In this HistoryLink interview conducted by architectural historian Heather MacIntosh on September 18, 2000, native Seattleite and businesswoman Priscilla (Patsy) Collins (1920-2003) provides perspective on the preservation of the Stimson-Green mansion, a Seattle landmark located at 1204 Minor Avenue on First Hill. In 1899, her grandparents, C. D. Stimson (1857-1928) and Harriet Overton Stimson (1862-1936) hired noted Spokane architect Kirtland Cutter (1860-1939) to design their new First Hill home. The Stimsons lived in the house only 14 years. Joshua Green (1869-1975), an influential local businessman, and his family lived in the house until the 1970s.
Making a Living in History
The English Tudor style Stimson-Green Mansion is a local landmark, well preserved, and architecturally impressive. The building reflects a lifestyle long past, and transports its many visitors to a time, place, and society in which men smoked cigars in dimly lit dens and women gathered in brightly decorated tearooms. The fate of the Stimson-Green Mansion was in question in the 1970s when the Greens died and the house went on the market. Priscilla Collins, granddaughter of the Stimsons who built the house, purchased the property and puzzled over a reasonable use.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has long advocated preserving American landmarks through self-sustaining methods, that is, putting the past to work for the present. Patsy echoes this sentiment: "Some buildings, like Mount Vernon, are supported by the government, but a place like this, there are thousands and thousands of them across the country which need to support themselves. You see, this is an active place. It would never be able to support itself as a museum."
"The whole thing is a compromise between keeping the place historic and making it useful for the public." I asked if she had taken advantage of local or federal tax credits, government incentives that reduce the financial burden of historic preservation projects. "We've received credit on the amount we spent on restoration, but there's a 10 year limit." Seattle provides a 10 year special valuation on rehabilitated historic properties. "I put a lot of money into the restoration. They have a state law saying that you should not be assessed for the amount that you yourself put in. Why should you pay taxes on that? Otherwise, nobody would ever do it."
Walking Through Time
In the kitchen, Patsy shows me a large gas stove that was installed in the past decade. The original stove had three burners and was wood burning. Many original features remain, like a marble-topped counter for preparing breads and pastries. The house is used as a banquet and reception hall, with a full catering service that supports the house.
From the kitchen, we walk into a wood-paneled dining room lit by sconces and a chandelier. Above us, a colorful, painted frieze runs immediately below the ceiling cornice. The scene is a medieval courtly feast. Patsy points to the painting "that was handpainted on corduroy. Everybody thinks its a tapestry, but really, it's corduroy. It gives it a great texture. I had the lights [hidden in a molding under the frieze] installed because we couldn't really see it. The wood is sycamore. All the paneling was Stimson era."
We walk onto a raised dais overlooking another large room. A full length portrait of an elegant white-haired woman hangs in our immediate line of sight. It looks surprisingly like Patsy. "No," she corrects me. "That's my mother [Dorothy Stimson Bullitt (1892-1989)] It's modern, from a photograph. She was about 90. Mrs. Sargeant was the painter. She lived in Los Angeles and they had never seen each other. Mother liked the painting very much. These other portraits are quite valuable. They're of Mr and Mrs. Green, parents of Joshua Green who lived in the house until he died at the age of 105.
"This was where families made their own entertainment. They had an upright piano against the wall there. Neighborhood children would stand up there and recite poetry and they'd put on plays and their mothers would make costumes for them. Neighbors would come in and watch."
The Reception Room
We walk down from the dias to the largest room in the house, once a library, now a reception room. A baronial fireplace is the room's centerpiece. Twin lions flank the Victorian Gothic stone mantel and oak fireplace. Patsy recalls Kirtland Cutter's correspondences with the Stimson's -- especially the price for the fireplace carving. Cutter wrote:
"We are just in receipt of bids from three first class carvers on the large Gothic lions for your library fireplace, the lowest being $275.00. This seems a rather stiff price, but as the work is very difficult and can only be properly executed by an artist, we do not consider it unreasonable."
What They Read
We walk over to the bookcases on the north side of the room. "These are some of my grandmother's books. They were at my mother's house where there were about 10 times as many. I picked out the ones that fit the era of when my grandparents were living here. They read alot. This room was my grandmother's library when she was here."
Built-in bookcases flank the sides of a doorway leading to the central hallway. Harriet Stimson's books are shelved to the right and include: McFall's History of Painting, The History of France, a set of Complete Poetical Works, and a book by Mark Twain. "She collected a lot of books, thousands of them."
Joshua Green's books appear on the left side. "They were not great readers. He was into hunting." Among Green's selections: Animal Treasures, Gamebirds of Kenya, Safari, The Alaska Boundary, The Romance of Russia, The Romance of the Italian Villa, The Conquest of Mexico and Peru, and Practical Poker.
And Then There Was Light ï¿½ Ouch!
Two wall light sconces illuminate the bookcases. Patsy explains, "In 1900, electricity was brand new. There were no electricians. People made it up as they went along. It was incredible. Well, in one letter, Cutter said, 'Dear Mr. Stimson. I'm so sorry Mrs. Stimson has to stand up on a chair to turn off and on all the lights in the house. Sorry we didn't include switches.'
