The Capitol Retrospective - The Interlaken Apartments: Loss, Redemption, and the Montlake Bridge

Sunday, January 22, 2017

 

On June 27, 1925,  throngs of Seattleites gathered at the Montlake Bridge for its opening ceremony. City officials and community leaders stood upon a "gayly bedecked platform," on the bridge's east tower.  After the speeches, all watched with anticipation as city council president Bertha Landes swung a bottle of "effervescing fluid" toward the pillar beside her only to have their hearts sink as it jarringly clunked against the steel. Undeterred, she swung again with greater force and achieved the desired effect.  Although unlikely intentional, it was a fitting metaphor for a bridge that voters had rejected not once, but five times.  It also fit the careers of Pennsylvania transplants Robert and Elsie Faris who would most certainly have witnessed it.  They lost everything in Pennsylvania, but their new Interlaken Apartments at 2311-15 24th Ave E (and other Montlake homes), proved they still had the gumption to be in the real estate business.  It was their redemption and they carried it as a standard when they marched across the Montlake Bridge and later back to Pennsylvania from which they coincidentally severed themselves around the same time digging on the Montlake Cut widened the gap between Montlake and the U-District in 1909.

 

Robert Salmon Faris

 

Robert was born in September of 1872 in Pittsburgh, PA to Salmon Coles Faris a Presbyterian minister, teacher, and writer and his wife Amanda Hayes also a writer.  Throughout his childhood, Robert and his family often moved between Pennsylvania and Ohio as needed by the church.  In fact, his father was so devoted that many of his colleagues straight-up "thought him wild" and while many admired him for it, it wore on him and his family. The eldest son Eugene ran away from home at 17 and died in 1893. The eldest daughter Virginia died just two years before. And after the late 1880s, Salmon's health declined forcing him to work less and seek a milder climate: first in Tennessee in 1891 and then in Florida in 1892.

 

Robert endured it all, becoming only more devoted to his work, family, and faith.  He followed his parents' passion for writing and earned a degree in journalism.  He then rejoined them in Tennessee and apprenticed there, until, as they would surely have seen it, God called them to separate destinations.  After Salmon headed to Florida, Robert returned to Pennsylvania to work for the Pittsburgh Times.  He settled in the "holy city" of Wilkinsburg, a Pittsburgh suburb with over a dozen churches that had voted itself dry since 1870.  Therefore, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Robert co-founded the liquor and gambling free Writers' Club there in 1896.

 

 

Elsie Ann Wood

 

Meanwhile, Elsie's life  appeared relatively more stable and affluent. She was born in October of 1873 in Salem, NJ to Benjamin F Wood a distinguished public servant, politician, and entrepreneur and his wife Margaret Conover. In 1861, Benjamin co-founded a real estate firm and incorporated it in the year of Elsie's birth. His 1900 biography mentions that his son Ben worked with him at the firm. So maybe Elsie did too--probably as a stenographer or a secretary--where she would have learned a lot about real estate.  At least it would explain how a career journalist with no background in real estate would suddenly start a real estate business.  He did it for love.  However, a different form of love brought these two together. Patriotism.

 

 

Crossing of Paths

 

On April 21, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain.  Two months later, Robert joined the fourteenth regiment of the Pennsylvania National Guard at Fort Mott, New Jersey just 6 miles north of Salem.  Salem then decided to honor them with a reception on July 20.  And the day was so hot that 100 soldiers succumbed to heat exhaustion while marching to the reception.  However, perhaps Robert endured it by channeling his father's wild devotion.  A devotion that caught Elsie's eye as she stood among the flag-waving residents gathered along the street, prompting her to greet him at the reception.  She was a local politician's daughter after all, which nearly guarantees she attended.  And so their courtship began until they were wed on October 28, 1899 at the First Presbyterian Church in Salem.  Now as for the war, it ended before Robert could see combat.  He mustered out on February 28, 1899.

 

Setting up shop

 

 Robert and Elsie chose to start their real estate business in Wilkinsburg.  It made perfect sense too.  Robert's father had worked tirelessly to establish many of the churches around Wilkinsburg as a missionary in the 1860s.  Meaning Robert now had the honor and privilege to build on that work and had two generations of professional connections to depend on.  Finally, it extended the commercial reach of Elsie's family beyond Salem whose real estate expertise in turn ensured a great start.  With that, they founded R.S. Faris and Company in the fall of 1900 with Robert officially at the helm, as conservative traditions dictated back then.  Over the next 6 to 7 years, the business expanded rapidly. They added new partners and brokered many of the largest transactions in town.  However, their familial foundation, while initially a boon to their business, proved to be a double-edged sword.
 

