Seattle Now & Then: Where REI was Born, 1938

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: In February 1938, the fabled “REI house” stands next to a 1937 Ford Standard slant-back sedan. (Photo from Puget Sound Regional Branch, Washington State Archives)
Topped by a Seattle Rainiers hat, 51-year-old Bobby Whittaker, who was named for his dad’s mountain-climbing friend Robert F. Kennedy, poses with his terrier mix Abby in the driveway of the barn-red former home of REI founders Lloyd and Mary Anderson. The prospect is slightly southwest of our “then” to elude greenery and reveal the original porch and its overhang. (Photo by Clay Eals)

It may be fitting that a bluff on Gatewood Hill in West Seattle, close to Seattle’s highest point, gave birth to a mountainous retail giant that helped put our city on the map – the co-op we all know as REI. The firm took shape on the west face of that bluff inside a modest, wood-frame home erected at the beginning of the Depression, perhaps teaching us that good things (or successful businesses) can sprout from small packages.

The Tax card for 4326 S.W. Southern St. , Feb. 24, 1938  (Click to ENLARGE)
SEATTLE TIMES clipping from May 17, 1925 extolling Gatewood Gardens.

The dwelling, at 4326 S.W. Southern St., just west of California Avenue, was the only “improvement” on its otherwise forested block when built by just-married transit worker Lloyd Anderson and teacher Mary Anderson in 1932.

That decade, as thousands fell into relief or took government jobs and others unionized and leaned left, the thrifty Lloyd, a “pocket socialist,” avid climber and leader of the 30-year organization called the Mountaineers, took a seemingly inconsequential step. Aided by Mary’s knowledge of German and frustrated by middleman-inflated stateside prices of up to $20, he ordered an ice axe directly from Austria. By mail from the other hemisphere, the storied tool cost a mere $3.50.


Frank Shaw, the photographer of this Sept. 21, 1969 recording of the southwest corner of 6th Avenue and Pine Street, was an avid member of the Mountaineers and an early customer for REI gear. Surely Shaw took this as much for the second floor headquarters for Recreational Equipment Cooperative as for the more famous, at the time, Green Apple Pie Cafe below it far-right..

“The news spread like wildfire through the rebel ranks,” according to Harvey Manning’s detailed 1988 history REI: 50 Years of Climbing Together. Purchases of crampons, pitons, carabiners and hiking foods snowballed. The Anderson cottage took on the persona of a warehouse, leading the couple to found the mail-order Recreational Equipment Cooperative in 1938, the same year as our “then” view.

While REI later anchored storefronts downtown and on Capitol Hill, many in Seattle’s climbing community passed through the Andersons’ unassuming doors, including Jim Whittaker, who grew up nearby and in 1955 signed on as REI’s first full-time employee and ascended to CEO. As the first American to summit Mount Everest, in 1963, he became – and remains – REI’s most famous face.

Another Frank Shaw photo of his climbing friends. Here the often elevated Mountaineers begin gathering at 608 First Avenue for a basement exploration of Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour on February 17, 1973.  The hardy group is prepared for mid-winter temperature’s but are they also ready for Speidel’s heated history of Seattle-Under-Seattle?

After Lloyd died in 2000 at age 98, Mary sold their home to a developer who intended to raze it but pulled out after 9/11. Neighbors purchased the parcel in 2002, colorfully restoring the residence’s front end, floorboards and basement while adding reverse shed dormers and a cupola, eventually adorning the property with three more houses and a shared garden. (Mary, who died last year at age 107, spent her sunset years in a Green Lake retirement home.)

The compound that is now dubbed Anderson Gardens will host the Southwest Seattle Historical Society’s annual fundraising “If These Walls Could Talk” tour this afternoon – at noon (for VIPs) and 2 p.m. The insights to be shared by Jim Whittaker’s son, Bobby, and a peak experience.

FOR TOUR DETAILS AND TICKETS: visit loghousemuseum.org.

WEB EXTRAS

Anything to add, lads?  Certainly Jean more features mostly from the West Seattle neighborhood, and Ron Edge and I welcome you home after your three weeks in Europe with students of Hillside.

