On the evening of October 25th, I had the privilege of entering my 4th of the 24 homes on Capitol Hill's historic Millionaire's Row: the private development built in the early 1900s by real estate executive James Moore for himself and a number of his friends and business associates. The house was the foursquare/colonial revival David Whitcomb house built in 1907 at 633 14th Avenue E. David Whitcomb was a real estate executive whose company built many of the city's largest office buildings and his father, G Henry Whitcomb, played an instrumental role in James Moore's Capitol Hill development.
Nowadays the Whitcomb house belongs to David (DJ) Kurlander (right), retired Microsoft researcher and manager. And the purpose of my visit: to interview David and his neighbor Bryce Seidl, interim executive director of Keiro Northwest, (left) two of the men leading the Herculean effort to nominate Millionaire's Row as an historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. Their neighbor Jim Jackson who has been involved in the effort as well, was not able to join us.
And if you’re curious about the first time I entered a house on Millionaire’s Row, It was back in 2005 when I happened to deliver some pizzas to the Parker-Fersen mansion at 1409 14th Avenue E. However, this time the three of us were gathered to celebrate and discuss a historic move, which CHHS plans to celebrate with an upcoming walking tour of Millionaire’s Row on December 1st that will also celebrate the coming republication of Jackie Williams’ The Hill With A Future.
Alhough I’d already met David before, he was his usual self: very friendly and mild-mannered with a genuine curiosity. He hung up my coat for me when I arrived and invited me to sit with him in the parlor to chat for a bit whereupon he immediately started to interview me while we waited for Bryce to walk over. How I got down the history path, what subjects interest me most, that sort of thing. Bryce whom I had also met before, had a similar character, but with an added touch of occasional eloquence and subtle quick wit. I knew I was in good company.
When the three of us entered the dining room, where David had already set out some snacks, David asked what we would like to drink listing water, juice, soda, but Bryce asked for whiskey. So the two went to the other room to peruse the liquor cabinet. Bryce selected Westland Single Malt Whiskey distilled right here in Seattle and proceeded to tell me all about it. Afterward, we toasted to history and with our bellies warmed with a little whiskey, we got on with the interview.
**The following transcript has been edited to improve readability and flow**
Tom: Which house do you live in and how long have you lived there?
DJ: I live in 633 14th Ave East and I’ve lived here 22 years. I moved here right before I got married.
Tom: And the actual name of the house?
DJ: It is the David Whitcomb House
Bryce: I live at 709 14th Ave E, the Anson Burwell Home, built in 1905, and we bought the house in 1995.
DJ: One of the fun things about this project was, I kind of got the opportunity to name all of the houses, this wasn’t the David Whitcomb House until I decided that that was what it should be called and since then, the historic registry document has been circulated, the house info has been added to a database, and Jeffrey Ochsner (local architect and author) picked up on it for the latest edition of his new book. So this is the Whitcomb house and across the street is the Tripple house--things that were never really published before.
Bryce: People had forgotten the origins.
Tom: What aspect of your house's history and/or design do you most enjoy and why?
Bryce: At 709 our house is fundamentally a craftsman house and I was enchanted the minute I walked into the entry way with the
coffered oak ceilings and the wonderful pocket doors that separated the dining room, library, living room, and parlor. I walked into the living room and there was cherry wainscoting and cherry cove molding. The point being the house to us is warm it’s just comfortable. It’s a big and grand house, but it isn’t a kind of architecture that says look at me, it’s just the sort of house that says come in and live in me. For us that is the most charming thing. 9.5 foot ceilings, comfortable spaces, and for us just a sense of warmth.
DJ: When I first saw the house, it looked out of place to me. It did not seem like it belonged in Seattle - it was far more reminiscent of the South. I very much liked the differentness of the house. It wasn’t trying to fit in. Inside, I appreciated all of the details that represented the best workmanship of the early twentieth century: the carved fireplace, the grand staircase, the wainscoting, the crown moldings, the original chandeliers and sconces. I appreciated the craftsmanship. I find it as well warm and livable and it just feels more comfortable to me.
