The Colman Building in downtown Seattle was built by James M. Colman (1832-1906) in 1889. Sometimes called the Colman Block, it spans the 800 block on the west side of 1st Avenue between Marion and Columbia streets. The history of this building begins with plans before the Great Fire of 1889. Reflecting changes in Seattle from tideland fill, through major renovations in 1904-1906, again in 1929, and historic restoration in the 1980s, it remains a rare example of a Chicago-style business block in Seattle. The Colman family retained ownership of the building through three generations. Tenants in the building have conducted diverse businesses including express services, marine services, brokerages, food purveying, and insuring. Consuls from other countries have had their offices in the building. Professionals, including lawyers, engineers, and architects, have been tenants. Retail storefronts along 1st Avenue housed bankers, grocers, druggists, meat marketers, restaurateurs, clothiers, and the Seattle Hardware Company. The Colman Building today is home to diverse office tenants and streetfront businesses along each of its four street faces, including the Colman Barbershop founded in 1930, and two Irish pubs: Fadó and the Owl 'n' Thistle. A renovated historic pedestrian walkway along Marion Street from 1st Avenue continues across Western Avenue and Alaskan Way to the Colman Ferry Dock. The Colman Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on March 16, 1972, and received City of Seattle Landmark status on March 27, 1990.
James and Agnes Colman
The story of the Colman Building begins with James Murray Colman and his wife, Agnes (Henderson) Colman (ca. 1842-1935), who married in 1858 and moved to the Pacific Northwest from Wisconsin. William Speidel describes the Colmans’s first years in the Pacific Northwest:
"Colman’s first job after arriving in the Puget Sound area in 1861 was that of managing a huge mill at Port Madison for some San Francisco capitalists. While Colman did the managing of the mill, Mrs. Colman did the cooking for the mill hands. As usual, they tucked their combined earnings in the savings bank ... . In 1868, fire removed the Colmans from both their mill and their investment, leaving them penniless ... . The Hanson, Ackerman and Company of San Francisco, which owned a mill in Tacoma put him to work enlarging it ... . He again made the owners so much money, he was offered the chore of enlarging and operating the Yesler Mill in Seattle ..." (Speidel, 140).
James M. Colman was an engineer and mechanic trained in Scotland where he was born and raised. He became a successful turn-of-the-century businessman and he and his family helped shape the Seattle we know today. Managing Yesler’s mill in downtown Seattle, he began working in Seattle along the downtown waterfront.
He built the Colman Dock just north of Yesler’s Dock and began acquiring property, including a ship hull that he used as fill in the mudflats west of Front Street (later renamed 1st Avenue). According to National Park Service historians, “The Colman Block had been built on the remains of the ship Windward, which had wrecked near Whidbey Island. Intending to salvage the boat, James Colman bought it and towed it to his dock in Seattle. When the Colman Block was constructed the ship was surrounded by land and buried under the foundation of the Colman Block” (NPS).
First Colman Building, 1889-1904
The original plans for the Colman Building were drawn up before the Great Fire of 1889 by Elmer H. Fisher (1840-1905). Also a Scot, Fisher designed a number of buildings in what we now call the Pioneer Square area. An artist’s rendering of this frame building is on display (in 2008) in the Colman Building lobby at 811 1st Avenue. This building was not built.
The first actual Colman Building was designed by Stephen Meany in a Romanesque Revival style. It was two floors tall at Front Street, three with basement access at the west side (now Post Avenue). This building was built in 1889 of stucco-covered brick with arched windows and wood mullions, and cast iron columns between the storefront bays on 1st Avenue (then Front Street), according to the City of Seattle Landmark Application of 1988. The building went up quickly after the Great Fire of 1889, and was available in 1890 to shelter businesses that had been burned out of their premises. Wells Fargo & Company was one of these businesses, at 50 (now 90) Columbia Street:
"In March 1852, Henry Wells and William Fargo founded Wells Fargo & Company to bring banking and express service to the Pacific Coast. Seven months later, Seattle pioneer Henry Yesler built the first sawmill on Puget Sound. In 1859, Yesler, one of Seattle’s most prominent business leaders, became Wells Fargo’s agent in Seattle. As Wells Fargo agent, Yesler helped customers send money long distances by offering bank drafts and exchanges drawn on Wells Fargo Co.’s Bank, attended to commissions, collected bills, and delivered letters and parcels. Yesler remained Wells Fargo’s Seattle agent until 1871 ... . After the disastrous fire of 1889, Wells Fargo moved to the Colman Building, and continued to serve Seattle residents as they rebuilt their city ..." (Wells Fargo).
