Ben Masin, retailer and Pioneer Square booster, dies at 93
Ben Masin, who ran the family’s furniture business for many years, played a role in saving Pioneer Square’s historical buildings from the wrecking ball.
Seattle Times staff reporter
When Ben Masin saw customers leave his Pioneer Square furniture store without making a purchase, he would often offer to walk them to their cars in the sketchy neighborhood.
Surprisingly often, the customers and the consummate salesman would re-enter the shop a few minutes later.
“Little did they know they would end up walking out with a dining-room table and chair. He had that kind of personality,” Bob Masin said of his father.
And little did some Pioneer Square property owners and Seattle city officials know they would buy something else Mr. Masin was selling: a historic district that would save its 19th-century brick buildings from the wrecking ball.
Benjamin Masin, former president of the Pioneer Square Association and owner of Masins Fine Furnishings & Interior Design, died Tuesday in his Seattle home. He was 93.
Born in 1920, shortly before his parents emigrated from Latvia to Seattle, Mr. Masin grew up in a Central District house a couple of doors down from the dry-goods store his parents opened in 1927 near 23rd Avenue South and South Jackson Street.
After graduating from Garfield High School and attending the University of Washington, Mr. Masin married Carolyn Himelhoch and enlisted in the Navy.
Transferred to the Marines, Mr. Masin served in World War II as a medic in the first wave of the invasions of Guadalcanal, Guam and Bougainville.
His father, Eman Masin, meanwhile, moved the family store to Pioneer Square, and shifted to the furniture business after buying a train-car load of damaged furniture and selling it for a tidy profit. After the war ended, Mr. Masin joined the business, which soon took the name E. Masin Furniture.
During the 1960s, Mr. Masin became president of the Pioneer Square Alliance and used that position to push for the preservation of the city’s oldest business district, where redevelopment plans threatened to obliterate the beloved brick buildings.
Allying himself with then-Mayor Wes Uhlman on the issue, Mr. Masin in 1969 warned the City Council of the impending “wholesale destruction of many important buildings” and urged the creation of the Pioneer Square Historic District.
After its creation — the first district of its kind in Washington — Mr. Masin chaired the planning task force and later served on the Pioneer Square Preservation Board and the city Landmark Preservation Board.
Art Skolnik, the district’s first manager, said Mr. Masin turned the Pioneer Square Association into a “powerful, savvy organization.”
Pioneer Square had hit a low point, and some property owners saw demolition and redevelopment as the way to revitalize the area. But the Pioneer Square Association came to support renovation of existing buildings as a better strategy.
“That’s because a person like Ben was its leader,” Skolnik said. “He had credibility with everyone, he could walk down the street, he could say hi to everyone and he had a going legitimate business.”
Although Pioneer Square soon emerged from the worst of its doldrums, Masins closed its store there in 2011 and focused on its store in Bellevue, where parking was plentiful.
Mr. Masin, who kept working at the shop even after his son Bob Masin became president in 1987, was “a wonderful mentor” who let him make is own decisions, Bob Masin said.
On buying trips, when Bob wanted to try out different, more expensive merchandise, “He would say, ‘If you think it’s right, let’s try it.’ ... I think when the things came in the warehouse and went on the floor he cringed.”
The son said the economic slowdown of 2008 proved the wisdom of Mr. Masin’s oft-repeated advice, “Make sure you save for a rainy day. It will not always be good. There will always be ups and downs.”
Even after he turned 90, Mr. Masin continued going to the Pioneer Square store each day to greet customers and have lunch with his son and grandson, David Masin. Those two have continued the lunch tradition, which began decades earlier with Mr. Masin and his father.
At Mr. Masin’s funeral Thursday, David told the standing-room crowd that his grandfather “would feel I was remiss if I didn’t mention the summer sale starting at Masins.”
Mr. Masin’s wife, Carolyn, died in 2005.
He is survived by his daughter, Marilyn Kremen, and son Bob, both of Mercer Island; grandchildren Brent Kremen and Lynne Shutt of Seattle, David of Bellevue and Lesley Grosvenor of Los Angeles; great-grandchildren Grant and Ella Masin of Bellevue, Oliver Shutt of Seattle and Evie Grosvenor of Los Angeles; sisters Phyllis Siegel and Sally Ross of Bellevue and Adeline Siegel of New Jersey; many nieces and nephews, and his companion of eight years, Josephine Jassny of Seattle.
Donations in memory of Mr. Masin may be made to Jewish Family Service, Temple De Hirsch Sinai, or to a charity of personal choice.
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published June 7, 2013, was corrected June 8, 2013. A previous version of this story incorrectly dated brick buildings in Pioneer Square as from the 18th century. They are 19th-century buildings.