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The resilient history of Washington Hall

From the Danes to jazz to today

Sticks & Stones Photography, courtesy of Historic Seattle

At East Fir Street and 14th Avenue in the Central District, the unassuming red brick veneer of Washington Hall quietly blends into its pretty nondescript residential neighborhood, tucked behind a couple of maple trees. The most remarkable thing about its exterior is its name and date of construction announced in big white letters on its parapet: “WASHINGTON HALL, 1908.” But a peek inside reveals an opulent Victorian jewel from a bygone era. You’d never know that it didn’t always look that way. In fact, it’s lucky to be standing at all.

In 1907, local muckymuck architect Victor Voorhees was paid $150 to design a meeting hall on the site for the Danish Brotherhood in America, an ethnic fraternal club for immigrants from Denmark and their descendants. The three-story building took up four lots—along with an additional five feet on the west side that had to be purchased once it was determined that the hall had been placed incorrectly and was about to spill over the property’s borders.

The architectural style is described by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as “eclectic with Mission Revival elements,” and its first included a performance hall with a stage and dressing rooms, a meeting hall, a kitchen, a library, and a bar, along with single boarding rooms in the back for Danes who were new in town. The layout was designed to be separated into thirds, with gathering spaces for the Danes are on the first floor, the public performance space on the second floor, and the private rooms taking up the rear third of the footprint.

Joe Mabel/Flickr

Throughout the building, public spaces are indicated by curved or semi-curved archways and doorways, while square-cut doorways indicate private spaces, such as boarding rooms. The structure itself is wooden, encased in a brick façade. Although only one of the Mission-style brick parapets stands on the roof today, there were originally two, on the east and south sides. Huge metal finials, or spires, on top of the parapets are also now gone. The remaining parapet is painted red.

A 7.1 earthquake in 1949 was what knocked out the southern parapet. History Link describes the event’s destruction of Seattle’s masonry: “one thousand and nine hundred brick walls throughout the city collapsed, fractured, or bulged,” and “cracks opened in the ground, some spouting water six feet high.”

With more than 23,000 square feet to light and heat, the Danes were friendly to renters and began hosting events for outside organizations. It was an especially attractive venue, in that it offered high ceilings, abundant natural light, and smaller rooms that were good for meetings and other quiet activities.

The Danish Brotherhood differed from other fraternal organizations in Seattle in that it had no issue with renting to non-Christian religions or non-Danish ethnic groups; records show rental contracts with the Ancient Order of Hibernians (an Irish ethnic group), the Sons of Israel, the Filipino Youth Club, the Japanese Gentlemen's Club, and Delta Sigma Theta (a black sorority based out of Howard University), among many others. The hall also hosted "First annual ball for Negro sailors at Washington Hall” during Fleet Week in 1938, in an era when other traditional Fleet Week dance halls would not have been available to African-Americans. The venue seemed to attract radical political groups as well, such as the Jewish Socialist Party.

University of Washington School of Architecture student Andrew A. Phillips, a former caretaker of the hall, spoke with another former caretaker of the hall for his 1995 thesis:

Ms. Ingeborg Kisbye, the caretaker from 1954-70, remembers renting Washington Hall to a radical Communist Finnish organization and later to the Black Panthers. “The (Danish) Brotherhood did not always approve of these groups using the hall,” she remembers. “Other places, however, barred them and they did provide a reliable income.”

Washington Hall evolved into a popular live music venue, particularly for African-American acts. It’s the site of what was possibly the very first jazz performance in Seattle, or at least the first for which documentation still exists: Miss Lillian Smith's Jazz Band put on a show there in the summer of 1918. Famed vaudevillian dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson performed there in 1932, and progressively illustrious names followed soon after, like Billie Holliday, Mahalia Jackson, Fats Domino, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, to name a few. Future rock star Jimi Hendrix played there with his band The Rockin’ Kings as a teenager in 1960, too.

With all the action the hall had seen, by the time the African-American fraternal group the Sons of Haiti bought the building from the Danish Brotherhood in 1973, it was in bad shape, with widespread “Band-Aid repairs” such as duct tape securing plaster details onto the balcony. Around the same time, a fire between the public meeting area and the former boarding rooms destroyed many original features. The Sons of Haiti began renting the performance space to local theater company On the Boards starting in 1978, a tenant that ended up sticking around for 20 years. Although the Sons of Haiti made many alterations to the building over the years, they still didn’t have the budget for the larger repairs. Economic viability of the building slipped.

Joe Mabel/Flickr

Fittingly, during these years of decline, Washington Hall became less known as an event space for glamorous orchestras and swing dancing and more for punk bands and slam dancing. A May 18, 1979, article in the Seattle Times discusses a performance by the Dead Kennedys, and another in 1981 decrees that “In Seattle, most slamming takes place during high-powered punk-rock or progressive-music concerts, ringside, center-front stage at Danceland U.S.A. and the Showbox on First Avenue, or Washington Hall Performance Gallery on 14th Avenue.” Other local punk bands that graced Washington Hall’s stage during its punk phase were Cat Butt, Seaweed, Gas Huffer, and the Gits.

The Sons of Haiti had paid off the mortgage on the crumbling building in 1999, and it was designated as a Seattle Landmark by the City of Seattle's Landmarks Preservation Board later the same year. But their longtime tenant On the Boards had moved out the year prior, and even though the property was fully owned at this point, the property wasn’t making money. By 2006, Washington Hall was facing possible demolition, with developers eyeing the land for condos.

It was Historic Seattle, a public development and preservation authority, that stepped in and saved Washington Hall from the wrecking ball, supported by arts and culture grantors 4Culture. In 2009, they purchased the property for $1.5 million and launched a grand, multi-phase restoration of the 101-year-old structure with an ultimate price tag of $9.86 million, which took until 2016 to complete. The roof was replaced, the damaged south wall was replaced, the whole structure was seismically retrofitted, the elevator was replaced, the windows were restored, and the interior was utterly overhauled, including build-outs of tenant spaces, meeting spaces, and the addition of a recording studio.

The hall continued to host events during its limbo phase. During one noteworthy show by local musician Ben Gibbard on a rainy night, the roof sprang a leak and water started pouring down the back stairs.

According to Historic Seattle’s executive director Kji Kelly, what attracted the PDA to the project in 2008, before they bought it, was its sense of cultural history: “Not its architectural grandeur, per se, but the building’s historical significance to the community—as a space where all faiths and cultures and socioeconomic levels were able to be themselves and organize and become upset about things. That to us was compelling.”

In 2016, three anchor partners were brought in, community arts nonprofits 206 Zulu, Hidmo, and Voices Rising, which curate their own events and field other renters.

Today, Washington Hall is as swinging as it ever was, hosting manifold types of events, ranging from indie art conventions like the Seattle Urban Book Expo and Short Run Comix & Arts Festival, live music from the likes of Macklemore and La Luz, and an New Year’s Eve parties, community galas, and community outreach orientations—all amid the sparkling turn-of-the-century splendor that was very nearly lost forever.

Although it’s beautiful, perhaps the most important purpose of Washington Hall is its unique history, as a community haven for diverse generations of Seattleites to express and enjoy art. As Historic Seattle’s website says it: “Washington Hall is a place to incubate and be reborn.”