There's a technique well-known to astronomers called “Averted vision” by which distant nebulae are often more easily observed when viewed in our peripheral vision. I’m quite familiar with it myself, both as an occasional stargazer and because of a party I threw for The Flemington, which unexpectedly turned into an extensive historical research project: the sort of thing I've always been interested in doing. And the initially mysterious “J. Fleming” “pioneer businessman” who had The Flemington built in his name, applied this technique in his own life.
On his building's opening day, Feb. 11, 1924, he revealed to the Seattle Times that it was “the result of several years of careful planning… and the product of [his] dreams.” Yet for much of his adult life he wasn’t even in the real-estate business, but rather in the grocery business and a successful one at that.
Fleming owned and operated several grocery stores on Capitol Hill with his brothers and his business partner, Robert Moore, during those “several years” leading up to The Flemington (now “The Capitol Building,” 906 E John St.). Then, when he generated enough profit, he invested it into real-estate. Proof that when people place what they desire in the periphery it can sometimes become even more tangible. Yet, there's more to the story.
The early years
Joseph Fleming was born on June 18, 1880 to James and Anne Fleming and baptized in the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the quaint and remote village of Ballymoney, Ireland where they raised race horses during a time of widespread agitation for home rule (before the creation of Northern Ireland circa 1921) and land reform following the Long Depression. Fleming, by then, was the youngest of four and, as Protestants living in north Ireland, chances are they weren't invested in local politics. Thus they had little incentive to stay. So gradually they began moving to the United States (US).; Fleming himself hopped on a ship bound for New York City in 1901.
Accounts of his early years in the US have varied. According to family, he may have taken up a tailoring apprenticeship and even raced horses at one point. The 1901 Polk City Directory of Brooklyn, New York even documented a Joseph Fleming occupied as a tailor that year. However, by 1903, he had relocated to Baltimore, Maryland where he took up the Grocery business with his Brother David until 1907. After this he relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where his older brother John had operated a grocery business since the 1890s and worked there through 1909.
By April of 1910, he had finally reached Seattle, landing first in a boarding house at 126 Broadway N (where M2M Mart is next to the ligh rail station) with the occupation of "Grocery Salesman" in the US Census that year.
Fleming found more permanent quaters the following year in a rental home at 104 Broadway N that he shared with his sister Margaret and brother William starting in 1911. He then opened his grocery business, Fleming Cash Grocery, in the adjacent storefront (on the NE corner at Denny). The small, two-story mixed use building belonged Captain John Taylor, a civil war veteran and city councilman, and his wife, Clara, who both ran a business as pension attorneys. Two years later, Fleming's brother David and sister Anna moved to Seattle as well and the business soon flourished. By October of 1915, Fleming operated four stores and had taken on a partner, one of his most trusted and hard-working clerks and brother-in-law, Robert Moore. Their competitive edge was to offer lower prices by eliminating delivery service from all but their flagship store at 100 N Broadway.
Prosperity, piety and patriotism
Business at the renamed Fleming & Moore grocery stores prospered into the 1920s, so much so, that Fleming became rather generous with his money, which offers a rare and fascinating glimpse at his values. He was devoutly Presbyterian. He was known to frequently donate large sums to his local church and shortly after Armistice Day (Nov 11, 1918), he donated $50 (worth $685 today) to the Thanksgiving Day Victory Fund – an effort lead by his church to christianize the U.S. Constitution following WWI in order to, it was believed, reduce the likelihood of future war. And when he wasn't giving away money, he always had an extra bible on hand to give to those whom he believed would benefit from it.
And he was similarly patriotic; he was an official sponsor of the Conference Committee on National Preparedness, an effort to “bring to justice those who plot against the nation.” Being so absorbed in the growth of his business and supporting his church and adopted country, who would suspect that he was dreaming of anything else?
However, on June 26, 1922, he made a business proposition to the widowed Margaret Albiez for the purchase of her property at the corner of Broadway and John for a lump sum of $18,550, equivalent to over $342,000 today. In cash. In the following months, he hired architect Howard Riley to draw up the plans. Contractor Andrew Mowat handled construction. Together, they broke earth in April of 1923 on the apartment building that stands to this day.
When complete, The Flemington Apartments would reach five stories tall and dominate the Broadway roofline for nearly a century thereafter. Every unit included in-a-door wall beds, retractable kitchen tables, marble and hardwood floors, and a radio. Communal spaces included a rooftop garden, community library and ample basement storage and laundry equipment. It was one of the most opulent installments the city had ever seen.
Legal troubles and nostalgia
On that glorious day in April of 1923, Fleming must have undoubtedly felt a rush of confidence and exuberance as he footed his shovel into the soil at 200 N Broadway. Surely a sign that nothing could spoil his moment of grace — not even legal trouble.
Dairy Delivery Inc. (DDI) took him to court in March over an unpaid debt of $785.97. Fleming refused to pay and filed a counter-complaint accusing DDI of breaching a contract and fixing prices, making them responsible for lost profits and additional damages.
