The Capitol Retrospective - The Roycroft: A quest for independence at the confluence of speculation, regulation, and panic.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

 

In 1899 the quickest route to West Seattle was by train over a wooden trestle that ran along the northern edge of the Duwamish Bay tide flats crossing what would later become Harbor Island. That May, Edward Roy, his older brother Charles, and father Lucien would have taken this train out to the trestle's midpoint to tour the lumber mill they would purchase later that month.

 

Peering out the train's window to his left while his brother and father talked business, Edward would likely have been distracted by the countless array of shifting channels and tide pools glistening over hundreds of acres of mud. It was here that he saw one of many opportunities to reinvent himself instead of living in his brother's and father's shadow.

 

It was here, and elsewhere throughout the city, that Seattle would experience one of the greatest real estate booms in its history granting Edward both the independence from his family he so dearly desired and a refuge from the coming collapse of the lumber market. This is the story of Edward Roy and The Roycroft Apartments on Harvard Ave E.

 

Prologue

 

 

Edward Bentley Roy was born in 1870 to farmers Lucien and Euphemia Roy and lived in the small town of Imlay City, Michigan, a stop on what was then the Port Huron and Lake Michigan Railroad. As teenagers, he and his older brother Charles would have heard stories of adventure and good pay out west as the trains passed through town carrying freshly milled lumber to eastern markets.

 

Charles, evidently, couldn't pass up the opportunity, because the 1915 edition of The Mississippi Valley Lumberman (a trade magazine) reveals that he co-founded the “Roy & Neiharge” lumber company in 1888. Yet it seems unlikely that a 20-year-old farmer would have suddenly become president of his own lumber company. So he must have joined a logging camp or lumber mill circa 1885 and worked his way up meeting Neiharge along the way.

 

After six years though, Nieharge retired so Charles convinced his father Lucien to leave Michigan and take his place.  The company was promptly renamed “Roy & Roy” and the family business was born.

 

Enter Edward Roy

 

By 1892, Edward had moved out of his childhood home, taken a job as a rail depot agent in town and married a Miss Jennie Wills that October with whom he lived in a house near the corner of 3rd and Caulkins. But sadly, after only a few years of married life, both Jennie and their infant daughter passed away.

 

Undoubtedly devastated, Edward probably spent some time thereafter gripped in depression—possibly feeling a little resentful and jealous of his family's distant success. Thus he lingered in an effort to prove he could remain independent from his family.

 

But it seems he eventually swallowed his pride and reunited with them to escape the pain (possibly after attempting to prospect for gold in the Klondike in 1897) because he finally reemerged in 1898 when the Seattle City Directory listed his occupation as bookkeeper for Roy & Roy and his residence at 802 3rd Ave—a block away from his family. Clearly he still needed some space. But despite his hesitation, he proved himself useful to the family business because when Roy & Roy became a corporation in August of 1899, he became its secretary and treasurer.

 

Edward Roy the lumberman

 

Edward wasted no time filling his new role and went out taking the punches to defend his family's business. A common practice among associated lumber mills in the region was to shut down for the winter when demand was low and wait for higher prices in spring when demand returned. Roy & Roy refused to play ball by keeping its mills open and lowering prices. When accused of being a scalping concern, Edward retorted in a Seattle PI press release that the association's theory was “nonsense” and demonstrated that a profit could still be made.

 

Their stubborn independence paid off. At the time of the dispute, Roy & Roy operated their tide flats mill and had an interest in 18 others. By 1904, they were operating 6 mills with an interest in 40 others and had even purchased a staggering 35,000 acres of timberland near Colima, Mexico with plans to build several mills and a branch railroad to deliver their product.

It was during this time that Edward started settling into his new life in Seattle. He joined a variety of clubs and began rubbing elbows with all manner of Seattle's leading businessmen and civic leaders. He even bought himself a nice home in 1905 at 528 16th Ave N right in the heart of Capitol Hill--marking the beginning of his foray into real-estate.