Tom: And the second half the question, any particular aspect of its history that you thought was really interesting?
DJ: One interesting bit of my house's history is when the house was built, there was no driveway and no garage and a previous resident of this house was a Bridge (card game) buddy of…
Bryce: …the Todd family who lived in 709 (Bryce’s house). Dick Todd was a founding partner in the firm that is now Davis Wright Tremaine and his wife Ann Todd was the arts writer for the Seattle Times they played Bridge regularly…
DJ: …And they were close enough friends so that the former 633 resident negotiated with the neighbors at 709 to basically add 35 feet to the property. As a result, we now have a beautiful brick driveway, a very nice terrace over the driveway, and we have a wrought iron fence. That’s very unusual for this area, it just makes the house that much more pleasant.
Bryce: For us there are just little stories from various families that have lived there. We’ve had the good fortune of being on the HDTV Dream Drives program not long after we moved in and before we had done the restoration on the house and we started getting phone calls. One was from a man on Bainbridge Island that said “I saw the program and I believe that’s the home my grandmother grew up in, I recognize the window seat in the parlor. Could we come and see it?” And so we got acquainted with them and we got acquainted with the Todd family that was there from about '47 to '72 and all of the 5 children who grew up there have come back with their children and we have hosted family reunions for the Burwell and Todd families and we get various stories.
There’s a burn on the top of one of the posts in the big staircase going up out of the entryway and it’s where the candle tipped over during Chris Todd’s wedding and put a burn in the wood. We [also] heard about the room in the top that was once a servant’s room where Ann Todd never went and the kids had grow-lights up there growing pot back in the 60s. It didn’t do very well and Mom never found out.
These little stories that go along with the house—it’s just a pile bricks and wood if you’re hard-assed about it—but it’s a century of stories. To have a dual family reunion there and have people going around with old family photos and then putting descendants of the people in the original photos standing in the same positions in front of the fireplace and taking pictures for future generations is great. And one more story that tells you the sweetness of that, during this time, one of the Todd sons said I want to look at something in the car and we went out and in the back was a mantel clock and he said "this clock was on the mantel in the living room the years we were growing up in the house and I’ve talked with my siblings and we think, if you’d like, it should be returned to live in the house." That’s pretty sweet. And it tells you about the power of an environment on children growing up, how much they treasure their memories of living in that house.
Tom: What motivated you to pursue National Register status?
Bryce: David Kurlander motivated me to pursue it. I was interested, but I didn’t know where to begin.
DJ: About 9 years ago I just started researching my house and I was very interested in that and that lead to stories about not only the residents of this house, but also the residents of neighboring houses and it just kind of expanded over time and I found that there was a very fascinating narrative about this street. A lot of people knew one another, a lot people socialized with one another, some people worked with one another, and basically it just kind of turned into a chain. One house leading to another house leading to another house and I realized there was a totally fascinating history here that should be known and I did a little bit of research and it seemed like the National Register was a good mechanism for that. So I started doing more research, writing it up, talking to Michael Houser (state architectural historian) and I realized there was a neighborhood coordination component. I was not too excited about that and plus I was ready to move on to other things at that point so I put this on hold. Then fast forward 9 years or so and Bryce just mentions to me “maybe it would make sense to apply for a national historic designation for the neighborhood, what do you think about that?” And I said “well I think it’s a good idea and in fact I already have the document written.”
Tom (to Bryce): Oh so you hadn’t known that he had done anything?
Bryce: I had no idea he had done this work, but had been thinking about it a long time not having done any research on it, but having seen neighborhoods that were designated and getting concerned about the growing disregard for Seattle’s history and apodments going up and thinking, sure, I’m a believer in density and mass transit and ever increasing urban amenities, but not at the expense of notable history and it was clear without having done the research DJ did that I knew enough about a few of the houses to know that this was an extraordinary area. So it was just floating in my mind and I just made that comment in a chance conversation and had no idea that he had done this work.