"My grandmother never complained because she was used to having to go around with a gas taper. So the fact that she had to stand up here and turn it on by tightening the bulbs wasn't an issue. When I bought the house, when I was closing up, I couldn't find any living room switches. They'd never put them in here. Until 1975, the whole time they were here, the Greens turned off the lights without switches."
Repainting the Hall
We walk into the ornate central hallway. The red and gold painted ceiling surface is canvas embedded in plaster. "This all had to be redone because water had come in. We knew what everything looked like because you could see enough, but the gold and red was almost all gone. My mother, who was 80 at the time, remembers what most of it looked like."
"We were trying to run the catering business at the same time we were doing all this work. It was in the early stages. We had to put up scaffolding, but we took it down on Friday and put it back up on Monday. The painter was a sign painter from Leavenworth. He was excellent. His name was Endrizzi. I figured anyone who had to lie on his back all day to paint it deserved his name up there." (She points to his signature).
Patsy bought back some of the house's original furniture. A long couch in the central hallway was purchased for $60 about 10 or 12 years ago. Although the back had been badly damaged and removed, the rest of the piece was intact. The carving on the arms exactly matches the interior detailing of the house, especially the Romanesque hallway. Patsy pieced together a few rooms based on photographs -- a photograph led her to buy the hallway couch and return it to its original location.
The Tea Room
We walk into a smaller room across the hall from the library. "This was my grandmother's room. This was the reception room to entertain ladies for tea. That (the library) was the male room, this is the female room.
"I didn't know what the colors in here were supposed to be. It was all grey when I bought it. Mother tried to describe it to me, but you can't describe color, so Mr. Endrizzi and I looked at the marble there, in the fireplace. We just took the peach and the tan and the hues that were in there. It came out beautifully, so who can complain. It's close enough. In each room where there was a marble fireplace like that we took it as a clue and painted the room accordingly."
Up The Stairs
We walk by an elaborate newelpost on our way upstairs to the bedrooms. Patsy stops and points to a glass and metal lantern affixed to the base of the handrail, "When my mother was 97, I had her over to the house for lunch. She looked at this and said, 'I hate that thing. I've always hated that thing.'" When Patsy asked her what was wrong with it, she replied, "You can't slide down the banister."
We move through a small hallway upstairs to a brightly lit bedroom facing Minor Avenue. "This was the master bedroom, it had to be gutted. The water damage was terrible. There was no lighting, just a cord with a bulb at the end of it. And the house had to be completely rewired. Mrs. Green did most of the electrical work here. The place was very Victorian. They had heavy drapes to keep all the light out."
In an adjacent bathroom, Patsy points out an original porcelain washstand resting on metal legs that resemble turned wood. Large storage areas are tucked away in the wall of the hallway. "Having built in closets was very avant-garde at the time because people then had large armoirs."
We enter another bathroom and encounter a clawfooted bathtub with a very complicated shower attached. The apparatus appears to date to the 1920s. "You have to be a rocket scientist to operate this thing."
Wild Life in First Hill
The landing between floors looks out onto a veranda. "This veranda, that's where they used to put the bears. About 1910, a logger came to the front door and had a baby bear in each hand. They were newborns. He gave them to my great-grandmother. Pretty soon they were just galloping around the house. That veranda was their playpen.
"Family members would take them for a walk around the neighborhood. They were black bears. They got to be big in about 10 months. They were very friendly. Never threatened anybody, but they didn't know their own strength. They were so glad to see anybody who came to the front door, they'd just throw themselves on people like a dog.
"So my grandfather took them to Woodland Park. Later, my mother would take me to the park and point them out and say, 'There, dear. There's our bear.'"
Pool and Stogies
We walk down a flight of stairs to the basement. "This was the gameroom, a work of art. It was very fashionable to have a place where the gentlemen could come and have their brandy and smoke cigars. It was decorated in Turkish style with two chandeliers.
"The windows are bottle glass. Mr. Green had a son-in-law who was in the glass business. He used to make special stained glass for churches. I think that if the glass was broken he'd replace it himself. You probably wouldn't be able to tell. That was about 1950."
In the Turkish room hangs the Stimson's original crank-style telephone. "The number was Main 92, at the beginning of Seattle's telephone system."
A Little Structural Failure
A basement level room hums with a din of the house's mechanical systems. The floor is poured concrete. "When the big earthquake hit San Francisco in the early 1990s, it was all in the papers that a house simply sitting in the dirt will bounce away. The best thing you can do is connect the house to the ground. So we poured concrete in here so that the house is connected to the ground. The basement originally had a dirt floor. The floor in the gameroom gave way entirely so they had to take out all the floors and do it over again."
Old is New
The catering business that supports the house is evident in the basement. Large refrigerators and freezers, storage areas and the old ice box now stocked with olive oil and soft drinks point to the realities of present daily life in the mansion. Once a elegant architectural family album of Seattle's high society, the building has been given new life through its new use, and provides for new needs in a quickly expanding city.
Patsy explains, "It's not a museum, it's a compromise between tradition and business. We don't make a lot of money, but we make enough to maintain the house. Everything is totally used. It's a pleasure to have parties here because people get transported into another era. People come here from many countries to look at a real piece of Americana."