by Jessie McKenna
Garden House, a beloved Beacon Hill community resource—a time capsule chock-full of neighborhood history—is slated for sale. Beacon Arts and countless others have stepped up to keep it in the community.
It was another day in “Pear-a-dise,” a Beacon Arts and Beacon Hill Garden Club co-sponsored event held on August 19, and each summer since 2014, at Garden House on north Beacon Hill. The 135-year-old Queen Anne-style house lends itself beautifully to the event. The poster for Pear-a-dise is translated into multiple Beacon Hill-area resident languages. Its purpose? To bring the community together and offer the bounty of Bartlett pears from the resident orchard.
The house, originally on five-acres, is believed to be the first built on Beacon Hill, though earlier settlements of Duwamish people are known to have been located at the base of the hill in SoDo.
In years prior, the pear-tastic event was simply a harvest and a chance to share pear-themed treats among neighbors. It served as an opportunity to open the 24-pane glass French Doors over the veranda and let people enjoy the ample space and its adjacent gardens.
The property is maintained with care by its owner, the Washington State Federation of Garden Clubs (WSFGC). Though, the house serves as the Federation’s headquarters, they do not use it much. This year, the festivities held a deeper meaning for hosts and attendees who hope to continue holding events like this one at Garden House for years to come. WSFGC recently voted to sell the property, leaving the future of this beloved community gem to an unknown fate.
In addition to offering tasty pear treats and gardening tips, Beacon Arts and the Beacon Hill Garden Club (a chapter of the WSFGC) used this year’s Pear-a-dise to educate the public on WSFGC’s decision to give up the property. They also spent the time highlighting a potential path to keeping the house in the community and available for public use. The neighborhood chapter recently gained 50-plus members in support of preserving Garden House.
Director of the Greater Seattle District Garden Club, Evie Marwood—also a member of the board of trustees that maintains Garden House—attended a community meeting in the ballroom on June 12. At that event, she discussed the sale and helped answer questions. The meeting, hosted by Pear-a-dise organizers, drew more than 60 attendees. Betty Jean Williamson, president of the Beacon Arts board and co-president of the Beacon Hill Garden Club, in an opening statement, asked guests to “help us lead a positive campaign to preserve the Garden House.”
Why did WSFGC decide to sell Garden House now, community members wondered. Marwood explained that [WSFGC] membership is aging and the group does not have the funds to maintain the house, built in 1883. Additionally, Garden House isn’t big enough to hold conventions, and the group doesn’t feel in general that the house serves the state-wide membership, Marwood said.
Managing event rentals, which help offset maintenance costs, is also something of a burden, Williamson has observed over the years. Beacon Arts has rented a small office space on the second floor of Garden House since 2010.
Marwood also reported that “state executive officers agree they want to protect and preserve the house intact,” and that they are “seeking an appropriate buyer with that same intent.”
People here dread the further loss of community-friendly spaces and local culture that comes with increased modern box housing offering little to the community other than increased density.
In 1977, when WSFGC took control of the property from the Jefferson Park Ladies’ Improvement Club, Williamson said, it was with the understanding that it “would be maintained as a historic site.” According to the Seattle Times, preservation was written into the deed. However, prior to the vote to sell, the club had that clause legally removed, which means WSFGC can now sell the property for commercial use, and fair market value for the house and grounds would undoubtedly be in the multi-million dollar range. It’s easy to see why the group might be tempted to at least consider what their organization could accomplish with the proceeds of such a sale.
If WSFGC intends to preserve the house and its gardens, Beacon Arts organizers hope they will consider an offer from that organization—or another hyper-local nonprofit—willing and able to carry the weight of the care and maintenance of Garden House. Williamson believes Beacon Arts is up for the challenge and sees the purchase of Garden House as an opportunity to ensure it does not fall to the private-use sector or worse: development and/or destruction. With the recent increase in demo and construction projects on Beacon Hill, the fear of further gentrification in the community is palpable. People here dread the further loss of community-friendly spaces and local culture that comes with increased modern box housing offering little to the community other than increased density.
