Historic home for arts, immigrants seeking $6.8 million makeover

(Photo courtesy Washington Hall)

A century of immigrant history hangs in the balance in Washington Hall’s renovation campaign.

Tomorrow evening when community members gather to advocate for their priorities in the City’s new budget, everything from preservation of the International District, to renewal of the Fresh Bucks Farmers Market EBT Program, will be up for discussion.

But at that meeting, at the newly renovated Garfield High School, the fate of another building just a few blocks away will also be on the table. Washington Hall, a 105-year old building on 14th Ave, is awaiting the final stages of renovation.

A proposed $300,000 investment from the city would help to provide a seismic retrofit, update the performance space, add a much-needed elevator, and finish the final phase of a three-part restoration of the historic Washington Hall. Organizers are hopeful that much of the rest of a the $6.8 million dollars need for the project can be raised through private donors and grants.

Renovating an old building might seem to fall low on the list of priorities for a growing city coming out of a recession. But ask someone in Seattle about what Washington Hall is, and you might get a hundred different answers.

For Voices Rising, a non-profit supporting LGBTQ artists of color, it is an office space, and for the Tenants Union, a place to hold meetings big enough for union members and their kids.

When I run the name by Molly Sides, Cornish graduate, dancer and curator about town, she lights up as she recalls all of her favorite international choreographers that have come to the Hall, which once housed the arts non-profit On The Boards.

To my grandfather, Dave Tarica, Washington Hall conjures memories of his immigrant parents, Fasana an Eliyahu who were a part of a community of Jews from Rhodes, Greece who came to Seattle in search of economic opportunity and religious freedom. They used the Hall as their prayer space until they secured a more permanent building on Yesler.

The Hall has seen countless weddings, funerals, quinceañeras, poetry readings, baby namings, community dinners, concerts as big as Count Basie and as small as the caretaker’s nightly changing lullabye.

For me, it was the beautiful old building where I first bumped into Alex Stonehill at The Seattle Globalist launch party a year and a half ago, and asked point-blank if he’d let me write. So in a way, the Hall is responsible for the very words you’re reading right now.

Amongst all of the communities that have called Washington Hall home, no one knows it quite like caretaker and Operations Manager, Luzviminda Uzuri ‘Lulu’ Carpenter. She talks about the building like a proud parent of a deserving child.

“I love talking about Washington Hall — it sells itself”, she tells me, inside of the office that serves as the headquarters for three grassroots organizations. The roving dinner theatre Café Nordo, project of local chef Nordo Lefeszcki, is bustling upstairs. When they leave, she can begin her nightly routine of checking on the old building, and finally sleep.

“I have always been good at caring for things,” Carpenter responds, when I ask how she landed the job.

Caretaker Lulu Carpenter in the Lodge Room at Washington Hall. (Photo by Anna Goren)Caretaker Luzviminda Uzuri ‘Lulu’ Carpenter in the Lodge Room at Washington Hall. (Photo by Anna Goren)

In reality, she was working for Washington Hall long before her job here, just as much as the Hall was working for her. She was chosen for the position based on her strong commitment to the community work taking place inside the building.

“I was always hanging around, anyways”, she laughs, rattling off the numerous grassroots groups she has been involved in as a volunteer, employee, or performer.

She’s not the only one who’s been drawn to the building.

Founded by the Danish Brotherhood in 1908 as a space for cultural activities and informal social services, since its inception the Hall has had a history of being an inclusive and welcoming space for countless ethnic and cultural groups.

“[The Hall] has anchored a diverse, constantly fluctuating neighborhood in several important ways: as an popular assembly hall, a social gathering place for the broader ethnic community, and as a well-loved venue for the performing arts,” wrote archivist Zola Mumford in a 2009 report that helped secure the building’s place as an official landmark with the City of Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board.

Mumford and other members of non-profits 4Culture and Historic Seattle have collected countless stories of Washington Hall down to the details of love found and items lost in the building.

Carpenter notes that the Danish, a people with a long-established and solid cultural identity and history, were keen to welcome others into their space, while America struggled to define it’s own identity amidst rapid immigration, two world wars, and a legacy of slavery.

