a useful building that was well-known for its first floor tenant Area 51 and turned it into an Auto Row gem that ushers folks up Pine Street and into the neighborhood.
The nomination report prepared by Architect Stephen Day for the National register application is really a great read and is lush with photographs, blueprints and maps. The information below is largely a summary of that material, as well as a few additions that I found by poking around the Seattle Times digital archive.
The Colman Automotive Building was constructed between 1915 and 1916 to lease to commercial tenants in the quickly expanding auto row. Like the Colman Building and the Colman Dock ferry terminal downtown its name derives from Seattle pioneer James Colman. In this case though it's secondhand, it was actually named after his wife and children and the real estate trust they ran after he died in 1906.
As Architect Day cited in the report, businesses began operating in the Colman Automotive Building in 1916. However, there was an interesting wrinkle missed in the 1916 story. The report says on page 5, "Initially dated 1915, the building permit drawings were updated and modified and show a final 1916 date."
It wasn't just the plans that were updated. The building itself was built in two phases in 1916. An October 22, 1916 Seattle Times article reported that an addition was being built to extend the building 107 feet east to the block edge at Crawford Place. This would be a “garage and repair shop, accessories department and car storage”. It described changes to the original building as the “present showrooms and office will be doubled in space by taking the floor area now devoted to the shop.” It was expected to be completed prior to the end of the year.
So the initial building, occupying the west side of the block without the east 100 feet or so, was completed in early 1916. It may have wrapped up by February, as a December 5, 1915 article hoped. The addition was completed by the end of December.
In the report, initial tenants were described as “the REO truck company” and “Robert Taylor Auto Repair”. The automotive sales company actually sold many makes, and the repair company needs to be understood as closely related.
The initial mention of Colman Automotive Building in the December 5, 1915 Seattle Times named the automobile retailer as George L. Trotter. Prior to Colman Automotive, Trotter's firm was south a half block at 314 East Pike. His business sold Stearns-Knight, Stewart and of course REO. By 1917 he also sold the Indiana Truck line.
That 1915 article also mentioned a body paint shop, Pike and Lind, that would lease the second floor. The 1916 Polk named them as A. G. Pike and Andrew Lind. The article said, "The combination of the motor car agency, mechanical shops and painting department will make the building a motor car factory in itself, for it will be possible to completely rebuild and paint a car under the same roof."
By June 15, 1916 the Cox Motor Company was advertising in the building at 403 East Pine Street. Trotter’s company merged with Cole Automobile of Seattle and Northwest Auto of Portland to form United Motors Company in 1917, selling Stearns, REO, Dort, Cole, Indiana and Stewart (April 29, 1917 Seattle Times). United remained in the Colman Automotive Building until 1922 at least. George L. Trotter left the firm and moved to Los Angeles in October 1917 (October 14, 1917 Seattle Times).
The building was designed by the new firm of Webster & Ford, and built by Hans Pederson. I haven't found them mentioned in any articles about the building, but luckily Architect Day was able to find the original plans.
The report includes a good biography of both James Webster, who died the year following construction, and Sherwood Ford. Ford was married to Edith Dabney, they headmistress of the St. Nicholas School for Girls. The St. Nicholas Church is another landmark in our neighborhood.
NRHP Criteria Met:
The building was found to have local significance only. The criteria met were:
A: Property is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to our history. (Commerce)
C: Property embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction or represents the work of a master, or possesses high artistic values, or represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components lack individual distinction. (Architecture)