The Capitol Retrospective - The Biltmore Apartments: A Contender for a Modern-Day Tower of Babel.

Monday, January 11, 2016

 

In the Tower of Babel, a biblical tale which describes a time when humanity spoke one language, a group of builders gathered to build a city and, more importantly, a tower — one that would reach high into heaven, make them world famous, and serve as a beacon for their people who were dispersed across the Earth. However, God realized this would make them too powerful so he caused them to speak different languages, resulting in confusion and ultimately their separation. As a devout Lutheran, Stephen Berg would have been familiar with the myth and in some ways he experienced it himself. As a member of large Norwegian-speaking community in Seattle, Stephen built hundreds of homes in north Seattle between 1909 and 1922, therefore establishing his own city of Babel. However, it seemed what he really needed was a tower, one that would make him known and maybe even guide his people — particularly the family he left in Norway. So he feverishly set himself to the task of building one that ultimately did just that and his first major attempt was The Biltmore Apartments at 418 E Loretta Pl. However this was only one of his increasingly colossal projects culminating in his crowning achievement, The Bergonian, a 12-story 240-room luxury hotel located in downtown Seattle. But, as the myth goes, this feverish effort ultimately spelled his downfall.

 

Prelude

 

The eldest of eight children, Stephen Berg was born on March 17, 1887 to Kristian and Anna Corneliussen in Trondheim, Norway, a small medieval city situated on a serpentine river feeding into the south shore of Trondheimsfjord.

His father was a carpenter and from an early age Stephen worked closely at his side, but sadly not for long.  At some point, either in 1904 or 1905, near the time Norway declared independence from Sweden, his parents died possibly from Tuberculosis, which was still common at the time. So these were probably some the most formative and emotionally challenging years in his life especially as a teenager. Like with most Norwegians, the push for independence would have been a source of pride and excitement for Stephen, but as a recent orphan who was too young to participate in politics (the voting age was 25), he would likely have felt more devastated and uncertain of his future. So, he did like many other Norwegians whose futures were similarly uncertain at the time: he left for America and took his carpentry skills with him so he could better support his family.  And perhaps needing a fresh start, he took the more common Norwegian name “Berg" upon arrival in Boston in 1905.

 

While in Boston, he worked in construction for a few months and saved money before moving to Seattle, which would likely have been his plan all along. Seattle had a large Norwegian population (it even had its own Norwegian language newspaper, the Washington Posten, since 1889) and such a sizeable tight-knit community—a Babel in the making—must have appealed to Stephen. Additionally, the booming lumber and real-estate markets in Seattle, made it a carpenter's paradise. A paradise where he quickly found a job in construction and quietly saved even more money over the next four years until he purchased a parcel of land at 8029 Ashworth Ave N from Charles Beaty on February 15 for a mere $475 dollars (roughly $12000 today). It wouldn't have included a house at that price, so he'd have to build his own, meaning he was probably hoping to start a family soon.

 

Building a family, starting a business.

 

Around this time, Stephen met and began courting Rachel Tjentland, a fellow Norwegian born in 1888 who had immigrated to the U.S. in 1904. Her experience was certainly no less emotionally challenging than Stephen's. Apparently her uncle had persuaded her and some of her siblings to live and work with him on a farm in Iowa, and after traveling overseas among livestock, she and her siblings found themselves tied into a period of indentured servitude before moving to Seattle.


Moved by her story and driven by his own paternal instincts, he must have promised her she would never have to endure such hardship again and wooed her with plans to build a house, start a business in which she'd have an equal stake, and perhaps build a community where Norwegian immigrants like themselves would feel welcome and well provided for.  Rachel took his word for it. They married in 1910 and two years later they cosigned a mortgage on 3402 Woodland Park Ave, the future site of Stephen's general contracting office. Over the next decade, Stephen built and sold roughly 500 homes in north Seattle and by all appearances, it was an honest and conservative business. Stephen wasn't taking any major risks and it paid off.

