In 1898, when C. D. Stimson (1857-1929) made the decision to build a new family residence in Seattle's First Hill neighborhood, Kirtland Cutter seemed the most likely architect. From 1888 to 1923, the designer was favored by prominent families, businesses, and organizations in the booming cities of Seattle and Spokane. His eclectic use of historical styles and attention to quality drew the eyes of Spokane and Seattle's most affluent families wishing to build new homes with new wealth acquired from the building boom following Seattle's Great Fire, the Yukon Gold Rush, Seattle's soaring population growth (after the 1890s), and the coming of the transcontinental railroads.
C. D. Stimson's father, Thomas Douglas Stimson (1827-1898), succeeded in timber and milling in the Midwest in the 1870s and imparted great business acumen, a rigorous work ethic, and investment opportunities to his children. Thomas Stimson and his wife Achsah Jane (Spencer) had six children: Willard Horace, Olive Jane, Charles Douglas (C. D.), Ezra Thomas, Frederick Spencer and J.D.
In 1884, lumber production in the Midwest was a limited enterprise. Forests were being depleted rapidly. Looking for abundant resources, the Stimsons researched California and the Northwest. At the time, milling in the Seattle area was a significant industry, but marked by disaster. Practically every mill constructed during the first 50 years of Puget Sound development had burned down at least once. T. D. Stimson made note of this history in an aside to his enterprising sons, "Boys, you'd better get out there pretty quick before they burn up the whole dang country."
In 1888, C. D., his wife Harriet, and their young son Thomas moved to the Puget Sound area and by February 1889, had settled in Seattle. Their timing was extremely fortuitous. Soon after C. D. toured the area seeking out potential milling sites and area resources, and established the Stimson Land Company with his brothers and father as directors, Seattle suffered its Great Fire (on June 6, 1889), which created an immediate demand for the company's services and products.
As a result, the family quickly entered into prominence and built some of the most outstanding public and private buildings of the period. The Stimson Mansion (later the Stimson-Green Mansion) is one of many buildings in the Seattle area constructed by Stimson family members. Architectural historian Lawrence Kriesman details the Stimsons' built contributions in his 1992 The Stimson Legacy: Architecture in the Urban West. Notable Seattle buildings include the Coliseum Theater (1915), the Fifth Avenue Theater (1926), and the Crystal Pool or Natatorium at 2nd Avenue and Lenora Street (1914; this was destroyed and rebuilt retaining the old facade [completed 2005] as a highrise condo named Cristalla).
Not a Cookie Cutter
The Stimson's mansion on First Hill was a significant contribution to a growing array of impressive homes in one of Seattle's first neighborhoods. When the Stimsons moved into their mostly finished house in 1900, the grid of neighborhood streets in First Hill was free of much landscaping or tree cover. All the original growth Douglas-fir trees had been cut down only a few years before the Stimsons arrived.
In 1898, when C. D. Stimson contracted Kirtland Cutter to design his family's new home, most First Hill residences were American Foursquares -- boxy houses with hipped roofs (pyramidal), or Victorian style with complex volumes and towers, gingerbread-like woodwork, and extensive porches. Many of these house designs originated from pattern books with typical plans that could be ordered through the mail and constructed by local carpenters.
Cutter's design for the Stimson house was different. The Stimsons were expecting something exceptional when they hired the Spokane architect known for his eclectic combinations of decorative styles and rich textures. The family participated with Cutter, who was a perfectionist, in an intensive process of choosing elements, furniture, lighting, window treatments, and specialists. During the two-year construction period, The Stimsons and Cutter communicated frequently. The house was a Cutter design, but the Stimsons held veto power on many of the "extras" he recommended.
Kirtland Cutter gained a reputation in Spokane and Seattle through his rich use of stylistic detail and the high quality of craftsmanship in all his buildings. He came to Spokane in 1886 after studying illustration in New York and Europe. Although he had no formal training as an architect, he soon received commissions and in 1889 formed a business partnership with John C. Poetz (1859-1932). His entrepreneurial efforts coincided with Spokane's 1889 fire, which heightened demand for his services. He produced frequent and consistently impressive contributions to that city until his departure in 1923. Cutter's works in Seattle include the Rainier Club (1902) and the Seattle Golf and Country Club in The Highlands (1908).
Cutter's fluent use of architectural styles was distinctive, but not uncommon in this country near the turn of the twentieth century. Eclectic architecture gained favor in East Coast cities in the 1870s and 1880s for a number of reasons.
