Wilsonian Apartment Hotel (Seattle)

  • By Dotty DeCoster
  • Posted 7/29/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8878

The Wilsonian Apartment Hotel, located in Seattle's University District on the northeast corner of University Way NE and NE 47th Street, opened for business on November 26, 1923. It was the crowning achievement of Corinne Simpson Wilson (1867-1929) and her husband and business partner, George Washington Wilson (1878-1928). Designed by architect and engineer Frank Hoyt Fowler (1882-1931), it was promoted as the most elegant apartment hotel of its time outside of New York City. When it opened, it offered restaurant facilities, electric ranges in the apartments, elegant lounges, and an adjacent ballroom with a specially designed dance floor. Seattle mayor Bertha Knight Landes (1868-1943) lived there from just after it opened until 1941. The Puget Sound Group of Northwest Painters held their first auction there in 1939. Otto Seligman (1890-1966) operated his art gallery there in the 1950s. The Wilsonian has played a vital role in University District social life, home to University of Washington student events, teachers, and international visitors, and has served mixed hotel, apartment, and business uses throughout its history. Street-level storefronts along 47th Street and University Way were opened in the 1970s, and in 2005-2006 the ballroom was razed and redeveloped into a mixed-use building next door to the hotel. The Wilsonian was designated a landmark by the City of Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board in October 2005. In 2009, University Communities LLC owns the Wilsonian and remains enthusiastic about the building's history and its elegant decor.

Partners in Life and Real Estate

Seattle grew rapidly in the first decade of the twentieth century, and the real-estate business boomed, leading to several rags-to-riches stories of people who came to Seattle with nearly nothing and created wealth for themselves and others in land and construction transactions. Civic leader Henry Broderick (1880-1975) and developer Herbert S. Turner (1866-1941), for instance, are well known. "Mrs. Corinne Simpson," as Corinne Wilson called herself then, seems to have been the only woman who succeeded in building her own real-estate business; and when she married George Wilson, they ran the company together as the Corinne Simpson-Wilson Company.

Corinne Simpson, born Susan Corinne McKernan on July 7, 1867, in Kentucky or Illinois, arrived in Seattle sometime late in 1905, perhaps after visiting the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon, the first world's fair held in a Western city. In 1906, she was living at 403 Terry and doing business as an "agent." She took out a full-page advertisement with a full-length portrait of herself, captioned "Mrs. Corinne Simpson, Real Estate, Loans and Insurance," and she had offices at 203-4-5 Epler Block, at 513 2nd Avenue. The ad, which appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's 1906 promotional book about Seattle, Prosperous Washington, extols the virtues of the real-estate business in Seattle.

Although Corinne Simpson was likely a widow, there is no evidence of a Mr. Simpson, nor is it clear where she was living before she came to Seattle. A story about a "General Simpson" setting up the business and about Corinne working in real estate in Carthage, Missouri -- information found in a biography of her husband -- is not supported by the historical record. She seems, however, to have known what she was about, so it is possible that she had previous business experience. Mr. Simpson remains a mystery. It also appears that Corinne's mother, Mary E. McKernan, accompanied her to Seattle -- Mary McKernan lived with her daughter until her death in 1920.

In 1907, Corinne Simpson's real-estate office was still in the Epler Block, but she had moved her home to the Bradbury Apartments at 718 Cherry Street. In 1908, the business moved to 702-3-4 American Bank Building (2nd Avenue, northeast corner of Madison Street). Both Simpson and her mother were listed in Polk's Seattle Directory as living at the Roycroft Apartments, which were built in 1906 and still stand at 317 Harvard Avenue E (formerly Harvard Avenue N).

By 1909, Simpson's real-estate business expanded to what is now called the University District. The main office stayed in the American Bank Building, but a branch office was opened at 4138 14th Avenue NE (now University Way). Simpson also moved house again, this time to 5200 University Boulevard (now 17th Avenue NE) in the University Heights addition of the University District. During the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in the summer of 1909, Simpson was "proprietress" of the Palm Cottage Café concession on the exposition's Pay Streak midway.