Polk’s Seattle City Directory of 1891 also lists Dexter Horton & Co. on the corner of Columbia and Front streets; Dimock & Cheasty, Hatters and Men’s Furnishers at 807; Stimison Brothers Boots and Shoes at 815; J. M. Land & Co., druggists, at 817; and Seattle Hardware Company at 819-823, corner of Marion Street. Thomson & White, Engineers, were at 19 in the Colman Building; Stearns Manufacturing Company, G. T. Mills Salesman, were at 29; James Pincus, Hop Dealers, at 48. Lawyers J. K. Brown and J. H. Elder at 3; Howe & Corson at 14; Moore & Turner at 46; Albert Steffan at 48. Manufacturing Representatives J.H. Kunzie were at 44 and A. J. Stevens and A. J. Thompson were at 49. James Colman’s office as manager of the Cedar River Coal Co. was listed at 54 Columbia.
By 1902, Adams Lafayette Express & Drayage was at the northwest corner of 1st Avenue and Columbia Streets. The Northwest Trust and Safe Deposit, Co., was located at 90-94 Columbia Street. Along the 1st Avenue Street front, W. B. Haynes, Confections and Fruits was at 801 with J. M. Lang & Co, druggists; Pacific Meat Co. was at 803; A.M. Cadien’s restaurant was at 805; and Louch, Augustine & Co, grocers, were at 815-817. Seattle Hardware Co. remained at 819-823 at the corner of 1st Avenue and Marion Street. (Polk’s 1902)
By 1902, J. M. Colman had begun the Colman Creosoting Works. He is listed as the proprietor with his son, George A. Colman as superintendent. The works were at the foot of Harrison Street; offices were in the Colman Building. Other tenants of the Colman Building in 1902 included: W. H. Cooper, rail road ticket brokers; architects August Tidemand in 47 and C. A. Breitung in 12; Salmon Brokers Morford, Ward & Co.; Matthew Dow, Building and General Contractor; Frank E. Adams, engineer and patent solicitor and copier; and lawyers Mrs. E. H. Adams, R. U. Culberson, and R. S. Jones.
The remodeling of the building in 1904 is sometimes credited to one John Shand, an architect reputed to have had his offices in the remodeled building. Recent scholarship attributes design of the major addition to the building to designer August Tiedemand (d. 1907), originally from Norway, who had offices in the Colman Building from 1897-1904.
In 1904, the Colman Building was transformed. Four additional floors were added. The arches above the windows on the original two stories were removed and replaced with flat stone lintels matching the new upper floors. The window mullions were replaced with large, square-paned glass windows that swiveled open from a central pivot. Above each moveable window was a sealed transom with ventilators in the centers. Sometimes these windows are referred to as Chicago-style windows, and most of them, except for the fifth-floor windows, were extant when the building was nominated as a City of Seattle Landmark in 1988.
Changes to the exterior of the lower floors included facing with rusticated stone as the new additional floors were faced with red brick. A stone balustrade above the second-floor central window, several crests on either side of the top floor central window, and simple pilasters along the top floor were the only applied ornament. The ground-level retail shops were embellished by small multi-paned transoms and pedimented and columned entrances. A postcard of the building during this time shows that some of the storefronts along the street, and a few offices with windows on the south side of the building (along Columbia Street) also had canvas awnings. Lawrence Kreisman describes the building’s style: “With its large pivoting windows, brownstone base, and absence of most classical ornamentation, the building reflected Louis Sullivan’s belief that 20th century American buildings should honestly express their function without adhering to historical decorative principles” (Kreisman, p. 29).
