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Capitol Hill Modern: Project Update

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

Entrance to the Highland Condominium, photo by Lana Blinderman

Image by Lana Blinderman


Primary objectives:

1. To start identifying, researching, and photographically documenting the most notable mid-century modern multifamily residential buildings constructed on Capitol Hill between circa 1945 and the late 1970s.

2. To increase awareness and representation of this historically significant and yet consistently underrepresented period of construction on Capitol Hill within the field of historic preservation and among the general public.

Rationale for our temporal boundaries:

While mid-century modern architecture has its roots in the 1930s, we chose circa 1945 to the late 1970s because the style didn't really start taking root on Capitol Hill until after World War II with buildings like the Red Lion Apartments at 328 Bellevue Avenue E (built 1948) and appears to have continued as late as 1978 with Brutalist buildings like the Melrose East Condominiums at 150 Melrose Ave E.

Capitol Hill Boundary map, courtesy Lorn Fant

Geographical boundaries:

I-5 on the west E Roanoke Street and Interlaken Park on the north 23rd Avenue E on the east

E Madison Street, Broadway and Union on the South

Note: Most buildings will be located south of Volunteer Park and North of Pine.

Preliminary historical context statement:

On Capitol Hill, the first buildings of this style were built to house veterans returning to civilian life--many of whom likely came to live on Capitol Hill while attending the recently formed Broadway-Edison Technical School. In the late 50s and early 60s, many arose as motels (or "short-term rentals" more generally) to house the visitors of the 1962s Seattle Century 21 World's Fair and were later converted into apartments. Thereafter, they were built as long-term rentals to house the growing baby boomer generation who were coming of age in the 1960s.

This statement will shift and grow as the project progresses.

Key project events to date:

April 23 - 4Culture generously awarded us a $10,000 preservation grant.

May 7 - Process of building identification began.

May 20 - Interviewed by Capitol Hill Seattle Blog

June 28 - Featured in Capitol Hill Seattle Blog

Progress Report

Capitol Hill Modern by the numbers:

Highlighted boundary map indicating area surveyed thus far.

Area completed (yellow) ~ 530 acres or 0.8 Square Miles

Buildings identified so far - 157

Buildings constructed in 1940s - 5

Buildings constructed in the 1950s - 67

-2 constructed pre-1910, but remodeled to mid-century style

-1 demolished

Buildings constructed in 1960s - 81

Buildings constructed in the 1970s - 4

Total time - 22 hours 36 minutes Avg time per building - 8 minutes, 38 seconds

Methodology: (If you want to see some of my favorite buildings thus far, skip this section)

National Register Bulletin no 24. Courtesy Susan Boyle

As described in the U.S. Department of Interior's standards, (I get to read this physical copy thanks to my colleague and mentor Susan Boyle) reconnaissance surveys have typically been carried out by driving through neighborhoods and photographing and taking notes on buildings that appear to meet specific criteria and researching them later. (AKA a "windshield survey") However, through the power of Google street view, this part of the survey process can be carried out from home, dramatically reducing the amount of time required and the environmental impact. It also allows for the surveyor (in this case me) to research the buildings as they encounter each one and enter it into the database before continuing to the next building. Step 1: Locate Building Virtually go up and down North/South running streets in Google street view and stopping at buildings that appear Mid Century. In this case, the Red Lion Apartments at 328 Bellevue Avenue E. Now, just in case a mid-century building is hiding on an east/west street and doesn't face both streets on a corner lot like the Red Lion does, I take brief detours down the east/west streets while I go along the north/south routes.

Step 2: Verify Construction date in the building's property report on King County Parcel Viewer.

Step 3: Update existing resource or create new property.

The Wisaard database gives you the option to search for your resource (in this case the Red Lion) to see if it has already been added to the database by other surveyors with different survey criteria and simply add it to your project and update it as needed. Otherwise, you can create an entirely new property.

After adding an existing or creating a new resource, certain data are collected according to the U.S. Department of Interior's standards such as:

1. Resource Name - This can be the historic name like "Red Lion" or if there is no name it can be "Apartment" or "Condominium."

2. Common Name - Whatever the building's current name is. Sometimes this is the same as the Resource name.

3. Address

4. Legal Description - This is the plat, lot, and block number and the exact measurements of the parcel which often overlaps multiple lots.

5. Representation in Existing Surveys - For resources that are already in the Wisaard database as a part of someone else's survey, Wisaard automatically indicates this for you when you view the resources from within your own survey.

6. Description of Property - This one can get very detailed. Since we are just doing a reconnaissance survey, I started by attempting to collect the following items within this category:

Property type - In our case this will always be "building"

Number of Stories

Cladding - Things like, brick, ashlar, concrete, wood, t-111, etc...

Structural System - Wood frame, steel, etc.

Form Type - This is often "Multi-story apartment block" but can also be "Dingbat", "U-Court", or many others.


Others not listed in the dept of Interior standards, but included in the database are as follows:

Year of Construction - It makes sense this isn't included in the dept of interior's standards because you're not going to be able to guess the year of construction while driving around. This used to be something you'd look up later.