The Dante Alighieri Society of Washington (or “Dante”), an Italian cultural association, has been gathering at Garden House since at least the mid-1970s. Twice monthly the society hosts events, including meetings, dinners, and even live music on occasion, and anyone can attend. In a letter to WSFGC, Daniel DeMatteis, president of Dante, writes that it’s important in a changing neighborhood “not to cut off all connections with its past.” Garden House, its pear orchards, and gardens, DeMatteis writes, “are one of those connections that once gone cannot be replaced.”
Echoing sentiments expressed by countless Beacon Hill residents and Garden House visitors, DeMatteis also expressed “hope that this valuable community resource will be kept intact as an open community gathering space vital to the neighborhood’s health and well-being.” Considering that north Beacon Hill and surrounding areas once boasted a large Italian population, it is noteworthy that this lasting connection to Beacon Hill’s Italian roots sits on a precipice and could soon be severed.
In conjunction with a series of other efforts to “save Garden House,” Betty Jean Williamson recently formed the Seattle Beacon Hill Historic Preservation Coalition. As of this writing, many area groups and nonprofits have joined the coalition, including Beacon Hill Merchants Association, Jefferson Advisory Council, Beacon Food Forest, Dante Alighieri Society, Beacon Hill Council, and Green Seattle Coalition. The support for keeping Garden House in the community is overwhelming.
An Oasis on North Beacon Hill
As people arrived on August 19 for Pear-a-dise, volunteers turned up with pies, brownies, cookies, breads—all baked with pears from the orchard. Guests wasted no time digging into the treats. Local restaurants offered pear-themed baked goods for a raffle. Travelers Thali House, which sits just one block south of Garden House, donated a pear spiced chai cake.
The day was a bit overcast but fine and mild—near-perfect weather for a garden party. Garden House and its grounds are homey and uniquely beautiful. Its Victorian-era architecture boasts a castle-like turret and multi-gabled roof. Classically-detailed window casings grace the outside of the building. Inside, the main gathering space is vast and open, with a high ceiling and vintage wallpaper above milled white wainscotting. The veranda staircase leads to the north garden in three directions—to the grass, a charming gazebo, and the street. Any option lands you in the same lovely garden. On the opposite side, the wraparound porch looks out over the larger southern garden and the pear trees. The place is large and grand in many ways, but it isn’t so fancy that you feel like you can’t touch anything.
An all-female choral group, Cantetorum, arranged a set inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As they performed, ten perfectly harmonized operatic voices, with superb piano accompaniment, floated across the north lawn, weaving seamlessly in and out of conversations and laughter, bringing a sense of joy to the afternoon. Incredibly, it was the group’s first public performance.
While at Garden House, it’s easy for visitors to forget that just across the street lies a major intersection with gas stations flanking Beacon Avenue South. The urban respite is clean and peaceful and boasts a variety of trees, plants, and flowers.
The Pear-a-dise crowd was primarily middle-aged and above, though many families with young children and twenty- and thirty-something couples and folx peppered the guest list. All mingled cheerily within and without the building. It was hard to tell the Beacon Arts and Beacon Hill Garden Club members (of which there is much crossover) from the volunteers, performers, and guests as everyone gathered to help set up tables and enjoy food, drink, conversation, music, and the gardens together in authentic community fashion.
A toddler used one of the colorful hodgepodge of painted and decoupaged art chairs—a staple of Beacon Arts events for years—to hoist herself up and launch herself on an ambitious amble across the lawn. A few steps later, she toppled into a well-practiced crawl toward a blanket laid out on the grass.