THEN: The clerk in the city's old Engineering Vault attends to its records. Now one of many thousands of images in the Seattle Municipal Archives, this negative is dated Jan. 30, 1936. (Check out www.cityofseattle.net/cityarchives/ to see more.)

THEN: Included among the several detailed photos taken for the Bernards of their new and yet rustic Fir Lodge, was this one of the living room with its oversized fireplace and the piano on which Marie, their older daughter, learned to play well enough to concertize. (Courtesy Doris Nelson)

THEN: Looking southeast from above Alki Avenue, the Schmitz Park horizon is serrated by the oldest trees in the city. The five duplexes clustered on the right were built 1919-1921 by Ernest and Alberta Conklin. Ernest died in 1924, but Alberta continued to live there until well past 1932, the year this photograph was recorded. (Seattle Municipal Archives.)

THEN: Built in 1893, West Seattle School kept teaching until ruined by the region’s 1949 earthquake. (Courtesy Michael Maslan)

THEN: The Gatewood Craftsman Lodge was built on a road, in a neighborhood, and near a public school all named for the developer Carlisle Gatewood, who also lived in the neighborhood. The three women posing in the third floor’s open windows are the Clark sisters, Jean, Dorothy and Peggy, members of the family that moved into the home in the late 1930s.

THEN: In 1852 many of Seattle’s first pioneers removed from Alki Point by dugout canoe for the deeper and safer harbor along the east shore of Elliott Bay (our central waterfront). About a half-century later any hope or expectation that the few survivors among these pioneers could readily visit Alki Beach and Point by land were fulfilled with the timber quays and bridges along Spokane Street. (Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archive)

THEN: The Seattle Times in its lengthy coverage of the then new Seattle Steel in the paper’s Magazine Section for Sept. 10, 1905 – the year this photograph was recorded – noted that “the plant itself is a series of strong, substantial, cavernous sheds, built for use, not for beauty.” (Courtesy, MOHAI, the Museum of History and Industry)

THEN: Totem Place, at 1750 Palm Ave. S.W., was home for Joseph Standley proprietor of Ye Old Curiosity Shop on Colman Dock. His death notice in The Seattle Times for Oct. 25, 1940 described the 86-year-old “Daddy” Standley as “almost as much a part of Seattle’s waterfront as the waves that dash again the seaweall.”

THEN: Looking into West Seattle’s Junction and north on California Ave. SW to its intersection with SW Alaska Street in 1941. The Hamm Building, is seen above the light-colored car, and the Campbell Building is at right, behind the G.O. Guy Drugs sign.

Hanson-St.-ca.-1913-THEN

KENNY-HOME-then-mr

THEN: Between the now lost tower of the Pioneer Building, seen in part far left, and the Seattle Electric Steam Plant tower on the right, are arranged on First and Railroad Avenues the elaborate buzz of business beside and near Seattle’s Pioneer Square ca. 1904.

THEN: Twenty years ago the Mukai Farm and Garden on Vashon Island was designated a King County Landmark. (Courtesy, Vashon Maury Island Heritage Association)

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Priscilla Long and Greg Lange at the northeast corner of Meridian Street North and North 45th Avenue on August 9, 2008. These Historylink stalwarts are both Wallingford residents often given to doing their editing and writing in cafes on 45th Street.

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One thought on “Seattle Now & Then: Where REI was Born, 1938”

  1. I always enjoy your column/blog! Thanks for documenting this Seattle history and especially for locating and do cumenting historic photos. The REI history may be unknown to many new to Seattle. My dad’s Paper REI Member card shows he was member #1006. He purchased his Head brand wooden skis from Jim Whittaker. That was a top brand at the time before the high-tech plastics revolutionized skiing. (Maybe REI is up to 7 or 8 digit Member numbers now? The original Mountaineers Club address (before its lower Queen Anne office) was on Pine Street. Was that close to the 2nd Floor 6th and Pine Street REI office in the 1969 photo? Many of the old guard Mountaineers who know such things have passed away. I imagine many of those left are reading this blog post about REI and other organizations with West Seattle roots.

    Thanks all for your insights and replies!

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