 

Burning a bridge

 

Their parents, the guiding light of their work, all died between 1906 and 1908.  Salmon was the first to pass in March of 1906.  To cope, Robert and his last living brother Paul joined a bowling team two months later.  Soon they were competing weekly and it appears the business may have suffered for it.  Numerous people started suing Robert and Elsie in court between 1907 and 1908, once for $375 (worth $9300 today).  Then the Panic of 1907 hit and they sold their business to Wilkinsburg Real Estate and Trust Company a week later. They generously offered Robert a management position, but it didn't hold.  Instead, Robert took a sales job with Vak Klean, proprietors of the recently invented vacuum cleaner.  They sent him to Seattle and he and Elsie didn't return for 18 years.  So what happened?  Perhaps they felt pressured to make their parents proud and overextended themselves when times were good.  Then when tragedy struck, they were too grief stricken to notice and fix their mistakes before the panic.  This probably left them feeling embarrassed and needing to start over.

 

A new life

 

They arrived in October of 1909 and rented a modest apartment at 410 Broadway.  It was a far cry from the 3-story turret-capped home they left behind.  The Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition was winding down and contractor C.J. Erickson was as eager to start digging the Montlake Cut as the Farises had been to flee Wilkinsburg.  But before Erickson started, the Farises most likely caught the tail end of the exposition.  It no doubt aroused sweet memories of their two-week vacation in St. Louis for the 1904 World's Fair.  However, times were tough now and hard work inevitable. Robert had a hulking, all-metal vacuum to schlep around hilly Seattle. It really must have sucked. And to escape it, he (and Elsie) probably turned a longing eye toward local real estate developments. For instance, by reading in the Seattle Times later that month about the groundbreaking ceremony for the Montlake Cut and how Erickson claimed he'd be done in 4 months. Egad, if only they were still in real estate, what a development opportunity! (Pauses to laugh hysterically for 30 seconds.) It took 7 years to finish the cut and 9 more to build a bridge across it. No one was benefiting--except maybe the Farises, unbeknownst to them. They weren't even settled in yet let alone ready to reap the benefits of a new bridge. They needed time. That is, they would cross that bridge when they got to it.

 

How the Farises got to it

 

 

  After about a year, Robert stopped schlepping vacuums and went from suck to blow.  He switched to selling hair products for Tom Singer & Co at 328 Liberty Building.  It was this gig that unexpected lead him back to real estate.  Tom Singer & Co left 328 Liberty in November of 1912, while Herman Schroeder, a Realtor, moved in.  Yet Seattle city directories say Robert worked at 328 Liberty until 1914.  So maybe Robert took Schroeder's arrival as a sign.  His work as a Realtor wasn't finished.  So he offered to work for Schroeder, thinking maybe after a few good sales, he could go independent with Elsie by his side.  It took multiple attempts, but he finally succeeded in 1920.  As an amusing aside, one of these attempts involved a short-lived partnership with a Realtor named John Booth in 1916.  Booth's recklessness two years later might suggest why it was short-lived.  He nearly drove off the old Latona Bridge and into the Lake Washington Ship Canal.  But hey, at least he had a bridge to drive off of!

 

Meanwhile back in Montlake, where the Farises now resided, most residents seemed more content to stare at the bridge foundations left by the excavators as if they were obelisks put there to signal their evolution than to actually build a bridge on them.  It was too expensive, so they voted against it year after year.  However, favor slowly grew with each vote.  The Farises probably noticed and it meant a perfectly predictable real estate opportunity sat right in front of them.  They just had to wait until a 60% majority approved the bridge and then buy.  Wait, but why Montlake?  With so few churches, it was nothing like the "holy city" of Wilkinsburg.  However, of those few was the First Presbyterian at 1850 Boyer Ave and maybe Robert vaguely viewed Montlake as a mission like his father would have.  After all, Robert did attend at least one of Reverend Mark Matthews' revivalist sermons as an usher back in 1913.