George Washington Wilson was born on January 28, 1878, in Chicago, Illinois. He engaged in the real-estate business before coming to Seattle. Biographies of Wilson say that he moved to Seattle in 1907 and that he and Corinne Simpson met originally at the 1905 world's fair. This is possible, but Wilson does not appear in Polk's Seattle Directory until 1910, when he was listed as a salesman for R. E. Erskine & Company (real estate) in downtown Seattle and resided at the YMCA. In 1911 he and Simpson married (perhaps on June 19) and then became partners in the Corinne Simpson-Wilson Company. There was a Wilson & Company real-estate business in the University District as early as 1908; however, it was owned and operated by Winfield S. Wilson.

University Way and the Wilsonian

The Wilsons lived with Corinne's mother at 1150 N 77th until 1913, when they moved both home and business to the University District at 5205 14th Avenue NE (University Way). In 1914, their phone number was listed as Kenwood 9. In 1915, the Corinne Simpson-Wilson Company continued to exist, but a new business called University Realty Company was developed by the Wilsons. In 1918, the Wilsons moved to 4705 14th Avenue NE (University Way) and retained their phone number of Kenwood 9. In 1919, The Herald (the University District newspaper) ran a contest requesting suggestions for a new name for the "Ave," as 14th Avenue NE was affectionately called. A prize was offered by the Corinne Simpson-Wilson Company, which was donated to charity by the winner, A. J. Quigley, who dubbed the street "University Way."

In 1923, the Wilsons lived in the newly built Wilsonian Apartment Hotel (room 701) and conducted their University Realty Company from across the street, with George Wilson as president and Corinne Wilson as secretary treasurer. John W. McKernan, Corinne's youngest brother, joined the Corinne Simpson-Wilson Company as a salesman, and he and his wife Catherine M. (Katie) McKernan lived at 4244 1st Avenue NE. In 1924, the Wilsons were still living in the Wilsonian and the Corinne Simpson-Wilson Company was also listed at that address. John McKernan and his wife moved to 4211 6th Avenue NE and he continued working for his sister and brother in law's company.

The Wilsons' Last Years

In 1926, the Wilsons moved to a large house at 1006 E Garfield (sometimes known as 1607 Federal E). It stands on a corner double lot on Capitol Hill, close to St. Mark's Cathedral. George Wilson died there on July 22, 1928. He had been very active in University District affairs during the 1920s, serving as president of the University Commercial Club for two terms and president of the One Hundred Per Cent Club, also for two terms. At the time of his death, he was president of the Seattle Real Estate Board, and members of that group organized his funeral. Wilson was active in the Episcopal Church, and the funeral sermon was conducted by Rev. Dr. H. H. Gowen, rector of Trinity Church (the oldest of Seattle's Episcopalian churches) and Rev. Dr. John D. McLauchlan, rector of St. Mark's and first dean of the diocese. Wilson left an estate of $200,000, including the Wilsonian Apartment Hotel, to his wife. He was survived only by his wife and a step-sister living in Chicago.

Corinne Wilson died at home on August 4, 1929. She was survived by three of her four brothers: John McKernan of Seattle, Charles A. McKernan of Detroit, and Joseph M. McKernan of St. Louis. The funeral took place at her home, officiated by Rev. McLauchlan and Rev. Gowen. Corinne Simpson Wilson is buried at Evergreen-Washelli Cemeteries at 11111 Aurora Avenue N. After his sister's death, John McKernan became president of the Corinne Simpson-Wilson Company.

