John Lorentz & Lorentz Pl

Wedding photo, John and Bena Lorentz, 1905

From 1868 to 1914, more than a million Swedes immigrated to the United States. Among them was John A. Lorentz, who was to become one of Queen Anne’s most prolific builders.

John A. Lorentz was born Johan Amandus Lorentzson in Ulvhult, Sweden, in October 1879. His family owned a farm, but the soil was poor and rocky. Like many Scandinavian immigrants, he left his native land because dividing the family farm with his brother would not have provided a viable living. Being adventurous,1 in 1903 he boarded a ship to the United States to seek a better life. He found work first as a blacksmith at the Old Star Carriage Company, and later as a carpenter, living on Garfield Street on Queen Anne. At that time, he was one of many newly-arrived immigrants from Scandinavia working in the building trades.

In 1905, he married his wife Bena, also a Swedish immigrant, who became not only his life-long companion but also a partner in his business. With her assistance, in 1910, Lorentz began a career as a building contractor. During his career, he built an estimated 200 single family homes on Queen Anne,2 many of which still exist with minimal exterior alterations, as well as apartment buildings in the Denny Regrade and on First Hill.

John Lorentz – Prolific Builder

At the time, much of Queen Anne had yet to be developed. Few streets, particularly on the north side of the hill, were laid or paved. Early in his career, Lorentz would often buy the lot on which to build a home and begin construction, living in the basement while he completed the rest of the house.3 He often hired other Scandinavian immigrants as carpenters and craftsmen.4 Lumber and other materials were readily available. A classified ad he placed on September 30, 1916, in the Seattle Times column “For Sale Real Estate” is characteristic of the times: “Desirable Queen Anne paved district, brand new 6-room house, modern and complete… Owner will sell very cheap.”

As a measure of his growing prominence in the Scandinavian community, Lorentz was among the seventy-five “prosperous Scandinavian citizens of this state” selected in 1913 to travel by train to New York to board the White Star ocean liner Olympic for a voyage to Norway, Sweden and Finland. The purpose of the trip was to spread the word about opportunities in the great Northwest.5 The trip was organized and sponsored by the “New Seattle Chamber of Commerce.”6 “As most of the travelers had come out to the Puget Sound country with practically nothing and had found comparative affluence here, members of the party expressed a willingness to act as missionaries in persuading relatives and friends to come to this section and even to accompany the local party on its return.”7

Lexington Apartments
Lexington Apartments

Lexington Apartments

As Lorentz became wealthier and more successful, he entered into more ambitious projects. In April 1923, he began construction of the Lexington Apartments on the corner of Second Avenue and Battery Street. The Concord, an adjoining apartment building, was built in 1924. They were designed by Harry Hudson, a prolific architect of apartment buildings and a partner in the Seattle firm of Gibbs and Hudson. These three story brick and terra cotta buildings have been owned by the YWCA since 1988. They were nominated by the City for Landmark status in 2010, but the Landmarks Board did not approve the designation.

Union Arms – Union Manor Apartments

Union Arms Apartment
Union Arms Apartment

A year later, Lorentz completed another successful project, the Union Arms – Union Manor Apartments, at a cost of $150,000.8 This three story building, on East Union Street between Boylston Street and Belmont Avenue, was designed by another Swedish immigrant, John Creutzer. As an architect, Creutzer was “known for his superior skill in designing beautiful and financially successful apartment houses and office buildings.”9 Although the Union Arms – Union Manor appears to be two separate buildings, each with a different name above a separate entrance, it is actually one single structure.10 Among its unusual features are sloped ramps between floors, rather than stairways; service closets that open both into the hallways and into the interior of each unit, for the retrieval of deliveries; and interior cooler cabinets for food storage built against the outside walls beneath the dining room windows. In April 1926, Lorentz sold the Union Arms – Union Manor to then Seattle Mayor E.J. Brown.11

In 1925, the Colonial Park Addition, an area of several blocks on the northeast sector of Queen Anne Hill, was platted by Lorentz’s wife Bena. Seattle Times archives reveal that at least several of the homes built in this tract were constructed by Lorentz, and it’s likely that many other distinctive homes in the plat were also built by him. This area of Queen Anne contains primarily variations of the Tudor Revival style known as “Builder’s Tudor”, one of the most popular architectural styles in Seattle in the 1920s.12 Steep gable roofs, leaded windows, and decorative brick or stucco finishes with half–timber details, all on a relatively modest scale, are characteristic of this style.

