On July 12, 1974, the Austin A. Bell Building, with its distinctive orange-red brick and terra cotta façade, is added to the National Register of Historic Places. Located at 2326 1st Avenue in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, the building was designed by architect Elmer Fisher and completed in 1890. The project was conceived by Austin Americus Bell, the only son of Seattle founding father William N. Bell, for whom Belltown is named. Plagued by ill health and suffering from a hereditary mental condition, Austin Bell committed suicide in 1889 at the age of 35; his wife Eva completed the building on his behalf. It had 63 apartments with shops on the ground floor. Later, it housed a hotel and dancehall for miners seeking fortunes during the Alaska Gold Rush. At least two fires damaged the structure over the decades: One in 1913 destroyed the upper story and roof, and one in 1981 gutted the building’s interior but left its ornate façade intact. The building was named a City of Seattle landmark in 1976. In 1997, the dilapidated structure and an adjoining parking lot were purchased for $1 million and renovated to make 49 loft-style condominiums.
An Unhappy Man
Belltown was named for William N. Bell (1817-1887), one of the three original founders of Seattle, who had traveled to the Pacific Northwest with the Denny Party in 1851. He filed a land claim for property north of Seattle and built a cabin that was burned down in 1856 by Native Americans. Bell pulled up stakes and moved to California, where his wife died later in 1856. He returned to Seattle in 1870 to find that the city had expanded to encompass his land claim and he had become a wealthy man. Bell had one son, Austin Americus Bell, born on January 9, 1854, in the same cabin which was burned during the 1856 skirmish. After his father died in 1887, Austin and his three older sisters inherited the estate valued at $400,000. In the mid-1870s, Austin Bell, who was co-owner of the Puget Sound Daily Dispatch, sold his share of the paper and traveled for a decade.
He married Eva Davis (1863-1899) in Vacaville, California, on September 1, 1883, and then returned to Seattle, where he established a real estate office at 2222 Front Street (now 1st Avenue) on property owned by his family. "The property and buildings continued to increase in worth and Austin was regarded as one of Seattle’s wealthy citizens. He had been married six years, had a substantial home, good business, social and family connections, and should have been a happy man, were it not for being haunted with ill health" ("Monument to an Unhappy Man").
Looking for projects, he decided to replace a nearby wooden building, located at 2326 Front, with a new brick structure. On the evening of April 23, 1889, Bell took his nephew out for a buggy ride and discussed his plans for the building. The next morning, he went to his office, locked the doors, wrote a letter to his wife, and shot himself in the head. In the letter, he told his wife that he "did not consider life with poor health worth living and expressed sorrow that he must take this way out" ("Monument to an Unhappy Man").
In The Heart of Belltown
Eva Davis Bell decided to honor her late husband's memory by moving forward with his plans for the new building, and hired Elmer H. Fisher (1844-1905), one of Seattle’s most prominent commercial architects. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Fisher studied architecture in Massachusetts and practiced in Minnesota, Colorado, and British Columbia before moving to Seattle in 1888.
The Austin A. Bell Building opened in 1890 with 63 apartments on its upper floors and room for commercial shops below. The four-story wood-frame building was faced with red-orange brick and terra cotta; a single door in an arched entryway provided entrance to the floors above. To commemorate her husband, Eva Bell arranged for a plaque with his name and the year 1899 on it and placed it on the building’s exterior. "The structure, costing $50,000, was hailed as one of the showiest in the city. The exterior was of pressed brick, dressed stone and terra cotta, with more than the usual amount of plate glass … It is still a conspicuous edifice, rising higher than the buildings around it" ("Monument to an Unhappy Man").
From Dance Hall to Condos
By the late 1890s, the Bell Building housed a hotel and dancehall, entertaining the miners heading north to Alaska during the gold rush of 1897. Over the ensuing decades, there were at least two fires, including a "nasty blaze" ("Through Halls Filled with Smoke ...") in 1913 that destroyed the building’s upper story and roof. The fire started in a Japanese grocery a few doors down, and four residents had to be led to safety through smoke-filled halls. "It is believed all would have perished but for the prompt action of the fire officials" ("Through Halls Filled with Smoke").
In 1937, the building was purchased by real estate tycoon Sam Israel for $9,800. He rented the ground-floor retail space but left the upper floors vacant. The mid-twentieth century was an era of transition for Belltown, a neighborhood "tinged with sadness ... It is home to the off-beat businesses that gravitate toward the city’s center yet need low rents. Union halls and taverns for seamen add a workingman’s flavor to the sadder atmosphere of drunks and pensioners who have gathered in Belltown’s cheap hotels and housekeeping rooms" ("Belltown: Seattle’s Greenwich Village").
On July 12, 1974, the Austin Bell Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1976, the building was named a City of Seattle landmark and "the façades of the structure, the First Avenue façades in particular," were recognized for historical protection.
In 1981, a fire destroyed much of the building’s interior, but the brick façade survived. The weathered building was boarded up until 1997, when developers Wayne Knowles and Bob Baldwin paid Israel and his company, Samis Land Co., $1 million for the dilapidated structure and an adjacent parking lot.
Most of the original structure was demolished except for the façade and south wall; renovations designed by architect Chris Snell cost about $8 million. In October 1998 the new owners signed two restaurants to be the building's ground-floor retail tenants: A Starbucks Cafe (2,800 square feet) at the base of the original Bell building, and Cascadia Restaurant (5,160 square feet) on the ground floor of the new addition built on the former parking lot. The Bell Apartments condominiums opened for occupancy in early 1999 with 49 units, many with 10-foot ceilings and expansive views of Puget Sound. There was underground parking, a courtyard garden, and rooftop deck. In April 2000, a penthouse apartment was advertised for $1,475,000. In September 2021, an 813-square-foot one-bedroom unit sold for $585,000.