 

Edward Roy the real-estate upstart

 

With all the recent leveling, filling, and platting of land occurring throughout Seattle, real-estate entrepreneurs had begun feverishly speculating on land value. They bought and sold property so rapidly and at record profits that the newspapers could hardly keep up. Edward eagerly entered the fray.

 

Between 1905 and 1907 Edward bought and sold property all over Seattle on a weekly basis, but he wasn't speculating solely for short-term profit.   He wanted to develop for the long term, particularly someplace where the family mill couldn't cast a shadow. That place was Capitol Hill. So when he came across the home of Mrs. Clara Webb Vinnedge at the corner of Harvard and Thomas on June 4th 1906, he purchased it for $10,000. He then hired architect Henderson Ryan to design the new building that would take its place.

Ryan's design is described as a hybrid combining the Richardsonian Romanesque style with its high foundation, rusticated arch over the front door, and corner turrets and Spanish Mission revival style with its decorative wrought iron, Spanish tile roofs, and scalloped parapets. Original amenities included wall beds, a garbage elevator, telephones, refrigerators, gas range ovens, electric bells, speaking tubes, and two central light courts.

 

The design choice is as unusual as it is fascinating. One can view The Roycroft's divisive styles as a physical manifestation of Edward's lifelong desire to escape the gravity of his familial foundation perhaps only at best to rise above it and rest firmly upon it.

 

In a similar way for Ryan, this project along with a few others that year also marked a clear division from his early career designing single family homes. He later designed the building that now houses The Canterbury in a style very similar to The Roycroft.

 

Edward then hired contractor N.P. Douglas to build the Roycroft starting in August or September 1906. The timing was perfect because it appears Edward may have shipped off to Chicago shortly thereafter to attend a hearing of the interstate commerce commission in what was one of the most sensational legal battles happening between the lumber and railroad interests at that time.

 

 

Run for the hill: the panic of 1907

 

Throughout 1906, floods along with shortages of train cars and engines and the skilled labor needed to build them, left the railroads dangerously ill-equipped to keep up with the vast quantity of goods waiting to be shipped east. By January 1907, the situation was so dire that the Northern Pacific railroad placed an indefinite embargo on lumber products just so they could focus on shipping perishable goods. Infuriated and desperate for survival, the lumber mills had united and taken their grievances to the interstate commerce commission. Both sides exchanged heavy blows, but neither came out a clear victor. Then by October of 1907, economic panic struck resulting in a series of bank runs in New York and other major eastern cities effectively destroying the demand for western lumber for the near future.

 

This time around, Roy & Roy had no choice but to shut down their mills and join the battle. And while Edward was in Chicago doing his part, he certainly couldn't have had any illusions about it. Through experience and a unique perspective of emotional distance, he probably saw it coming, because he clearly had an exit strategy and his family followed suit. By the time the panic struck, everyone in the family was living comfortably with their own home on Capitol Hill. So one can imagine the smug sense of self-satisfaction and confidence Edward would have had at this point.

 

And he brought this confidence with him to Chicago where he met his second wife Clara—also a widower—taking up temporary residence there until their marriage in Vancouver B.C. on November 11, 1907. When he returned to Seattle, he (and his brother Charles) retired from the family business, leaving it to their father and younger brother Clyde.

 

“If you think you'd like to be a Roycrofter” — early residents of The Roycroft

 

The earliest known residents were George Lamping and his wife Edith Denny who took an apartment there in June 1907. George was a veteran of the Spanish-American War and member of the Washington National Guard. He later became King County auditor and a Washington State senator. Edith had studied at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and traveled extensively in Europe. The Seattle Times notes that Edith threw a bridge party for 16 people at their apartment in September 1907.