Nearby, “Barbo,” an at-most five-foot-five-inches tall, wise and cheerful clown, donned a bright yellow, red, and blue costume and black bowler, adorned with a big sunny flower. She meandered, entertaining children and adults alike. Barbo is Barbara Peterson of Lakeshore Garden Club, another chapter of WSFGC, who attended and (performed) to show her support for Beacon Arts’ endeavor to save Garden House. Other WSFGC representatives in attendance were Evie Marwood and Lana Finegold, the latter a member of Sherwood Forest Garden Club since before WSFGC took ownership of the Garden House in 1977.
Williamson said that—while she’s not privy to any communications garden club members may have had with the WSFGC executive board—Marwood and others have expressed deep admiration for the volunteer and community spirit Beacon Arts and Beacon Hill Garden Club embody. Marwood even likened the missions of the groups to that of the WSFGC, a civic organization, and its many garden clubs. The house is an important feature of the community, and many feel that if a change in ownership is in its future, it should be given back to the community.
Williamson attended a June convention of WSFGC where the executive board voted to sell. Garden House board of trustees chair, 88-year-old Lona Carter, was heart broken, Williamson said, “when her fellow members voted to sell their headquarters house, which she has helped to care for for the last 40 years.” Williamson explained that Carter wrote a letter of resignation and gave it to a friend to deliver to the state president and then left the convention. The friend, however, did not deliver the letter, and after the convention Carter decided to remain on the board of trustees. Carter did, however, leave the Burien Garden Club, where she had been a long-time member. The Burien club had voted to sell Garden House. Carter opted to join Seattle Civic Garden Club, who had voted not to sell.
In an expression of gratitude for their support, WSFGC members at Pear-a-dise were honored with a half sheet Filipino ube, or purple yam, cake from Despi DeliteDelight Bakery, just two blocks south of Garden House.
A Little Bit of History
Williamson and the Beacon Arts board feel that whether or not WSFGC opts to sell the property to the organization WSFGC has an obligation to choose their next steps with care. Because of how they acquired Garden House, WSFGC should honor the history of the property and how its changed hands.
From 1923–1987, Garden House served as the club house of the Jefferson Park Ladies’ Improvement Club, which was founded in 1912. While the property was in their care, they hosted community events, meetings, and Camp Fire Girls. Local children mowed the lawn and played in the gardens. According to a 2011 Northwest Asian Weekly article, the club “contributed to the community’s education, living conditions, and enrichment projects.” They even helped Beacon Hill open its first library.
A document compiled by WSFGC states that In 1976, with membership in decline and an aging membership base, the Ladies’ Improvement Club essentially transferred the property to WSFGC, who payed just $2,200 to cover a debt owed on the property. Thus, they were entrusted with its future care.
That same year, the property was added to the National Register of Historic Buildings under the name “Turner-Koepf House.” It’s also on the Washington Heritage Register, according to the WSFGC website. The same document boasts WSFGC contributions to the Beacon Hill community, stating that “carrying on the tradition of the Jefferson Park Ladies Improvement Club, the house continues to serve the Beacon Hill community… It is a great resource… The renovations of ‘The Garden House’ continue to enhance the Beacon Hill community. WSFGC members are proud of their efforts to preserve this historic home and grounds, a symbol of Beacon Hill for nearly 135 years.”
Why Beacon Arts?
A huge banner under a tent in the garden at Pear-a-dise read “Beacon Arts ‘Creates’ Community Space.” The sign was repurposed, and some may have recognized it as the same one that adorned the now defunct “TBD Community Space and Gallery” a block away and across the street. “TBD” stood for “to be demolished,” and in the case of this banner, “Creates” replaced “TBD.” Beacon Arts’ temporary occupancy and activation of the soon-to-be-demoed former Cesar Tugade Salon and beauty school and adjoining warehouse—the same that became the much-hyped and well-loved Dozer’s Warehouse—is the penultimate example of how Beacon Arts creates community space. Such a legacy could be sealed if Beacon Arts takes over stewardship of Garden House.
