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Originally published Sunday, April 15, 2012 at 5:20 AM

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Seattle author cherishes city's old apartments in 'Shared Walls'

Seattle resident Diana James wrote "Shared Walls: Seattle Apartment Buildings, 1900-1939" to share her enthusiasm for the city's grand old apartment buildings.

Seattle Times staff reporter

'Shared Walls: Seattle Apartment Buildings, 1900-1939'

by Diana E. James

McFarland & Co., $55

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A great article. I wish I could send some pictures of the apartments I designed in... MORE
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Diana James points to a Seattle skyline outlined by apartment buildings of varying heights and styles. She notes the brickwork on one, the terra-cotta bays on another. James can tell you the names of most of them, who might have lived there at the turn of the century and the number of maids' quarters on the basement floor.

In these aristocratic old structures, she finds an obscure beauty.

"They were a way of life, more than anything," said the Seattle author from the lobby of Park Lane Place on Capitol Hill.

In her new book, "Shared Walls: Seattle Apartment Buildings, 1900-1939," James writes about the rise of apartment living in a rapidly developing city. The buildings may be the main characters in this story, but "Shared Walls" is also about the circumstances and historical setting that allowed such a radical form of housing to shape today's urban landscape.

"I'd never paid attention to them, I'd never even seen them before," said James, until 10 years ago when she moved into a 1928 unit. "These wonderful old apartment buildings need to be recognized."

Inspired by the history of her own residence, James began researching other buildings in her neighborhood. At first it was out of curiosity: She'd admire their stone facades from the sidewalk, occasionally stopping to chat with the tenants.

Having just completed her master's degree in historic preservation, James realized that her interest in apartment buildings was more than a passion. She called up floor plans, pored over newspaper archives and researched census data. "Shared Walls" has been seven years in the making.

James, who grew up in Houston, Texas, says she's always appreciated buildings. Her husband was an architect and helped design the Seattle Repertory Theatre, and a number of international projects.

"I've been seeing (buildings) through his eyes for so long," she laughed. "Ever since I started working on the book, I wished I'd listened more carefully to everything he said."

James' husband died 10 years ago, but in many ways he lives on in this project. He instilled in her a love for architecture. She recalls the flat landscape and sprawling industrial jungle of Houston, where the two lived before he took a job at Seattle's NBBJ.

Seattle, she says, is unique in that the city still has historical quarters. James believes that preservation isn't about keeping things the way they were, it's about being able to visualize a city's heritage; that's a large reason why she has such an affinity for these old buildings.

"If you take that all away, you have no sense of place," said James. "But if you a put a curtain around some of these buildings, you're transported back to the 1930s."

The San Marco, on First Hill, is one such link to the past. Nearly dwarfed by its more contemporary neighbors — the Swedish Medical Center, a McDonald's and the construction site of a new apartment building — it evokes more than 100 years of architectural grace.

Three stories of brick facing and broad windows surround a green courtyard. For residents of the San Marco, it's this character that makes the structure so beloved. Residents Dotty DeCoster and David Collett have even created a website to share the story of their building (dcollett.net/SanMarco/).

The pictures and text convey a rich history of San Marco tenants, ranging from boarders to entire families and the maids they brought with them.

Like many other turn-of-the-century apartment buildings, the San Marco boasts an impressive set of amenities. While visiting with a neighboring tenant, Collett discovered a small, round metal object in the dining-room floor. After some research, he and DeCoster concluded that it may have been a buzzer for the lady of the house to call servants to the table.

Far from being the dingy temporary housing that they're often mistaken for, the units were also designed with back entryways for maids and delivery closets for the milkman or postal workers to safely leave packages.

"It's a different way of living," said Georganne Seebeck, who owns a Park Lane Place condo on Capitol Hill. "I grew up with privacy all around me and my neighbors down the road."

Seebeck is from a farm in Outlook, Yakima County, and moved to Park Lane Place in 1989 after her divorce. Her living room overlooks a rooftop garden, still largely barren because of the cold weather. In the warmer months, the melodic sound of the fountain is one of Seebeck's favorite features, better even than the views from the western face of the building.

She's since become accustomed to living with neighbors. And for better or worse, that social element is at the core of apartment culture.

"They were very sociable spaces," said James.

By the turn of the century, Seattle was becoming a destination for commerce and a pit stop for young men entranced by the prospect of gold in Alaska. The timber industry, augmented by waves of migration during the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909, also contributed to the apartment boom.

Architects and laborers flocked to the city. With the chance to reinvent itself after the Great Fire of 1889, multiple-housing structures were the practical solution to Seattle's rapidly expanding population.

Seattle had just four on record in 1900. Forty years later that number had surged to 1,400.

For James, meeting kindred spirits like Collett and DeCoster was just as enjoyable as the research itself. James is a petite woman, with cropped silver hair. Her small frame harbors an ardent spirit.

"People would be outside watering their lawn or the manager was out tending to something," recalled James of her devious research methods. "I would ask questions about (the apartment) and if they seemed open and interested I would often get invited in ... People just love their buildings, and want to show them off."

Communal living wasn't a new concept a century ago, said James, who cites the longhouses of the Native Americans as early examples of a similar premise, but apartments have come to embody the ethos of city living.

And just as Seattle's past is woven into its city buildings, James' book pays tribute to her own history.

"In memory of my favorite architect: Patrick T. James (1940-1992)," reads the dedication.

Celina Kareiva: 206-384-8904 or ckareiva@seattletimes.com

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