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.

Images: left, King County Archives; right, Seattle-PI

This and other sources suggest that Conover may have even played a role in the railroad’s establishment here--a point worth exploring further. Through the Seattle Chamber of Commerce (of which he would eventually be a decades-long member) he oversaw the compilation of “Facts and Figures About Washington, the Evergreen state, and Seattle its Queen City” as a gift to James Hill and his associates at the Great Northern Railroad. He later arranged for the display of the products and manufactures of Seattle and Washington at the offices of the Great Northern in St. Paul Minnesota. Aside from Conover’s ties to the Great Northern, the Seattle city council appointed him to a street renaming and renumbering committee alongside city engineer RH Thompson and David Denny in 1892. Up to this point Seattle street names and numbers were in complete chaos and changed from one plat to the next. Initially, Conover used his influence on the committee to pass ordinance 3162 in 1894 renaming the street his house was on from "Joy" to "Renton" to honor Captain Renton, though it didn't hold. His peers overruled him the following year and changed it to 16th through ordinance 4044 which ended the aforementioned chaos and standardized the city's street and numbering system. Conover's other notable accomplishments, activities, and connections

Amersfoort - In 1906 Conover had a sprawling lakeside "Summer home" built for himself and his family just south of Windermere Park. Architects Somervell and Cote, who had come in from New York to assist with the design of St James Cathedral just a few years prior, designed the house. Conover named it "Amersfoort" after an ancestral home in Hollland. Conover sold the house in 1913 and the site would later become the Sacred Heart Villa, a Catholic institution.

Image: Seattle Times, March 5, 1906

Dutch colonial ties - The name Conover is the anglicized form of "van Couwenhoven" a prominent Dutch family of which Wolfert Gerritse van Couwenhoven was the founder of the first European settlement on Long Island, NY called New Amersfoort. Further research is needed to determine Conover's precise connection to Wolfert Gerritse.

30-year mortgage - Standard history has it that the Federal Housing Administration first introduced the concept of the 30-year mortgage in 1934 during the Great Depression after traditional private mortgage insurance providers had largely gone bankrupt. However, a Seattle Times article dated April 24, 1921 claims that Conover himself pioneered the concept and even had it copyrighted at the U.S. patent office. If confirmed, this would change the history of housing as we know it. Further research is needed.

Honorary monument - In 1961, six months before Conover's death, Governor Albert D. Rossellini dedicated a monument with the below quoted inscription and planted a seedling tree in Olympia in honor of Conover.

"A patriot, historian, and writer who dedicated his life to the development of Washington which he named The Evergreen State."

The seedling was from the Lone Tree in Grays Harbor, which served as a maritime beacon ever since it guided Captain Robert Gray into the harbor in 1792.

Seattle Times, March 1, 1961

Architectural Significance and additional ancestral ties

The following is a statement from Marvin Anderson: local architect, historian, and CHHS member.

Conover House is significant as a highly refined - and startlingly early - example of the Colonial Revival style in Seattle. So assured are its proportions and so sophisticated are its details that the house has often been mistakenly dated to early decades of the 20th century when the style had gained broad popularity in Seattle. Instead, the house was built a decade earlier when the Queen Anne and late Victorian styles still reigned, making the Conover house an example that other significant (and landmarked) Seattle homes may have emulated. The building permit for Charles and Louise Conover's house was issued on July 10, 1893 and they moved in later that year, just as the Colonial Revival style was entering into broad popularity across the United States. After the Civil War, architects along the along the Eastern seaboard such as Robert Peabody in Boston and McKim, Mead & White in New York began to document and embrace colonial architecture as America's national style. Widely publicized, their own buildings merged historical recall of colonial simplicity, solidity, and lowliness with Georgian influences and classical detailing to create a new hybrid style dubbed the "modernized colonial." It was a loose approximation of the past, more poetically evocative than historically accurate, adapted to

Image: Wikimedia Commons

new taste and requirements. The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where more than half of the state pavilions were in the "colonial style," proved highly influential to popular adoption of the Colonial Revival just as it encouraged neoclassical architecture in general and gave birth to the City Beautiful Movement. So broadly embraced was this "new" style that by late 1893 critic and architecture professor Howard Crosby Butler echoed many when he wrote, "The Colonial should be our national style; it originated here, is distinctively American, and may be easily adapted to all the requirements of American life."

Charles and Louise Conover would have been well-acquainted with the style even before arriving in Seattle. Born in Esperance, New York, just east of Albany, Charles (1862-1961) was a journalist in Troy and Amsterdam, New York before moving west. Descended from "Dutch colonial stock," his ties to America's history were deep, leading to membership in the Holland Society of New York and to serve as president of the Washington Society of Sons of the Revolution.' Louise Conover (1864-1914, née Mary Louise Burns) also had deep ties to America's past. Descendent of Asa Eddy (1735-1810), who served with the Green Mountain Boys when Ticonderoga was surprised and captured in 1775, Louise was especially close to her grandmother Mary Ann Eddy Faithful, who on her death in 1892 was described by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as "a member of the well-known Southern Ellenwood family, a gentlewoman in the fullest sense, and one of the most brilliant women in Baltimore in her day." Educated, intelligent, and with roots deep in colonial America, Charles and Louise Conover would have been well-versed in the details and character of Colonial Revival architecture well before planning their new Seattle home and popularization of the style by the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

The Conover house on Joy Street (now 16th) just north of Madison has a simple, square form, its hipped roof punctuated by a center gable with fan light. The central bow-front porch is discrete, small even, supported by four turned wood columns, above which is an exquisitely detailed Palladian window illuminating the central stairhall. Four pilasters supporting a denticulated frieze and broad box eave originally divided the front of the house into three equal bays; articulated breaks in the frieze still mark locations of the original pilasters. The well proportioned, rigorously composed front elevation of the Conover house would have been commanding in its presence on the crest of the clear-cut hill and clearly visible from the Madison streetcar, strikingly different and "modern" compared to other nearby mansions, like the 1898 Patrick and Joanna Sullivan house built five years later only one block away.

Images: left and upper right from Red Fin, lower right from Bola Architecture

Like the exterior, the home's interiors were also finely detailed in the Colonial Revival style. Recent real estate photos reveal an intricate stained wood staircase (left image), its fluted square newel posts a classical accent in contrast to the stair's plain paneled