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WRITTEN BY LAWRENCE KREISMAN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER

Preserving in Trust
Painstakingly crafted in classic styles, the Stimson mansion has stood the test of time

 
In a city where new replaces old with very little thought, making it through a century of continuous use is cause for celebration, particularly when the birthday is for such a distinguished contributor to Seattle life as the C.D. Stimson mansion. The house turns 100 this year. That's if you base the birthday on the actual year the Stimsons finally moved into their First Hill residence after more than two years of planning, construction, interior finishing and decorating. It was not an easy process, and it often tried the patience of the clients, architect Kirtland Cutter and Charles Bebb, the local supervisor of the project.

In 1888, the Stimson family moved to lower Queen Anne Hill. By 1898, C.D. Stimson had done quite well with his Ballard lumber mill. He had been helped by the 1889 fire, the Yukon Gold Rush, the influx of many new families and the resulting sale of home lots throughout the city. The substantial homes of Seattle's prominent businessmen did not escape his eye. First Hill was the obvious site for the new family home, and he hired the well-respected Spokane firm of Cutter and Malmgren to design it.

The Stimson residence looks remarkably similar to what it looked like when the family moved into it in 1901. It is now home to a busy schedule of weddings, receptions and business meetings.
Kirtland Cutter chose a brick and stucco half-timbered style that harkens to medieval England — a significant change from the typical frame residences that occupied this wealthy residential area. But it was inside the 10,000-square-foot home that Cutter's mastery of the eclectic really shone. He was able to combine the rich ornamental vocabularies of the various Classical, Romanesque, Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance styles into successful residential architecture that was grand in scale yet comfortable to live in.

Cutter wrote frequent letters to C.D. Stimson and his wife, Harriet, during the arduous two years of construction and interior decoration. They reveal a cordial, polite relationship developing between the client and the architect — a prerequisite for someone interested in building his practice with the wealthy. Cutter was always attentive, and his constant — sometimes daily — correspondence kept Stimson abreast of any new ideas he, his partner or his draftspeople had for changes. He also kept Stimson apprised of costs and suggested alternatives where appropriate. He saw to it that every facet of the job was completed to the satisfaction of the Stimsons and apologized when, for one reason or another, delays or changes caused inconveniences.

Entering the house today has the same visually stunning effect on visitors as it did in 1901. The ceiling panels in the barrel-vaulted Romanesque-style entrance hall were covered with gilded canvas. The grouped columns supporting the semi-round arch were similar to those in the Romanesque-revival commercial buildings of Pioneer Square.
On Jan. 29, 1900, claiming to have spent several weeks "looking up the best and most artistic things to be found in this country," Cutter prepared estimates for decorations, furnishings and fixtures and shipped the Stimsons a box containing sketches, photographs and fabrics "showing designs, materials and colorings as in my judgment they should be used to produce the most satisfactory results. The scheme for treatment throughout is to me altogether the most satisfactory which I have planned." He eased his client's worries about costs by mentioning that "while the estimate runs higher, perhaps, than you expected, I know from both past and present experience that the same things which we have specified would cost you in New York or Chicago 25 percent more than our figures."

The Stimsons accepted most of Cutter's recommendations, and $16,000 — a hefty sum in those days — changed bank accounts during the year that followed. In the ensuing months, Cutter sought out and purchased Oriental carpets, wallpapers and upholstery fabrics. He sketched and sent to manufacturers drawings for electric fixtures, lanterns and wall sconces, ordered neoclassical plaster pieces for the reception room ceiling, and selected Italian blue glass tile for the dining room.

An Italian blue-and-gold-glass tiled fireplace with carved leaf-and-vine mantel and handsome brass sconces is the focal point of the English Tudor-style dining room. Scenes of medieval court life are painted above the mantel.
Skilled craftsmen who had established working relationships with Cutter were sent to Seattle to do the plaster work, paper the walls, paint the interior and apply the Lincrusta oilcloth, canvas and hand-painted tapestry friezes that decorated the walls in various rooms. That summer, with nearly everything arriving by rail car, the business of installing all the fixtures, furniture and draperies began in earnest. Cutter continued to send notes and sketches to Stimson for approval regarding detailing of racks for the wine and cool room, seating in the billiard room, bedsteads and carpets.

As with any project so large, some things did not go smoothly, and the physical distance between the Spokane architect and his Seattle client made it only more difficult to clear up the various order mix-ups, late deliveries and unacceptable work. Most disagreements arose because of miscommunication with suppliers, particularly carpet manufacturers. Promised goods sometimes arrived much later than planned or, when they did arrive, had to be returned because they were not the appropriate ones. Additional furnishings were still being discussed and ordered as late as February of 1901.