If there ever was a contract it must have been verbal because the jury ruled in favor of DDI in October for lack of evidence. Fleming and Moore attempted to dispute the verdict, but eventually gave in and paid the debt in January. Most likely, it wasn't worth fighting given that The Flemington was due to open the following month. And it opened without a hitch despite the legal setback. It was a grand production with promotional booklet and a full page in The Seattle Times devoted to highlighting all of its features.
Meanwhile, it appeared the recent court ruling had left a bad taste in everyone's mouth because business operations shifted dramatically hereafter. Fleming and Moore split the business and began operating independently. Fleming then entrusted his own share to his brother William and focused on his new foray into real estate.
This may also have been a time of reflection for Fleming because while he was busy fulfilling his dream and fighting anyone who would stand in his way, he quietly took out a mortgage on a home at 126 N Broadway, his former boarding house, curiously enough. Perhaps, he was growing a bit nostalgic. Gradually, he and his brothers moved in starting in 1928.
Fleming seemed to grow even more nostalgic when he soon discovered that property management wasn't his cup of tea. So he hired someone else to manage The Flemington Apartments and returned to the grocery business with his family in 1928. They set up shop in the Flemington at 202 Broadway N at first but moved to 128 Broadway N in 1931 and remained in operation there until 1945.
Crime wave and passing the torch
Manning's Coffee, a successful regional chain founded in Pike Place Market in 1908, was one of the Flemington's earliest commercial tenants and from the late 1920s into the 1930s, its success no doubt made it a popular target citywide for desperate criminals looking to line their pockets with some extra cash.
From October of 1934 to August 1936, there were at least six robberies, often with the same clerk at the store. In fact, it almost comically became a matter of routine, when the store's manager Paula Rede reported that she wasn't frightened at having a pistol pointed at her for the third time, such that one might wonder if it were a conspiracy. Whatever it was, crime never became a reason to shut down its Capitol Hill location (unlike another chain we know), which remained until 1961.
As the Great Depression subsided going into the 1940s, so did the reports of crime. Commercial activity began to shift as well. Albert Winters and his son James opened Winters Men's Shop in the corner commercial space at 200 Broadway N, which had previously hosted three different pharmacies since 1924. Albert and his Wife Ada soon took such a liking to the building they decided to purchase it from Fleming in 1945 and renamed it the Winters Building. That same year, Fleming and his brothers retired from the grocery business.
The later years
After the sale of The Flemington, Fleming retained access to the 6th floor corner apartment, where he undoubtedly looked out over Broadway, not soley to look back on all he had accomplished there, but also to ponder what came next. Ultimately, he devoted his efforts evangelizing his Christrian faith through American Bible Society through which he distributing bibles while working in the impoting business and travelling the world starting in the 1950s.
By the early 1960s, when Pan Am had only recently began flying its 707 jets, Fleming purchased an open ticket, which apparently was big news because a Seattle newspaper wanted to know what a man in his 80s was doing traveling the world. So they drove down to Tacoma where he’d been living with his grandnephew to interview him, but they were too late.
He was already in Australia. From there he went to India, then to the Middle East to visit the holy sites and on to much of Europe where he concluded his trip with his regular visit to Ireland. That paper was the Seattle PI and they didn't catch up to him until 1971. Five years later though, he died “a beloved uncle” on October 29, 1976. He was 96 years old.
So what was it? Was the fulfillment of his dream not all he built it up to be? Was he yearning to relive his glory days as a pioneer grocer? Or maybe erecting a lasting monument to his legacy was all he needed and he eventually thought it best to return it where it had originally been and had served him best: to the periphery.
*Special thanks to Gordon Fleming who passed away two days after I interviewed him for this story when I first wrote it in 2015. May he rest in peace.*
The Flemington post-Fleming: Bonus Material.
In 2019, I gave a presentation on the Flemington while I still lived there. In that presentation, I included some additional background on the Winters Family and other commercial tenants over the years. Below are some images and bullet points that I pulled directly from my PowerPoint presentation slides.
Winters Men's Shop
Albert Winters born 1893 in Poland.
Opened men’s shop for formal wear with son James at 200 in 1940.
Bought Flemington in 1945, renamed it “Winters Building.”
Albert retired in 1949 died in 1957.
James retired in 1959, sold business to Nesso Cohen, sold Winters Building to brother- in-law (Sam Le Bid) in 1967.
(Cohen's) Winters Men's Shop
Born in Seattle, 1925, son of Greek immigrants.
Grew up in central district, attended Garfield High School.
Joined navy as a radio technician.
Purchased shop in 1959. Daughters were partners. Expanded to 6 locations, employed numerous family members.
Sharp dresser, worked out religiously. Looked incredibly young for his age. Had a personality that attracted people & he accepted everyone.
Retired, 2003. Died in 2007 of Prostate Cancer.
Owner, Vija Rekevics born in Latvia, 1934.
Came to U.S. in 1949 after 5 years in post WWII refugee camp.
Graduated from U.W. in 1957, degree in Political Science and Far East history.
Enrolled in 2-year executive training program at Lord & Taylor a luxury department store in NYC.
Traveled the world, collected clothing, jewelry, and furniture.
Opened Opus 204 in 1970.
Filled it with her collection and her own designs.
Described as an “unstoppable force of nature.”
Her clothes “were comfortable, strong, and made you feel empowered.”
Retired in 2007, died in 2011.