Prevailing tastes favored the rich detail of the Victorian period, including often fantastic use of color, texture and form. At the same time, a number of popular books about style and decorating illustrated design elements from all periods of Western history. World's fairs promoted "national architecture" — fantastic or exceptional versions of typical national styles. Incorporating romantic elements into daily life was also en vogue. Intricate and varied gardens, dramatic or even theatrical paintings or small sculpture, and playacting at home with elaborate costumes and domestic stages were all part of this trend.
A Catalog of Style
Each room in the Stimson mansion reflects a different architectural style, especially on the building's first floor, its most public story. If the front entry hall directly reflected the building's exterior, the visitor might expect exposed rough-hewn rafters and rustic lanterns common to English Revival styles like the Tudor. The street facing entry leads to a central hallway that extends from the front to the back of the house, into an elaborate dining room. This direct view from the front door is dramatic and is one of the house's most obvious theatrical contrivances.
The front hall ceiling is decorated with highly finished, exposed beams and a richly painted canvas surface. The red and gold painted details include stylized lions and curving tendrils. A round arch supported by Romanesque columnettes frames the view toward the dining room. This element, a round arch with short and multiple small columns gathered together is a distinctive characteristic of the Romanesque style.
A doorway on the left side of the entry hall leads to Mrs. (Harriet) Stimson's tea and reception room. Harriet Stimson would receive visits from her local friends on Thursdays, a time coordinated with other women in the neighborhood. The style of the room is often called French Empire or simply "Empire." Classical elements like those seen in the curved ceiling elements of this room were common to this style. Empire is a streamlined version of classical revival. Details are delicate, and wood surfaces are generally painted white. The refined marble fireplace and mantle of this room provide a striking contrast to the fireplace in the library lying on the opposite side of the front entry hall.
The library is saturated with Gothic details, and is larger than the tea room. In Victorian fashion, the many intricate elements of the library are dark and wooden, and the fireplace is a strong and imposing centerpiece, with carved wooden lions holding shields, and metal dragon andirons. The bookcases resemble windows in a Gothic church due to the architect's use of pointed arches and intricate detailing.
A stage area rises on the east side of the library and leads into the central hallway and the dining room. The Stimson children used this space to recite poems or put on theatricals with neighborhood children. An upright piano stood on stage as accompaniment.
Dining and Drinking
The dining room's warm sycamore paneling and elegantly carved mantle are offset by its indigo glass tile fireplace surround and a narrative frieze running just below the ceiling around the entire room. The frieze illustrates a Renaissance-era king and court feasting and quietly reveling. The scene is painted on corduroy, which helps the work resemble a tapestry. The ceiling is paneled in a gridded format
The dining room lies near the house's kitchen and a dumbwaiter which moved heavy trays and services between the building's four levels: basement including wine cellar, first (formal) floor, second (sleeping, private) floor, and the third or servants' floor. The house's first cooks used a coal burning oven. The servants' floor had a separate stairway that led to the pastry and serving pantries and to the kitchen.
One of the most extravagant rooms in the Stimson mansion was inspired by Eastern traditions. In the basement, conveniently located near the wine cellar and the billiard room, is a Moorish style smoking room created for men interested in card playing, conversation, and brandy drinking. The ochre colored bottle glass windows and Middle Eastern lanterns enhance the dark and exotic feel of this room. The fireplace is brick, with a Moorish arch (wide but pointed) above the mantle. As in all the rooms, Cutter carefully selected the original furniture and drapery to reflect the room's theme.
The Stimsons lived in their First Hill home only 14 years. Joshua Green, another prominent local entrepreneur, and his wife Laura (Turner) Green purchased the house from the Stimsons and maintained almost all of its original features. The Greens, like the Stimsons, were a family of business people. Joshua Green was best known for his fleet of steamboats that aided in Seattle's steady economic growth after the Great Fire of 1889. He was president of the Puget Sound Navigation Company, which eventually became the Washington State Ferry System.
When Joshua Green died in 1975, the Historic Seattle Preservation and Development Authority purchased the property. Priscilla (Patsy) Collins, granddaughter of C. D. and Harriet Stimson, bought the house soon thereafter, restored it, and transformed the private residence into a public, and self-sustaining showcase rather than a house museum. Today the house, owned by The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, continues to host important events arranged and catered by an in-house staff.