Early Friday morning on January 16, 2009, a fire breaks out at the Alki Homestead restaurant in West Seattle. The Seattle Fire Department responds quickly to a report of smoke coming from the building and extinguishes the fire in 20 minutes. An investigation determines the cause to be strings of Christmas lights that overloaded an old electrical circuit. Damage to the Seattle historic landmark is estimated to be $400,000.
Rustic and Remote (for a While)
The Alki Homestead, located at 2717 61st Avenue SW, was originally named the Fir Lodge. It was built by Fred L. Fehren for William J. Bernard (1861-1924), owner and manager of the Seattle Soap Company, and his wife, Gladys Barnett (1866-1949), in 1903-1904. The Rustic Style house, constructed of Douglas fir logs, was one of the first permanent dwellings in an area dominated by summer camps and cabins. After living there for more than three years, the Bernards decided to sell the Fir Lodge and move back to the city. According to Gladys Bernard, the Alki area was too far from Seattle’s social scene and the West Seattle ferry didn’t run at night. In addition, their young daughter, Marie Alberta, had to commute to the city each day by ferry to attend school as there was no streetcar service from downtown to West Seattle until 1907.
The Seattle Auto and Driving Club purchased the Fir Lodge and its adjoining carriage house (now the Log House Museum) in June 1907. It was an arduous drive from Seattle to Alki Beach by motorcar and the members used the lodge as a private gathering and eating place. With the construction of Luna Park (1907-1913), people began arriving at Alki by ferry and streetcar in droves and the beach community soon became noisy and congested. It was no longer a place of refuge and tranquility and driving to West Seattle became passé. In subsequent years, the lodge was used as a private residence and a boarding house.
Doris Nelson's Down-Home Cooking
In 1950, the Fir Lodge was purchased by Swend Neilson and Fred Fredricksen who turned it into a restaurant named the Alki Homestead. Walter E. and Adele Foote purchased the business in 1955 and sold it to Doris P. Nelson (1924-2004) in 1960. Nelson created the Alki Homestead’s theme, an old-fashioned dining room, decorated with antiques, offering simple down-home cooking, served family style. The restaurant immediately became a popular place in Seattle for large social gatherings and parties. In the early years, Nelson ran the entire operation by herself, including the cooking, and lived in the upstairs apartment with her two children, Joan and David.
On October 18, 1995, the City of Seattle, Landmarks Preservation Board, with the concurrence of Doris Nelson, voted to approve the designation of the Fir Lodge/Alki Homestead as a Seattle landmark. On August 12, 1996, the Seattle City Council approved Council Bill No. 111344, sponsored by Council member Jan Drago, adding the building to the Table of Historical Landmarks contained in Chapter 25 of the Seattle Municipal Code. Mayor Norman B. Rice (b. 1943) signed the bill into law on August 16, 1996.
Doris Nelson, age 80, died of pneumonia on November 18, 2004, and the Alki Homestead was put up for sale. In March 2006, it was purchased for $1.2 million by local property developers Patrick Henly and Thomas Lin, who continued operating the business as a family-style restaurant with basically the same traditional menu and ambiance. But in March 2008, Henly and Lin, neither of whom had a background in restaurant management, decided put the business on the market for $495,000, but to retain ownership of the historic building. In December 2008, Lin announced they had found a serious buyer for the restaurant, but the price was still being negotiated and the sale had not been finalized. Meanwhile, the Homestead continued doing its usual brisk business and was booked solid through the holiday season.
Overloading the Circuits
At about 5:00 a.m. on Friday, January 16, 2009, the 911-Emergency Dispatch Center received a report of smoke emanating from the Alki Homestead. When firefighters arrived, they could see flames at the rear of the restaurant. Crews were able to douse the flames on the main floor in about 20 minutes, but the fire had climbed to the second floor and into the attic, causing considerable smoke damage and charring. Firefighters had to climb onto the roof and cut a five-foot hole to ventilate the building. After the fire was declared extinguished, investigators entered the restaurant to determine its cause. Helen Fitzpatrick, Seattle Fire Department Public Information Officer, said the fire was caused by too many strings of Christmas lights plugged into one electrical outlet, overloading an old circuit. Damage was estimated to be approximately $400,000. Fortunately, the building wasn’t occupied at the time, and there were no fatalities or injuries reported.
After inspecting the damage, Lin estimated it would take at least six month to repair the fire and smoke damage. Much of the main dining room was destroyed, but the massive stone fireplace kept the fire from spreading to other parts of the first floor. Lin said part of the second floor and entire roof would need to be rebuilt. He vowed, however, that the historic log house would be restored and returned to the community as the cherished Alki Homestead restaurant.