Ye College Inn (University District, Seattle)

  • By Dotty DeCoster
  • Posted 10/08/2008
  • Essay 8782
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The College Inn, located at the corner of University Way NE  and NE 40th Street in Seattle's University District, is the only commercial building remaining today that was constructed for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909.  Charles Cowen (1869-1926), of Sylvester-Cowen Investment Company, had Ye College Inn designed by Graham & Myers and built in time for the exposition for landowner J. R. Hendren. Ye College Inn opened on June 1, 1909, the day the exposition opened, and was managed by Emily Cridland. The College Inn has operated as an inn and a hotel. In the 1960s the two upper floors were completely remodeled to be apartments, then in 1979 restored and on June 1, 1980, re-opened as The College Inn once again. Businesses on the street floor have varied through the years, but there has usually been a dining room or restaurant, often a confectioners and/or cigar store, and sometimes tailors, dressmakers, and other services of assistance to travelers. The serving of alcoholic beverages within two miles of the University of Washington was illegal until 1969. Today, The College Inn serves as a European style guest house upstairs. Cafe Allegro is in the corner space on the street, the Easy Shoppe convenience store, and the Bean and Bagel coffee and lunch stand along 40th NE, and the College Inn Pub opens on University Way NE as the building continues to provide English Tudor revival style to the University District. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.  

Charles Cowen and His Addition

The University of Washington moved from downtown to the current campus in 1895.  The campus was still forested. Streams ran through it and portions were mudflats, especially along Union Bay. The only entrance to the campus was at  NE 40th Street and 15th Avenue NE. Commercial enterprises in what we now call the University District were focused along 14th Avenue NE, one block west of campus, now called University Way, where streetcars provided transportation from downtown and through Montlake.  Celebrating Seattle’s coming-of-age and to commemorate the Gold Rush to the Yukon through Alaska, which had brought prosperity to Seattle, the city's  business community decided to hold an exposition, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, and after much discussion, chose the new campus of the University of Washington to be the site. 

Among the entrepreneurs excited about the exposition and its site was Charles Cowen, who arrived in Seattle in 1900. In 1906, doing business as the Sylvester-Cowen Investment Company, he purchased some 40 acres of stump land north of the University, prepared it for development by creating plats and surfacing streets, and set aside 12 acres of wooded land as a park, which he donated to the city. Cowen called his new development the University Park Addition.  

Cowen was, by many accounts, a lively and active participant in developing the University District. According to architectural historian Shirley L. Courtois, he was British and had grown up in South Africa, where his family members were diamond miners and merchants. In 1890 he was sent to New York to purchase equipment for the mines. He never returned to South Africa. He apparently broke with his family, changed his name from Cohen to Cowen, and settled first in New York State, then in Florida, and finally in Seattle. Cowen reportedly retained a distinctively English style throughout his life.

Anticipating the Exposition  

In anticipation of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Cowen built Ye College Inn, with its entrance just a half-block from the entrance to the University of Washington and the A-Y-P Exposition. When announcing the opening of the inn on June 6, 1909, The Seattle Daily Times reported that Cowen built the inn for landowner J. R. Hendren of Kansas City. Courtois notes that after the exposition closed, in October 1909, Cowen purchased the property.

In addition to building the Inn, Cowen contributed a whopping $500 in prizes to a “beautifying” contest sponsored by the Women’s Coterie Club to spruce up the University District in anticipation of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition  Historian Paul Dorpat reports that “District leaders were so startled by Cowen’s generosity that they gave a banquet in his honor at the Congregational Church. At the prize winners’ ceremony, Cowen advised “It was not pure philanthropy that impelled me, but a desire to enhance the value of my property.”  But he added, “Of course, there is a sentimental side to this for which ... I get more pleasure than from the money”  (Dorpat, Seattle, 5-6)  During the A-Y-P Exposition, Courtois notes, Cowen constructed a large billboard advertising his University Park Addition and placed it near the entrance to the exposition, probably on the lot between Ye College Inn on the northwest corner of NE 40th and 15th Avenue NE where the Commodore Apartments are now located.

Cowen continued to live in Brooklyn, as the University District was known then, and took an active part in neighborhood affairs. He began Ye College Play House in 1911 or 1912 while he was living at Ye College Inn. This was one of the first movie theaters in the area. During the 1920s Cowen began spending more time on Orcas Island. He died there in 1926.  

Ye College Inn

Cowen chose Graham & Myers to design Ye College Inn. The choice of a Tudor Revival style may have appealed to all of them as a style appropriate to attracting exposition visitors looking for comfortable, but not lavish, accommodations. John Graham Sr. (1873-1955) was also British, originally from Liverpool. “He acquired his professional skills in England, by apprenticeship rather than by formal professional education. After extensive travels, which included a visit to the Puget Sound region in 1900, he moved to Seattle in 1901, where he practiced as architect from that date to the 1940s” (Grant Hildebrand). He partnered with David J. Myers in 1905, and Graham & Myers designed several pavilions for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.  David  J. Myers (1872-1936) was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and came to Seattle with his family in 1889.  He went to Boston in 1894 to study architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, returning to Seattle in 1905, where he worked with John Graham until August 1910.   

