Beacon Hill's historic Garden House during a community event hosted by ROCKiT space/Beacon Arts. (Photo: Jessie McKenna)

Historic Seattle Acquires Beacon Hill’s ‘Garden House’ for Community Use

by Ronnie Estoque

“The story is really a women’s story — [a] women’s leadership story,” Maria Batayola, chair of the Beacon Hill Council, told the Emerald regarding the decades-long journey leading up to Historic Seattle’s recent acquisition of the “Garden House” property on Beacon Hill. 

In a 2016 lawsuit brought by then-owners the Washington State Federation of Garden Clubs (WSFGC), a covenant that had guaranteed the property’s use for community purposes was deemed invalid, preceding a domino effect that ultimately put tenants of the property in a state of uncertainty. Tenants at the time included the Italian language school Dante Alighieri Society and Beacon Arts, a volunteer-run nonprofit that provides opportunities for artists and community members on Beacon Hill to create. The covenant had been part of the agreement between the Jefferson Park Ladies’ Improvement Club and the WSFGC when the former gifted the property to the latter in the late 70s. 

Screenshot from the Garden House Deed Lawsuit quoting the pertinent section of the deed (i.e., the covenant). The covenant stated that the property “shall be maintained as an historic site,” that it “shall not be used for commercial purposes,” and that “in no event shall the real property nor proceeds from the sale … be used for other than nonprofit purposes.”

More recently, in 2010, Beacon Arts, then known as “ROCKiT Space,” began to rent office space at Garden House — also known as the “Turner-Koepf House,” as well as the WSFGC’s “Headquarters House” — a 4,420-square-foot, two-and-a-half-story building located in the North Beacon Hill neighborhood. Beacon Arts Board President Betty Jean Williamson vividly remembers finding out about the WSFGC’s decision to sell the property following the removal of the covenant. 

“In 2017, the owners of the property that we’d been renting an office from for seven years decided to sell the property. And we were concerned about the potential redevelopment,” Williamson said. 

Williamson, alongside Batayola and other community members, decided to form the Seattle Beacon Hill Historic Preservation Coalition (BHHPC) to combat the threat of redevelopment at the property. The effort soon included organizations like Beacon Arts, Beacon Hill Council, Beacon Development Group, Beacon Hill Food Forest, WSFGC’s local chapter (Beacon Hill Garden Club), Beacon Business Alliance, Dante Alighieri Society, and the Jefferson Advisory Council.

“It was really quick and easy to organize, because people were sensitive to what was happening in Beacon Hill,” Batayola said.

BHHPC also began to look for further resources to aid them in protecting the space for the community and connected with Historic Seattle, an organization focused on preserving properties of historical importance across the city. Between them, they developed a plan that would include City Hall meetings and vital community engagement to finalize an acquisition of the property, which was built in 1886. 

Historic Seattle advised Beacon Arts to apply and seek landmark status for the property through the City of Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board.

“One of the things that we had mapped is the fact that in North Beacon Hill, there are 47 other properties that are identified as meeting the definition of historic landmarking,” Batayola said.

In its previous years, Garden House served as a community space for several organizations, including the Jefferson Park Ladies’ Improvement Club and the local WSFGC chapter. According to Batayola, the Beacon Hill Council can trace its civic advocacy roots to the leadership of the Jefferson Park Ladies’ Improvement Club, which played a pivotal role in the Beacon Hill community in the early 1900s. That, along with the fact that women led the recent efforts to save Garden House, is why she sees women’s leadership as central to the history of this community-oriented house.

“After the Jefferson Park Ladies’ Improvement Club disbanded, [Garden House] became the property of the Washington State Federation of Garden Clubs for about 40 years … when they took ownership of the property, it was with that covenant listed that they had to have it be for community space,” said Naomi West, director of philanthropy and engagement at Historic Seattle. “Then, at the end of their ownership, that was when that covenant was unfortunately nullified. And it became a public or a private property.”

While Beacon Arts awaited the decision on the landmark application, Historic Seattle made an offer to purchase Garden House from the WSFGC in 2018, and despite making a higher bid, the property was eventually sold to a private owner. After WSFGC sold Garden House, Beacon Hill Garden Club officially resigned its chapter and wrote a letter denouncing WSFGC’s actions to both the state and national garden club organizations that it had been affiliated with. Beacon Hill Garden Club officially became a program of Beacon Arts in 2019 and has hosted “Garden Share” events to support local food sustainability since May 2020.

While the owners desired a partial property redevelopment of 9–15 town houses on part of the property, an approval by the Landmarks Preservation Board in April of 2019 granted the property landmark status, protecting it from being demolished. 

“The landmark status restrained that development so that it saved the 100-year-old pear orchard garden. And it also bought Historic Seattle time to raise money,” Williamson said. “Eventually, the buyer realized that they wouldn’t be able to develop the property in the way they’d hoped and recently sold it to Historic Seattle.”

Historic Seattle purchased the historical property on Dec. 23 for $2 million and was able to do so through the support of over 100 individual donors, grants from the King County Conservation Futures program, and seed funding through the City of Seattle. While it was unable to purchase the property in 2018, it was allowed to maintain its approved seed funding until the purchase could be finalized, which played a vital role in its ability to close the deal. 

“This is the first purchase we’ve made in more than a decade. And the last one we made was Washington Hall,” West said. “That was a huge project, again, another community-oriented space that involved having a lot of partners to help move the project along and ultimately become a successful community space again when it reopened in 2016.”

Since making the announcement of the Garden House property purchase, the number of donors interested in supporting the project have nearly doubled to 200. These donations will go toward covering the cost of inspections and repairs of the property, which includes a hefty roof repair. Currently, Historic Seattle and Beacon Arts do not have a formal agreement regarding a tenancy for the property space. Beacon Arts moved out when Garden House was sold to the private owner in 2018. It has been working virtually and holding events at various other partner locations as needed, but the organization would like to return to Garden House.

“Beacon Arts hopes to become the anchor tenant, which will be a big leap for us financially,” Williamson said. “Garden House has been sitting empty for the last three years. We are eager to see it return as a cultural center for Beacon Hill.”

As Beacon Arts continues to grow, it plans on hiring staff to help with its operations and programming. Like its previous property projects, Historic Seattle wants to include community input throughout the repair process of the property to ensure the space best serves the community where the property is located. It hopes the space can be utilized by the community for various events.

“We’re looking at a parallel path of doing some of that work as we do a community engagement process to identify what the use will ultimately be,” Historic Seattle’s West said.

📸 Featured Image: Beacon Hill’s historic Garden House during a community event hosted by ROCKiT space/Beacon Arts. (Photo: Jessie McKenna)

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