Example of builder's Tudor Style
Example of builder’s Tudor Style

In October 1926, Lorentz formed a corporation, Union Improvement Company, with capital stock of $80,000.13 During the company’s existence, from October 1926 until approximately 1929, he applied for building permits in its name for residential lots on Halladay Street, Nob Hill Avenue, Nob Hill Place, and Smith Place in the Colonial Park Addition.

Lorentz Place

One of Lorentz’s enduring achievements was the creation of Lorentz Place, including the construction of many of the nineteen homes on the street. The City of Seattle officially established Lorentz Place when, on October 24, 1921, the City Council passed Ordinance Number 42818, accepting deeds from John and Bena Lorentz, John and Elizabeth McNair, and Charles and Allie Rushton for the City’s acquisition and laying off of the original portion of Lorentz Place. However, construction along what is now Lorentz Place had already begun by 1917 when the first two homes were built on the west side of the street on the two lots closest to the intersection of 2nd Avenue North and McGraw Place.14 These houses were not built by Lorentz.15

Subsequently, between 1920 and 1925, the west side of Lorentz Place was developed with the construction of seven more homes.16 Of these, one was built by Ed Tyler in 1920,17 while the remainder were either with certainty built by Lorentz,18 or extrapolating from built dates, style and location, may have been built by him.19 The final house on the west side of Lorentz Place was built in 1933 by Sam Hargraves.20

The east side of Lorentz Place was developed as follows. In 1917, on lots located just before 2nd Ave. North turns into Lorentz Place, Lorentz built two houses.21 Between 1923 and 1927, eight additional homes were built. Based upon information in building permits, five of these were with certainty built by Lorentz.22 The building permits for two others23 identify only Ernest A. Swanson as the owner, but the permit for a third24 lists both Lorentz and Swanson. While the relationship between Lorentz and Swanson is unknown, they may have been partners at that time. Only a few years younger than Lorentz, Swanson was also born in Sweden, and they were members of the same church, Emmanuel Tabernacle.25

lorentz-place-mapIn 1936, the last house to be built on Lorentz Place was constructed at the northeast end of the street. Designed by architect W. G. Brust, it was built for owner Ethel Germaine by H.A. Barkenhus.

Lorentz Place is unusual in several respects. Its length is a mere one-tenth of a mile. After its initial curve north from McGraw Place and 2nd Ave. North, it narrows to a width of nineteen feet, winding at a slight decline to dead end at a spot just south of Queen Anne Drive and west of the North Queen Anne Drive Bridge. The houses on the east side of Lorentz Place border on Wolf Creek Ravine, and some of these homeowners each own an adjoining portion of the Ravine. All of the homes have little set back from the street, and were built very close to each other, enhancing the narrow feeling of the street. The proximity of the homes has created a close knit community, somewhat reminiscent of a houseboat dock, where residents are supportive of each other. The residents sponsor two street-wide events each year, including a community garage sale with the proceeds given to a charity they select. In a departure from normal practice, all the addresses on the west side of Lorentz Place are even-numbered, but only four on the east side of the street are odd-numbered.26 In 1948, nineteen residents of Lorentz Place and the adjacent portions of 2nd Ave. N. sought to reduce this confusion by petitioning the City to change the name of Lorentz Place to 2400 Block Second Avenue North; however, the request was denied.27

Lorentz Place is also unusual in that only a portion of the street is City-owned. While the City, by Ordinance passed March 16, 1925, agreed to the laying off, opening, widening, and establishing of a 202 foot extension of Lorentz Place, on June 20, 1927 the Ordinance was repealed.28 There are no City Council minutes explaining the reason for the repeal, but it may have been impractical at that time to widen the street to City standards. Consequently, Lorentz Place was never widened, and a portion of the street is privately owned by the homeowners.