Local from the Ground Up

Corinne and George Wilson -- through the Corinne Simpson-Wilson Company -- chose Frank Fowler to design the Wilsonian Apartment Hotel and to supervise construction. Both an architect and an engineer, Fowler was a graduate of the University of Washington, a founder of the Washington State Architect (the newsletter of the Washington State Society of Architects), an officer of the local chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and was reputed to be an authority on timber and masonry construction. He had served on the 1918 Building Code Commission and had drafted code both for Seattle and for the State of Washington.

At the time of the Wilsonian's construction, Fowler's offices were in the L. C. Smith building (the Smith Tower), and he and his wife Frances lived at 1420 7th Avenue NE. Other Fowler buildings were the Alta Casa Apartments on Capitol Hill, the Cornelius Apartments and Hardt Apartments in the University District, and Wilson Business College and the Winter Garden Theater in downtown Seattle. The business college building is (in 2009) still standing at 2005 5th Avenue.

A host of local businesses contributed to building the seven-story Wilsonian:

  • Belknap Glass Co. (glass)
  • Cascade Fixture Co. (lighting fixtures)
  • Eckart Plumbing & Heating Co. (heating)
  • Edwards Ice Machine Co. (refrigeration)
  • Independent Sheet Metal Co. (sheet metal)
  • Lake Union Brick Co. (common brick)
  • Montgomery Elevator Co. (elevator)
  • Murphy Door Bed Co. (beds)
  • Northern Clay of Auburn (terra cotta)
  • Puget Sound Bridge and Dredging Co. (general contractors)
  • Puget Sound Power & Light Co. (electricity)
  • Robinson Tile & Supply Co. (tile)
  • Standard Furniture Co. (furniture)
  • Ernst Hardware Co. (hardware)
  • W. M. Meachum Co. (electrical appliances and wiring)
  • Washington Brick Co. (face brick)
  • Wilson & Long (lathing and plastering)

Isn't It Grand

The Wilsonian cost $850,000 to build ($10,432,093 in 2007 dollars) and opened on November 26, 1923. Hotel News of the West featured it on the cover of its issue of April 26, 1924, as well as in several of the issue's articles.

The Wilsonian was splendid. The apartments varied in size: they were suites of two to five rooms, and all 99 units were arranged with outside windows in the U-shaped building. The apartments offered Murphy beds and electric ranges. The shared spaces -- lobby, lounges, and dining rooms -- were luxuriously furnished and lighted. Lamps were created especially for the hotel and caged birds chirped in the lobby.

The Wilsonian was advertised as the most elegant apartment hotel outside of New York City. The ballroom next door to the Wilsonian was elegant, and the so-called Peacock Room dining room must have been especially decorative. Apparently, the dining opportunities at the Wilsonian were quite special in the 1930s. An ad in the Christmas 1933 issue of Seattle's Town Crier, read: "The PERFECT HOSTESS. The Wilsonian's private dining rooms, with the Wilsonian's exceptional cuisine and service, offer hostesses a new and delightful charm for their teas, luncheons or dinners." Listed were the Main Dining Room, the Peacock Room, and the Via Fontana, which was pictured. (Bessie Street Sather was listed as the hotel manager.)

Both of the Wilsons were involved in creating the Wilsonian. Corinne Wilson is credited with codirecting the selection of furniture and interiors with George J. Young of Standard Furniture Company. She may have been instrumental in designing the dining facilities and in engaging Helen Swope, a graduate of the University of Washington, as the first manager of the Peacock Room. Corinne also designed the ballroom, while her husband coordinated the construction of the building and was proud of doing so without labor strife.

The Wilsons enlivened promotion of their new building with a story from their life together: "The Wilsons met on the 9th day of the month, were engaged on the 9th of the month, married on the 9th of the month; their first telephone was Kenwood 9, and the Wilsonian has 99 apartments" (Hotel News of the West, 14). A romantic story, if not entirely supported by historical records. Sadly, George Wilson became ill on the 9th of July, 1928, leading to his death later that month.

