Polson House: All in the (almost one) Family

Perry and Kate Polson’s house at 103 Highland Drive is simply exceptional. The Polsons and their descendants owned and occupied the house that hovers high over Highland Drive’s intersection with First Avenue North from 1908 to 2004. In those 96 years, the family loved the house, and however they altered it, they never jeopardized the views to the city, Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains. Consequently, they left us one of the best preserved residences in the city whose new owners, Rosemary and Ken Willman, have done a major and meticulous restoration since buying the house in 2011.

It is rare to have a building stay practically unaltered and almost forever in the hands of the same family. The Stimson-Green Mansion at Seneca and Minor on Capitol Hill is similarly untouched. It changed hands only three times. Joshua and Laura Green, its third owners, lived there from 1915 to 1975, totally disinterested in making any improvements, while the fourth one was the caring granddaughter of the first. There is a sweet coincidence between the Polson and Stimson-Green houses, since the Polsons bought their plot of land in 1906 from the Stimson Land Company. The nearly intact preservation of these two houses makes one wonder how many other Queen Anne residences remain in the family that built or first owned them.

Perry Polson’s father Olaf came from Sweden in 1868, settling in Iowa before coming to Whatcom County. He became a prominent farmer in La Conner and his two sons, Perry and John, established a hardware store there. He moved to Seattle in 1893. During 1897-98, he sold picks, shovels, and other equipment to gold miners headed up to the Klondike as well as selling farm equipment. His name is associated with the Polson Building on Western Avenue and Columbia Street. Perry Polson’s (1854-1923) story is quintessential Seattle: Swedish background, started his own businesses: Polson Implement Company, the Polson Logging Company and the Polson Realty Company and made a subsequent fortune that sustained at least three future generations. Only the Nordstroms parlayed their Gold Rush money better, for we never hear much about the descendants of Andrew and Joseph Chilberg, Perry’s Iowa pals with whom he founded the Scandinavian-American Bank and led the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, our first world’s fair.

Following her father’s death in 1870, Kate Hinckley Polson (1858-1933) moved to Seattle from Shasta City, California when her mother married her uncle. Kate was 21 when she married Perry and bore four children, Minnie, Helen, Olaf and Harold. Harold’s grandson, Robert Polson Kummer, sold the house in 2004.

The house was constructed in 1904–1906. The city-wide historic resources survey of the 1970’s attributed the design to Kerr and Rogers, although it also been attributed by the Polson family to being designed by Josenhans and Allen. The house has seen few changes. An adjacent concrete garage, designed by prominent architects Saunders and Lawton, was added in 1913.

The house is prominently sited at a high point above Highland Drive. It sits on approximately 1/3 acre and because of its elevation, has unobstructed views of Elliott Bay and downtown Seattle. It is set back from the street with a driveway in front; the garage is at the northeast corner of the lot. The house has a side-gable form with complex massing, including a projecting hip-roofed bay on the front, a gabled rear wing and a turret on the south (rear) elevation.

Inside and out, the house reflects the transition from Victorian to Craftsman design. The turret on the southwest corner repeats a feature of the Queen Anne style that nearly every large house on the hill sported up until that time. By 1908, the turret was definitely an anachronism, but its three stories of curved double-hung windows captured the phenomenal southern and western views. The Moorish pointed arches of the wrap-around porch and the Arts and Crafts influence in the carvings on the white oak newel posts add to the assortment of styles used by architects Timotheus Josenhans (1853-1929) and Norris Allan (1867-1932). Even the gable ends are stylistically different from one another with the flush ‘timbering’ of the west gable contrasting with the stick style of the north and south gables. The combination of a basement with concrete scored to resemble brick, a first story clad in brick and upper story shingles set off by light colored wood trim create a picturesque ensemble.