Tom: When and how did the conversation start? Were you passing by each other on the sidewalk and you stopped to have a conversation?
DJ: About a year and a half ago, I think I was just at Bryce’s doorstep, we see each other in our yards all the time, and he just happened to mention it to me.
Tom: Did you have any expectations going into it?
DJ: I had absolutely no expectations going into it because at first I wasn’t thinking about the national historic registry. I was just thinking about the history and finding good stories about the neighborhood and it just took on a life of its own. I found out the neighborhood was even more extraordinary and historic than I thought it was and that drove me to do more research and it just built. And again many of the early owners knew one another and worked with one another. Robert Tripple built this house (633 14th) and the house across the street, but he worked with James Moore and Moore Investments so Tripple helped Moore build Capitol Hill. Robert Tripple’s wife was also the second cousin of David Whitcomb who was the next owner (of 633 14th) whose family basically funded the development of Capitol Hill. But then James Moore, you do a little research about him, and it leads to many neighbors. James Moore sold the University of Washington downtown campus lease to 4 or 5 residents of the street and a few other people, which became the Metropolitan Tract. It was a core development downtown that included the 5th Avenue Theatre, the Olympic hotel, Rainier Square, White-Henry-Stuart building, the Cobb building and the Skinner building. All named after residents, so that tied those neighbors together.
Bryce: This is a physical neighborhood, but what you found out it was every bit as much a social neighborhood.
DJ: Yes, the people who lived here in the early days were almost without exception notable people important in the development of Seattle and important not just to the building of downtown Seattle, but Seattle society, whether it was participating in the development of the YMCA and its landmark building downtown like Anson Burwell did or being director of the Washington Red Cross during WWI, which David Whitcomb did. There’s just so much influence that the residents of Millionaire’s Row had in the early years that turned Seattle into the place it is.
Tom: What knowledge/background did you have about Millionaire’s Row and Seattle History in general?
Bryce: We knew nothing about the house when we bought it. It was a house that was available and we thought wow that’s amazing we could buy that house.
Tom: Had you lived in Seattle before buying the house or did you move to Seattle and buy it?
Bryce: I grew up on the east side, but I left for college in ‘64 and didn’t move back here until ‘95... I was working for a Seattle based company, but in different locations around the country so I had no idea about the importance of the history. You could look at the houses and say this must have been important but it had no substance to it beyond that. We set out to find previous owners because we wanted to find out about it. And we found out about the Todd family and HDTV helped us with the Burwells so we started to poke around a little bit then I started buying post cards on eBay and was probably bidding against DJ for them.
DJ: I first found out about Millionaire’s Row when I was looking for a house to buy. And I was getting a tour of Seattle with my fiancé who is a Seattle native. When she brought me up to 14th she said “Here’s Millionaire’s Row, all of these houses have ballrooms. So if you buy that house we can actually have dances.” And she was totally wrong. I’m not aware of any of these houses having ballrooms.
BS: And she is rarely wrong.
DJ: But it did actually lead me to take a look at the house and I just thought it was absolutely beautiful and a house I’d love to live in.
Tom: Remind me what year that was again?
DJ: That was 1997. And something else that was interesting to me, I learned this later on, when I was reading a family history that my wife’s grandmother wrote, my wife’s great grandmother was a domestic worker at the Stuart house (across the street) shortly after she immigrated to Seattle so there’s actually also a little bit of family history that I was initially unaware of. It shows there’s some social mobility.
Tom: As far as Seattle history in general, did you have any background or was it pretty new to you?
DJ: I think the extent of my Seattle history background was the Then and Now columns Paul Dorpat wrote in the Seattle Times. So only tangentially.
