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 U.S.; Fleming himself hopped on a ship bound for New York City in 1901.
His first stop stateside was Baltimore where he took up an apprenticeship in tailoring and raced horses before making his way to Seattle by 1910, when he was living at a boarding house at 126 N. Broadway (where the light rail station will be). His occupation: “grocery salesman.” In the intervening years, his older brother John had already been running his own grocery business in Philadelphia since the 1890s. So it's very possible Joseph passed through spending a few years there, working hard, learning the business, and saving some money so he could start his own business here in Seattle. And that he did.
In 1911, Fleming rented a home at 104 N Broadway and the adjacent storefront (on the NE corner at Denny) from the owners Captain John Taylor, a civil war veteran and city councilman, and his wife, Clara, who both ran a business as pension attorneys. Fleming invited several of his siblings to join him and opened his first store: the Fleming Cash Grocery. And business flourished. By October of 1915, he operated four stores alongside one of his most trusted and hard-working clerks turned business partner 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 $261,000 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 remains today.
When complete, The Flemington Apartments would reach five stories tall and dominate the Broadway roofline for nearly a century thereafter. Every unit included marble and hardwood floors and a radio, and there even used to be a rooftop garden, community library and ample basement storage. 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 a full page in The Seattle Times devoted to promoting all of its features. One of its first and most known tenants would be Manning’s Coffee shop.
Perhaps 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 venture.
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.
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. A business they’d continue to run well into the 1940s at 128 N. Broadway.
Crime wave and passing the torch
From the late 1920s into the 1930s, the Manning's chain became a popular target citywide for criminals looking to line their pockets with some extra cash. Manning’s Coffee at The Flemington, was no exception.
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.
In any case, Fleming eventually sold The Flemington to White & Bollard Inc. on Dec. 12, 1945, who would rename it the Winters Building. It remained so until its sale in 1991 to its current owner Franklin Tseng who renamed it the Capitol Building.
The later years
After the sale of The Flemington, Fleming still had exclusive access to one of the corner apartments overlooking Broadway. He stayed there frequently, undoubtedly to look out over Broadway as he pondered one of his many subsequent business ventures, the details of which remain vague. However, one thing was for certain, according to his grandnephew Gordon, wherever he saw a dollar, there was likely ten more beneath it and so he was never in want.
Except when it came to traveling. By the early 1960s, Pan Am had only recently began flying its 707 jets, so 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, 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. May he rest in peace.*