It took only 90 minutes for nearly 120 years worth of J & M Café and Cardroom history to be auctioned off to the highest bidder on Thursday. A woman wielding bid number 520, Skye Belline, was the big buyer of the day, spending nearly $140,000 in an auction that netted $150,000 for 90 items.
A petite woman with long dark hair raised her bid card again and again, buying the antique bars and many of the fixtures that have adorned the J & M Cafe and Cardroom since the days when gold prospectors and prostitutes filled the hotels and watering holes that once lined First Avenue in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.
It took only 90 minutes for nearly 120 years worth of history to be auctioned off to the highest bidder on Thursday. The woman wielding bid number 520, Skye Belline, was the big buyer of the day, spending nearly $140,000 in an auction that netted $150,000 for 90 items.
Belline is vice president of special assets for Evergreen Bank. The bank, founded in Seattle in 1972, has long done business with the bar’s owners, she said. The owners filed for bankruptcy in January and Evergreen Bank is among the bar’s creditors that combined, are owed nearly $1.2 million, according to documents filed in federal bankruptcy court.
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Belline said bank officials are looking for a buyer who won’t split up a collection that includes intricately carved back bars, front bars with brass taps and foot rails, a portrait of a reclining naked woman, and metal-and-glass chandeliers that hang from the embossed metal ceiling.
The bank also bought the trade name — J & M Cafe and Cardroom — for $5,000, raising the possibility that the bar could be reinvented elsewhere in the city.
“We didn’t want it to get torn into pieces and scattered across the state,” said Belline, who, like many of the 50 or so people who attended the morning auction, considers the J & M a city institution. “We want to find a good home for it. It belongs in Seattle.”
Karl Weiss and Dean Haugen own the State Hotel, a former brothel that now houses a bar and artists’ lofts kitty corner to the J & M. They attended the auction and bought two large mirrors for their penthouse studio — one for the wall behind their pool table and another, a 7-foot tall dressing mirror that will hang somewhere in their building.
“Every Friday and Saturday night, there was a line around the corner of people waiting to get in here, so I can’t understand how the bar wasn’t making money,” Weiss said.
Added Haugen: “It’s a travesty what’s going on here. It’s one of the oldest watering holes that we all grew up with and now it’s being gutted.”
The three-story, brick building sits on the southwest corner of First Avenue South and South Washington Street. It was built in 1889 in the months after the Great Seattle Fire devastated the wooden buildings in the young city’s commercial core.
Originally built for a wholesale business, the J & M — which once had hotel rooms on the upper floors — has been a bar and cardroom since the Gold Rush days, according to the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, which lists the building in its historic register.
Julia van der Werff, a caterer, lives half a block from the J & M and spent many nights dancing to Herding Cats, a classic rock cover band that used to play there every week.
“I’m feeling nostalgic. I used to party here, the first time when I was 21,” said van der Werff, now 28. “I walked by and it was chained up one day. It just closed all of a sudden.
“I wanted to [be there to] see the bar go. It’s a historical, Seattle monument from the Gold Rush and I’d love to have a little piece of Seattle history,” van der Werff said.
She’d hoped to buy a mirror like the ones Weiss and Haugen bought, but was outbid every time. That didn’t stop her from celebrating with another bidder, Lynn Ward, of Poulsbo, who came to Seattle to attend the auction and left with 10 historic photos and prints.
“It was a wild place,” Ward said, remembering the J & M from her single days in the 1970s. “It was a good place for a sandwich and a beer. It was a lot of fun.”
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org