In 1928, the Wilsonian was managed by J. H. Hicks and the dining rooms by Helen Swope. Swope managed the dining rooms through most of the 1930s. In 1930, C. H. Castle Jr. managed the apartment hotel, and in 1938 that duty fell to George M. King. By 1940, the Wilsonian was called the Wilsonian Apartments and Irene Atwood was the manager. In 1951, the building was again called the Wilsonian Apartment Hotel, with a number of businesses and professional offices. In 1954, the building name was unchanged, and a Wilsonian Cafe was present.

Painters and Politicians

The Wilsonian hosted numerous visitors and social affairs over the years and sheltered a number of famous residents. Locally, the most famous were Bertha Knight Landes and her husband Henry. The Landeses were longtime residents of the University District. Henry taught geology at the University of Washington and later was dean of Arts and Sciences. In 1922, Bertha was elected to the Seattle City Council and then, in 1926, was elected mayor of the city. The Landeses moved into an apartment in the Wilsonian (room 712) soon after it opened. Bertha lived there until 1941.

Otto D. Seligman (1890-1966) opened a gallery in his private apartment (room 312) in the Wilsonian in 1954. Wesley Wehr (1929-2004), a musician and painter who moved to the University District in the 1950s, reports that the neighborhood was full of visual artists, sculptors, musicians, composers, and poets, some of whom became quite famous. Some were students, some teachers, some visiting professors.

Seligman's gallery was financed in part by Northwest painter Mark Tobey (1890-1976), and Seligman became Tobey's local agent and subsequently agent to Guy Anderson (1906-1998), Windsor Utley (1920-1989), and Wesley Wehr, among other artists who became known as the Northwest School. Seligman moved the gallery across the street in 1962, where it remained after he died under the ownership and management of Francine Seders (b. 1932), who had worked closely with Seligman.

The Otto Seligman Gallery was an exciting art gallery, showing works by Northwest artists along with contemporary works from Europe and Asia. Although many of the offerings were paintings, Seligman also mounted shows of weaving, sculpture, prints, and sometimes mixed media. Art critics from both the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Seattle Times reviewed the shows regularly.

As early as the winter of 1955, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer announced a group showcase at the gallery for women artists: "An art exhibit which exudes a poetic quality seems the best way to characterize the show at the Otto Seligman Gallery in the Wilsonian Hotel, featuring paintings by eight prominent Seattle women artists ... Maria Frank Abrams, Margaret Camfferman, Doris Totten Chase, Thelma Lehmann, June Nye, Dorothy Ransom, Dorothy Milne Rising, Lisel Salzer" (Seattle P-I, February 27, 1955).

Later reviews described happenings at the gallery:

"The nine collages by Alberto Burri now at the Otto Seligman Gallery hold sufficient chaos to explode most groups of gallery visitors into violent argument for at least five years" (Seattle P-I, February 22, 1956).

"The Seligman Gallery's new room is doubly amazing. It is a small, square, ordinary, buff-colored room with two windows looking out upon the roof-tops of University District commercial buildings ... But the addition of some 20 paintings by Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson, Morris Graves and one by Paul Horiuchi has transformed it into one of the most beautiful rooms in the city" (Seattle P-I, August 3, 1959).

Tom Robbins gave another view of Seligman's taste in 1964:

"Although [J. J.] Tharrats is not as guilty as Mark Tobey, Wolfgang Wols, Mathieu, Hans Hartung, Jean Fautrier and others of the 'poetic,' 'musical' school to which Otto Seligman seems to be attached, he, too, frequently gives one the feeling that he is trying to do something with paint that paint can't do" (Seattle P-I, February 16, 1964).

Becoming a Landmark

Prior to the Otto Seligman Gallery, the Wilsonian was already a hub of arts events. According to the Puget Sound Group of Northwest Painters, their Annual Extravaganza and Art Auction "started modestly and quietly enough at the Wilsonian Hotel in the University District" on November 2, 1932. The group's website continues:

"The chairman of the facilities committee was charged with locating a suitable place for the occasion. In those days, this translated to 'low cost' and the management of the Wilsonian rose to the challenge, providing a sumptuous dinner for seventy five cents with an added bonus of fuel for the dining room fireplace included free.