Gladys Poole, in her June 1, 1980, invitation to the reopening of the College Inn, suggests: “The College Inn complemented the Spanish and French Renaissance grandeur of the Fair and further diversified the architectural history of the City of Seattle with graceful Tudor style relief.  With its decorative half-timbered and stucco façade, its quiet elegance, and manor charm, The College Inn stands today in welcome relief to otherwise featureless concrete and offers a glimpse of history and the atmosphere of country dwelling” (Poole, 7). The careers of both architects indicate that they were comfortable with a variety of architectural styles.  The Seattle Daily Times commented, in announcing the opening of the inn, “The furnishings are in old English to correspond with the style of the building. The prices for accommodation will be moderate” (Poole, 1).

Proprietors of Ye College Inn through 1915 all lived at the inn. They included Emily Cridland, Florence L. Smith (who also was proprietor of the Fremont Hotel), and Charles W. Wakefield.  

The College Hotel

By 1916, Ye College Inn had become the College Hotel, owned by the College Hotel Company, and managed by Wilburn J. Stanhope until 1920.  A photograph from this period shows the College Inn building with the original window casements.  The entrance to the storefront on University Way is signed for “Ice Cream,” the corner door to the building at 40th has a screen door into a space with awnings which were popular at the time.  The central arched entrance mid-building on 40th is there and signed, along with storefronts toward 15th Avenue. A large bell-shaped light hangs from the roof at the corner.  

For several years, Polk’s Seattle Street Directory included this description of The College Hotel:  “European style.  Strictly Modern. Conveniently Situated for University and Business Section, E 40th and 14th Av NE.”  Stanhope also managed “cigars and confectionary” at 4000 14th NE and a restaurant at 1406 E 40th.  It appears that the street-front shop areas were, from early times, treated as separate businesses from the inn or hotel, although some of the businesses were managed by the hotel manager.  By 1921, Walter J. Robbins was manager and Leon M. Robbins was Assistant Manager.

After World War I, the University of Washington and the University District had grown sufficiently that, as historian Roy Neilsen writes:

"A question arose regarding what to call 14th Ave. N.E.  It had long been felt that a number was not a suitable name for the principal business street in the District.  It should be noted that the number name resulted in the street being called affectionately the “Ave” or the “Avenue,” names which persist today [1986]. The Herald ran a contest in 1919 requesting suggestions for a new name which, it said, would be distinctive and logical. The board of directors of the University Commercial Club picked the winner, “University Way.”  It had been submitted by A. J. Quigley who asked the donor of the prize, the Corrine Stimpson Wilson Co., to give the money to charity.  It took some time for the new name to come into use" (Neilsen, Seattle, 55).  

1920s and 1930s

During the 1920s and 1930s, the College Hotel, sometimes called the College Inn Hotel, continued to have its entrance at 1404 E. 40th. In June 1937, when the King County building survey photographed and visited the building, a sketch was made of the internal arrangement of the spaces.  The lobby was on the University Avenue side, where the Ice Cream shop had been, with a lunch business on the corner of 40th and University Way. A dining room was located east of the entrance, then a beauty shop and then a dress shop at the corner of the building nearest the alley.  The survey listed "hotel & stores, 3 stories, 5 stores, 28 rooms, 28 1-rm apts." A note dated June 23, 1924, lists the owner as Interstate Investment Company.

During the 1930s there were many changes in the city, and in the University District, that may have influenced the College Hotel. In 1933 Prohibition was repealed and this caused the University Commercial Club Board of Directors to become anxious that the traditionally and legally dry university campus including a two-mile surrounding area would be threatened. The directors appealed to state legislators and to Governor Clarence Martin (1887-1955) to retain the law prohibiting alcoholic beverages on campus. They did retain it and the campus remained dry until 1969.

The University District, including the College Hotel, offered a large number of confectionaries and ice cream businesses through this period. It was not until 1973 that the College Hotel building offered a tavern.  

Also during the 1930s, more permanent arrangements were made for access to the University District, which in 1909 had only been accessible from downtown on a bridge that spanned Portage Bay at Latona (later replaced by the University Bridge) and by land through the narrow spit between Union Bay and Portage Bay. Streetcars ran on both to the A-Y-P Exposition.  By 1930, however, the Montlake Cut had been accomplished and both the University and Montlake bascule bridges were built.  In 1933 improvements were made to the University Bridge and, as Roy Neilsen writes, "at the climax of the ceremonies celebrating the reopening of the bridge on April 7, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tapped a historical key in the East Room of the White House. It was the same solid gold key donated by successful gold-rusher George W. Karmack for President Taft’s transcontinental opening of the A-Y-P Exposition in 1909" (Neilsen, 83).

