In 1906, Seattle began preparing for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (AYPE), the purpose of which was to showcase the development of the Pacific Northwest—a kind of debutante ball for the region. To some extent, it was also intended as a riposte to rival city Portland’s Lewis and Clark Exposition earlier in the year.
The exposition was to be held from June 1, 1909, through October 16, hosted on the nascent, still-wild University of Washington campus, which had relocated from downtown Seattle in 1895. Over one million fairgoers were predicted to pour into the city; the actual number turned out to be around four million.
There was just one problem. At the time, only three buildings had been constructed on the heavily forested campus, and streams still ran through it, ending in mud flats at Union Bay. The area north of the UW was still partially farmland, and there was a frog pond where the Wells Fargo now stands at 45th and University Way NE. Cows roamed the streets, and only 14th Avenue (later to become the Ave) had sidewalks. The city had its work cut out for it.
When, in 1906, it was decided that the AYPE would indeed be held at UW’s campus, the neighborhood of University Station—known until 1895 as Brooklyn—was steadily growing. However, beyond Fraternity Row, residential buildings were scarce, as most university students lived outside the area. There was a trolley stop at 42nd, but the neighborhood was considered to be a great distance from the center of the city, and tourists were not expected to want to make the journey from their accommodations downtown.
What University Station needed was hotels.
That’s where Charles Cowen came in. We know him today by his namesake park at the north end of Ravenna, but as the 19th century turned into the 20th, he was known as a University District-based developer who made a fortune from diamond mining and contributed greatly to the fleshing out of the neighborhood—especially as it prepared for the great fair. As plans for the expo began to be set into motion, Cowen, a British-born, South African-raised immigrant, donated $500 (about $14,000 in 2018 dollars) toward a “beautifying campaign” invested in surfacing streets, and donated to the city 12 acres of the 40 he’d purchased as stumpland, which became Cowen Park. The rest was developed into residential and commercial plats.
District leaders were so startled by Cowen’s generosity that they gave a banquet in his honor at the Congregational Church [at 43rd and Brooklyn]. District leaders were so startled by Cowen’s generosity that they gave a banquet in his honor at the Congregational Church. At the prize winners’ ceremony, Cowen advised, “It was not pure philanthropy that impelled me, but a desire to enhance the value of my property.” But he added, “Of course, there is a sentimental side to this for which ... I get more pleasure than from the money.”
It was also Cowen who, operating as the Sylvester-Cowen Investment Company, designed Ye College Inn just a block from the campus and soon-to-be fairgrounds, in partnership with the landowner, J. R. Hendren, and rising star architects David J. Myers and John Graham. (Myers was responsible for several hotels and churches around Seattle, and Graham’s firm went on to build the Space Needle, among many other iconic buildings throughout the city.) The two men had joined forces a few years before, in 1905. The main—and only—entrance gate to the AYPE was planned to be built one block away, spanning across NE 40th Street at 15th Avenue NE.
The building itself was designed in the English Tudor Revival style, an architectural fashion that hit its stride in Seattle later in the 1920s. Perhaps appropriately, both architect Graham and investor Cowen were British, while Graham was Scottish. The inn was initially managed by Emily Crindland, who lived on site, as did future managers Charles W. Wakefield and Florence L. Smith (who was also the proprietor at the Fremont Hotel on Fremont Avenue N, where Jai Thai is located today).
Many year later, Gladys Poole, another of the inn’s managers, described the building in her invitation to its 1980 reopening:
The College Inn complemented the Spanish and French Renaissance grandeur of the Fair and further diversified the architectural history of the City of Seattle with graceful Tudor style relief. With its decorative half-timbered and stucco façade, its quiet elegance, and manor charm, The College Inn stands today in welcome relief to otherwise featureless concrete and offers a glimpse of history and the atmosphere of country dwelling.
After the AYPE closed in October of 1909, Ye College Inn continued operating as usual, with an ice cream shop moving into the ground floor commercial space on the University Way NE side for the first few years. The NE 40th Street commercial space was a restaurant, and later a dress shop was located in the building—with a wide variety of other kinds of shops moving in and out over the decades. The name was changed to “The College Hotel” in 1916, although the ghost of its old name seems to have lingering during the 1920s and 1930s, as it was sometimes referred to as “The College Inn Hotel.”
By late 1960, the top two floors had been converted into apartments. The extensive remodel cleared both floors of all partitions, and apartments where installed with individual bathrooms. As The Seattle Times reported at the time: “During the intervening years, it has housed several generations of University of Washington students in its 30 rooms, virtually unchanged since the glamour days of the exposition.”
The units rented for $125 a month and included both utilities and maid service, perhaps as a callback to the building’s history. As of 1963, Werner’s European Café, a restaurant and bakery that was a decades-long fixture in University District, is located in the commercial space on 40th, where the entrance to the inn once was.
In the early ’70s, Ronald L. Bozarth and Richard L. Burnett bought the apartment building and refinished the basement, which became the College Inn Pub, and overhauled street-level commercial spaces, revealing original walls, floors, and doors, then did the same for the upstairs apartment, with the intention of restoring the building as a guest house. An extra floor was also added in the attic. In 1979, just prior to Poole’s reopening of the inn the following year, architectural historian Shirley L. Courtois wrote:
All installations for the apartments were removed, interior walls and room arrangements were restored, original wood trim and detailing were duplicated. Several of the rooms retain the original wide built-in seats in the spacious window bays ... The attic, which had remained unfinished, was converted to a guest breakfast room and piano lounge, with additional private office space and manager’s apartment, in a manner in keeping with the character of the building ... The entrance to the Inn was restored to its original position where a glazed and paneled entry door with segmented arched transom and sidelights give access to a small lobby, where a terrazzo floor with a mosaic of four shields and the inscription “Ye College Inn” was uncovered and restored.
In the ’90s, the pub (not the building) was bought by two of its former bartenders, Gary Kelfner and Jordan Kowalke, who spoke candidly to the UW Daily in 1999 about its alleged resident ghost. Howard Bok, according to legend, was a sailor—some versions say a fisherman—who stopped in Seattle on his way to Alaska and was murdered at the Inn “many years ago,” and his ghost supposedly came with the pub when it was constructed in 1974. The story is that he abides in the Snug Room—the small alcove in the back of the bar—and his spirit shows up after hours, sometimes playing the piano. To honor him, the pub menu still features Howard’s Special, a bagel dog with a pint of Pabst. (According to a cook, the bagel dog was chosen because “It may just come back to haunt you.”)
Today, the College Inn is the only commercial structure built for the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition that still stands; the Pacific Coast Architecture Database called it “one of the finest and most convincing half-timbered Tudor Revival buildings in the city.” The College Inn Pub still operates out of the basement as one of the city’s best dive bars, while the upper floors still function as a 27-room inn—just as Graham, Myers, and Cowen had intended. The Easy Shoppe Grocery & Deli currently occupies the street level storefront on the east side of the building, while the street-level space on the western corner is home to Spring Kitchen, a Thai and Vietnamese restaurant. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.