Style - In our case "Modern Movement - Modern"

Additional or "Sub-type" as I like to call it - In the case of the Red Lion, I classified it as "International."

Current use - In almost all cases this ends up being "Domestic - Multi-Family House"

7. Photographs - Instead of driving or walking around and taking pictures with a camera, screen captures of buildings from multiple angles are taken from Google street view. Also since Google street view has a time-slider dating back to 2007, we have the option to upload photos taken in better lighting, at better angles, prior to major alterations or demolition, and/or when trees were smaller and obscured less of the building's features.

Below is a slideshow of the present state of our entry for the Red Lion. Note well the indicated Inventory Level: Reconnaissance. Since this is only a surface level inventory that simply identifies what mid-century multi-family buildings exist on Capitol Hill, many categories remain blank. We will come back and fill in more of these categories on the 10 buildings we decide are most significant.

It is also worth noting that about 2/3 through this phase of the survey, I ceased taking note of the number of stories, cladding, style sub-categories, and multiple photo angles. Some of these categories are easily determined by the viewer when looking at the photograph. Otherwise, it often proved too difficult and time consuming to collect multiple screen caps of a building and to identify a building's style sub-type and structural system. With regard to the last, Wisaard doesn't even allow you to only select "wood frame" you have to choose the specific type of wood frame such as "balloon" or "braced" which is impossible to know by looking from the outside. So I eliminated these in order to speed up the process.

Five Nifties from the last 50

Borrowing from the phrase "Nifty from the last 50" which refers to the initiative launched in 2003 by the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation to recognize and record mid century architecture, below are five of my favorites or "nifities" thus far in no particular order. (For a full list of Mid-Century properties located thus far click here)

1. The Margaret Apartments at 408 Belmont Avenue E

The Margaret, 408 Belmont Ave E. Google, 2019

Original Name: Bel-Bain

Year Built: 1959 Architect(s): McCool & Morgan

Builder(s): E.T. Hinrichs

Original Owner: Marie Baines

Sub-type: Dingbat

Commentary: Dingbats are one of the most common Mid-Century Modern sub-types in Capitol Hill and this just might be the most distinctive and best preserved example here. Its defining characteristic is the open-air carport with apartments above. This design is heavily influenced by automobile culture and coincides perfectly with the height of the automobile industry by giving residents the freedom to effectively drive straight into their home. No need to parallel park or step out into a muddy street on a rainy day. Other variations on this type would further cater to the automobile driver by placing an entry door on the back wall of the carport.

Painting by Linda Tillman

What I find most appealing about this example though isn't just its symmetry, but its subtle retro-futurist space-age references. When I look at it, I see a 1950s spaceship with a central gangway flanked by two flared landing columns similar to that depicted in this gouache painting by Linda Tillman. Then you have this narrow window column partially exposing the stairwell as if to guide your gaze upward toward the cosmos.

2. Camellia Manor Condominiums at 501 E Harrison Street

Camellia Manor, 501 E Harrison St. Google, 2019

Original Name: Camellia Manor Apartments

Year Built: 1952

Architect(s): William H. Whiteley

Builder(s): Unknown

Original Owner: Unknown

Sub-type: Unknown (see commentary) Commentary: Often described as a u-court or garden court apartment building, I have yet to find a Mid-Century Modern building of this form that I don't like such that it can be hard to choose among them. I see this style as a well-executed attempt to urbanize the Mid-Century Modern ranch style single-family home. It's a piece of suburbia in the city. The landscaping enhances this by insulating the court from the sights and sounds of the city while adding considerable beauty and refinement. Corner-wrapping windows and ashlar stone cladding material are typical features of the time period.

Camellia Manor, 501 E Harrison St. Google, 2019.

However, the Mediterranean style terracotta roof tiles and multiple porched entry points along the alley are unusual and give it a notably European feel. Now just imagine if that alley were cobblestones... Wait, never-mind, I can do that for you! And I even got rid of the dumpsters. Now I feel like I'm in Italy. Best vacation I've had all year!

Camellia Manor, 501 E Harrison St. Google 2019. Photoshopped with cobblestone alley.

3. 600 Belmont Avenue E

Apartment Building at 600 Belmont Ave E. Google, 2019.

Original Name: Unknown or none

Year Built: 1952

Architect(s): Unknown

Builder(s): Unknown

Original Owner: Unknown

Sub-type: Motel Commentary: First, I feel like I have to clear the air with a confession: clearly I am biased toward the 1950s, this being the 3rd 50s building among my five nifties. With that out of the way and while we are on the subject of confessions, I have a couple more confession to make. Confession two: I am learning about Mid-Century Modern architecture as I go. To make this more apparent, I should point out that I don't really know whether "Motel" is necessarily an official sub-type of Mid-Century Modern, there may be a more official word for it. Regardless, I'm running with Motel because it looks like one and they're everywhere goddammit. Confession three: The Motel-style apartments are quite possibly my least favorite type and as much as I like to talk s*$& about them, I confess this one is actually quite pleasant. "Motel" is a portmanteau of "Motor Hotel" itself a neologism for the new type of vacation rental that was designed with the automobile in mind. Like its nifty cousin the dingbat, it brings the automobile as close to the home as the term "Motel" brings "Motor" and "Hotel" close together. Your car is practically inside it. However in this case the cars are not covered, implying that one's stay here may be short term.

