In 1988, as he was working to develop it for Redhook Ale Brewery’s impending move-in, architect Skip Satterwhite said of the Fremont Trolley Barn: "Someone could spent their whole life finding out about this building."
He may have been onto something there: The 26,000-square-foot structure has been home to at least half a dozen businesses over the course of 11 decades. And that may not even be all of them.
This distinctive brick building was erected in 1905 at 3400 Phinney Avenue North between Ewing and Blewett Streets—now known as North 34th and North 35th Streets respectively—back when Fremont was a hub for trolley service between Seattle and Everett. The bill for construction ended up being $31,225, or about $825,773 in 2017 dollars.
Originally intended as a hangar for the trolley cars at the end of the day, it was built by Boston engineering firm Stone and Webster, which established the Seattle-Everett Traction Company from here in 1910, eventually connecting Olympia and Vancouver, BC, in this fashion as well.
It was one of the only brick structures in a neighborhood that was home to both Fremont Milling Company and later Bryant Lumber Mill and the wooden houses its workers lived in. (Another of the rare brick buildings in turn-of-the-century Fremont was B. F. Day School, which also still stands.)
The trolley tracks continued from the street into the barn, which contained a yard where up to 60 cars could be tightly packed, as well as living accommodations for the trainmen, storage blocks, and three separate bays for repairs.
By 1936, as the city and its trolley lines grew, there were eventually a total of 410 trolleys in play. All of the trolley cars dated from 30-plus years earlier and were beginning to show their age. This kicked off a long, drawn-out political dispute between the folks who wanted to refurbish the decrepit trolleys and those who wanted to convert to a bus-and-trackless-trolley system and ditch the whole trolley thing entirely.
It took a few years, but by 1942, the trolley tracks had been pulled up. The trolleys’ former home passed to the U.S. Army, who used it for vehicle storage, as the country (and, uh, the world) was in the thick of World War II.
When the war ended, the building was utilized by Seattle Disposal Company as a garage for garbage trucks as well its offices and storage facility. This lasted through 1983, when Pacific Rim Exports used it as a warehouse for a year and change.
It’s not clear on what the building was used for between 1984 and 1988, but by ‘88, Quadrant Corporation was leasing it and began prepping it for its new tenants: Redhook Ale Brewery, which had been set up in an old auto repair shop on Leary Way since 1981, formerly known as Medin’s Ravioli Station. (Redhook’s Big Ballard Imperial IPA, first brewed in 1984, still bears the name of the company’s old stomping grounds.)
Many Seattleites probably best remember this building from this era. Redhook was considered Seattle’s very first craft brewery—although some folks dispute this status—and its move to Fremont after a period of explosive growth was a big deal. The new space allowed them not only plenty of room to brew, beginning with an annual capacity for 30,000 barrels and eventually bumping it up to 75,000, but also allowed for an on-site bar, The Trolleyman Pub—named as a nod to the building’s origins.
Redhook operated out of the trolley barn until 2000, when it moved to its huge, custom-built, present-day digs up in Woodinville. (Rumor has it that Redhook has plans to close its fancy Woodinville HQ in order to focus on its new Capitol Hill brewpub.)
In 2004, the Fremont Trolley Barn was transformed into its current incarnation: the production factory for Theo Chocolates, one of the world’s top chocolatiers and the only organic, fair-trade chocolate factory in the nation. The old Trolleyman Pub is now Theo’s retail store, and design firm H+dlT Collaborative worked to open up the south facade to the street, creating an indoor/outdoor dining space.
$10 tours of the chocolate factory are offered daily, Willy Wonka-style (sort of), so anyone with time on their hands is welcome to check out this compelling, multifaceted building that’s endured over the last century—and, thanks to its landmark status bestowed by the City of Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board in 1991, will continue to for many years to come.
This article has been updated to fix a typo and to correct the cost and frequency of Theo Chocolate Factory tours.