Washington Hall is in the midst of a rebirth, and that’s good for Seattle’s connection to its history. The building, at 14th Avenue and East Fir Street in Seattle’s Central Area, is more than a structure with a little nostalgia attached, yet it could have been torn down years ago.
It was saved by Historic Seattle, which bought it in 2009 and is in the last stages of its effort to raise money for renovation. “As the neighborhood changes and younger people move in, it’s especially important to have this place continue to tell the story,” Kathleen Brooker told me.
Brooker is executive director of Historic Seattle, a hybrid organization, part public-development authority and part foundation dedicated to saving architecture that tells the history of Seattle and to encouraging community vitality in the present.
I’ve attended events in the hall, but not for years, and I had forgotten about it when Historic Seattle started getting the word out about an event Saturday to reintroduce the hall to the community.
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Brooker gave me a tour along with rental manager Van Diep and real-estate director Kji Kelly, and they talked about its past and future.
The structure was built in 1908 by the Danish Brotherhood in America during a period of heavy Scandinavian immigration. Danes lived in the building while they were making the transition to America, and in subsequent years other immigrants would make use of the space, too — Filipinos, Sephardic Jews, Croatians, East Africans and more. It was home to a synagogue for a time, and it housed a labor hall.
And from the beginning, the building has also been a venue for the arts.
The Danes opened their doors to African Americans at a time when many others in Seattle would not, and some of the most famous American entertainers performed on Washington Hall’s small stage. Billie Holiday, Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson sang there. Duke Ellington, Count Basie and later Jimi Hendrix performed there. Political activist Marcus Garvey and boxing champion Joe Louis appeared there.
The Sons of Haiti, an African-American Masons group, bought the building in 1973 and it continued to be part of Seattle’s story — the Black Panther Party held meetings there — and a home for the arts. Choreographers Mark Morris and Bill T. Jones brought their shows to Washington Hall. On the Boards was housed there, and dance groups rented the space.
The building was already showing its age, but it got worse. A fire in the 1980s made a third of the building unusable, and the 2001 Nisqually earthquake did significant damage, as did a large snowstorm in 2011. It was raining inside the building, and the south wall was barely hanging on when the restoration began.
Historic Seattle (which qualifies for funding a private group like the Masons couldn’t get) has repaired the roof and wall and replaced the original floors in parts of the building. The radiators work again and the building has new bathrooms, but there’s more to do.
When scaffolding from the wall and roof repairs came down last April, requests to use the space came pouring in, Diep said, often from people with vivid memories of the hall.
Despite its problems, the building has been in continuous use. Three community organizations operate from Washington Hall, and more have expressed interest.
Historic Seattle is looking for private partners who would get tax credits for investments in the renovation, which would help the Hall have the same success as previous Historic Seattle projects such as the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford.
The Washington Hall benefit and coming-out party on Saturday will be headlined by the family of Seattle’s jazz patriarch, the late Oscar Holden, who lived across the street and played at the hall often. Holden and his wife, Leala, who had her own musical career, raised a family of musicians, and they volunteered to perform at the benefit. Four generations will sing and dance on the stage and on that
shiny new floor.
Holden’s granddaughter, Deborah Brooks, said she and her brothers used to sneak in to watch their grandfather play. Brooks, an event planner, organized the concert and expects more than 20 family members to participate; the youngest is 7-year-old Trinity Glover. “We love that building. It’s been a part of our family all of our lives,” she said.
The renewed Washington Hall has the potential to connect people to the region’s history and to play an ongoing role as a home for artistic and cultural vitality. That’s cause for celebration.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org