Strengthening The Case For Landmarking Conover House


Conover House, 1620 16th Ave. Image: Red Fin

Though the initial nomination report prepared by Bola Architecture + Planning is well-researched and likely contains enough to convince the board to nominate Conover House, the more we reviewed it and did research of our own the more we realized it had omitted a number of substantial facts and contained some errors regarding the neighborhood and architectural history, Conover's impact on the neighborhood and city, and its physical description. So Rob Ketcherside, Marvin Anderson, Joan Zegree (the former owner), and I used these facts to each prepare our own public comments in favor of nominating Conover House and to set the record straight. As a result, the owner requested to postpone last week's (March 6th) nomination in order to review our comments and respond accordingly. Contained below is a combination of our statements, which contain all that we could find ahead of the March 6th nomination and otherwise point to topics in need of additional research. Based on our findings, we believe that Conover House unequivocally qualifies for landmark status under criteria A, B, C, D, and F and we urge the board to agree with us whenever they get a chance to review it.

Location Location Location.

Image: Looking northeast from First Hill toward Renton Hill circa 1890. From pauldorpat.com

First we found that instead of focusing on the immediate surroundings of Conover House, the neighborhood history section of the nomination report focuses exclusively on more distant and unassociated areas that were established much earlier or later such as Denny's Land Claim (1852) and Moore's Capitol Hill (1901). Or in other words, the modern definition of "Capitol Hill" which didn't exist when Conover House was built in 1893. More accurately, Conover House (1620 16th Avenue) is situated on the Madison Street corridor in what is now southeast Capitol Hill bordering on northwest Central District, an area which was previously known as Renton Hill (pictured above). This previous name rose out of “Renton’s Addition” platted by Charles Conover in march of 1889 (in which his house resides) and the adjacent “Renton Hill addition” platted by Sackman-Phillips in 1892 as a part of a transaction brokered by Conover. Both were named after Captain William Renton, the previous owner of the property. An expanded neighborhood history statement would benefit from exploring Renton's connection to the area.

Image: King County Archives

Image: King County Archives

Additional Neighborhood history and Conover's involvement

On Captain Renton's behalf, Conover began developing the area in anticipation of electric streetcar and cable lines that were starting to expand throughout the city. These transit lines promised to make remoter regions more accessible and thus more desirable to future residents. The Madison Street Cable Railway in particular, would allow people to traverse the rough rises and falls between downtown and Lake Washington (then a desirable vacation spot) with relative ease and rapidity and was scheduled to open in June of 1890. However, the Great Seattle Fire struck first in June 1889--just three months after Conover platted Renton’s Addition. As tragic as this event must have seemed, it could not have come at a better time. With money easy to get, the fire drove development in the area even further as existing residents looked to the city’s outer lying regions for new places to live and new arrivals sought opportunities in rebuilding. As a result, the city population increased by half from about 29,000 in February 1889 to 45,000 in May 1890. Transit lines also followed suit. Between the end of 1889 and the end of 1890 cable lines had expanded from 11 to 20 miles and electric rail from 5 to 42 miles. Investors built as fast as they could get rail and wire. The growth after the fire fed on itself.

Image: Two Asahel Curtis photographs stitched together looking toward Renton Hill with Madison street extending northeast from the lower right and intersecting with Union. Circa 1905 according to UW special collections and circa mid 1890s according to Paul Dorpat. From pauldorpat.com

Conover played a leading role both in driving this growth and satisfying the demand for residences by working closely with the Madison Street Cable Railway Company and each ensured the other’s mutual success. After establishing Renton’s addition, Conover went on to plat the Madison Street Cable Railway addition in September of 1892 also situated on Madison just one mile northeast of Renton’s Addition. Using his widely known skills in advertising, he offered the first 10 buyers one-year free passes on the Madison cable car. Lots were bought and developed quickly, guaranteeing customers for the cable car company.

Image: Seattle PI, May 8, 1893

Hereafter and despite the economic downturn of the 1893 panic, Conover went on to be a leading force in the development of east Seattle from Madison Park down to Leschi. He platted and sold several more tracts of land in the area including one that takes his own name “Conover Park” platted in 1907. He originally reserved a large portion of it to be the site for his future home, but later partitioned and sold it off after his wife passed away.

Image: King County Archives

Conover's impact on the city of Seattle and beyond

Conover’s influence reached far beyond this relatively small enclave of Seattle as well. He and his business partner Crawford owned land ranging from fruit orchards in California to mining operations in Alaska and everything in between. In fact, he even platted a tract of land in Ballard called the “Great Northern Addition” in partnership with Frank M Jordan, his notary public in 1890 Advertisements called it the “Pittsburgh of the Northwest”. It is located just a short walk north of the Great Northern Railroad terminal that would later open on Salmon Bay in the heart of Ballard just three years later. The opening of this terminal was a crucial turning point in Seattle’s history and major driver of its growth after the panic of 1893 subsided with the onset of the Klondike Gold rush in 1897.