[This combines two from Pacific Northwest Magazine: features for July 10, 1988 and May 7, 1995 mixed with parts of a work-in-progress on the general subject of the uses of Seattle heritage.]
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At least five years ago when I photographed the colored snapshot directly above, Bartell Drugs was the most recent tenant to hold the southeast corner of Madison Street and Boren Avenue where the Carkeeks built one of the first big homes (top) on First Hill in 1884. (Courtesy, Dennis Andersen)
The Carkeek mansion at the southeast corner of Boren Avenue and Madison Street survived 50 years, half a century less than its last resident, Guendolen Carkeek Plestcheeff. Her father, Englishman Morgan Carkeek, became one of the community’s principal contractors soon after his arrival in 1870 at age 23. His credits included Seattle’s first brick structure, the Dexter Horton Bank (later SeaFirst) and the downtown Carnegie Library. Morgan returned to England in the late 1870s to court and marry Emily Gaskill, a confident Londoner, whom he brought back to Seattle. She landed on First Hill as an immigrant but developed rapidly into an “old settler,” although a rather plush one. And she soon became the leader of First Hill culture. Their first child, Vivian Morgan, was born in 1879. In 1884, the couple built the family home, using a pattern design by New York architects Palliser and Palliser. One of the original big homes on First Hill, it included fireplaces in all the principal rooms, 14-foot ceilings, abundant stained glass, and mahogany and redwood woodwork throughout.
Most like taken during the 1911 costume party at the Carkeek home. Looking younger than in any of the other photographs feature here, Emily Carkeek sits on her plush rug, second from the right. Courtesy, Seattle Public Library
Emily Carkeek took to the study of Seattle-area history, and she organized her women friends, mostly, to take it on as a steadfast responsibility and a club concern. On Nov. 13, 191l, the 60th anniversary of the landing of the Denny Party at Alki Point, Emily and Morgan, by then a pioneer contractor of great account, stood side-by-side at the wide front door of their First Hill mansion. They were only a few feet from the public sidewalk at the southeast corner of the major First Hill intersection of Boren Avenue and Madison Street. When they built their big home a quarter-century earlier much of First Hill was their yard. By 1911 this natural sweep had given way to a crowded cityscape. The Carkeeks welcomed guests to a costume ball where the prescribed attire was pioneer – something their forebears wore, often from the attic and redolent of mothballs. For refreshment the guests were appropriately served clam chowder made with Puget Sound butter clams. This clam-sustained masquerade became a nearly annual event that was sufficiently governed by pedigree, economics, and creed that it was by invitation only. For large group portraits the Carkeek’s guests were sometimes squeezed onto the porch and front steps.
Many of those called to the earlier balls walked there, for they still lived on First Hill, which in 1911 remained exclusive in pockets. Others traveled from the grander parts of other hills: Queen Anne, Capitol, and the ridge above Lake Washington. Some had earlier fled the raucous encroachments of the spreading boomtown “lowlands” for the gracious privacy of the gated and guarded Highlands. For these it was not a short haul to First Hill, even in a chauffeur-driven motorcar, and the streets were often bumpy. But visiting First Hill was like coming home, for many of the Highlanders had lived there earlier before the apartment buildings, large and small, begin to fill the lots between big homes. On the Carkeek’s guest list we might not expect to find anyone from Alki Point, Ballard, Denny Hill (what remained of it), Beacon Hill, Columbia City or Georgetown. And nearly all those invited were of Northern European pedigree. Most would have preferred churches without Stations of the Cross or scrolls. Most likely they were worth enough to at least consider building a brick block in the business district with their family name attached. Their wealth would have been preferably old, although new money was also appreciated.
The only natives attending would have been whoever came costumed as one. Chief Seattle’s daughter, Princess Angeline, was a popular masquerading choice. Later it was claimed that some of Angeline’s original duds had been recovered, cleaned and made available for impersonations. They apparently became part of the new historical society’s collection and so worn with great privilege by a deserving or collared member in sartorial service of the princess’ memory.
Looking some years older than in the 1911 posing from the living room carpet, here Emily, second from the right, is seen in a detail pulled from a 1914 portait taken by the Webster Stevens Studio of the historical society costume ball shown whole below. (Courtesy, Museum of History and Industry)
Ideally, the Carkeek’s heritage balls were a theatre of community concern in which the players were asked to show interest for something greater or more extended than family history while also including it. History was something deeper than ancestral links or comforting nostalgia, as wonderfully centering as those can be for anyone while reflecting beside one’s own hearth with a family crest or resting with one’s embroidered pillow. Bundled in bonnets and layers of mid-Victorian fancy work, the guest were also encouraged to carry to the ball the works and widgets of history besides those they wore: the documents, artifacts, photographs that collecting societies and their museums are as a habit after. And these First Hill balls did the trick, they led directly to the building of the Seattle Historical Society at the Carkeek home, which for the many years that Emily held sway might as well have been called the “Carkeek Cultural Center.”