"Since there was no money in the treasury for paid entertainment, ... a mock auction was held just to lighten the affair. Proceeds were nineteen dollars and fifty cents. Dr. Richard Fuller, an early day patron of the group, bought a woodcarving and watercolor, planting the seed of what in years to come was a financial mainstay for the organization. Even the newspapers were paying attention, with the Post-Intelligencer reporting the event as a 'typically Bohemian evening'" (Puget Sound Group of Northwest Painters website).

The art auction became an annual event and funded numerous programs in support of the arts locally.

Early businesses in the Wilsonian included Christian Science practitioners and, of course, the Wilsons themselves. In 1941 came the Pacific Fur Company and the Marg Tapping School of Dance in the lobby, and also the Bunny Bob Beauty Shop, Butch's (dressmakers), M. L. Diers (another Christian Science practice), Becky Hunt Children's Shop, F. Wing (a music teacher), and two dentists, among others.

The Wilsonian Today

The Wilsonian was popular with dentists. Alta G. Campbell was a dentist there in the late 1930s and again in the 1950s. In 1953, room 201 became home to the office of dentist Earl C. Maston, and the suite continued as a dental office after Maston -- Fred C. Wemer practiced there until he retired, and then came Randall D. Broom, still practicing there in 2009.

In 2009 the Wilsonian is home to the following businesses in addition to Dr. Broom: Freedom Socialist Party, Red Letter Press, Radical Women, University District Parking Associates, Wilsonian Management, University District Chamber of Commerce, Clifton Labs.

The owner of the Wilsonian in 2009 is University Communities LLC, and the building is managed by Jamey Holmes ARM CPM. According to the company:

"The Wilsonian is no longer a hotel, but it now offers seven floors of classic apartments. The building features a range of apartment sizes, including: efficiency studios (248-294 square feet), studios (410-473 square feet), and one and two bedrooms (649 to 908 square feet). The building also offers an impressive range of sizes for commercial space" (contemporary Wilsonian website).

Previous owners Tom and Kristin Ferguson arranged for the Wilsonian to be nominated as a city landmark, and it was so designated by the City of Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board in October 2005.

