Scenes from a soul-wrangling at the J & M Hotel

By Brian Hagenbuch
By Brian Hagenbuch

All photos courtesy of Alex Garland.

It is Thursday afternoon in Pioneer Square and an odd entourage is gathered in a gutted, thrashed room on the third floor of the deeply-storied J & M Hotel, above the cafe and cardroom of the same name.

Paul Cheoketen Wagner, a musician and a member of the Salish tribe, kneels on the floor and sprinkles wild celery root into a pan heating on a portable gas burner.

Sitting on the dusty hardwood floor are Kurt Fisher and his business partner Brittany Shulman, a real estate and developing duo that bought the J & M from Jack Buttnick in November 2014 through their company Seneca Ventures.

Teresa, a woman whom Fisher met while wandering Seattle and the one who extended Fisher’s invitation to Cheoketen Wagner, slowly beats a drum as smoke begins to rise off the celery root.

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A kid — I later learn his name is Zach, and that he is Shulman’s assistant — dressed head-to-toe in H&M gear watches wide-eyed as Cheoketen Wagner takes the drum from Teresa and starts a beautiful, rhythmic chant while he circles the room, beating the drum with increasing force.

The red light of Fisher’s GoPro blinks on the window sill. A photographer clicks away.

Cheoketen Wagner winds through the small, filthy rooms for over an hour, stopping at the back of the building to relight the celery root.

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“There’s not a lot happening over here. It’s the heaviest over there,” he says, motioning to the southeast corner of the building, “I think we are going to have to speak directly to them. They are lost souls. Sometimes you have to speak straight to them. They get so lost they won’t leave.”

A cornerstone in Pioneer Square since 1889, the three-story brick building was built on the corner of First Avenue South and South Washington Street following the Great Seattle Fire, which gutted fledgling Seattle’s core.

Fisher is intensely aware of the vast history of the building he and Shulman recently acquired for $3.2 million dollars.

“Other than the Space Needle and Smith Tower, you’d be hard pressed to find a more historically significant building in Seattle. Maybe Merchant’s Cafe,” says Fisher, a youthful 49-year-old in a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt, a suede coat, Levi’s and black motorcycle boots.

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Fisher and his business partner plan to spend $10 million to renovate the J & M.

Fisher has big plans for the long-neglected J & M: a $10-million remodel will completely transform the ancient building, while maintaining as much of the original spirit as possible.

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The J & M Cafe's exterior.

The ground floor, now comprised of the J & M Cafe and Card Room and the Mediterranean Mix restaurant, will house two restaurants. The 8,500 square foot basement, currently part of Seattle’s Underground Tour, will be a speakeasy — its working name is The Synagogue, since Fisher is considering furnishing it with pews salvaged from an old Seattle synagogue — and there will also be a rooftop bar.

The old card room — made of brick and mortar, it survived the Great Fire and is possibly the oldest standing structure in the neighborhood, and consequently in Seattle — at the back of the J & M Cafe will be the lobby to a four-star, 24-room hotel on the second and third floors.

“You’ll walk right into the oldest thing around to check in to your hotel room,” says Fisher, bursting with excitement.

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A sink in the old hotel.

When Fisher bought the building, Buttnick, a scion of Seattle wealth who inherited the J & M from his family, had been living upstairs in what Fisher says resembled a crackhouse.

The Seattle Times reported that Buttnick owed Evergreen Bank and other creditors over $1.2 million when he declared bankruptcy in 2009, but Fisher claims Buttnick owed far more than what Seneca Ventures shelled out for the building.

“He’s got nothing. He’s living with his 24-year-old girlfriend and four-year-old daughter, broke,” Fisher says.

“In Lake City,” Shulman adds for emphasis.

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The hotel staircase.

