This commercial building was constructed in 1952. It served as the headquarters for the Ancient Order of United Workmen Insurance Company from 1953 until the end of 1971 when the company was forced to leave its offices to make way for a planned freeway, called the “Bay Freeway” that was to cut through the Mercer Street corridor. An article in the Seattle Daily Times, dated May 30, 1971, reported that “The Ancient Order of United Workmen Insurance Co. will build a $300,000, 10,000 square-foot home office building on the site of the former Spanish Castle ballroom near the intersection of Pacific Highway South and the Kent-Des Moines Road.” (Seattle Daily Times, May 30, 1971, p. 33). A Seattle Daily Times Article dated February 27, 1972, entitled “Many Bitter Over Freeway that Never Was” reports that “voters dumped the proposal officially from the City’s drawing boards earlier this month.” It reported that many merchants along the Mercer Street corridor where the freeway would have gone are bitter and that some have moved out or are doing so. It goes on to report that "Others sold to the city in expectation of the bulldozer and now find themselves with the city as landlord." The same article reports that the city is its own landlord at 500 Aurora Ave. N. and at 501 Dexter Ave. N., both of which house about 100 city employees from several departments. It went on to say that city officials were in the process of negotiating with the previous owner of the building at 501 Dexter Avenue N. to return electrical, plumbing, and heating fixtures that the City allowed the owners to strip out when the building was going to be demolished. (Seattle Daily Times, Feb. 27, 1972, p. 6). In 1972, the city leased the building to Active Mexicanos Economic Development Center, a group financed through the Seattle-King County Office of Economic Opportunity. (Seattle Daily Times, October 25, 1973, p. 18). Advertisements for services provided by Active Mexicanos at 501 Dexter Ave. N. are found in the Seattle Daily Times through the mid-1980s.
This building was designed and constructed during the post-World War II era, which was an important period of industrial, commercial and warehouse development in the South Lake Union area. It displays characteristics of the Mid-Century Modern or simply Modern style. The Modern style grew out of construction techniques and materials technologies that developed during and immediately after World War II in response to the need to build economical and easily assembled structures. While these techniques were initially used in the construction of military and mass housing structures, they quickly spread to other building types. Characteristics of Modern commercial vernacular buildings during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s include modular building systems with cladding materials that could be pre-fabricated and assembled on-site. Common cladding materials included brick (frequently Roman brick), formed concrete, simulated stone, aluminum, Vitrolite (opaque glass), glass block, and small mosaic tile. Modern commercial storefronts often featured an “open front” design, which celebrated the display window as the most prominent storefront element in contrast to earlier storefront designs which placed more emphasis on the wall that framed the windows. Windows were typically plate glass with narrow aluminum frames. Plate glass afforded large, uninterrupted expanses of windows that could extend from floor to ceiling, ideal for displaying merchandise. Storefront bulkheads and enframements were commonly clad in brick, stone, or tile.
This building featured the following characteristics of the Modern commercial style: an “open front” storefront composed of an alternating pattern of aluminum sash windows, a glazed recessed entry at the south end of the primary facade, a flat roof with a narrow, painted coping at the top and roman brick cladding. The building remains largely intact with very good historic integrity, although it appears that the original aluminum sash has been painted a dark color and an original tall chimney-like feature that projected high above the roof at the southeast corner and held a prominent business sign has been removed.
The building was designed by J. Lister Holmes (1891-1986), who was one of a handful of Northwest architects who successfully crossed from the Beaux-Arts design tradition to the Modern style. After receiving a civil engineering degree from the University of Washington in 1911, Holmes transferred to the University of Pennsylvania where he earned a graduate degree in architecture in 1913.
After graduating, Holmes worked his way back through Philadelphia, New York, and Montana, eventually returning to his hometown of Seattle in 1916. He worked briefly as a draftsman with E.F. Champney, and then as an architect with several leading Seattle firms, including Carl Gould, B. Marcus Priteca, Daniel Huntington, and the firm of Schack, Young and Myers before establishing his own firm in 1922.
Holmes' early practice focused on commercial buildings, small hotels and apartment blocks, and single-family residences. Due to his Beaux-Arts education, he was able to develop a reputation for quality residential architecture and became one of the more versatile architects in the Seattle area, with styles ranging from Spanish Colonial Revival to eighteenth-century French idioms.
In the early the 1930s, Holmes adapted to shifting architectural interests and began to incorporate the International Style into his own designs. Among his more notable projects are the Seattle Weiner Dental Clinic (1936), the Arnold Dessau House (1939) in the Highlands, and the Washington State Pavilion for the 1939 New York World's Fair. In 1940, he was asked by the Seattle Housing Authority to serve as its chief architect in the planning and design of several large-scale housing projects including Yesler Terrace (1940 - 1943), Gatewood Heights (1941 - 1943) and Seward Park (1941 - 1943).
After the war, Holmes tackled a variety of projects including the Seattle Public Schools Administration Building (1946 - 1948), the Ida Culver House (1948 –1949), the Seattle Goodwill Industries (1948), Seattle Public Schools Administrative and Service Center (1951), Catherine Blaine Junior High School (1952), and the Ancient Order of United Workmen Building (1952).
Holmes's professional interests also included planning. He served on the Seattle Planning Commission for eight years, and was its chair from 1948 - 1950. He also served on the national board of the American Society of Planning Officials from 1948 - 1951. His career in planning culminated as he was hired for his largest planning effort—the Fort Lewis Peacetime Development Master Plan (1950 - 1952), which included a retail shopping center, troop and officer housing, and religious and recreational facilities.
In 1955, Holmes was elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA). By the mid 1960s, his career was beginning to wind down. His last major works included the designs for a string of UPS distribution buildings on the West Coast, including Seattle, Pasadena and San Diego. Holmes spent the remainder of his life in retirement in Seattle until his death, at the age of 95, on July 18, 1986. (Credit: Houser, Michael, “J. Lister Holmes,” Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation,” http://www.dahp.wa.gov/learn-and-research/architect-biographies/j-lister-holmes.)
Houser, Michael, “J. Lister Holmes,” Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation,” http://www.dahp.wa.gov/learn-and-research/architect-biographies/j-lister-holmes.
Jackson, Mike, FAIA. “Storefronts of Tomorrow.” Preserving the Recent Past 2. Eds. Deborah Slaton and William G. Foulks. Washington DC: Historic Preservation Education Foundation, National Park Service, Association for Preservation Technology, 200. 57-65.
R.L. Polk Company, “Polk’s City of Seattle Directory,” 1953, 1965, 1965, 1970.
Seattle Daily Times, “Office Building Set for Castle Site,” May 30, 1971, p. 33.
Seattle Daily Times, “Many Bitter Over Freeway that never Was,” Feb. 27, 1972, p. 6.
Seattle Daily Times, “Mexicanos Group to Elect Officers,” Oct. 25, 1973, p. 18.
King County Property Record Card (1937-1972), Washington State Archives