By 1906, the new Colman Building was complete, and for a time dominated the landscape of the “Commission District” and waterfront of downtown Seattle with six stories and a full-block bulk. James M. Colman died in 1906 and his sons Laurence J. (ca. 1859-1935) and George A. Colman (ca. 1862-1933) continued his businesses through their lifetimes. Their mother, Agnes, survived both sons, living with George in the family’s home at 716 4th Avenue until 1929, then at 411 Columbia, and then at Laurentide (in Fauntleroy) until she died in 1935.
Banking in the Colman Building
Banking in the Colman Building at the Columbia Street corner has continued off-and-on throughout its history. In 1891, Dexter Horton & Co.’s Bank did business from the Colman Building. From 1900, Ebenezer Shorruck’s Northwest Trust & Safe Deposit Co. was located on Columbia near the corner. In 1920 and for a few years, The Guaranty Bank & Trust Co. operated out of 801 1st Avenue. Henry Pickard served as its president.
In 1929, the Peoples First Avenue Bank opened at 801 1st Avenue, This was Joshua Green’s (1869-1975) second bank, a wholly owned subsidiary of Peoples Bank and Trust Co. Laurence J. Colman was a trustee of the Peoples Bank & Trust Company for a few years before he died in 1935. In 1960, the Peoples National Bank of Washington was located at 801 1st Avenue. Kenneth B. Colman (ca. 1897-1982) was a trustee during his lifetime. In 1980 the Rainier National Bank Maritime Branch operated out of the 801 space.
Colman and Loveless, 1920s
During the 1920s, Laurence J. Colman began working with designer Arthur Lamont Loveless (1873-1971) who came to Seattle about 1907. Colman and his brother George had their offices at 573 in the Colman Building. Arthur Loveless had an office (in 19200 at 503 Colman Building. Historic Seattle reports that Loveless designed the English Tudor style home at Laurentide, the Fauntleroy estate of Laurence J. Colman, built in 1922. This collaboration continued through the 1920s and in 1929, the 1st Avenue storefronts and lobby of the Colman Building were remodeled in Art Deco style. The metal and glass awning that stretches along the front of the building dates from this period.
Spectacular among these remodeling projects was the renovation of the bank space at 801 1st Avenue. Green marble was used to face the bank’s street front and "Northwest sculptor Dudley Pratt [1897-1975] was responsible for the gold and cream colored columns and friezes of ferns and sunflowers in the bank proper, the bronze fern and sunflower panels surrounding the entrance, and the eight bronze relief panels that adorn[ed] the bank door. These panels depict workers in various Puget Sound industries, including fishing, lumbering, mining, agriculture, and aircraft productions" (Landmark Nomination, 1-2).
Replicas of the panels, much larger than the originals, are on display at Macy’s Department Store at 3rd Avenue and Pine Street where they are mounted on both sides of the escalator bank from the basement level and rising several floors. According to signage near the panels on the first floor, “Dillon Works! of Mukilteo, WA, was commissioned to recreate the bronzes in addition to two new pieces, which depict technology and retail” businesses and, thus, update the Seattle occupations shown. One of the original panels is on display at the Seattle Architecture Foundation in Rainier Square along with a photograph by Lawrence Kreisman of the original door. The green marble remains as the facades of Fadó.
The renovation of the street fronts of the Colman Building seems to have attracted businesses to the retail spaces. In April 1930, The Argus provided a photograph and caption: “A new store for men has been opened at 803 First Avenue, in the Colman Building, next to the Peoples First Avenue Bank. It is owned by 'White’s,' who also operate other stores at 1416 Third and on Second near Madison. The refined appointments and simplicity of design in the new establishment tie up most appropriately to the company slogan, 'The Store Correct.'"
In 1930 also, the Colman Building Barber Shop was opened by Arthur Kurth the proprietor of record in the Polk’s Street Directory. The barber shop remains, at the Post Avenue level with access from Post or through the 1st Avenue lobby. The current proprietor is Robert Whorton, who reports that initially the Barbershop was owned by three partners, each with a chair. In 1953 the Barbershop was sold to two partners, Ted Job and Dick Cecil. Different partners participated over time including Jack Berg, who plied his trade there for 37 years, and Al Souza. Andrew Boulieris eventually became sole owner and sold to the present owner. Colman Lunch, next to the barbershop, dates from 1930 also.
