Jules Maes’ New Owner Preserves Legacy of One of Seattle’s Oldest Bars

by Mark Van Streefkerk

Georgetown’s Jules Maes Saloon reopened under new ownership on January 12, but don’t expect much to change — owner Raché Hemmelgarn loves the historic saloon just as it is. Built in 1888, the watering hole on Airport Way hails from a time when Georgetown was the sixth-largest beer-producing district in the world, well-known for its gambling and vice. Sandwiched between the Duwamish Waterway and the train tracks, Georgetown’s outsider attitude (it was annexed by Seattle in 1910) remains largely intact. According to Hemmelgarn, what’s not to love? 

“I’m not surprised by any of it,” Hemmelgarn said about the neighborhood’s infamous history. “I’m super excited to be in Georgetown. You can’t box anybody in here. Everybody’s welcome. You get everything from blue collar to white collar to punk to whatever. You walk in [Jules Maes] and it pretty much looks exactly like it [always] did.” 

Hemmelgarn has been a bartender since 2000 and owned Firestarter Bar & Grill in Kent for the last six years, but Georgetown is where she feels most at home. In fact, it’s where she and her now-husband had their first date eight years ago. Last June, Hemmelgarn and some friends made a trip to Georgetown when they found Jules Maes closed because of COVID-19. “I was like, ‘Oh my god it’s closed down,’” she said. “[I was] just super bummed about it.” 

The more Hemmelgarn thought about it, the more she reasoned, why not try to lease it herself? “Things close down or pass you by and you’ve got this regret. It was one of those, ‘Why not?’ I would be kicking myself in the butt if I didn’t try. Might as well. The beginning of COVID was …  when all norms were blown out of the water and you have to be creative and start thinking of different things to do … I had support from my husband. My family was a little thrown off, but they turned out to be very supportive too.” 

Hemmelgarn’s vision for Jules Maes is to keep it exactly as it has been for years, which is just what property owner John Bennett wanted to hear. Bennett owns 25 properties in Georgetown, most of which are historic buildings, and he has a heart for preservation, keeping leases at practical prices and working with sole proprietors. 

“When Jules Maes came available, I made sure I really vetted everybody to get the right person in there, which is somebody who’s going to keep it cool, keep the original atmosphere in there, keep it historic,” Bennett said. “Raché was really interested in it. She’s worked hard. I’d go in there and she’s on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor, painting, or whatever. That’s kind of the Georgetown way — you work on your own buildings. Sweat equity.”

The approximately 5,000-square-foot saloon includes vaulted ceilings and a 20-foot bar, the same one brought to the saloon by Belgian Immigrant Jules Gustaf Maes, “The Mayor of Georgetown.” Maes first owned a bar in South Park in the early 1900s and another in Van Asselt around 1906. He sold the Van Asselt bar (The Maple Leaf Saloon) before buying the Rainier Bar in 1912, then at 5953 Duwamish Avenue (now Airport Way). He re-named the bar after himself and in 1937 moved it to 5919 Airport Way, right across from the historic Rainier Brewing Company. Once Maes died, his family took ownership for a time. Most recently June Espelend owned and operated Jules Maes until the 2000s, then John & Vanessa LeMaster, owners of Ballard’s Tin Hat and Noble Barton in White Center, took on the business. Once COVID-19 led to lockdown in March, the LeMasters closed Jules Maes indefinitely. Their lease ended in July, and that’s when Hemmelgarn came into the picture. 

“The bar [has] scallops from where people’s arms have rested on the bar, so it has this wave to it. Where your feet sit on the footrest, the metal has been rubbed raw from all the people’s feet being on there,” she said. “It’s really cool to see the history visually like that.”

Hemmelgarn made some needed repairs and installed an old speakeasy window in the front door with the help of Bennett. She set up a projector in one of the back rooms, perfect for sports or film showings, with plans to bring live music to the far back room whenever that’s possible. It’s the same back room that once housed a bookie joint in the early 1900s and where the Georgetown Merchants baseball team formed in 1920. Bennett noted that grunge bands played in the same back room in the 1980s and 1990s.

When Hemmelgarn opened two weeks ago, she debuted a new menu of comfort bistro offerings like homemade mozzarella sticks, chicken and waffles, flatbread pizzas, mac and cheese, hamburgers, and salads. On the weekends, brunch items like Monte Cristos and grits are available until 1 p.m. Food is available for take out via DoorDash or ChowNow through Jules Maes’ website.

In keeping with Governor Inslee’s move to put King County in Phase Two of reopening, Jules Maes will reopen at 25% capacity next Tuesday. 

“Honestly we’re just happy and honored to be part of the history of this, and we’re super excited to be opening up and meeting everybody,” Hemmelgarn said. “I just think we’re going to have a lot of fun. It’s a new beginning.”

Special thanks to Cynthia Brothers of Vanishing Seattle for help with this article.  

Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist, freelance writer, and the Emerald’s Arts, Culture, & Community editor living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. He often writes about specialty coffee, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website and follow him on Instagram at @markthewriter

Featured image: Jules Maes’ new owner Rache’ Hemmelgarn is excited to take over one of Seattle’s oldest saloons, a historic Georgetown establishment. (Photo: Molly Oliver)

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