As different groups made their way to Seattle, once a small and segregated city, they gravitated towards the places where other immigrants lived. Washington Hall was and still is one of the few public spaces where groups from different communities naturally mixed.

Italians, Jews, Buddhists, African-Americans, Chinese, Filipino, Eritrean and other communities have all used the building for their own purposes: prayer, political organizing, and performance, and encountered each other in the process.

The Northwest Enterprise from 1932, with an ad for a movie and dance at Washington Hall in the lower right. (Courtesy of Washington Hall)
The Northwest Enterprise from 1932, with an ad for a movie and dance at Washington Hall in the lower right. (Courtesy of Washington Hall)

A small sampling of uses for the Hall in the first half of the 20th century include: as a space for high holiday services for Sephardic Jews in 1917, as a polling place for the King County Auditing Department in 1918, the Filipino Youth Club dances in 1935, and a meeting place for the Lithuanian Worker’s Club in 1941.

In 1973, the building changed ownership when an African-American masonic lodge purchased the Hall, though there has been a longstanding black presence throughout the Jackson jazz era. What began as the place that hosted some of the first interracial dances and meetings in the city became official meeting places for the Black Panthers and the NAACP.

History has proven that the arts have had a way of bringing people together where governments and other social structures fall short.

“The arts has the power to uplift, empower, and politicize”, Carpenter says. “Washington Hall can and has been be a space for all of this — arts for arts sake and arts as a preservation of culture, of life”.

According to the landmarks preservation report, Central Area residents knew the building more as a dance hall with a good hardwood floor than as a Danish fraternal lodge.

The building remains famous for its sprung floors designed by local Seattle architect Victor Vorhees, allowing performers and partygoers alike to literally ‘bounce’ around.  Historically, the Hall has been a venue for performers from around the world, giving exposure to international arts and providing a sense of home to cultural groups far from their place of origin.

Today, Washington Hall serves as the office space for three grassroots community organizations and continues to be a space for the arts. 206Zulu, Voices Rising, and Hidmo are organizations led by and advocating for youth, low-income people, people of color, LGBTQ communities, and immigrant groups, and are housed in the building.

The ‘anchor partners’, as they are called (not just “tenants”), help to ensure accessible governance through partnership with the current owners, non-profit Historic Seattle. These organizations quite literally represent the ongoing story of so many of the communities that have called the building home, and have been integral to the vision of the Hall’s future.

Despite the impressive history of the building, Washington Hall has faced considerable growing pains. A fire in the back of the building destroyed all but one once-livable units, with no elevator, elders and other community members have to be carried up flights of stairs, and capital is constantly needed to deal with the upkeep of an old building.

An Advisory Committee, made up of everyone from Macklemore to councilmember Larry Gosset, has been recently established to oversee a capital campaign to conduct necessary updates to the building.

Confetti falls at the Seattle Globalist award ceremony earlier this month, the second Globalist event held at Washington Hall. (Photo by Lucas Anderson)Confetti falls at the Globies Award Ceremony earlier this month, the second Globalist event held at Washington Hall. (Photo by Lucas Anderson)

Recently, the City of Seattle stepped up to allocate almost all of the remaining funds needed for the Get Lifted campaign to install an elevator. “It is unacceptable that a building with this much history would be inaccessible to an entire group of people,” says Historic Seattle contractor Paul Haas of the elevator campaign.

Unfortunately, the elevator is only a small piece of the pie — another $6 million plus must be raised by next July to complete renovations.

In a city and an economy that has set its sights on all kinds of re-development, it is difficult to truly quantify the cultural and social capital of a place like Washington Hall. It’s hard to explain to a policy maker what Carpenter describes as the way the Hall ‘hugs’ you, when you step in.

But if you’ve been there, you can tell that the place has a story and history that no angular metal condo high-rise with a Qdoba in the bottom could ever have.

The public hearing will take place on Thursday, October 24th in the Garfield High School Commons at 6 pm, doors open at 5:30. More information about the City of Seattle Public Budget Hearings here.

More information about Washington Hall and the Capital Campaign here