Three years more and in the nip of winter, the Carkeeks played hosts again for heritage, and the formal founding of the Society. Typically, five of the six trustees were men assigned for the formality of signing the charter. The exception was the steadfast and affluent Margaret Lenora Denny, who in 1905 had donated the Founder’s Pylon at Alki Point, a kind of white man’s totem with none of those animal faces that might and often did offend tastes refined on European classics. Later that Thursday afternoon of January 8, 1914 when the charter was safely put away in its envelope, the articles of incorporation were signed, and for this it was women only holding the fountain pens. At the lead, of course, was the English born and raised Emily, the pillar of gumption who, as far as I can determine, was somehow completely neglected by Clarence Bagley everywhere in his big History of Seattle, including his chapter twenty-seven titled “Women’s Work,” even though caring for community history, like caring for orphans, was then still largely the work of women. Excepting the higher paying jobs of directorships and such where the old prejudices regarding women and employment held sway much more then than now, community heritage and culture generally have been promoted and nurtured by women more than men. The more poignant and witty of pioneer reminiscences were, it seems to my review, more often written by women like Sophie Bass, Roberta Watts and Inez Denny. Their books share the kind of generous community concern for heritage that Clarence Bagley might have also called “Women’s Work” but did not. Bagley included sketches of women’s vital activism for the vote, their roles as teachers, librarians, prohibitionists, and spirited philanthropists with concerns for public health, children in need, and much else, but there is no mention of history or heritage.
Published in 1916, Bagley’s grand history failed to make note of the heritage activism on First Hill. Aside from chapter twenty-seven, women as actual subjects in Bagley’s history seem to be under veil. Men dominate as content and most of them are boss/leaders of one sort or another. In the July 1913 issue of The Washington Historical Quarterly, Miss Bessie Winsor of Seattle, the Secretary of the State Federation of Women’s Clubs, notes that in the more than 200 women’s clubs then in the state, embracing about five thousand members, two-thirds of them would be studying history during the coming year. Also in 1913 Clarence Bagley was the President of the Washington State Historical Society, and U.W. History Prof. Edmund Meany, whose steady championing of the Denny Party helped raise the Alki Point founders pylon in 1905 with men’s names only, was the Managing Editor of the Quarterly. We may wonder what were they thinking, and yet both omissions are signs of the half-wittedness of that time regarding gender. If I have counted them correctly, of the more than 900 biographies included in Bagley’s volume three – entirely a “vanity volume” – only six are directly about women. Consequently, they are the very few described as more than helpmates and mothers, although they were ordinarily expected to be those as well. As aptly noted by an anonymous wit, “With marriage a wife loses more than her maidenhead; she loses her maiden name, and later she herself will be hard to find.” One of the greatest challenges in doing public history is finding the women, and the irony is that it is women who have most often cared for it. Of course, it is also true that the women who nurture the study of history are often enough supported by men who may do little more than work and attend to their own manly things.
Dressed in mother’s fancy work and spilling from porch to lawn for a Founders Day, November 13, 1914 pose of the new Seattle Historical Society’s membership. (Courtesy, MOHAI)
On the next available Founders Day, November 13, 1914, it was practically only women who stepped across the Carkeek threshold and all of them were again dressed in their mother’s and grandmothers fancy work, posing several times on both the porch and inside to show it. Emily Carkeek appears third from the right, and looking somewhat older than she does in the living room pose shared above. The only exceptions to pioneer dress, again, were the women who took the parts of Indians. Out of costume, it was women who attended the Historical Society’s early meetings, took on research projects, collected artifacts from their pioneer families, and still found occasions to put on old clothes. It was once the practice for almost any group interested in culture – the arts, heritage, and philanthropy – to have been founded, attended, and run by women.
Possibly the 1915 Founder’s Day costume ball. Looking older, Emily appears all in black just above the scene’s center. (Courtesy, Lawton Gowey)
In another costume tableau of the Seattle Historical Society (included below) – perhaps from 1915 – one man is included. He is upper-right and may have snuck into the scene. A few of these period costumes may be included in the Society’s collection at the Museum of History and Industry. In the condition I found this group portrait the posers in it were not identified. The only face familiar to me here is that of Emily Carkeek herself. She looks straight into the camera at the center of the fourth row down from the top. Two rows behind her and also at the center, the woman with the large while plume in her hat resembles the artist Harriet Foster Beecher, but it is almost certainly not she. On March 30, 1915, Harriet Beecher along with the historian-journalist Thomas W. Prosch, his wife Virginia McCarver Prosch and pioneer Margaret Lenora (Lenora Street) Denny all drowned when the Carkeek’s Pierce-Arrow touring car crashed off the Riverton Bridge into the Duwamish River. (A thorough essay on this tragedy can be found on historylink.) Only the chauffeur and Emily Carkeek survived. Both Virginia Prosch and Margaret Denny were involved either as officers or trustees of the historical society and neither of them appears in this cheerful group portrait.
