Local gathering spaces speak to history.
THOUGH IT’S been half a century, I still remember vividly the times my mother, father, sister and I took the subway from our home in the Bronx to Union Square in downtown Manhattan, walked to an old building and rode the elevator to a floor with a large meeting room that the Kreisman Family Circle had rented.
There, we would get together — just to talk and be part of our larger family.
In 1909 at age 12, my father, Meyer, had come to this country from Kiev, leaving behind his parents, brothers and sisters. In Bremen, he had boarded a steamer with other Eastern European Jews. When he landed in Galveston, Texas, he headed north to Chicago and finally to New York, where his father’s brother had settled, as had an older brother.
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By the 1950s, the Kreismans and their offspring had moved up the economic ladder to newly developing areas of the Bronx and Westchester, Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island. The Family Circle was the one opportunity, apart from occasional bar mitzvahs and anniversaries, when family members gathered socially. It was also a way of remembering that we were part of a community of Kreismans who shared a heritage.
We were a nation of foreigners then, assimilating while still maintaining customs, music, food and religious traditions that continue to affect our perspectives. Immigrants found safety, comfort and support in the clubs and halls they designed, built and used as gathering places.
In Seattle, several of these sorts of buildings survive, including Washington Hall (used by the Danish Brotherhood), the Sons and Daughters of Norway Hall (now Raisbeck Hall at Cornish College of the Arts) and family-association meeting halls that occupied the upper floors of commercial and rooming hotels in Chinatown (one of them frozen in time at the Wing Luke Asian Museum).
We were also a nation of those who were “in” and those who were “out.” The outsiders, shunned by people who had come before, formed their own social and business networks. For example, when the established fraternal orders shunned six Seattle theater owners, they formed their own organization, the Eagles, and built a lavish terra cotta-faced building at Seventh Avenue and Union Street for their Aerie No. 1. Once a place of lodge rooms, housing and even a grand ballroom, it is now a designated landmark and home to ACT Theatre.
The insiders — the “movers and shakers” who set in motion the rapid growth of metropolitan Seattle — were successful in lumber, coal mining, steel, shipbuilding, cannery operations and the rail and steamship trades; they were attorneys, realtors and retailers. They found respite of their own in private clubs suited to their status. The Rainier Club, University Club and Arctic Club offered dining, drinking, lodging, gaming, business networking and longterm friendships. Wives and single women excluded from these male enclaves except for occasional dinners or dances formed their own social and intellectual community at the Sunset Club, Women’s Century Club and the Women’s University Club.
What all of these groups had in common, regardless of their reasons for forming, was a sense of togetherness — one that made an easier and more supportive transition to a new life.
Schools became the melting pots for these diverse populations. And while based in the neighborhoods, they drew from a larger geographic area. At Summit School, for example, children might have been Finnish or Japanese immigrants living on the south end of First Hill, newly arrived East Coasters or Midwesterners whose families lived in boardinghouses near Pike Street, or the children of lumbermen, bankers, industrialists and doctors from commodious homes on the plateau of the hill at Boren, Minor or Summit avenues.
Churches were another institution that brought together families who under normal circumstances might never have mingled. But they found themselves sharing pews at St. James Cathedral, First Baptist Church or Trinity Episcopal Church. Though early churches were largely organized around the ethnicity of their members, congregations that formed downtown and nearby had, by the 1920s, started to draw in members from many backgrounds.
Apart from their primary missions, schools and churches also functioned as the first true community centers before the city and county established recreation and day-care centers, swimming pools and park playgrounds. They offered meeting space, education, meals, shelter and job training. Many still do.
But society has changed, technology has entered the picture, and the tried-and-true gathering places are no longer guaranteed. Their very existence has been threatened.
Much of that change occurred as immigrants assimilated, learned English, found jobs and moved to new neighborhoods, often testing the tolerance of longer established Americans who carried with them their prejudices and suspicions. Eastern European Jews left the Central District for Mercer Island and Bellevue once the first floating bridge and the automobile made it convenient in 1940. Their synagogues were taken over and reused for churches as the CD developed into a welcoming center of black culture. After World War II, Japanese-American families forced out of housing in Nihonmachi to internment camps returned to Seattle and settled away from their traditional neighborhood. Italians dispersed from “Garlic Gulch” at the north end of the Rainier Valley as the neighborhood became an increasingly congested traffic artery.
In general, Americans during the postwar years moved to larger houses with family rooms and backyards in which entertaining more people was possible. Community halls and clubs weren’t needed so much.
By the last quarter of the 20th century, fraternal organizations and private clubs found their memberships aging and fewer young people coming. In a city with many more restaurants, health clubs, concert halls and community centers — as well as access to Web sites, blogs and twitter — these early associations seemed out-of-date and unresponsive to evolving lifestyles and interests.