Beacon Arts is well-positioned, if nothing else, to transition into a permanent location after the success of Dozer’s Warehouse and the excitement that project and other events in the TBD space generated in the community—rotating gallery shows, breakdancing classes, Tots’ Jam music and story time for young children and their caregivers, Da Brown Girls Sessions (which offered empowerment through movement sessions for girls of color), ROCKiT all-ages open mic nights, pop-up markets, art-making gatherings, and many more.
The way the Ladies’ Improvement Club passed the torch of the Turner-Koepf house to WSFGC and then continued to meet in the space for years to come can be likened to how ROCKiT space (co-founded by Jessie McKenna, author of this piece) transferred what would later become “Beacon Arts” to the Beacon Hill community. Similarly, the ROCKiT community has gone on to benefit from years of Beacon Arts’ events and programs.
In the case of ROCKiT space, which operated out of what is now Tippe & Drague Alehouse, the community rose to the occasion when the organization was in trouble. In particular, Betty Jean Williamson helped save the project from becoming a blip on the history radar of Beacon Hill. She and others went on to turn it into something bigger and more far-reaching than I or my co-founder (my mother, Marti McKenna) could have imagined.
Since then, Beacon Arts has been nomadic, sponsoring events in spaces up and down the north Beacon business district from Jefferson Park to Garden House. Williamson negotiated below-market rate rent for the Garden House office in 2010. Since then, the organization has hosted or facilitated countless events at the site.
Williamson has never lost sight of how Beacon Arts came to be and how so many folx have contributed to its success over the years. At each major event where she has spoken, Williamson has acknowledged how I and my co-founder contributed to ROCKiT’s—that is, Beacon Arts’—beginnings and has noted the efforts of countless others along the way.
One day in 2009, an elder woman walked in to ROCKiT space and asked for singing lessons. She got them. And then she performed at the popular Saturday open mic alongside teens, children, seasoned local rock musicians, and multi-generational family bands. Years later, at a Beacon Arts event at Garden House, after Williamson introduced us as founders, a young teen who had just performed in a folk band on stage approached Marti McKenna to thank her for helping to start the whole thing. That was a lightning-bolt moment for us, perfectly illustrating why we had started ROCKiT. Instances like this one drove home how important the project was in ways we couldn’t have predicted when we started out. ROCKiT provided opportunities the likes of which were not otherwise possible. Beacon Arts continues that legacy.
“The thrust of our work has been to create safe space for folks of all kinds and all ages to create, to experience, to meet and mix,” Williamson said. “We believe that these opportunities for positive proximity increase the likelihood that folks will meet neighbors they otherwise might only walk past at the grocery store.
“These opportunities for positive connections build surprising networks for all kinds of positive behavior and partnerships. They strengthen our community and sense of pride of place.”
Williamson says she has seen culture in Beacon Hill flourish since Beacon Arts was born.
“Eight years ago when we dubbed our fledgling summer concert series ‘Beacon Rocks’—it got a laugh. Beacon Hill was not cool. Now folks are actively proud of their neighborhood, and we are almost too cool and inviting rapid gentrification.” While many felt pride of place before Beacon Arts and the Beacon Rocks! concerts, before the arrival of the community hub The Station Coffee Shop—which has partnered with Beacon Arts on many occasions—many would agree that few outside of Beacon Hill would have described the area as “cool” or “hip.” For ages it was something of a well-kept secret. Now the secret’s out, and the Beacon Hill community is simultaneously benefitting from the growth and caving under the pressure.
“It is extremely important to preserve those things we as a community hold dear,” said Williamson, “to honor our past and the many cultures that have added spice to the stew.” Beacon Arts will be able to offer more to the community if they have control of Garden House, Williamson believes. Noting that “it sits idle much of the week and weekend rentals hardly cover the cost of maintenance,” Williamson explained that Beacon Arts can help with that problem because “unlike the WSFGC, we are used to writing grants…and have identified many sources of funding that can make a big difference in the ability to get those needed repairs done.”