Bryce: Then and Now, I always loved that. I looked into a thing now and then, I loved some of the photographic books of Seattle and what its history was. Of course we came here when Seattle was a lot younger. We moved here in 1957 from the Midwest (Madison, WI) and so I’ve watched the city grow. The Space needle was a scandalous thing [people thought] it was gonna destroy the skyline and what in the world will they do with it after the fair and all that sort of stuff. So when you see that you get curious about things, but I was never a historian or a student of it. Just curious about things along the way and as a result you pick up pieces about it. You know how interested in marine stuff and railroads I am so those all played big roles so you’re curious about the development of the waterfront and the big dig when we sluiced the hills down into the bay that was kinda interesting. I’d like to meet the person who got the permit to do that. So that stuff just intrigued me.
DJ: Speaking of the Space Needle, one of the architects of the Hedges house, John Graham senior, was the father of John Graham junior who was principal architect for the Space Needle so there are these amazing links across time as well.
Tom: Have you ever done research of this kind before?
DJ: I’m a complete novice besides writing a couple college history papers. I had never done any research let alone architectural historical research, which I found to be the most challenging part.
Tom: What was your methodology?
DJ: There are actually some very good resources in Seattle for teaching people how to do research on the history of their house and neighborhood. I found the Seattle Public Library was extremely useful, the UW libraries were quite good and there were some people there who helped point me in the right direction, and at one point, I attended a seminar by Eugenia Woo over at Historic Seattle. She gave a seminar with one of her colleagues on historical house research. So I took all that I learned from those resources and found that was what I needed.
Bryce: I did all my historical research by talking across the neighbor’s fence.
Tom: Did you hit any brick walls along the way?
DJ: Yeah there were a few difficult aspects that I think I made good progress on, but I’m still not absolutely sure I got the information right. If you follow 14th Avenue E all the way to the park, on the west side of the street on the corner of 14th and prospect is a modern house, but there used to be an old Swiss architecture house there. That is the only house on the street that has since been torn down. That’s the C.J. Erickson house, he was an amazing contractor for Seattle. He helped dig the ship canal and did part of the regrades. He helped shape Seattle in a very real way. There was a house just south of 1007 14th Avenue E so basically a house that is two houses away from what was the Erickson house that clearly used to be a stable or garage. It was fairly easy to find out who the builders and architects were for all the houses on the street except for that one. But by looking at old pictures, it was clear that there were characteristics in common between the house that was formerly a garage and the C.J. Erickson house that was torn down. Then looking at plat maps that had Erickson listed as the owner of both that house and the stable or garage. Even though that stable/garage is the only house I wasn’t able to find a builder’s permit for, I think it can be attributed to the same architect and same builder (as the demolished CJ Erickson house) and it made sense for it to be there because there’s an alley behind. So that was one of the real puzzles and I wish I could still find the building permit for that.
Tom: Had you read Jackie Williams' Hill With A Future? Did it factor into your research?
DJ: Yeah that was one of the books that I looked at when I was doing my research. It’s a great book. I certainly learned a lot about Capitol Hill, its formation and architecture from that book.
Tom: What was the most interesting part of your research?
DJ: I enjoyed learning about all of the early captains of industry that lived on Millionaire’s Row. The early owners all knew each other and worked together in various capacities. There are so many great stories. However, I was surprised to learn about two of the early residents that I hadn’t heard of before. Edward Ederer and Andrew Weber both lived on the street, and were business partners. It turns out that they moved here together from Chicago, where they were next-door neighbors, according to the 1900 Census. They were neighbors in Chicago, and then neighbors in Seattle. Initially they formed the Seattle Net and Twine Company, to serve the region’s fishing industry. However, later Ederer broke off and formed his own company, Ederer Engineering. This company built cranes to serve the logging industry, but his company continued after his death. Later, Ederer LLC built cranes for nuclear power plants, NASA, and even the crane mechanism that opens and closes the roof of T-Mobile Park. I really love how he developed a company to serve one of the state’s first industries, which then moved into the future with nuclear power, and space exploration, while continuing to serve the region by keeping fans dry at Seattle’s baseball stadium.