A particularly telling example is the enormous Scottish Rite Temple on north Capitol Hill. That building, though it was less than 50 years old, was razed in 2006 to make way for high-end housing. Central-city religious congregations facing the same challenges found three distinct solutions:
After the community reacted with alarm to a proposal to demolish the Seventh Church of Christ, Scientist on Queen Anne Hill, again for new housing, Seattle Church of Christ bought the church and continues to use it as a place of worship. It was the best option anyone could wish for.
Repurposing was the answer for the Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist, on First Hill. After minimal physical changes, it was reborn as Town Hall Seattle and now accommodates musical performances, literary events and community forums.
The First Church of Christ, Scientist, a stately Classical Revival building on Capitol Hill, proved more challenging. The owner/developer seriously tried to find tenants or new owners who would operate it as a community arts and performing space with minimal changes to the beautiful gathering space. But when he couldn’t find anyone, he moved ahead with a less desirable option that at least saves the building and some of its principal features. The church has been divided into a group of town homes, some with stained-glass windows, and a common space beneath the glass dome of the former sanctuary. It’s an awkward marriage of traditional craft and high-tech modernism that may or may not find its market niche.
SO WHAT IS TO BECOME of the physical evidence of community gatherings, and why should we preserve them at all?
It’s worth noting that while the population here has churned up with all sorts of newcomers in recent years and young people seem less connected to places as they move around to pursue jobs, genealogy has become a popular pastime as more people have started exploring their roots. So clearly, some people still value knowing about who we are and where we came from. At the same time, Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Germans, Greeks, Poles, Irish, Chinese and other ethnic groups continue to gather throughout the region in club houses and churches. The Suquamish tribe recently celebrated the opening of a new community lodge that echoes the old tribal longhouses — a sign that passing on their history to new generations is critical to maintaining cultural identity.
Preserving the first gathering places of these groups — the physical evidence of their arrival and commitment to the area — keeps that history visible.
The plight of the Oddfellows Hall on East Pine Street filled the news last year as a new owner raised rents, and the small arts groups that called the building home found themselves looking for other quarters. It was gratifying to see the outpouring of local concern for the building as people throughout the city who had attended dances in the ballroom and classes in various rooms there showed that the quirky landmark had meaning to them — hardly any of it having to do with its long-lost original role as a fraternal organization.
Often, adaptive reuse is the only solution for buildings that no longer serve their original purpose, and it sometimes takes years to get the proper mix of owners, users, economics and community needs.
In Tacoma, the Elks Lodge earned a reputation as a white elephant as it sat vacant, rusting and decaying for years and various owners and schemes came and went. The Landmarks Commission rejected one owner’s request for demolition because the building was a designated city landmark. Recently, Portland-based McMenamins has developed plans with the city to rehabilitate the building and include new retail and apartments, as well as parking.
McMenamins has built a reputation for turning surplus and abandoned schools, theaters and clubs into comfortable hotels and restaurants. The same company had less success with an exceptional proposal that would have reconfigured the enormous brick seminary at St. Edward State Park in Kenmore into a hotel, restaurants and conference center. In that case, a shortsighted community nixed the plan over concerns about traffic congestion, alcohol consumption and control of the park. It is not likely that another such knight in shining armor will come forward, given the enormous costs of repairing and restoring this building. We are more likely to watch it further decay until it is a veritable picturesque ruin.
No society should save everything in the path of new development. But it is important to make thoughtful decisions about buildings that carry with them the vibrant history of a place and to make every possible effort to maintain these in a way that continues their original function. If that is unrealistic, then the next best step is to find an owner who respects the building, its history and its architectural merits and can come up with a financially viable use that at least preserves the exterior and significant interior features of the building.
This past fall, I was given a tour of the 1926 U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Building, a substantial Mediterranean Revival brick and tile structure at the southern edge of the Chinatown/International District. It functioned much as the revered Ellis Island had — a gatekeeper for immigrants and, later, for deportees.
The INS was dissolved and reconfigured in 2003. So this building is frozen in time, a reminder of the ways in which Americans welcomed many but also excluded those it considered undesirable, suspicious or dangerous. The interior has some of the characteristics of a prison, with barred windows, caged holding areas, confinement rooms and a rooftop recreation courtyard bound in chain-link fencing.
Our treatment of foreigners coming in and going out of our country based on political agendas of each era was often not pretty, but it is certainly worth acknowledging and understanding. As this building is transformed into commercial space, my hope is that the owners will set aside at least part of it as an interpretive center so we do not forget this important story of how we formed community.
Lawrence Kreisman is program director of Historic Seattle and author of “The Arts and Crafts movement in the Pacific Northwest.” Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest staff photographer.