 

The big money

 

By the early 1920s Stephen's business had grossed more than one million dollars. He was a well-respected pillar of the community, a family man by then a father of three, and known for building moderately-sized quality homes and selling them for reasonable prices. His efforts even earned him the honor of a short biography in Clarence Bagley's History of Seattle published in 1916. Yet, like the people of Babel, he was ambitious and wanted to make more of a name for himself, one that might even draw his faraway siblings to join him in Seattle, so he decided to build an apartment building bearing his own name.
 

 

He partnered with architects Stuart and Wheatley in 1923 and drew up plans for the Stephensberg Apartments: a modest yet charming 4-story complex in the Beaux Arts style to be built at the corner of Bellevue and Olive. And coincidentally two of Stephen's siblings Axel and John moved to Seattle that year and witnessed the development. It was exactly what someone would expect from Stephen Berg, which is why it might be a surprise that he'd already gone back to Stuart and Wheatley midway through construction to propose a second and considerably more elaborate project, The Biltmore Apartments.  

 

Perhaps someone convinced him that he was capable of much more and that he could build a modern-day Tower of Babel. If there was any such person who could have convinced him, it would have been J. Arthur Younger, the manager of the mortgage loan department of the Seattle Title and Trust Company who sold the recently popular mortgage-backed securities. After all, he did become a trustee in one of Stephen's subsidiary corporations later on.


With the promise of funds, Stephen was eager to break new ground and prove himself worthy of the task. He sold his namesake apartment building at cost ($90,000) as soon as he finished it in November 1923. Normally he'd wait to make a profit, but with the promise of far greater profit and prestige down the road, the momentary loss didn't faze him. And a day or two later, he purchased a parcel of land at 418 East Loretta Place from Louis and Olive Mignon for $22,500. At first, the Biltmore was to be a 5-story building to cost $350,000 and was expected to be the city's second largest apartment complex. But it seems Stephen wanted his to be the city's largest so he asked Stuart and Wheatley to add another story with a new estimate of $565,000.

 

 

 

They designed it in Tudor-Gothic style featuring an all brick and decorative terra cotta exterior containing 125 units divided by extra-wide hallways and accessed through a grand lobby and two elevators (apparently a first for an apartment building in Seattle). Kitchens would have built in breakfast nooks along with the most modern appliances. To add to the building's luxury, each unit would have its own dressing room. As construction was underway, Younger placed an ad in the paper to sell bonds totaling $300,000 that would help finance the project. On September 14, 1924, about a week before opening, an announcement ran in the Seattle Times listing its many luxurious and unique features. Stephen believed such an extravagant building would certainly rise in value and pay for itself.

 

Life at the Biltmore

 

The building's earliest residents were a bustling and diverse community of more than 100 people including Robert Herbert, a police detective, Pedro Oliveras, a student, Gunda Brendsel a hair dresser, and Evelyn Clark the vice president of a fuel company, just to name a few, and Stephen catered to many of their needs. The building had an elevator operator as well as 24-hour on-site maintenance and phone service. When residents were struggling to wire their own radio antennae, Stephen had a 24-wire antenna installed on the roof so all his residents could tune in and seeing that his residents didn't have a nearby grocery, he built the Biltmore Annex across the street and invited a grocer to setup shop there. Also according to the building's current manager, many believe that the unusually large kitchen in one of its units was used to cater private events at the Biltmore. Events ranging from small bridge parties to club meetings and weddings were common.

 

 

But despite these luxuries, life here wasn't always so idyllic. One night in February of 1928, a burglar entered the apartment of 26-year-old Fred Bernal, the building's elevator operator. When Fred caught the burglar in the act, they grappled and exchanged blows.  When the burglar broke free, he hurled a meat cleaver at Fred who quickly ducked as it lodged itself in the wall an inch above his head. Fred then chased the burglar out of the building.