Restoration, Renovation, 1970-1990
On March 17. 1972, the Colman Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This was part of a movement to preserve the historical downtown area of Seattle, which eventually led to designation of Pioneer Square as a City of Seattle Landmark District. In October 1978, CHG-City Center Investors bought the building and a number of investors worked with Carma Developers to renovate and restore the Colman Building. This was done in phases.
The first phase, substantially completed in June 1982, renovated the main building lobby, modernized office restrooms, cleaned and repaired the façade, installed three new elevators, new exterior signage and lighting, and provided compliance with fire and life safety requirements. A new roof was installed along with seismic strengthening of walls and cornices. The fifth floor was completely remodeled with a new, full-floor air-conditioned office space for a new tenant. Hewitt/Daly were the architects. In 1980 David M. Hewitt’s office was located in room 218 and Hewitt-Daly Architects were in 222.
The second phase, completed in May 1984, involved demolition and renovation of the 1st Avenue retail areas and storefronts, completing the fire and life-safety requirements, and restoration of the Marion Street pedestrian walkway. Zimmer/Gunsul/Frasca (ZGF) Partnership were the architects (with People for Public Places).
A phase three, underway when the Seattle Landmark Nomination was written in 1988, was renovation of existing office spaces as leases expired. Wyatt Stapper were the architects. (Scott Wyatt is currently with NBBJ Architects.) Wyatt Stapper merged with NBBJ in 1991. All three architecture firms were very active in historic preservation in Seattle in the 1980s and continue to be active in preservation, development, and redevelopment in downtown Seattle.
On March 19, 1990, the Colman Building became a City of Seattle Landmark (Ordinance 114993) on nomination by CHG International of Federal Way, Washington, with James Mason as their agent.
The Colman Building Today
In 1997, John Goodman, a principal of Triad Development, bought the Colman Building. "'I fell in love with the building because I’m local,’ said Goodman, who has long-term plans for the property. ‘The uniqueness of the building and the beauty of the building are its biggest attractions,’ he said. As new owner, Goodman wants to improve some of the Colman Building’s facilities and find additional stores for the first floor ... . The Owl ‘N Thistle, an Irish bar on Post Avenue, is an example of the character that Goodman wants to establish for the Colman Building’s retail space ... . Goodman likened the Colman Building to a handcrafted boat. ‘It will work great as long as you maintain it,’ he said" (Erb).
Current street-level tenants of the Colman Building are on 1st Avenue: Fadó, 801; building entrance at 811 and access to the Colman Barbershop and Partners in Time, 817; The UPS Store, 815; Quiznos Sub, 821; Starbucks Coffee, 823. Along Marion Street: Rob’s Soups, 95; Thai, 65; ARCA Architecture & Urban Design, 91; Cascadia Cabs, 97. Along Post Avenue: I-t5 Legal Support NW, 824; Post Avenue building entrance, 810; Owl 'n'Thistle, 808. Along Columbia, Straula, 92; Mae Phim Tai Restaurant, 99.
The management office for the Colman Building is located on the fourth floor. On the north wall of the building foyer, at 811 1st Avenue, a display of a selection of memorabilia from the Colman Building and its tenants may be seen (as of summer 2008).
Colman Family Legacy
The Colman family left Seattle a large legacy in addition to the Colman Building. Colman Dock is now the Washington State Ferry Terminal. The family donated land for Colman Park in honor of J. M. Colman in 1907, 1910, and 1934. The family donated Colman Pool to Lincoln Park in honor of L. J. Colman, a longtime resident of Fauntleroy. L. J. Colman himself helped restore the Y.M.C.A. at 4th Avenue and Madison Street in downtown Seattle and the family donated his camp, now Camp Orkila, to the YMCA.
Both Laurence and George Colman taught manual training classes to both boys and girls at Pilgrim Congregational Church and Fauntleroy Community Church. They also taught Sunday School. Kenneth B. Colman, who was very active in civic affairs, gave the Hilda Morris sculpture Muted Harp, to the City of Seattle for the former Opera House. All three generations of the Seattle Colman family were yachtspeople. The family burial plot is at Lake View Cemetery.