The Capitol Retrospective - Before The Light Rail There Was 923 E John St

Sunday, March 13, 2016

**The fifth and final(?) installment in my series "Before There Was Light Rail" in which I take a look at some of the buildings that were torn down in 2009 to make way for the light rail station opening on March 19, 2016.  I may return to this series at a later date as there are several more buildings that have yet to be explored at a much deserved greater depth.  Stay tuned for that. 

 

Here we have the Saint Albans Apartments in its original splendor of the Old English style. It was last known as the Eileen Court.  Note well in the foreground of the image just how narrow john street was at this time.  My initial search of various source materials indicates that this building has a colorful history by way of the lives and activities of some of its former residents and owners whose stories I will only be able to very briefly mention for the time being.

 

The St. Albans Years - 1908-1927

 

It begins when Frederick "Fred" W. Charles purchased the property from a Mary Holcomb for $16,000 on April 5, 1907. Fred then hired architect James E Blackwell to design it and together they filed the plans with the city in June of 1908.  Construction on the 24-unit building most likely started in August or September and finished in the fall and was reported to have cost up to $40,000.

 

The first for rent ad in the Seattle Times ran on December 13, 1908 for 1, 3, and 4 room apartments with wall beds ranging from $20 to $40 per month and it appears Charles may have hired or possibly sold the property to a Mrs Carrie Erne, who the Seattle Times mentions as "proprietor" of the St. Albans as of August 1910.  She was apparently a well known proprietor of various hotels and apartment houses around town and in August of 1910 she was called to the witness stand to speak on behalf of a Mrs. Vera Prosser, an early and brief resident of the St. Albans, who was on trial for murdering her husband on a train in Montana.

The Prossers had been living a dramatic and highly sensationalized married life up until their divorce and Reese's murder as evidenced by all the Times stories written about them.  It's too long of story to go into at the moment, but to sum it up, the jury voted to acquit Vera of the charges against her citing "self-defense" and she went free... only to land her self in jail again for larceny after which she was again set free. She then got married and divorced a second time in 1912 after apparently threatening to murder her second husband--but wait, it gets better! In 1913, she even tried to take credit for murdering Marshall Field Jr., the son of the founder of Marshall Field and Company! Authorities did not believe her story. This woman was desperate for media attention. Anyway, all of this has little to do with the St. Albans itself.

 

The St. Albans hosted a variety of seemingly more sane individuals if only evidenced by their lack of infamy.  Living here in 1910 were Thurston Bean a manager of a print shop with his wife and son;  Mary Armstrong a vaudeville performer with Mary Codd a clerk at MacDougall & Southwick Department Store; Leon Hebert vice president of Phil L Serwe & Co; and Nellie Hunt a student at Hyatt-Fowells school just to name a few.  

 

Up through the 1920s news about residents is more or less what one wold expect, notes about various parties, residents being involved in car accidents, and residents' cars being stolen.

 

The Willard Court Years (1927-1934)

 

In 1927 though it seems whoever the owner was at this point may have sold the property because for rent ads suddenly show that the building's name had changed to  "Willard Court" and I believe the owner's name was J. Peterson.  Not much else noteworthy takes place here during this period of time until J. Peterson sold the property in September 1934 to an Alex Lewis for $40,000.

 

Eileen Court - The Alex Lewis Years (1934-1960?)

 

Alex Lewis was a Russian immigrant who arrived in New York City in 1913.  He came to Seattle in 1933 with his wife Sara and two sons Edwin and Paul and took up residence at 917 East John street, just a stones throw away from Willard Court.  He was the owner of Lewis & Company an "amusement devices company" i.e. pinball and other game machines, when he bought Willard Court in 1934. To accommodate this new venture, he set up a rental office out of his home at 917 as partially evidenced by left edge of the photo below.  If I had known about this the last time I visited the Washington State Archives, I would have grabbed the photo of 917 as well.

 

 Changes were abound in the immediate vicinity the moment Lewis took over Willard Court and renamed it Eileen Court.  As you can see in the images below the city was in the process of widening John street east of Broadway starting in August 1934.

 

Link                                 Link                              Link

 

The only noteworthy event that took place at Eileen Court itself during this time was the suicide of Mrs. Marie MacDonald in 1935 who referenced, in a suicide note, her unrequited love for her estranged husband no longer living with her and her daughter. Otherwise, here's an image of Eileen court as of 1937 still maintaining its Old English style.