James Moore worked with Robert Tripple and subsequently David Whitcomb. A number of the residents served as trustees of various boards of the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition. There’s just amazing links between the neighbors. And there are a lot of fascinating personal stories James Parker and Eugene Ferson had very interesting personal stories. William Edris’ daughter married a Rockefeller and became first lady of Arkansas.
Tom: Any words of advice for anyone pursuing National Register status?
Bryce: From what I’ve heard, you don’t have to know where to start. There are lots of places to start, start with your own house, the neighbor’s house. Allow yourself to get into it and let it unfold in front of you. You’ll find the fact that you don’t know it when you start to discover it is the excitement. You (DJ) would just light up when you talk about these discoveries, you didn’t know it or expect it, but that’s what was contagious about it.
DJ: For me it was really solving a puzzle, which I absolutely love doing.
Bryce: Well I didn’t do it, but I think there’s a—(chuckles) “I didn’t do it” (everyone laughs) there’s something you said earlier on that struck me. David didn’t do this as a project to fill out the register application he did it to learn the history and discover the stories and then went for the national registry. That was more of a mechanical process of fitting the research into the application rather than using the application as a way to drive the research.
DJ: Right it wasn’t until I learned about the stories and the connections and the amazing history that I even thought about the possibility of a national register designation and once I found out about the history, it just seemed like it should be recognized in some way.
Bryce: This was an easier first step before his book.
DJ: But again, I kind of got stuck when it came to how do we get the neighborhood behind it, how do we move forward with the process. And Bryce has been so instrumental in that. Without Bryce mentioning this and encouraging this and inviting the neighbors to a meeting to discuss this, I would have just basically kept the application in my drawer.
Bryce: So it takes a couple of different kind of characteristics to do it. But what I just love in hearing DJ recount this story is the enthusiasm in your voice and the excitement that still comes about the discovery, the unexpected discovery, and I think back in my life in science and how the best grant applications are written by the people who aren’t filling out a form, they are written by the scientists who are telling a story. Why this is exciting and what might be there, is so much more interesting – I’ve been on review panels for federal grants and I’ll tell you the difference between someone that is really genuinely excited about the prospects and someone that is going through the steps to fill out all the blanks is very different and you can tell some have a lot more fun than others and you had some fun.
DJ: Yes definitely.
Bryce: Revel in the discovery, you’re turning over stones that unlock the past and let that be the joy, and then if the stories are there if the stories are exciting then memorialize them with the national register.
15. And one last question, has there been any discussion of pursuing local landmark district status?
Bryce: It’s interesting, there are a couple houses on the local register now and another one in progress. Chris (Bryce’s wife) and I have some interest in that. This seems like the most wonderful way to tell the neighborhood story and get all of us united together around the commonalities of this history and open up the possibility, the idea, the prospects of individuals saying “yeah I think I’d like to take another step.” Well the Moore mansion is on the local—
DJ: The Moore Mansion is, Parker Ferson mansion is, and hopefully very soon the Bordeaux house will be as well.
BS: And so I think we will see a few more people who will be lit up by this thing David has launched and we’ll move forward.
DJ: I’d love to see people use the research to seek local designation for their house. And if the neighbors came together and said we should seek local [district] designation, I think a number of us would be very happy.
* The deadline for the final draft of the historic register nomination report is December 20, 2019 in order for it to be reviewed at the March 27, 2020 meeting of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in Olympia. *
** You can learn more about Millionaire’s Row at www.millionairesrow.net/ **
*** Also you can also learn more about the procedures involved in nominating a building or district to the National Register of Historic Places at https://dahp.wa.gov/historic-registers/national-register-of-historic-places ***
And a last reminder! Be sure to join us on December 1st as we celebrate this historic achievement along with the republication of Jackie Williams’ The Hill With A Future with an exclusive walking tour of Millionaire’s Row that will offer a rare inside look at some of the row’s historic homes and draw from history contained within Williams’ book and Kurlander’s research.