 

 

The Farises make their move

 

Voters finally approved the bridge in May 1923. So on August 15 the Farises took out a mortgage on several Montlake properties including 2311-15 24th Ave E.  Amusingly, their seller couldn't possibly have had less in common with them. He was a frivolous dapper dan with questionable morals from San Francisco named Blinn S. Bryant. Bryant was the grandson and heir of early pioneers to Washington Territory. Given the Faris's conservative Christian morals, they probably thought they were doing Montlake a favor. Too bad they didn't account for what came next.

 

The city council discovered that the state legislature had ruled in March 1923 that all bonds must be serial. This meant that the bonds to fund the bridge were technically illegal. So the council decided it was safer to restructure the bonds accordingly and send the bridge proposal back to the voters. With the bridge back in limbo, the Farises postponed their building plans until after the vote.  The Following spring, voters approved the modified bridge proposal in a landslide 81%. There was no turning back. Construction on the bridge started on July 8, 1924 and Robert received a permit to build the Interlaken Apartments the following January.
 

 

The Interlaken Apartments

 

 

 At two stories, four apartments, and two storefronts, it was definitely in line with Robert's epithet as a "Builder of Small Homes." However, it made up for its modest size in character both inside and out.  First the crenellation along the roof-line was unusual.  Its two-tiered Merlons (since removed) hearken back to ancient Persepolis.  They also cleverly emphasize how this is a taller building sandwiched between two smaller ones.  This combined with the stucco facade and curved bay windows bases, really made this building stand out from its shorter brick neighbors.  Otherwise, its earliest occupants were primarily business owners, public servants, and doctors who were active in their church and or local politics..  This gave the building and the Farises a crucial edge of prestige and respect--particularly for what came next.

 

The National Real Estate Convention

 

 

The National Association of Real Estate Boards chose Seattle for its 20th annual convention in 1927. To ensure it would be the best yet, members of the Seattle Board traveled across the country to promote it   Robert, the board's legislative committee chairman, volunteered to go to Pennsylvania.  It was the perfect setup.  It allowed him and Elsie to reconnect to their roots and prove themselves under the auspices of promoting the convention.  So on Christmas of 1926, 8 months before the convention, they returned to Pennsylvania.  Robert spoke at some of the meetings of the Altoona Real Estate Board of which, coincidentally, his younger brother and former bowling partner Paul was president.  Robert presented a slide show of Asahel Curtis' Pacific Northwest photography and compared Seattle's architecture and housing types with that of the East.  He likely included some of his own properties too.  The Altoona Board was impressed.  Robert's presentation along with those of other Realtors elsewhere energized Realtors nationwide for the coming convention.

 

 

When the time came, thousands of Realtors and their families descended on Seattle from all over the country by way of 15 dedicated trains each chaperoned by a Seattle Realtor. From August 10 to 13, they all converged at the convention's Olympic Hotel headquarters for a slew of workshops and meetings. Some particularly highlighted the skills and contributions of women in the field which had gone largely unnoticed or ignored in past years.  Otherwise, everyone partied, danced, golfed, attended concerts and plays, and toured the region and its real estate in style.  In the end, Seattle Realtors were reeling with enthusiasm and confidence.  The convention reportedly benefited the Seattle market immensely.  There were even a few high profile 6 and 7 figure purchases.  Yet, much of it was probably a whole lot of ballyhoo. After all, the economy as a whole was in a massive bubble and near its 1929 breaking point.

 

However, this wouldn't have mattered much to the Farises because they sold most of their properties before the convention.  So it was more spiritually beneficial than anything else.  An excuse to prove and congratulate themselves--particularly for Elsie since women in the field were finally getting the recognition they deserved.  And with that, they shifted their attention elsewhere.  Robert advocated for a city manager through the Seattle Municipal League and unsuccessfully ran for city council. Elsie continued her leadership role in various women's clubs fostering human companionship, the arts, and intellectual inquiry.

 

Settling In: Life in and around the Interlaken Apartments

 

The Farises moved into the Interlaken Apartments shortly after the convention until they bought a nice house in Seward Park in 1930. Their tenants had quite a bit in common with them.  One was Dr. Julian Givens who like Robert, was a minister's son, pro city manager, and lost his own bid for election to the school board. (go figure!)  He practiced medicine at the Interlaken Apartments from 1933 to 1940.  As a convenient segue, he also sung in one of a series of vaudeville acts directed by his neighbor Ruth Gresham in 1935.  It was the "for men only" part of a county fair style event organized by the Montlake Parent-Teacher Association.  Ruth had been a talented singer, musician, and vaudeville performer since her youth.  As a young adult, she taught music until she met her husband Dr. William Gresham, a dentist in Sprague, Washington around 1920.  Like the Farises, they were members of the First Presbyterian Church.  William practiced dentistry at the Interlaken Apartments from 1930 to 1937 with Ruth as his secretary.  According to their grandchildren, Ruth used to hand carve Disney figurines for William's younger patients.

