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The Bluff Building: A Lesson In Escapism.

On May 29, 1889 the graduating class of MIT in Boston gathered in Huntington Hall to hear the commencement speech of the renowned reverend Phillips Brooks. Towering over them at 6'3” and 300 pounds he thundered “the water of the river is at first distinct and separate from the sea, but with time… is embodied into one vast whole; and so… will your course in life pass away until nothing but the knowledge that something of new good and of new strength has been added to the world will remain.” A straightforward metaphor for life, death, and the contributions one leaves behind, but who was to say one couldn't take their existing course, cast it into the void, and anonymously reemerge on a distinctly new one all in a single lifetime?

One of the graduates that day, named Charles Dodge, eventually believed exactly that and it led him to Seattle where he ran off with his mistress 13 years later. Together they established a considerable real-estate empire that included the land on which the Bluff Building stood at the northwest corner of 10th & Pike: currently the home of The Comet Tavern since the early 1950s. Even here, Dodge's ethos of escapism has endured in one form or another through its well documented history as a popular dive bar and music venue where many have gathered to escape everyday life through loud music, alcohol, and often illegal drugs. But long before Nirvana performed there in 1988, the whole building was a hub for many who shared Dodge's outlook on life.

A life that began in Skowhegan, Maine where Charles Benjamin Dodge was born on July 13, 1867 to Benjamin Franklin Dodge, a harness maker turned banker, and his wife Jane Philbrick. After earning his degree in the since discontinued “general course” at MIT, Charles joined the ranks of Boston real-estate brokers working for the New England Real Estate Agency at 258 Washington St. Here he amassed considerable wealth over the next decade during which he met and married the highly-cultured and progressive Willietta Johnson in 1893 who was an active suffragette and world traveler. They reared two daughters, Dorothy and Katherine, and lived together on a 30 acre farm in Concord where the Revolutionary War began. A seemingly happy life from an outsider's perspective, which it very likely may have been.

However, by 1901 that all changed after Charles had fallen in love with another woman named Annie MacConnell who positively dazzled him with her compassion, ideals, and youthful beauty (she was 10 years younger) and so much so that they ran away together later that year and reappeared in Seattle in early 1902. No lengthy divorce or custody battle, nothing. So what happened?

One can speculate that Charles must have been deeply conflicted, ashamed, and fearful of the consequences. He really did have a lot going for him, but perhaps there was just an element of banality and resignation to it all. For one can imagine that his career and Concord estate were effectively handed to him by his parents–and perhaps his wife, while certainly dazzling in her own right, was a bit too strong and intimidating for him, such that he feared she'd destroy him in a divorce. So what did he do?

Before running off to Seattle, he took a 3-week hunting trip in Maine with “the Misses McConnell” according to the The Boston Herald in October of 1901, so it definitely couldn't have been a secret. And it was probably during this trip that Charles, Annie, and perhaps her widowed mother (who joined them in Seattle), planned their escape because it was the last time most anyone would hear of them. In fact, by the 1910 census, Willietta went so far as to claim she was widowed either assuming or perhaps pretending he was dead, but the truth was far from it.

Starting a new life

In February 1902, Charles and Annie began buying large tracts of land in and around the neighborhood of Columbia City all in Annie's name while Charles only offered brokerage services. Then after Charles incorporated the “C.B. Dodge Company” on December 31, 1902, Annie began transferring most of the aforesaid properties over to it most likely in an effort to protect whatever wealth he brought to Seattle in case his wife should ever find him and file for divorce, but alas, thus far, she had not. The Boston Herald announced the sale of their Concord estate in August of 1903 without saying who sold it. But assuming Willietta sold it, and Charles caught the news, it was his first sign that he'd started a new course in life and so on January 20, 1904 he and Annie got married and they had their first child Florence nine months later.

Dodge Enters Capitol Hill

After getting set up in Columbia City, the pike/pine corridor near Broadway caught Charles' eye, but erring on the side of caution, he slowly worked his way in. This made him a perfect match for the folks who owned the land on both sides of Pike street between Broadway and Tenth and had casually been looking for buyers, but weren't in any hurry to leave. All that stood here then was a single home surrounded by green houses, sheds, and a nursery operated by Charles Malmo florist and proprietor of decorative and fruit baring trees.