 

 Now in the 1940s we find out just what type of person Alex Lewis really is and to put it briefly he sure was a piece of work.  Again much like the Prossers, the activities of Alex Lewis are too far reaching and complicated to fully explore at this time.  However, to put it briefly he and his son were bookies involved in a far reaching illegal gambling ring including many of the machines his company sold to businesses who operated them without licenses.  Their first major bust came in 1947 for the illegal gaming and again for illegal bookmaking on horse races in 1953.  The charges against Lewis and his son were so extensive they broke the record for the longest criminal record on file at King County clocking in at 14 type-written pages for 31 counts of bookmaking.  At the U.S. District court, Alex also racked up 12 counts of failing to make a wagering tax return.  Alex was sentenced to one-year in prison, but was let off with a $1000 fine.

 

I have no idea at this point in my research, but I'd wager that Alex sold Eileen Court not long after his criminal career came to an end.  After all he owed a lot of back taxes to the federal government and if his game business wasn't enough to pay it off, selling Eileen Court certainly would have.  He passed away in 1967 at the age of 71.

 

Now I want to take a moment to help restore everyone's faith in humanity with a more wholesome and adorable story written in 1959. Pictured below is an Eileen Court resident named Ann Johnson aged three after finding one of 1400 Easter eggs hidden among the shrubs around Broadway Playfield.  The Capitol Hill Commercial Club hosted this annual event.  Click the right image to read the full story and see more pictures. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eileen Court - The Herbert Tanaka Years 1960?-1969

 

At the moment, I'm assuming that Herbert Tanaka bought Eileen Court from Alex Lewis.  I wasn't able to find much on the man himself.  All I know is that he owned the place and lived there with his family.  However, his son Wayne shows up in the Seattle Times.  In 1964 the Young Adult Services Division of the American Library Association asked the Seattle Public Library to participate in a nation-wide survey to prove that teenage readers have more sophisticated reading tastes than adults believe.  SPL chose Garfield High School who in turn decided to ask the leader of each student club what book influenced them most.  The leader of the Chess Club, Wayne Tanaka, chose Emile Zola's "Germinal" because "I could comprehend why there were such violent strikes and why revolutions in the labor class tend to favor socialism."  Spoken like a true Seattle lefty.  

 

The following year, Wayne went on obtain the Carkeek Scholarship and enrolled at University of Washington thereafter.  His father Herbert sold Eileen Court in 1969 to William Burnside for $147,000.

 

While at UW Wayne, as a member of the executive committee of the Student-Tenant Council, helped organize a "landlord critque" to keep files on landlord complaints and to inform students of their rights.  As the son of a landlord himself with Socialist leanings, Wayne was an obvious fit for the task.

 

The Roy G. Watkins Years at Eileen Court 1970-????

 

William Burnside turned around and sold Eileen Court pretty quickly so his story isn't worth exploring.  Watkins paid $165,000 for it.  A nice profit for Burnside who only had the place for 10 months. However, this sale would not bode well for the residents of Eileen Court.  In a word, he was a slumlord.  A brief look at Watkins' past shows that he had a considerable interest in real estate because he is reported to have purchased multiple properties throughout the late 60s and early 70s.  The Seattle Times also reports a Roy G. Watkins getting divorced once in 1963 and again in 1974.  

 

In 1971 the city held a public hearing on 13 buildings judged unfit for human habitation.  Watkins owned one of the buildings listed, but thankfully it wasn't Eileen Court.  Less than a year later though, Watkins was cited for permitting excessive smoke emissions from a boiler stack at Eileen Court.  The Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Agency filed a law suit against Watkins in 1973 for refusing to pay the fine.  Wayne Tanaka was surely fuming over the mistreatment of his childhood home and its residents.  No other information on Watkins can be found at the moment.

 

In other news, I thought it was worth mentioning that the light rail proposal was not the first time that Eileen Court was threatened with demolition. In 1975, the post office wanted to build a 90,000 square foot facility on Capitol Hill that would include the land occupied by Eileen Court. Thankfully, the city council shot it down.  You can read the full story below.
 

 

Last Years at Eileen Court 1999-2009

 

Landlord issues at Eileen Court did not end with Roy Watkins. The Stranger reported in 1999 here and here that the building's owner at that time, No Boundaries Ltd. (what a fitting name!), attempted to nearly double the rent in an effort to force residents out so they could avoid getting remodel permits that would require them to pay relocation expenses for residents.

 

*This concludes the final part in the "Before There Was Light Rail Series" be sure to look out for my final upcoming story about the demolition in 2009 it will be featured on the Capitol Hill Seattle blog this week.

 

*To keep track of future stories like these and for additional content be sure to follow The Capitol Retrospective on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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