The living room is dominated by a huge Gothic hearth supported with hand-carved lions and magnificent copper-and-steel dragon andirons - a room with the qualities of a private men's club.
From an architectural standpoint, the First Hill house set a precedent and was a prototype that would be copied and embellished by a host of local designers in the first decade of the 20th century. These gracious English traditional homes lined and defined the streets in well-to-do neighborhoods of First Hill, Queen Anne Hill, Capitol Hill, Denny Blaine, Washington Park and University Heights. Not surprisingly, one of the most prolific firms to work in the style was that of Charles Bebb, Cutter's local supervisor, who in 1901 partnered with Louis Mendel.

Only a decade later, the modest quarter-block property seemed cramped as apartment buildings and hospitals started to encroach. Stimson and his business associates and friends saw their future in a pristine wooded area on Puget Sound northwest of Seattle. They called it The Highlands, and there they planned the new Seattle Golf Club — its clubhouse another Kirtland Cutter creation.

In 1913, when Cutter's office was well along with its designs for his new residence, Stimson made it known that the First Hill property was for sale. John M. and Abbie Frink approached him with the suggestion of a trade — the house for a half-block of land downtown at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Pike Street. Stimson agreed, and the C.D. Stimson Co. acquired the property that would shortly be developed as the Coliseum Theatre.

In the early days, the living room functioned as a library and a stage for evening musicales and plays performed by the Stimson children. It bore the characteristic dark oak and Gothic carvings of an English manor house.
COURTESY OF PRISCILLA BULLITT COLLINS
The most exotic space in the house was the den adjoining the billiards room in the basement. It had been inspired by the predilection during that era for Moorish smoking rooms, where the men could retreat after dinner to play cards, drink brandy and discuss the latest business deal. Its brass filigree Mosque lanterns captured the flavor of the "casbah."
As it turned out, Frink was in ill health, and although he owned the First Hill house for several months, he never lived in it. Instead, he or his widow sold it to Joshua Green later that year. Green's La Conner Trading and Transportation Co. merged with the Puget Sound Navigation Co. and ran a fleet of ferries under the Black Ball name that evolved into the Washington State ferry system. On the eve of his retirement, Green was asked to help out an ailing bank and became the head of what grew into People's National Bank of Washington. He and his wife, "Missy," lived to the remarkable ages of 105 and 104. When the Greens passed away — she in 1974, he a short time later — it looked as though the house they had occupied for 61 years might expire as well.

But Historic Seattle, a public-development authority established the previous year, bought the house, paying the assessed value at the time — $187,500. Historic Seattle guaranteed the preservation of its exterior and significant interior spaces by nominating it for listing on state and national historic registers and for designation as a City of Seattle landmark.

After passing through several interim owners, it fell to Priscilla Bullitt Collins, granddaughter of the Stimsons, who purchased the house in 1986 for $1.3 million. She invested $800,000 to upgrade the building, make long-overdue repairs and restore the elegant look of its interiors. When the February 2001 earthquake damaged the principal chimneys, she had them rebuilt sturdier than before, but looking identical to their pre-quake profiles.

On Sept. 1, through Collins' generous gift, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation became the newest owner of the Stimson-Green mansion. The gift assures continued good stewardship of the home and gives the state-wide preservation organization a permanent headquarters.

Happy Birthday to you, Stimson-Green mansion, and many happy returns.

•   •   •

A Trust for Preservation

Founded in the bicentennial year of 1976, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation is a statewide, nonprofit preservation organization. The Trust has worked to rehabilitate significant structures, revitalize neighborhoods and historic downtown areas, and preserve open space, farms and archaeological sites in the face of sprawl. The Trust successfully sued the federal government to protect the historic buildings of Fort Lawton and has helped pass property-tax legislation with incentives that encourage rehabilitation. It has also started Main Street programs to re-energize cities from Walla Walla to Kent to Port Townsend. In addition to presenting workshops and conferences around the state, the Trust produces a quarterly members' newsletter and maintains a "Ten Most Endangered Properties" list to highlight threatened sites in Washington. For information, call 206-624-4994 or e-mail info@wa-trust.org.

Some material for this story was excerpted from "The Stimson Legacy: Architecture in the Urban West," by Lawrence Kreisman (Willows Press, 1992). Kreisman, who also is the author of "Made to Last: Historic Preservation in Seattle and King County," is program director for Historic Seattle and serves on the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board. Benjamin Benschneider is a staff photographer for Pacific Northwest magazine.


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