Ernest Everett, also a veteran of the Spanish-American War and a former Minnesota National Guard member, was a talented and renowned tailor who lived there with his wife Pauline and their infant son from 1909-1910. Their residence ended abruptly when Everett skipped town after Pauline had apparently blackened his eyes and horsewhipped a client of his (Jessie Vanderwerker) with whom she believed Everett was having an affair. Even though he denied it all in the divorce proceedings, Everett ended up becoming Jessie's third husband in October of 1910. A biography of Everett in Bagley’s History of Seattle, suspiciously excludes the sensationalized affair.

 

Finally, in 1917 a man known only as J.A. Gamage, a fiddle player, also lived at The Roycroft. He had owned his fiddle since 1867 and said he “wouldn't part with it for anything.” Apparently, the “barn floor” pieces were always his favorites to perform. No other record of him could be found.


However, Seattle City Directory records the residence of an Orlando Gamage on 3rd Ave employed as a violin maker from 1906 to 1911. They were very likely related.

 

Edward Roy: landlord and real-estate developer

 

After 1907, Roy continued to develop property on and off Capitol Hill and lived in affluence and leisure. The Roycroft alone grossed him $1000 per month and he passed much of his time watching baseball. He ritually attended games and took the sports writers out on the town afterward. His wife Clara was also very social; she hosted several bridge parties at the Sorrento Hotel and in her own home complete with violin solos to entertain her guests.

 

Unfortunately this was not a happy time in their lives because on March 13, 1914 Clara finally filed for divorce and a restraining

 order. She accused Edward of being frequently intoxicated, verbally abusive, and of beating her on one occasion in August of 1913. Edward denied all of the charges and succeeded in having the restraining order lifted so he could gather his personal possessions and move out. In the end, Clara won the house, their electric car, and $75 per month in alimony. Soon thereafter she sold the house and moved to New York where she remarried years later.
  
Whether and to what extent her accusations were true can never be known. Might she have exaggerated circumstances or outright fabricated them to maximize her alimony as Edward would want us to believe? Maybe, but given Edward’s troubled past, his reported alcoholism and violent behavior seem fairly plausible as well.

 

In any case, faced with personal defeat he did exactly as he had done after the tragic loss of his first wife, he escaped into the family business. While his marriage was failing he quietly returned to Roy & Roy as assistant manager and less than a year after his divorce, he married Lucy Bucklin, 17 years his junior and wealthy heiress of the Bucklin Lumber Company. Their first and only son, Edward Jr. was born on June 12, 1916 the same year the E.B. Roy Lumber Company opened for business.

 

His hands now full, he hired a woman named Jane Buchanan to manage the Roycroft until 1922 when he sold it to Samuel Weinstein, a sheisty San Francisco real-estate broker, and retired for good. Edward died 7 years later at his summer home in Alderwood Manor.  He was only 59 years old.

 

So it would seem that no matter how much Edward wished it so, he could never fully escape his roots. Lumber was in his blood until the day he died and while he managed go about it his own way, he could never deny that fact just as The Roycroft predicted.

 

Epilogue: Roycroft post Roy

 

Weinstein, wasn't too invested in the Roycroft and resold it two months later to the even sheistier real-estate broker named August Mehlhorn Jr. head of the big real-estate firm Osner & Mehlhorn. Both men eventually saw their day in court. Weinstein was later fined $55,000 in a San Francisco court for a fraudulent trade he made in 1925. In 1935 after five years a fugitive in San Jose, CA, Mehlhorn was sentenced 30 years in prison for tax shortages, one charge of embezzlement, and 7 counts of grand larceny owing over a million dollars to hundreds of creditors. All of his assets were seized and auctioned off including the Roycroft. 

 

Since those days, the Roycroft itself has changed a great deal. Its outer brick façade is nearly sealed over in paint, the decorative parapets and conical turret tops have been removed, and the central light courts have been sealed. The current owner, Tom Graham, purchased the building in 1976 and despite being the one to install its sprinkler systems, he was tragically the first owner to suffer not one, but two fires within its walls during its near 110-year history.

 

 

 

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