Capitol Retrospective - Before The Light Rail There Was 905 East John Street

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

*After spending the first half of last week sick and the second half on vacation, here I am yet again flying on the seat of my pants and a little behind schedule with a second installment in my impromptu series "Before There Was Light Rail" in which I am attempting each week to put a brief spotlight on some of the buildings that were torn down in the spring of 2009 to make way for the light rail station opening March 19th this year. If you haven't read part one yet, click here. Otherwise, scroll down and enjoy!

Alright, so first off, yes, what an awful photo. Not only was it shot from a highly skewed angle, but one can imagine the county employee who took this photo with his back turned to the Broadway Theater (now Rite-Aid) around about late 1950 early 1951 must have thought "good enough for government work" after he watched this car speed across the frame, obscuring more than half of what he was sent to photograph. Now I should tell you that I actually cropped the original to give you a closer look at the subject, particularly the one marked by the red arrow: 905 East John Street, behind the Congo Room and first occupied by McBreen and Associates.  

 

McBreen and Associates (Furniture & Interior Decorators)

 

On January 14, 1951 Robert L. McBreen who'd already been in the furniture business in the employ of R.J Skewes since about 1940, opened up his own shop at 905 E John along with his two protégées Richard Sargent (not to be confused with Dick Sargent, the actor) and C. Edwin O'Neal all pictured below at various points in their lives.


 

McBreen, known as a traditionalist in his design tastes and showcasing complete room sets at his storefront, insisted that home decorating be a gradual process and that his and his associates' designs ultimately be an expression of their customers' personal taste.

McBreen's arrival at 905 East John preceded by R.J. Skewes at 211 Broadway and followed by Keeg's at 1819 Olive Way a couple years later (just to name a couple), marked the beginning of a roughly 40-year epoch during which the Broadway district would be known city-wide as "decorator's row." By 1965, there were at least seven such shops organized as the "Broadway Fine Furniture Association." As a group, they organized all sorts of tours, exhibitions, and contests.  

 

Some of McBreen's associates such as Richard Sargent spent their entire careers designing interiors with McBreen while others held a shorter tenure, such as Louise Bettner who went on to start her own design business.  Below are a few of these individuals pictured next to an example of their designs. Their work earned them international recognition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the late 1970s, Robert McBreen doesn't appear to have a public presence--at least not in the Seattle Times. Instead his associates, Richard Sargent, Walter Baz, and Neil Blaisdell are the ones primarily mentioned from this point forward, suggesting that maybe McBreen was semi-retired by this point. And by the mid to late 80's McBreen, citing old age, was ready to retire completely so he offered to sell the business to one of his clients, Jim Dollens, who was Director of Boeing International in Amsterdam at the time and had recently had his home redesigned by Walter Baz. Jim accepted the offer and soon moved back here, setting up his own office in Bellevue. He then hired John Brotherton to manage the company for him and moved their office from 905 East John over to the Madison Park neighborhood, right outside the Arboretum. In short time though, John took considerably more interest in the company and bought out Jim Dollens in the early 90s right around the time McBreen died in October of 1991. Whatever came of the business hereafter, remains to be determined.

 

 

Twice Sold Tale

After McBreen Interior Design moved out, a clothing store moved in for maybe a year or so before Jamie Lutton opened Twice Sold Tales in July of 1990. Jamie had been selling books since the 1980s finding rare 1st editions and signed copies at thrift stores and selling them elsewhere at a profit.

 

As her collection grew larger, she set up a book cart at Broadway Market (where QFC is now) for a couple years before moving into 905 East John along with several of her cats. Twice Sold Tales thrived at this location and even expanded over the following 15 years. It absorbed two of the adjacent storefronts in the same building and then additional storefronts opened elsewhere in the city at 45th and University (now a Chase bank) in 1997 and at 7 Mercer Street in Queen Anne in 2004

 

All sorts of great stories about these years can be found all over the internet recounting events ranging from the whimsical such as water gun fights and impromptu mini-raves to those more dangerous such as run-ins with unruly visitors and passersby. 

 

However, Jamie knew at least since 1999, that business at 905 East John and all the joys and challenges that came with it, would have to end sooner than she'd like. Plans for the Capitol Hill light rail station were already being discussed at this point, but, as many of us know, wouldn't actually move forward until 2008 when Sound Transit finally issued its eviction notices. The departure wasn't easy, especially since it came on the heels of a recession, but after selling out her interests in the Queen Anne and the U-district stores (both no longer in business) Jamie reopened Twice Sold Tales at the corner of East Denny Way and Harvard Ave East where she operates to this day. She remains a bit sore over the way the city and Sound Transit handled the whole process, but she is optimistic that the light rail will ultimately increase revenue.

 

 *Stay tuned for the next installment in the series and be sure to check back for updates. Additional info and photos will be added as they become available.

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