At Meeker Mansion, where the beauty of late-19th-century housing is showcased, you can almost imagine Ezra Meeker sitting at his walnut desk or his wife, Eliza, practicing at her piano.
TOURISTS IN the West love to visit museums in grand old houses. In Denver, it’s the Molly Brown House; in Los Angeles, the Gamble House; in Portland, the Pittock Mansion, and in Spokane, the Campbell House.
I’m often asked by locals and visitors alike where the house museums are in Seattle. Sadly, I have to tell them we don’t really have any — only some that are home base for organizations: the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation in the Stimson-Green Mansion; the Episcopal Diocese in the Leary Mansion and my own Historic Seattle in the Henry Dearborn House. I direct them instead to the Neely Mansion in Auburn and to the Meeker Mansion in a place even some locals have trouble pronouncing — Puyallup.
When Seattle regraded downtown streets in the early 20th century, high-Victorian-style homes were razed in the process. What didn’t disappear then soon gave way to remodeling and newer homes so that Queen Anne Hill, presumably named for the Victorian style, has virtually none left.
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What a delight it is, then, to visit the Meeker Mansion, where the beauty of late-19th-century housing is showcased, complete with period furnishings, including some that belonged to its original owners. You can almost imagine Ezra Meeker sitting at his walnut desk or his wife, Eliza, practicing at her square grand piano.
What visitors see today belies all the inappropriate changes and damage it endured under many owners and uses. It has taken years of community-initiated fundraising and preservation efforts to bring this historic house back to its roots.
The Meeker Mansion was quite a step up from the log cabin where Meeker and his wife lived and raised their children. The stately Italianate villa was designed by the Tacoma architectural firm Ferrell and Darmer. Work began in 1886, and by 1890 it was complete enough for the wedding of their youngest daughter, Olive.
The mansion featured hand-painted ceilings, stained-glass windows at the two entrances and fireplaces with English tile.
The hop crisis and financial panic of 1893 affected Meeker’s resources. So from 1903 his house was for sale, and the record includes several transfers within the family. From 1906 to ’08, Meeker was on an expedition, and the house took in boarders.
After Eliza’s death in 1909, Ezra did not return, leaving his daughter and son-in-law in charge. About 1912 it was leased as a hospital. In 1915, the Washington and Alaska Chapter of the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic bought it to house widows and orphans.
In 1948 the GAR sold it to the first of a series of doctors who used it as a critical-care nursing home. Dropped ceilings were installed, and exterior woodwork and trim were removed to make way for asbestos siding.
In 1970, an organization was formed to take over the building and move it, because the land on which it stood had been sold. Thankfully, the early society failed to move the building and, through heroic efforts, the property was bought back. Restoration began almost immediately and continues under the watchful eye of the Ezra Meeker Historical Society.
Exterior additions were removed, as were the dropped ceilings, fire doors and partitions from its nursing-home days. Painted woodwork was stripped and restored. In 1972, many layers of paint were removed from the drawing room to reveal the original painted and stenciled ceilings. Thousands of wood screws were needed to stabilize the nearly century-old plaster, which was preserved and repainted to replicate the original colors and patterns.
Over the next 20 years, the original paintings were uncovered, copied and repainted. The identity of the painter remained a mystery until 2000, when research revealed that Frederick Nelson Atwood, an East Coast-trained artist who specialized in decorating theaters, took credit for the work.
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 magazine staff photographer.