Long before they were allowed to perform on the stages of mainstream Seattle, jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Domino and Duke Ellington...

Share story

Long before they were allowed to perform on the stages of mainstream Seattle, jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Domino and Duke Ellington packed the seats at Washington Hall.

In an era when black performers weren’t welcome in the city’s white clubs and auditoriums, the three-story structure built by the Danish Brotherhood Society in 1908 played host to a virtual who’s who of black artists, including James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke there.

No one disputes the 100-year-old Yesler Terrace building is rich in history. Not the Supreme Council of the Sons of Haiti, the black Masonic order that now owns it and has put it up for sale.

Not Historic Seattle, a nonprofit group devoted to preserving historic places, which would like to preserve it as a historic site. And not DKA Architecture, a possible buyer that is considering turning the building into housing units.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

But whether the building ends up as condominiums or is preserved as a historic landmark depends solely on who offers the best price.

Charles Adams, a building manager and an officer with the Sons of Haiti, said the group, which purchased the building in 1973 for $50,000, hopes to sell it for $2 million to $2.5 million so it can buy a newer building in Renton for meetings and activities.

As far as the building’s history is concerned, no one knows more about it than Adams. Now 75, he was there when Brown, Hendrix and Cab Calloway played. The hall was often rented out for shows by the legendary black performers.

It was a time when most opportunities for blacks were so limited they found themselves in menial jobs, so to know these entertainers were recognized for their talents was wonderful.

“It made me feel very proud to have a celebrity of that stature there,” Adams said. “Myself being an African American just to witness this, knowing that these individuals had crossed a certain threshold of acceptance as far as entertainers were concerned, made me very proud.”

Legacy worth saving

When it comes to choosing between preserving that history and making money, the Sons of Haiti says it wants the money for a new building because it is no longer economically possible to maintain the aging Washington Hall.

Today, its brick front has been painted red, the windows on the side are boarded up. There are blocks of condominiums nearby, but Washington Hall’s history at the center of Seattle’s black performing-arts scene is just why Historic Seattle wants the building preserved.

Mark Blatter, in charge of real-estate development for the agency, said the building’s legacy is exactly why it should be saved. And the fact that the building is intact, rather than sliced up by remodels over the years, makes it especially desirable historically, he said.

Repairing the building won’t be cheap. Blatter estimates it will cost $4 million to $5 million, more than the price the Sons of Haiti is seeking for the hall.

Blatter said he questioned whether the building is worth the $2 million price tag Sons of Haiti wants and said its poor condition and legal issues with various names on the property title would have to be cleared up because public money can’t be used to purchase property with a title that may be compromised. Adams denies there’s any problem with the title.

Representatives from Donald King’s DKA Architecture were at Washington Hall the other day looking over the building and trying to estimate how much renovation would cost. Plans for the building would include using it for multifamily housing, one of the architects on the site said, recognizing the history perhaps with a plaque.

DKA, completed the renovation of Colman School into the Northwest African American Museum, which includes apartments on the top floor.

Stephanie Ellis-Smith, executive director of the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas, wants to partner with Historic Seattle in purchasing and restoring the hall and has volunteered to handle the capital campaign.

The building would be a home for the nonprofit group’s office and all its community events and performing arts, she said. And it would be a way to make the “African-American heritage wider known throughout our community,” she said. Washington Hall has “an incredible history and so few people know about it. This would be a great fit for our organization,” she said.

Maintenance pain

The value of the 25,000-square-foot building is assessed by King County at $1.2 million. Inside the musty, dim rooms, the ceiling has fallen away in places, exposing bare laths where pigeons have roosted. In the shadows of decaying rooms once filled with life, there’s the stench of garbage.

The hall is “just bleeding us dry,” said Kenneth Washington, a Sons of Haiti member in his 20s. He led a reporter on a tour of a few restored rooms — places that once were the quarters of newly arrived Danish immigrants and more recently housed immigrants from Guatemala and Ethiopia. On Sunday, an Ethiopian church holds services upstairs in the auditorium.

Washington smiles and shrugs off questions about the jazz greats and even King. To him and some others, the building is simply a maintenance pain with little nostalgic value.

Then the name of someone else who played at Washington Hall comes up and Washington smiles: Jimi Hendrix.

“Now him I like,” he says.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.