Another hallmark of the Motel style is the exterior corridor allowing it to have a dual purpose as a balcony with a view... of your car. No way anyone is stealing that! However, as I said, this is a particularly pleasant example. Well-landscaped and an earthy color-palette that's easy on the eyes, but contrasts just enough to allow the doors to pop. Otherwise, you can never go wrong with brick and the ashlar stone on the first story adds a bit of refinement and taste. Finally it is particularly interesting to me to see one of these built here so early. I've always had this thought that motel style buildings were built closer to the 1962 Century 21 World's Fair to offer short-term rentals to visitors attending the fair. So now I'm wondering whether this building started as apartments, was temporarily converted to short-term rentals during the fair, and then switched back thereafter.

4. The Shannon Condominiums at 601 Belmont Avenue E

The Shannon Condominium 601 Belmont Ave E. Google, 2019

Original Name: The Shannon Condominiums

Year Built: 1970

Architect(s): Jay Robinson Jr.

Builder(s): Eberharter & Gaunt Inc. and G.R. Hutchinson Inc. General Contractors

Original Owner: Tower Properties Inc.

Sub-type: Brutalist

Commentary: Finally, something that isn't from the 1950s! Also, if you noticed earlier, this hulking reinforced concrete beast was lurking high in the background behind the motel-style building we looked at just moments ago. Now, thanks to Kitty Gibson, CHHS social media coordinator and local architect John Feit, we have all the history and expert commentary we could possible need for the moment. Whew, my job just got so much easier. However, I will say, reaching a staggering 14 stories, it very well may be the tallest building in the neighborhood and it really shows among its mostly three and four story neighbors.

5. 403 Summit Avenue E

Apartment Building, 403 Summit Ave E. Google, 2019.

Original Name: Unknown or none

Year Built: 1951

Architect(s): Unknown

Builder(s): Unknown

Original Owner: Unknown

Sub-type: Unknown

Commentary: Whelp, we're back to the 1950s--did I mention that I love this decade? Either way, I thought for sure this would have been built in the 1940s. Maybe it was designed then? I say this because as a simple four-plex brick building with side gables, pitched roof, and central chimney, it is incredibly reminiscent of military housing found at Seattle's Discovery and Magnuson Parks. It is almost as if it was designed for military service men who weren't quite ready to break away from the disciplined life-style with which they were so familiar. A building like this would surely have helped ease the transition back to civilian life. So I'm spontaneously deciding that this building will cover us for the 1940s as well. Dating aside, look a little closer, there's a bit of that stereotypical Mid-Century ashlar stone rising from the base and mostly hidden by the bushes making this design transitional in more ways than one. It's as if it's whispering "Hey, I'm Mid-Century! But I'm just a little shy about it." P.S. I love the awnings.

6. Nifty Bonus! Thunderbird Apartments at 315 Belmont Avenue E

Thunderbird Apartments at 315 Belmont Avenue E. Google, 2019.

Original Name: Thunderbird Apartments

Year Built: 1965

Architect(s): Unknown

Builder(s): Unknown

Original Owner: Unknown

Sub-type: Shed

Commentary: I couldn't leave you without including SOMETHING from the 1960s. Although hardly representative of the decade, I couldn't pass it up because its just too terrible to ignore. Look, it's edgy! With angles so sharp, it cuts straight though to your optical nerve just looking at it. With windows so small and oddly placed, you'd think it's full of beater cars the owner is too embarrassed to let anyone see. With its metal siding you can only imagine just how much this thing rattles in the wind. And despite it all, it is a still a part of our architectural heritage and worth noting. I also think this one is very much ahead of its time, but in the worst possible way. It does all the things buildings currently being constructed do. It tries as hard as possible to break all convention, clash with its surroundings, and disturb the neighborhood rhythm. Yet another example of how we ended up in the worst possible timeline here in 2020 where a Neo-Shed-style architecture became one of the most popular. And just in case you were wondering, yes, "Shed" is an official sub-type of Mid-Century Modern. I didn't make it up. You can learn all about it in this nifty presentation put together by state architectural historian Michael Houser. The Shed section is six pages and starts on page 113.

Final note: I'm also pleased to report that Docomomo WeWa, the local organization dedicated to the Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement in Western Washington wishes to assist with the project and collaborate on some events this fall. For anyone interested in learning more about Modernism--specifically Northwest Modernism, they have a very informative introduction on the website including a page full of bios of Northwest Modern architects.

That's all for now. Until our next progress report, keep an eye on our social media for additional nifities. I'm going to try to do one per week and hopefully my project partner Lana can go and take some nice pictures.

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