Out of leverage, Buttnick put much of the original furniture and fixtures in the cafe and card room on the auction block in 2009. It took all of an hour and a half to liquidate 120 years of history: 90 items went out the door in as many minutes, almost all of them snatched up by Evergreen Bank, one of the J & M’s creditors. The bank spent $140,000 at the feverish auction, scooping up, among other things, the original bar with its brass taps and foot railings, the bar back, the marble-topped tables, the metal and glass chandeliers and a huge nude painting of a dark-haired woman — Wyatt Earp’s sweetheart, according to Fisher — laid out on her side.

The stained glass on the front of the building is original, as are the front doors to the bar, the majestic pressed-tin ceilings, and the hulking crown molding, but the card room and bar do feel gutted, even desecrated.

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The interior of the J & M Cafe.

It pains Fisher that all these things are gone, and he would love to track them down, but no one can take the history away from the place.

“Wyatt Earp dealt cards here. Jimmy Hendrix played guitar here. Kurt Cobain played here. It was a brothel for the Klondike gold rush. An opium den. People overdosed. Skulls were cracked. Prostitutes died. This place is full of ghosts,” says Fisher, who also writes poetry and races go-karts that pull enough Gs on corners that drivers have to wear pads to avoid cracked ribs.

One day this week, Fisher walked up to the hotel, now accessed through the Mediterranean Mix kitchen, and broke down crying as he stood amidst the cracked and peeling yellow and sea foam green walls, the water damaged plaster hanging from the ceiling.

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Hotel wallpaper.

Some of the dilapidation in the abandoned rooms is simply from 126 years of normal wear and tear, but some of it speaks to a past of hard living, even violence.

There are signs of hobo fires in the old sinks, chunks of ceiling — rafters and all — are inexplicably cut out, flophouse graffiti on the walls is dated to the 1990s. If not populated by lost souls, the dank air certainly feels stuffed with a long history of multifarious and tawdry pursuits.

These rooms served as a brothel during the Gold Rush. By the 1960s, the upstairs of the J & M was functioning as Single Room Occupancy hotel, and failure to upgrade the structure to new fire code requirements led to its 1971 closure.

In ensuing decades, Buttnick, a pack rat if not a hoarder, filled the hotel rooms with what was mostly garbage. Until months ago, Buttnick was living in a second floor room over First Avenue South: There was a mattress on the floor, along with clothes and trash and rodent feces. Out the window, across First Avenue South, Jack Buttnick got a constant reminder of how far he had fallen by a painted sign, probably dating to the turn of the century, reading Buttnick MFG.

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The Buttnick MFG Co.

Fisher thought vacating Buttnick and all of his junk would take the take weight off the place, but it did not.

“I spent $18,000 to get all of his shit out of here, and now that it is all empty, you can feel all the trapped and disrespected souls,” Fisher says.

The heaviest concentration of trapped souls, everyone seems to agree, is in room 221, just over Buttnick’s old bedroom. Teresa says she walked in and was paralyzed. Zach says the room across the hall is darker than it should be.

In room 221, Cheoketen Wagner stops singing and begins talking, in English peppered with words in his Salishan dialect: “I ask you to look over your right shoulder,” he says, looking up at the ceiling, “and you will see a light. Follow that light. If you look over your right shoulder and see that light and follow that light, it will take you home to your relatives, to your family.”

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Each floor of the J & M Hotel is 6000 square feet, and Cheoketen Wagner looks exhausted after finishing his work in room 221. Fisher invites him to come back to perform the same ritual on the second floor and the basement. He also wants a clearing after the walls are demolished in the hotel, a process set to start in August, and would like Cheoketen Wagner to be at the opening ceremony, which he hopes will be about a year after the renovation begins.

Fisher, a native of Ellicottville, New York, founded Gibraltar LLC and is a partner in the Seattle-based Plus One Capital.

He feels the day's ceremony brought the building a step closer to being ready for renovation. And he knows what people might think of a developer driving the trapped souls out of an old hotel before starting a remodel.

“You gotta be a little bit crazy to take on a project like this,” he says.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Brian Hagenbuch

Brian Hagenbuch

Brian Hagenbuch recently relocated to Seattle after spending a decade in Argentina, where he worked for Reuters, Time Out and wrote for theater and film. He grew up in the Methow Valley.