The architectural styles of the houses on Lorentz Place are mostly a mixture of the period revival styles so popular in the 1920s, including Colonial Revival and Tudor Revival. A few of the earlier homes display distinctive Craftsman influences. With the exception of the notable brick Dutch Colonial Revival on the west side of the entrance and the finely detailed brick Craftsman at the north end of Lorentz Place, the houses on the west side of the street are mostly Colonial Revival bungalows built between 1917 and 1925. Basements were typically unfinished during this period, and some garages were added under later permits. Another finely detailed brick Craftsman anchors the east side of the entry to Lorentz Place. Like its counterpart at the northwest end of the lane, both were built in 1923 by Lorentz and they are very similar in style. The remaining houses on the east side of the street are mainly Tudor Revival built between 1925 and 1927 at the height of popularity of “Builder’s Tudors” in Seattle. Many of the similar architectural details found in the homes on Lorentz Place, including tile fireplaces, fine woodwork, leaded glass windows, decorative plasterwork and built-ins suggest that the designs may have come from architectural plan books which were in common usage at the time.29The fact that minimal exterior modifications have been made to Lorentz’s houses is a testament to their thoughtful design and contributes to the cohesiveness of the streetscape.

While Lorentz continued to build homes, his business was devastated by the Great Depression of the 1930’s. During those difficult years, he became personally liable for deficiency judgments obtained by creditors; rather than file for bankruptcy, he and his wife worked long hours, sometimes in menial jobs, to pay off their debts.30 In later life, Lorentz and his wife were supported by his eldest son Joseph, who also became a carpenter and a successful builder.

Lorentz passed away in April 1958. His legacy includes the many fine homes he built that are still standing on the north slopes of Queen Anne.

Authors: Jan Hadley and Leanne Olson

1 Lorentz, Muriel, and Lorentz, Patricia. Interview. 12 October 2013.
2 “Death Takes John Lorentz, Contractor”, Seattle Times 20 April 1958.
3 Lorentz, Muriel and Lorentz, Patricia, supra.
4 Lorentz, Jim. Interview. 2 July 2013.
5 “Seventy-Five Former Residents of Norway, Sweden and Finland Will Spend Holiday in Old Homes,” Seattle Times 20 May 1913: 16.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 “Evidence of Continued Building and Real Estate Activities in Seattle”. Seattle Times 12 April 1925: 35.
9 University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Architects’ Reference File, John Alfred Creutzer.
10 James, Diana E. (McFarland & Company: 2012) 133.
11 Seattle Times 18 April 1926.
12 Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Historic Site Inventory, 2455 Nob Hill Ave.
13 “New Incorporations”, Seattle Times 1 October 1926.
14 Although the building permits for these two homes were issued in 1919, the King County Assessor gives their built dates as 1917 and list the street as 2nd Ave. N.
15 2424 was built by C. A. Rushton. 2426 was built by J.E. Hood.
16 Building permits could be located for only three of these houses, and they identify the street as 2nd Ave. N.
17 2434 Lorentz Place.
18 2446 and 2508 Lorentz Place.
19 2442, 2500 and 2506 Lorentz Place. 2438 Lorentz Place may have been built by someone else.
20 2430 Lorentz Place (original building permit lists the street as 2nd Ave. N.)
21 2412 and 2416 Lorentz Place.
22 2418, 2443, 2468, 2472, and 2476 Lorentz Place.
23 2433 and 2435 Lorentz Place.
24 2439 Lorentz Place.
25 Seattle Times 26 February 1952.
26 A search of the original building permits for the odd-numbered four houses reveals that the original applications for building permits assigned them even numbers as well.
27 City of Seattle Municipal Archives: 12 July 1948 letter from William B. Hetherington to Mr. P.N. Royal, City Engineer’s Office, and 11 August 1948 letter from John B. Cain, Superintendent of Buildings E.G. Henry, Board of Public Works.
28 Ordinance Number 48580, March 16, 1925; and Ordinance Number 53202, dated June 20, 1927.
29 10 October 2013 email from Katheryn H. Krafft, Krafft & Krafft Architecture, to Leanne Olson, Queen Anne Historical Society.
30 Lorentz, Muriel and Lorentz, Patricia, supra.