 

 

Meanwhile, immediately below the Greshams in the north storefront was Ona McDonald's Grocery. McDonald was a retired Seattle firefighter and Montlake resident born in Seattle.  He had simply moved his store over from across the street.  He later ran for county commissioner and, like Faris and Givens, he was not successful.  He and his wife moved out in 1933.  A fellow named Hinckel G Stanley moved in a couple years later and opened a Price-Rite grocery.

 

Finally, the confectionery and delicatessen next door was the black sheep.  It had less in common with the neighbors.  The first owner was Hartley Newsum whose biography states he co-owned a Pioneer Square saloon during the Gold Rush where Metskr Maps is today.  He fell ill in 1927 and sold the business to a Presbyterian named Claude Martin.  The business's briefest owner, M.L. Brown, added alcohol to the menu in 1934.  A couple years later, a mechanic and his younger assistant tried to rob the place, but thankfully a merchant patrolman by the name of Harold Wilder who lived upstairs, caught the men in the act.  Finally, in the year of Robert's death, 1939, a man named Thomas McClanahan turned it into a tavern called DeLuxe.

 

Life after death

 

It's a curious coincidence that the Montlake Delicatessen became an all-out tavern the same year Robert died.  Sure, people had been drinking beer and wine here since 1934, but they still called it a delicatessen.  You ate lunch there.  Drinking was just an afterthought.  At least maybe that's how Robert reconciled it to himself after prohibition had failed.  But a full-blown tavern?  He'd probably be damned if he allowed one on his property.  "Over my dead body" he surely would have told Elsie who obviously fulfilled the proclamation, hinting at a possible disagreement between them.  But who knows?  Either way, it jives well with the idea that Robert's past in Pennsylvania meant a lot to him and he wanted to stay connected with it as best he could.  In this case, by prohibiting taverns on his property just like his hometown of Wilkinsburg had done since 1870.  Fun fact: Wilkinsburg remains dry to this day.  As for Elsie, she managed the Interlaken Apartments until March 6, 1947 when she sold it to Russian immigrants Joseph and Rachel Luban for $24,500.  She then rejoined Robert in the afterlife in 1956.

 

  

Now what about the Interlaken since then? Well, other than becoming

 considerably worse for wear, it's certainly had its fair share of characters and transformations over the years.  The DeLuxe Tavern, once associated with the DeLuxe on Broadway, was a 30-year institution.  UW students nicknamed it "the library" and an infamous career bank robber Gerard R Peabody owned and managed it until 1968 mostly while in jail.  Thereafter, the straight-laced nightlife hospitality duo Mark and David Mitchell connected it to the building next door, put food back on the table, and classed it up under a new name: Jilly's East.  Jilly's ran until 1984 after its last owner Bill Roe declared bankruptcy.  It transformed into a seedy bar called Bleachers until 1990 when it became a warehouse for the Montlake Bicycle Shop until 2011.
 

 

After Hinckel Stanley closed his Price-Rite next door in 1939, Mae Brooks, a beauty culturist, ran a salon until 1957. She had an amusing affair with her electrician who she later married and divorced for extreme miserliness.  When Brooks retired, Jack Yamashita, an active member of the First Hill Lyons Club and his wife Tossie, were the first of a few to run a cleaners here.  Finally, the current occupant Matthew Johnson opened an antique shop here in November 1996.  Antiques have been his lifelong passion.  As a teen, he and his uncle went to garage sales every weekend.  They'd "pull up in his Cadillac--this baby-faced kid and this sort of scruffy-looking hippie guy--and people would basically just give us stuff to get us to go away."

 

Well, after 20 years now, Matthew still hasn't gone away and people are instead coming to him for his treasures and his stories, including me.  I first met Matt at his shop between 2004 and 2005 and one of my first purchases was an antique cast-iron Dayton oscillating fan.  It still works.  However, like the Farises, I stopped coming in for several years after falling into my own hard times, but eventually popped back in one day in early 2015 looking for vintage postcards.  To my surprise, he remembered me immediately and proceeded to talk my head off.  So I thought I'd tell him a story too.  The one you just finished reading.

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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