 

Five months later, after long-grieving over her husband’s drowning in the Duwamish River three years prior, a middle-aged resident named Mabel Seaborg tragically hurled herself from the roof of The Biltmore.  It turned out she had remarried in secret to Samuel Jordan a chiropractor she met in Hawaii. So perhaps it was feelings of betrayal that finally put her over the edge. In any case, her dramatic downfall conveniently foreshadowed the downfall of Stephen Berg that soon followed.

 

Stephen builds more than the Biltmore

 

Despite all the prestige that came with it and the arrival of two more of his siblings that year (his sister Johanna and brother Fred) Stephen was not content to settle with just the Biltmore. So it quickly became a mere runner up to the three comparatively colossal hotels he built thereafter. The first was the 10-story Claremont (now Andra) completed in January of 1926 followed by the 12-story Continental (now Seattle) completed in December of 1926, and finally his crowning achievement the 12-story Bergonian completed in July of 1927. And to all the better spread his name far and wide, he hosted the local radio station KFQW at each hotel until it finally settled into the Bergonian where it was reported to be the most elaborate and “pretentious” radio studio on the west coast and whose programs the Biltmore officially sponsored. Thus Stephen finally had his Tower of Babel. And in a most coincidental parallel to the myth of Babel, Stephen had by then joined a committee of the Lay Association for Lutheran Unity who believed “that European linguistic, provincial, and racial divisions must give way to American unity” in order for the Lutheran Church to become the largest in the country. In other words, a more common language would make them stronger, except he chose English over Norwegian.

 

The coup de grâce.

 

With his city and tower complete, most of his family reunited, and his praises being sung in print and over the radio waves, Stephen was in heaven. And in gratitude, he continued to make sure his residents and guests felt the same way with his own personal touches. For example, he personally caught the salmon served at his hotels whenever he went sailing on his yacht. However, through no manner of gratitude could he escape the underlying reality: he'd been gradually sinking into debt. In the eyes of God, Stephen had become too powerful and had to be stopped.

 

The exact details of his financial troubles are presently too extensive to examine in detail, but simply put, his debt was like a metastasizing cancer. When he ran into debt on one project, he'd take a second or third mortgage on a previous one until there were no more assets left to leverage and The Biltmore was no exception. After mortgaging it for well over $100,000 in gold coin, he was forced to sell it on December 13, 1927. At that point, his remaining creditors had begun filing more than 20 lawsuits against him between 1927 and 1930. So Stephen finally declared bankruptcy on December 11, 1930 and his wife Rachel, as equal partner, had to suffer through it all. After forfeiting their remaining assets they had a remaining debt of over $33,000. One of the larger creditors accused Stephen of offering fake bills of sale for his home at 1505 N 43rd St, its contents, and a piece of property located at Fairview and Harrison to William and Laura Scoble in order to evade his creditors. The judge however was not convinced of any wrongdoing and upheld his judgment freeing Stephen and Rachel of their remaining debt. 

 

Utterly defeated and his marriage ruined, Stephen retired alone to a farm in Auburn, WA he managed to acquire despite being bankrupt. (Perhaps those bills of sale to the Scobles were an evasion after all). Rachel remained in Seattle with their three children while Stephen grew increasingly distant and aloof, though he and Rachel never officially divorced. The Bergonian Hotel was later renamed the Mayflower Park Hotel after being rescued from foreclosure in 1934, thus the reputation Stephen had created for himself would fade. He died on January 5, 1966 in an Auburn nursing home at the age of 78. Since then his immediate family and their descendants no longer share a common language with their ancestral people and have dispersed themselves across the Pacific Northwest, more or less completing the myth of Babel. However, Stephen’s own Tower of Babel and its runner-up The Biltmore, stand to this day. So might a modern-day Alexander the Great order them demolished? Let's hope not because their presence and story teaches a valuable lesson, simply, not to borrow more than you can afford to lose no matter how much profit you might gain. Otherwise, these buildings are a beautiful gift to the city and, given all that Stephen did for them, he clearly must have wanted it that way.

 

*Special thanks to the Berg family for contributing to this article.

 

 

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