Fifteen years or less separates these two looks toward Madison Avenue. The comparison is a good example or evidence of Seattle’s boom years following its “Great Fire” of 1889. The older scene dates fro the early 1890s, and was taken from the southeast corner of 9th Avenue and Columbia Street where from the prospect of the tower of Coppin’s water works, the principal source of fresh water on the hill then, the photorapher looks north to the Carkeek home, left of center, at the southeast corner of Boren and Madison. The bottom view (directly above) was photographed one block to the north from the southeast corner of Marion and 9th, the construction site for St. James Cathedral, which was dedicated in 1907. A likely date for this view, which shows the Carkeek home on the far right, is 1906. (Courtesy, Lawton Gowey.)
Between the crash and Emily’s own death in 1926 First Hill society had increasingly dispersed as apartment buildings and institutions filled in the hill. The once comfortable and club-like center for heritage declined, and the society’s oldest members continued to die off. The only “benefit” that accrued with the steady loss of “originals” was the obituaries. Both the University of Washington’s Northwest Collection and the Seattle Public Libraries “Seattle Room” are well stocked with them. Often as elegiac as Seattle historians Frederick James Grant’s and Clarence Bagley’s biographies were elegiac, these death notices are often stocked with good stories and on occasion even revelations.
Morgan Carkeek’s obituary of April 1931, and the other stories of his passing that soon followed, included more evidence of the Carkeek family’s keenness for history. His will included a $5,000 trust fund for the Seattle Historical Society. When the couple was still alive, a donation of land was made to the city for the building of a Carkeek Park in which they envisioned a museum dedicated to local history. The grandest of Morgan’s bequeathals, $250,000, went to Guendolen, who was listed in the obituary as living in Paris, although at the time was a patient at Seattle’s Swedish Hospital. In the spring of 1934 and in the depths of the Great Depression she and her husband Theodore Plesthtcheeff, a decorated Russian soldier from World War One, opened the Carkeek home for its last costume ball. The party was covered by The Seattle Times, whose reporter described the company dancing to Victorian hits such as “Under The Shade of an Old Apple Tree,” and Guendolen as “a brunette and possesses a striking individuality.” As a reminder of the home’s roots in the 1880s when it first took on the role of the smartest destination on First Hill, Guendolen, the paper reported, wore an “exquisite yellow satin evening gown of the period of 1885.” The couple, however, made it easier on their guests, instructing them to wear Gay ‘90s attire.
The Carkeek’s boy Vivian was for a time president of the Seattle Historical Society, but took probably more interest in old world legend than in Northwest history. He grew up enchanted by Celtic mythology, and became the keeper of the family’s Anglo-Saxon flame. When Vivian graduated with the fire class from the University of Washington’s Law School in 1901, Guendolen was but ten years old. Soon she was packed off to England as a teenager for an English education, while Vivian stayed in Seattle, practicing law and studying old tales. More than a student of the King Arthur legend, the lawyer was a true believer and for years the national president of the Knights of the Round Table. The stained glass in the Carkeek mansion featured depictions of these tales – not ones from Seattle history.
In 1938 the daughter assumed the mother’s roll as president of the Seattle Historical Society and held that position until the society’s Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) was dedicated at Montlake in 1952. During the dedication she first stepped forward to honor her parents dream of a museum, and then handed the keys to a representative of municipal government. The city already owned the Montlake neighborhood property on which the museum was constructed.
I recorded this view of the Chevron pumps standing in what was the front room of the Carkeek home. The date is about 1986.
Soon after its last costume party in 1934, the Carkeek home was razed for a Standard Oil gas station. It was the best – or worst – sign for how this “heritage crossroads” at Boren Avenue and Madison Street in the once exclusive neighborhood had become a common place. The symbolism continued in the 1990s when the pumps were covered with a new wing of the, it seemed, ever-expanding Swedish Hospital. A portion of the ornate wrought-iron fence that surrounded the mansion’s grounds survives, moved across Madison Street to the University Club.
Is it or is it not Guendalen peeking upper left in the detail from the 1914 Costume party?
A permanent exhibit on First Hill history can be found in the lobby of the hospital’s new wing. (At least it could be the last time I visited the place in 1995.) Webster and Stevens Studio’s 1914 recording of the costumed posing on the Carkeek porch was included in the exhibit along with many other photographs, artifacts and ephemera of the Carkeeks and their hilltop community. A cut out figure of Guendolen as an older child takes her place in the exhibit. But does she also appear in the 1914 porch recording peeking far left over the last or top row of the society’s costumed founders while, we imagine, standing on her toes. To me, at least, the young woman there looks sufficiently like Guendolen Carkeek for me to be kind to my own whimsy and imagine it is she. However, when I put this proposition to her she replied. “Never. I would not be caught dead with those old fogies.” Her answer was another amusing example of this original’s “striking individuality.” She may have been winking when she denied it. In 1988, the year I interview her, Guendolen Carkeek Plestcheeff was 95 years old. Here mold was broken at 101.
Below: Part of the First Hill history permanent display in the Swedish Hospital addition that took the place of the gas station that took the place of the Carkeek Mansion.