The Changes of the Sixties 

The city underwent excitement and change as preparations for the Century 21 Exposition of 1962 and building of Interstate 5 through town and the University District were planned.  “Forward Thrust” bond issues, street paving and signage, and a general beautification effort were conducted. The University of Washington was growing, especially the medical complex along the waterway, and the University District was a focus for international visitors. It was also home to a coffeehouse subculture, a continuing tradition of supporting the arts, and the stirrings of student and intellectual unrest related to civil rights, world peace, women’s liberation, and ending the war in Vietnam.  

In December 1960, the College Inn reopened after extensive remodeling. The Seattle Times reported that “During the intervening years, it has housed several generations of University of Washington students in its 30 rooms, virtually unchanged since the glamour days of the exposition” (“College Inn Reopens After Remodeling”). 

The remodel cleared the upper two floors of partitions and constructed 14 new apartments with their own baths. The price was to be $125 a month including maid service and utilities, with new furniture. The Rosling Real Estate Company was to manage the apartments for the owners of record, Rusty Rosling and Jack Behar, operating for a syndicate that purchased the property in 1958. The street-level shops would continue.

 Photographs taken in 1963 show the entrance to the University of Washington at 40th Street, then still a major entrance. The College Inn Hotel is shown, both the face along 40th and along University Way. The entrance to the apartments is no longer on 40th Street. Werners, for decades a European pastry and dining fixture in the University District, is shown where the entrance to the inn was previously located.  The entrance to the hotel is shown on University Way, where the former Ice Cream establishment was located.  Stairs in the back (north) of the building provided access to the upstairs apartments.   

Returning to the Past

In the early 1970s, Ronald L. Bozarth and Richard L. Burnett acquired the building. They began to make repairs and changes. In 1973 the eastern half of the basement was finished and the resulting basement space became the College Inn Pub. (Previously, Ye College Inn Grill had occupied the western below-grade space.)   They renovated the store spaces, relocated the entrances, and began to uncover the original walls, doors, and flooring. Then they tackled the apartments. 

Courtois outlines the renovation in 1979, which returned the building to its original function as a guest house: 

“All installations for the apartments were removed, interior walls and room arrangements were restored, original wood trim and detailing were duplicated.  Several of the rooms retain the original wide built-in seats in the spacious window bays. . .The attic, which had remained unfinished, was converted to a guest breakfast room and piano lounge, with additional private office space and manager’s apartment, in a manner in keeping with the character of the building, , ,The entrance to the Inn was restored to its original position where a glazed and paneled entry door with segmented arched transom and sidelights give access to a small lobby, where a terrazzo floor with a mosaic of four shields and the inscription “Ye College Inn” was uncovered and restored”  (Courtois, 2).  

On June 1, 1980, Gladys Poole, who managed The College Inn, published a historic pamphlet and invitation: 

“The College Inn has been completely restored and is to be returned to its original purpose as a guest house.  In celebrating its restoration and re-opening, The College Inn also celebrates the history of Seattle and cordially invites you to come visit with us on our open house day ... Sunday, the first of June, 1980”  (Poole, Seattle, 1).  

Today (2008), the College Inn building, restored, offers the College Inn Guest House, Easy Shoppe, Café Allegro, The College Inn Pub, and the Bean and Bagel.  One of the fascinating results of the renovation was that doors and windows were uncovered throughout the building.  Although they may not all be in use currently, you can see where they were and, thus, recreate a sense of the many changes over the years. 

Sources: Roy Nielsen, UniverCity: The Story of the University District in Seattle (Seattle: University Lions Foundation, 1986),  55, 81, 83; Grant Hildebrand, "John Graham Sr.," and David A. Rash, "Schack, Young & Myers" in Shaping Seattle Architecture: A Historical Guide to the Architects ed. by Jeffrey Karl Ochsner (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994), 90, 157-58. Gladys Poole, The College Inn, 1980;  Baist Real Estate Atlas of Seattle 1912, Plate 16. Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Seattle Neighborhoods: University District -- Thumbnail History” (by Paul Dorpat), (accessed July 25, 2008); Shirley L. Courtois, “National Register of Historic Places Inventory -- Nomination Form, United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service” Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation website accessed July 25, 2008 (; “College Inn Opens Near Exposition,” The Seattle Daily Times, June 6, 1909, p. 3. “Charles Cowen, Seattle and Orcas Island,” Ibid., March 11, 1926, p. 7. “College Inn Reopens After Remodeling,” Ibid., December 11, 1960, Third Section, p. 39; Ranny Green, “College Inn,” Ibid., July 20, 1980, pictorial section, p. 4-10; City of Seattle Department of Planning and Development, Microfilm, various files for "4000 University Way N.E.";  Folio 1381: "4000 University Way," King County Building Survey files, Puget Sound Regional Archives, Washington State Archives, Bellevue; Polk’s Seattle City Directory, various years; "Ye College Inn (added 1982 -- Building -- #82004256)," Washington -- King County, National Register of Historic Places website accessed August 21, 2008
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