Sources: Harry Hume, Prosperous Washington (Seattle: Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1906); Roy Nielsen, UniverCity: The Story of the University District in Seattle (Seattle, University Lions Foundation, 1986); George W. Wilson, Seattle and Environs 1852-1924, vol. 3, ed. by Cornelius Hanford (Chicago and Seattle: Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1924); Wesley Wehr, The Accidental Collector: Art, Fossils and Friendships (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004); Polk's City Directory, Seattle (1905-1954); Hotel News of the West, No. 17, April 26, 1924; The Town Crier (Seattle), Christmas 1933; "Frank Hoyt Fowler, A.I.A. and A.S.C.E., Well Known in Local Work, Died Unexpectedly on December 8th," Washington State Architect Vol. 11, No. 1, December 1931, p. 2; Washington State Architect, January 1922, p. 8; "George W. Wilson Rites Are Set for Tomorrow," Seattle Daily Times, July 23, 1928, p. 2; "G. W. Wilson's Will Leaves $200,000 Estate to Widow," Ibid., July 28, 1928, p. 3; "Woman Realtor to Be Buried Tomorrow; Mrs. Corinne Simpson-Wilson U District Backer, Is Pneumonia Victim," The Seattle Times, August 5, 1929; Vanessa Ho, "Last Dance? Wilsonian Grand Ballroom May Face Wrecking Ball; Patrons Fight for 1923 Hall in U District," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 27, 2005 (www.seattlepi.com/local/234113_ncenter27.html); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Landes, Bertha Knight (1868-1943)" (by Mildred Andrews), www.historylink.org (accessed October 10, 2008); Dotty DeCoster e-mail communications with Michele Hansford, Powers Museum, Carthage, Missouri (October 2, 2008), and Beth Chave, City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods (December 1, 2008); City of Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board, "Report on Designation," Wilsonian Apartments, LPB 402/05, Historic Preservation Program, City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods; "Roycroft Apartments," City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, Historical Sites website accessed October 3, 2008 (http://web1.seattle.gov/dpd/histroicalsite/QueryResult.aspx?ID=2068636063); "Wilsonian," City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, Historical Sites website accessed September 30, 2008 (http://web1.seattle.gov/dpd/historicalsite/QueryResult.aspx?ID=64); "Wilson Modern Business College,"City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, Historical Sites website accessed October 3, 2008 (http://web1.seattle.gov/dpd/historicalsite/QueryResult.aspx?ID=-1840499535); MCKIERNAN-L Archives, Roots Web website accessed November 14, 2008 (http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/MCKIERNAN/2001-02/0981588896); "Seattle: A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary -- Hoge Building," National Park Service website accessed October 3, 2008 (www.nps.gov/nr/travel/Seattle/s24.htm); "Fowler, Frank," Pacific Coast Architecture Database, accessed October 3, 2008 (https://digital.lib.washington.edu/architect/architects/4687); "The First Fifty Years," Puget Sound Group of Northwest Painters website accessed September 10, 2008 (www.psgart.org/HTMLpages/History.html); "Original Wilsonian Floor Plan, Frank H. Fowler, Architect, 1922," Historic Wilsonian website accessed September 10, 2008 (www.wilsonian.com/arwen); "Brief History," Historic Wilsonian website accessed September 10, 2008 (www.wilsonian.com/arwen/history.htm); "Original Wilsonian Apartment Ad from The Seattle Times, Sunday, November 25, 1923," Historic Wilsonian website accessed September 10, 2008 (www.wilsonian.com/arwen/advert2.htm); contemporary Wilsonian website accessed December 4, 2008 (www.thewilsonianapts.com); "Art Galleries, Seligman Gallery" clipping file, Seattle Public Library downtown, 8th floor (hereafter SPL clipping file); "Paintings Show Poetic Qualities," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 27, 1955 (SPL clipping file); "Graves Show at Seligman Gallery," Ibid., May 15, 1955 (SPL clipping file); "Gallery to Show Morris Works," The Seattle Times, November 3, 1957 (SPL clipping file); "Artists' Work to be Previewed," Ibid., December 31, 1957 (SPL clipping file); "The Visual Arts: 1958 Was Productive Year for E. B. Michkils," Ibid., January 25, 1959 (SPL clipping file); Ann Faber, "Look and Listen: Collages Show New Art Medium Here," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 22, 1956, "Facile Collection of 34 Oils at Show," Ibid., June 1, 1956, and "Look and Listen: Gallery Has Varied Features for Show," Ibid., August 3, 1959 (all in SPL clipping file); Tom Robbins, "The Visual Arts: Spaniard Paints Calligraphy of the Cosmos," The Seattle Times, February 16, 1964, and "Paintings of J. J. Tharrats, One-Man show at Otto Seligman Gallery," Ibid., February 16, 1964 (in SPL clipping file); Anne G. Todd, "The Visual Arts," Ibid., January 22, 1961 (SPL clipping file); Otto Seligman Gallery, "Summer Announcement," noting Francine Seders as new owner and manager (SPL clipping file); Otto Seligman Gallery program for "Eight Prominent Seattle Women Painters," February 6-March 5, 1955, program notes by Walter F. Isaacs (SPL clipping file); Otto Seligman Gallery programs for May 1956, March 7-28, 1961, and January 1962 (all available in SPL clipping file); photo with Mr. Fay Chong and Mrs. June Nye, The Seattle Times, March 11, 1956 (SPL clipping file).

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