Seattle's storied Washington Hall is likely to be sold and demolished

A year shy of 100 and full of memories of Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holliday, Mark Morris, and On the Boards, the Central District landmark awaits a wrecking ball. Here's a short history of the many eras of the building – and Seattle culture.
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Washington Hall in Seattle's Central District. (Chuck Taylor)

A year shy of 100 and full of memories of Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holliday, Mark Morris, and On the Boards, the Central District landmark awaits a wrecking ball. Here's a short history of the many eras of the building – and Seattle culture.

Jimi Hendrix is said to have given his first public performance there. Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B. du Bois spoke in the auditorium. Mark Morris showed some of his earliest dances on the stage. Despite this storied past, Seattle's Washington Hall is up for sale and likely to be torn down. The venerable building at 14th Avenue and Fir Street has been a center for community life in the Central District since 1908, when it was built by the Danish Brotherhood Society. The Sons of Haiti, a Masonic lodge and the hall's current owners since 1965, are faced with the daunting task of making much-needed renovations to the dilapidated building and see no recourse than to sell the property. "The building needs a great deal of repair, and we can't get the money from it to repay the costs of the loan for the repairs," says lodge member and building manager Charles Adams, who confirmed the property is on the market. He says there are five potential buyers, each of whom has told Adams that they will demolish Washington Hall and build condominiums on the site. The proceeds of the sale will allow the lodge to buy a new home for the membership. Over a 99-year history, Washington Hall has hosted a variety of activities and organizations reflecting the changing demographics of the Central District and the interests of the city as a whole. Three floors contain a large meeting and event room, a small gem of an auditorium beloved for a hardwood dance floor and welcoming curved balcony, office spaces, a kitchen, and many smaller rooms in a back area. Fourteen of these rooms have been used for temporary housing by successive waves of immigrants, originally Danes but in more recent years people from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Brazil. The Danish community used the building for a host of activities, including amateur theatricals, evenings of music, meetings, classes, social events, and as temporary residence for new arrivals, who would be housed and fed and given job assistance before moving on to new lives in Seattle. From the earliest years, Washington Hall was also used by those from outside the Danish community, particularly by African Americans. In his book Jackson Street After Hours, author and music critic Paul de Barros cites Seattle's first documented jazz performance by a local ensemble, Miss Lillian Smith's Jazz Band, as taking place at Washington Hall on June 10, 1918, at a "Grand Benefit Ball" for the NAACP. Marcus Garvey spoke there to the members of his movement, the United Negro Improvement Association, in the early 1920's, according to Seattle independent researcher and author Esther Mumford. Carver Gayton, director of the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle, formed a club with friends from Garfield High School in the 1950s called The Bon Temps that held parties with bands at Washington Hall. Others fondly recall boxing matches co-promoted by Eddie Cotton, a well-known Seattle light-heavyweight fighter, and a haunted house that would be temporarily created at Halloween to the delight of neighborhood children. The list of visiting musicians who performed there over the years reads like a who's who of the greatest stars of the time: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Mahalia Jackson, Lionel Hampton, Marian Anderson, Dinah Washington, and Billie Holiday, the last singing there in 1951 as the guest artist at a community dance. In 1978, On the Boards, a new organization of performing and visual artists, rented the upstairs auditorium from the Sons of Haiti after a yearlong search for a space. In 1998 they left, moving to their newly renovated space on lower Queen Anne, the former home of ACT Theatre. Although created as a center for inter-disciplinary arts exploration, On the Boards became known for presentations of local and national contemporary performing artists, particularly dance groups, and while at Washington Hall the organization developed into one of the leading institutions of its kind in the country. It hosted performances by many cutting edge performers, including Eiko and Koma, Ping Chong, Meredith Monk, and Spaulding Gray, and local choreographers of note such as Morris and Pat Graney, who soon gained national attention. In space on the upper floors of the building, On the Boards found a welcoming home in the intimate confines of a theater that, though past its prime and with many eccentricities, felt just right for the mostly young and bohemian audience. Many viewers sat on risers, but others favored the small and cozy balcony. According to Andrea Wagner, the former and long-time administrative director of On the Boards, "there was a sentiment about the Washington Hall space that made On the Boards what it was. It was unpretentious, tidy, and warm, and let the artists make the statement. It resonated when the new space on Queen Anne was designed. Those are the values that the architect took to heart. I will be sad to lose it." In the time that On the Boards was at Washington Hall the diverse use of the building continued. A Korean organization sponsored a senior center, a church held Sunday services, the Public Defender Juvenile Division had offices there, and the lodge continued with fraternal and social events. Currently, the building has fewer renters. The Jamaatul Ikhlas Muslim Community Center is using part of the rear of the building, and a few of the rooms in the residential portion are being rented to individuals. The last major arts tenant of the building, Nu Black Arts West Theatre, rented the performance space from 1998-2001. Director Kibibi Monié has fond recollections of the place, having sung there as a young woman in the late 1950s and early 1960s with leading local bands led by such notables as Anthony Atherton, Dave Lewis, and Ronnie Buford. She also remembers from her theatre's two years of rental the declining condition of the building, with pigeons flying around the interior, limited electricity, a cracked foundation, and a balcony in distress. "The theatre has a floor and stage that is a pleasure for dancers. It's a beautiful space with a nostalgic feel to it. It didn't have a dressing room worth a damn, but most people loved that place," said Monié. As Washington Hall approaches its centennial next year, it will be celebrated, even if the building itself no longer stands.


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