On July 2, 1906 Malmo sold a section of this land (the Northwest corner of East Pike and 10th) to Charles for $12000 to be paid over the course of two years while Malmo gradually moved his business to the corner of Rainier and Mount Baker Boulevard: right in the heart of Charles' Columbia City enclave interesting enough.

But even though Malmo departed ahead of schedule (in April 1908) Charles had to wait over a year while he and other nearby property owners could fight for a compromise on the pending twelfth avenue regrade proposal before beginning construction. Apparently, city engineer R.H. Thompson and his blowhard trumpet C.C. Closson, a real-estate broker, wanted to raise Twelfth Avenue nearly 20 feet. After Charles and other local property owners succeeded in taming what they called Thompson’s “pet hot-air scheme” a general contractor named Clyde Morris offered to improve Charles' Pike Street lot.

Enter Clyde Morris

Born in 1876 in Pomeroy, WA and educated in San Francisco, Clyde found success in Nome, Alaska from 1900-1905. After failing to strike gold there, he started a shipping and ditch building operation for the bigger mining companies and grew it into a $300,000 business with a workforce of 500 men. He then set up a general contracting office in Seattle shortly after his marriage to Marion Atkinson in May of 1906. They had a daughter Clydene in 1907 after which their marriage started falling apart. According to Marion, Clyde had begun provoking her to divorce him. So one can imagine how high strung Clyde was when he approached Charles, perhaps even confiding in him, in early 1909. Charles being no stranger to marital woes would have certainly commiserated and it might explain why they drew up such a peculiar business contract.

They set up a ground lease wherein Charles kept the land, but Clyde would own the building and pay Charles rent and filed it with King County on February, 6 1909, but that wasn't peculiar. The peculiar part is when Clyde, on that very same day, incorporated “The Bluff Building Company” to perform the construction and own the building thereafter instead of using his already well-established general contracting business. Now while it is common for general contractors to start a new company to own a building after building it, it is apparently unheard of for them to start a new company beforehand and only to construct one building and yet it doesn't appear that the Bluff Building Company built anything else. Two explanations come to mind.

As a road and ditch builder, he may have just wanted to protect his tried and true business from this new venture in the event of litigation arising from accidents during or after construction. However, it may also have been a financial fallback designed to protect some of his wealth from his wife in the event she actually did file for divorce. Time would tell, but in any case, construction moved forward and The Bluff Building opened for business on August 25, 1909 offering apartments on its two upper floors and six commercial units at ground level.

Opening for business

The first business to open its doors was the quickly growing auto supply concern, the Chanslor & Lyon Company of Los Angeles, who had just moved from Belltown to the 916 East Pike unit in The Bluff and its manager was the all-around affable and hardworking Bill Avery. William A. Avery was born in San Francisco on March 21, 1864. At the tender age of 13 he ran away from home, first to Arizona and eventually to Seattle in 1886 where much of his successes burned away in the great fire of 1889. After covering his losses, he returned to California in 1893. In Los Angeles, he rebuilt his wealth through novel innovations in the paper industry. Selling his interests there, he purchased a share in the Chanslor & Lyon Company who sought a manager to open a Seattle branch in 1908. Bill’s business acumen and prior experience in Seattle made him a good fit and being married a second time like Dodge made him good fit for The Bluff Building too.

The Golden Age of Auto Row.

With the new shop set up, Avery, and his competitors, couldn't exactly sit and wait for customers to stroll in. They had to create a market. For perspective, in 1905 the Automobile Club of Seattle reported only 85 cars and 25 miles of paved roads in the city and while there was certainly more by 1909, more work needed to be done. So in partnership with the Automobile Club and the Good Roads Association, both of which the aforesaid Clyde Morris was a prominent member as a road builder, Avery along wth other industry leaders organized trade shows, recreational tours, races, and other competitions. In one such competition, Avery claimed a silver trophy in April 1911 for signing up the most members to the Automobile club. So before long, business boomed and the automotive industry became all the rage in Seattle. In response, Chanslor & Lyon quickly annexed the adjacent storefronts at 914 and 918 E Pike and the two others on the 10th Ave side and people like Bill and his sales team became local celebrities. Rarely did a week pass between 1909-1916 without their activities, business or pleasure, being highlighted in the Seattle Times. Then, the unthinkable happened.

