*A slight departure from my usual material. This is the first in a series of profiles on some of the buildings that were torn down in the spring of 2009 to make way for the new light rail station.
Pictured here is the corner of Broadway and John as busy as ever back in 1953. A boy speeds by on his bike looking like he's about the hit the woman with her back turned. A traditionally dressed gentleman looks directly at the camera as a Seattle City Light employee takes a picture. The building on the right is 132 Broadway E and if you were to walk into its door today you'd be walking right into the light rail station set to open on March 19th. The pictured building was completed in the spring of 1950 and demolished in the spring of 2009.
The Congo Room
In the second half of 1950 Sylvia Beck opened the Congo Room also known as "Bon's Congo Grill" (Bon was Sylvia's maiden name.) Sylvia placed two want ads in the Seattle Times for a night cook and for "honest and attractive" waitresses first in August of 1950 and then in November of 1950. Obviously this was back in a time when employers could openly discriminate.
The cook who responded to this ad would very likely have been Mel Fortson pictured above in 1967 who was cited as having gotten his start cooking at the Congo Room in 1950 and worked there for "several years". He was head chef for The Holiday Inn in 1967. The Seattle Times archives has little else to reveal about the Congo Room during the 1950s aside from a burglary in 1958. Below is an undated drink menu.
By 1960 the Congo Room finally starts to generate some press. In February that year Sylvia applied for a cabaret-music license. From this point forward, more or less, the Congo Room hosted live entertainment on a nightly basis featuring performances on the organ and piano and later on guitar and ukulele. Two performers in particular stand out. One singer and pianist, Billy Wilson, so impressed Sylvia in 1968 that she had a revolving stage built for him. The second was Don Isham a popular organist who'd worked in Seattle Radio since the 1920s and performed for NBC-TV in Hollywood with stars such as Andy Williams, Jack Jones, and Eartha Kitt. In 1967 he began experimenting with electronic music. This new act of his, accompanied by a light show and described as a "shakedown cruise" premiered at the Congo Room in the summer of '69.
Business continued steadily into the 1970s. A former resident of the nearby Eileen Court apartments, also demolished for the coming light rail station, said that the Congo Room had the best Patty Melt in Seattle, friendly staff that never ran you off, and "free" toilet paper for poor SCCC students.
But unfortunately, the free TP spree couldn't last forever. On October 28, 1975, The health department shut down the Congo Room citing 49 demerits. The following summer, all of the Congo Room's furniture, appliances, and supplies went up for public auction. As for Sylvia Beck she went on to live a long life. Her 2014 obituary says she was a "successful restaurateur" despite the Congo Room set back. She died at the age of 96.
With 132 Broadway E now vacant, developer Colin Radford and architect David Gee "enthusiastic" fans of the "cities-are-exciting" movement, proposed to redevelop the site into an interior shopping court called "Broadway Gardens" essentially a mall. Nothing ever came of this proposal (thank goodness!) and instead Red Robin Founder Gerry Kingen and his business partner Don Stangle moved in and opened a one-off restaurant separate from the Red Robin franchise.
They would dub this new establishment Lion O'Reilly's and BJ Monkeyshine's Old Fashion Bar and Grill. Quite a mouth full. The name owes its origin to the original neon sign from the Congo Room. Gerry and Don apparently wanted to keep it so they came up with a goofball name to accommodate it.
As mentioned in excerpt on the right above, business continued to do so well that on its first anniversary, Gerry Kingen bought out his business partner Don Stangle and closed the restaurant for a few months to do a $250,000 remodel and expansion. Curious to know where Don ended up? He seemed to be doing hilariously just fine by 1980 despite being aptly called "irresponsible" by a Seattle Times columnist later that year. All this came on the heels of a boom in the restaurant industry, which had just passed its peak when Don Stangle sold his way out. According to the King County Health Department, hundreds of Seattle Restaurants had closed between 1979 and 1980. Luckily Kingen innovated, citing the adoption of new computer technology, reorganizing the books, and offering of lower price menu options. In so doing, he actually managed to expand his Red Robin venture while keeping his one-off projects going like Lion O'Reilly's. He describes his method in greater detail here.
Innovations also included publicity stunts such as their "name the lobster contest" in which they promoted a massive and live 23 pound lobster "the largest west of the Mississippi" shipped fresh from the east coast in 1983.
Fresh lobster had always been staple at Lion O'Reilly's, but they had to find ways to remind people that theirs were the best. However, this lobster was never actually served as food. In December of 1983 Lion O'Reilly's held a homecoming fundraiser to have it sent back to Maine and released into the wild. It was even brought to the airport in a limo.
However, as Kingen made pretty obvious in his public statements in the early 1980s, his sights were set on expansion, corporatism, and international franchise licensing. So it comes as no surprise that small one-off projects like Lion O'Reilly's and BJ Monkeyshines were not compatible with that vision. So by late 1986, he shut down the venture and by 1987, Pagliacci Pizza, founded in 1982 by Dorene Centioli McTigue, opened up shop there for a few years. Nowadays you can find Pagliacci all over Seattle including 426 Broadway E just up the street where they've been for more than 10 years at the very least.
Perfect Copy and Print
By 1990 this corner lot would no longer host any bar and restaurant combo with lounge music or wiseguy antics. Times had changed. Instead an unassuming copy shop took its place and quietly carried out its business for 19 years until Sound Transit gave them a 90-day eviction notice in late 2007.
The founder and owner Asif Rehan Alvi, pictured below, poses in front of his shop for a 2008 interview with Business Journal shortly before its closure. He managed to snag a new location only a block south across the street and despite it being smaller, less visible, and more expensive than his former more luxurious digs he still considered himself lucky. His business has been chugging along to this day.
With 132 Broadway E now long since gone, what can we expect from its replacement, the main entrance for the Capitol Hill light rail station? What changes will it experience over the next 60 years? Will it last longer? I hope so, and I also hope that the people who pass through it will find this story when they ask themselves what used to be here.
**Note: the fairly last minute decision to write this series left me with little time to research more details about the more recent occupants of 132 Broadway E. If time permits and if these folks are willing to share some stories, I may come back to update this.