The Polson house contains approximately 5,400 sq. ft. of interior living area: 2,000 on the first floor, 2,280 on the second floor, and 1,120 in the attic. The basement has an additional 1,750 sq. ft. The elaborate interior, including carved wood, painted ceilings and extensive hardware, is intact. Its elevator, installed in 1906, may be the first in a Seattle residence. The foyer and the principal entertaining rooms on the main floor are finished in white oak, with particularly fine box beams in the dining room. Canvas hung ceilings were decorated by painter Franz Zallinger who later worked for B. Marcus Priteca in the decoration of the Pantages Theater and Coliseum Theater. They range from traditional English and French florals in the drawing room and heraldry in the library to Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts borders and trim in rear parlor, dining room, and stair hall.

The interior of the house is cleverly divided east and west between more formal family spaces on the western side with those fantastic views and servant or guest spaces on the eastern side. The formal side of first floor is separated by pocket doors into four equal spaces: entry hall and stair, parlor, dining room and library. The fireplace in the parlor is distinguished by beautiful tiles hand-crafted in Pasadena by Ernest Batchelder, while a projecting curved bay is the most prominent feature of the library. The ceilings of all the formal spaces on the first floor are intact, with original lighting fixtures and hand-painted or stenciled ornament in realistic floral and conventionalized Arts and Crafts designs. The dining room is unusually well preserved with a clever warming oven topping the steam heated radiator. The less formal portion of the first floor includes the kitchen and a south facing office or den that now forms a breakfast room integrated into the recently updated kitchen.

Upstairs the same west/east division prevails. On the west side, four bedrooms belonged to the owning family while on the east end a bedroom and bath may have been set aside for guests or the servants who kept up the 8,000 square foot house. The master suite faces the great western view and has absorbed the sleeping porch and the northwest bedroom, now a bathroom and closet. In the northwest corner of the house a coat closet on the first floor and the master suite shower room on the second eventually concealed what may have been Seattle’s first residential elevator. Kate Perry needed it as a result of rheumatoid arthritis that confined her to a wheelchair.

The top floor has seen many uses. The east end holds a servant’s bedroom and bath while the rest of the space may have been divided at different times into sleeping spaces or even a living room for some of Perry and Kate’s grandchildren. Photographs taken in June 1943 at Laura Polson and Lt. George Scholfield’s wedding reception show the open space as it is today. The basement lay undisturbed until 2004 when the second owner finished it into an apartment with city views.

Marvin Anderson Architects oversaw Rosemary and Ken Willman’s recent renovation and restoration of the house. We are lucky to have such an untouched jewel preserved at an incredibly prominent spot in our neighborhood.

1920's Intercom
1920’s Intercom

The home’s detailing is primarily Craftsman, although the turret shows a Queen Anne influence. Cladding is brick on the first floor with shingles above. The roof has deep open eaves and brackets. The entry porch on the north has a shallow gabled roof supported by square posts. To the east is a three-sided bay, with a 16-over-one sash in the center, with leaded beveled glass. Above the entry is a striking tripartite window with stained glass. Other windows are predominantly one-over-one double hung sash, with some arched windows with transoms. The decorative gabled dormer on the front has four small casement windows, stickwork in the gable end and flared bargeboards. Above the entry is a section with dentils and pairs of decorative brackets. A veranda with round Tuscan columns extends along the west and south elevations. The south elevation has a gabled wing with a gable over the porch, three large arched transomed windows on the second floor and four one-over-one windows in the gable end. The conical turret at the southeast corner rises two floors up from the first floor base; it has five-over-one windows on each floor. The east elevation has a gabled dormer with four one-over-one windows, stickwork and flared bargeboards; below is a lattice porch and a secondary entry.

Sources: The Polson Residence, City of Seattle Historic Site Survey and the book The Polson House: A History by Marvin Anderson and Megan Meulemans published by Marvin Anderson Architects, PLLC.

For Further Reading

View a November 2003 Seattle Times article about the Polson family seeking a new owner who will value its historical significance.