The End of An Era

Shortly after returning from a business trip to the east coast, Bill died in his sleep of heart failure on February 5, 1917 at the home of his boss, Phil Lyon, in Los Angeles. He left behind his beloved wife Ida, three children, and scores of friends. His death and the year preceding it, marked an end of an era for the industry and for The Bluff Building itself. Chanslor & Lyon (and other similar companies) had gone exclusively wholesale such that they would ultimately outgrow the Bluff Building and build a new facility at 12th & Madison a few years later. Also during this time, statewide alcohol prohibition had taken effect at which point Dodge's ethos of escape took on more of a criminal element at the Bluff Building.

Crime at The Bluff Building and ties to Prohibition.

In 1913 Robert Calley, a pharmacist from California, opened up shop at the 922 E Pike storefront at The Bluff and called it Auto Drug. A fitting name and it was his fourth incarnation since his arrival to Seattle in 1902. And like most pharmacists back then, he prescribed liquor to his customers and when statewide prohibition hit in 1916, he took advantage of the increased demand. On the eve of October 14, 1916, the city's “dry squad” seized a barrel of whiskey at the Grand Trunk Pier permitted to one drug store, but suspiciously marked for shipment to Auto Drug. In the end, he nearly lost his drug store license, but got off with a $100 fine instead. Whether he got a permit to prescribe thereafter is unknown, but he did continue to distribute liquor because on the morning of August 17, 1918 one of his clerks discovered that a staggering 148 bottles of whiskey and 144 bottles of gin had been looted from the store. Little else is known of his activities thereafter, but he died two years later at the age of 66. A former employee of his, a pharmacist named Edwin Fenlon, eventually took over a few years later. In 1925, the police busted him for operating a cash-awarding slot machine at the store. Certainly not proof that he was also distributing booze, but where there's gambling there's likely to be alcohol. And it would certainly substantiate the rumors of secret tunnels under The Comet.

Back to Clyde

After the Bluff Building opened, he went on to cope with his failing marriage by becoming a workaholic. He served as president for both the Arctic Club and the Automobile Club and as a director of the National Bank of Commerce and traveled on business frequently. And as expected, his wife Marion finally filed for divorce and a restraining order on July 6, 1915 after a dramatic physical altercation at their home the day before. During the divorce, she asked the court to compel him to reveal all his business records including those of supposed real estate holdings and “subsidiary corporations” she believed he was hiding. The court denied her request, but still granted her a substantial settlement. So The Bluff Building may actually have been a secret fallback as theorized. In any case, Clyde bought the land beneath the Bluff Building from Charles five years later and held it until his death in 1938 after which his heirs sold it in 1944.

Thereafter, the Bluff Building went into gradual decline and became a tougher place to live and work. Incidents ranging from burglaries to stabbings to suicides were relatively commonplace until at some point in the 1980s the apartments were finally vacated and sealed off. Eerily, a variation on Clyde's name is spray-painted across the upper edge of the building today.

But what about Dodge?

Charles and his wife Annie went on to live increasingly public lives ranging from an unsuccessful bid for city council to elaborate dances and costume parties to philanthropy. Annie was a longtime volunteer at the Seattle Children's Home until she died in 1933 sitting on both its advisory committee and board of trustees. Charles joined her in death 10 years later and was active in real estate until then. No official divorce records from his first marriage could be found so does that mean his escape was a success? Maybe so, but consider the fact that casual passersby rarely, if ever, notice that there was once a doorway immediately west of the Comet's entrance leading them to assume there never were any apartments above, but if they look closer they’ll notice it's merely boarded over and painted to blend in with the surrounding wall. Similarly, one might assume Charles had succeeded, but a closer look reveals that his Alma Mater betrayed his whereabouts on the alumni listing within its annual catalog for 1902-1903. So maybe he didn't succeed after all and it might explain why Willieta finally declared herself divorced in the 1920 census.

UPDATE: A locked door leading up to the apartments mysteriously appeared shortly after the previous photo was taken… anyone know the story behind this?

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