She went on to discuss the benefits of the short-lived store front “TBD” gallery and warehouse space and how having that public space and “not just a small office upstairs behind a locked door” made a big difference in the kind of access Beacon Arts hopes to continue to create.
If WSFGC were to pass the torch to Beacon Arts, it would be following in a tradition the club itself benefited from when it took over the property now called “Garden House”a legacy of sharing, giving, and breathing life and love into spaces, organizations, and individuals serving Beacon Hill. These are hallmarks that make our neighborhood a unique and beautiful place to call home.
Who Uses the Garden House?
Though WSFGC has been a marvelous steward to the property, Garden House has always been something of an enigma to many in the Beacon Hill community. There’s much to be gained by opening the doors for all of our neighbors to get a peek inside and find out what it has to offer them, their families, their children. Though WSFGC has managed rentals of the space for private and community use at below market rates—and countless individuals and organizations, no doubt, have benefited from the use of the space—they have never done much to advertise the availability of the space (or the low rates). Because of this lack of outreach, average community members know little about about what the place is and what goes on there—much less how they can get involved or benefit from it.
Were Beacon Arts to take over where the Ladies’ Improvement Club and WSFGC left off, Garden House could become more accessible than ever before—in the form of an active, arts-based community hub.
How Do We Save Garden House?
Efforts to save the historic property have already begun. Beacon Arts, the Beacon Hill Garden Club, and the Seattle Beacon Hill Historic Preservation Coalition are working together to find a solution for Garden House that satisfies all concerned parties and maintains an amicable relationship with WSFGC. The Save Garden House Project, though still in its infancy, is moving forward rapidly, with Beacon Arts spearheading the effort. The organization will pursue “landmark status for the house and grounds, consulting with legal and real estate professionals, outreach to the community through meetings and media and conducting a feasibility study to determine how an acquisition could be achieved,” according to their website.
And that’s where the community comes in. The ultimate goal is to launch a capital campaign to purchase the building. Beacon Arts states that “along with applying for grants and seeking pro bono services, Beacon Arts is currently seeking community donations to fund these critical activities.”
Currently, you and/or your business or organization can donate time, money, expertise, and professional services. You can also “write a letter to thank the WSFGC for considering selling to a non-profit dedicated to preservation.” (Follow this link to download a template letter of support on the Save Garden House website). Come to a Save Garden House workgroup meeting. And, perhaps most importantly, share your memories and photos of the Garden House on social media using #savegardenhouse and @savegardenhouse, because at the end of the day, that’s what this is all about. It’s about people and authentic Beacon Hill. It’s about stories, memories, and what the future of our changing neighborhood looks like.
Betty Jean Williamson learned that Garden House will go on the market as early as January 2019. “We have strong community support and a lot of work to do,” She said. She believes Beacon Arts can be successful “if we keep communicating with WSFGC and keep working together. That is what it has always been about for me and will be no matter what the outcome.”
However, she notes, “some pro-bono legal help and a good development volunteer couldn’t hurt!”
Seattle City Councilmembers will join community members at Garden House Tuesday evening at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the Garden House and plans to preserve the space. For more information on the Garden House, visit savegardenhouse.org.
Jessie McKenna is a singer/songwriter/musician among other things. She co-founded ROCKiT space (now Beacon Arts) in 2009 and has been an advisor and volunteer for that organization since; she’s also served on the board. She recently joined the Beacon Hill Garden Club. She’s lived in Beacon Hill for nearly 13 years. She never knew home until she found South Seattle by happenstance. As a white woman, she endeavors to be aware of her privilege and place as a neighbor and in the greater South End community and to contribute as much or more than she receives here through community and social-justice work. Please tell her if she ever gets it wrong—trust me, she wants to know.
Featured Image: People walk around the lawn outside Beacon Hill’s Garden House, during the Pear-a-dise event on Beacon Hill on Aug. 19. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)