Fancy Manse

Property Watch: Old Money and New Whimsy in a Former Boarding House

This high-luxury home, built by the most prominent architecture duo of its time, has hosted a lot of people in 115-plus years. Now, it forges a new identity.

By Sarah Anne Lloyd September 29, 2022

Less than a block from Volunteer Park, this neoclassical-colonial home is truly among its peers: big, historic mansions. While its stately exterior looks virtually the same as it did when it was first built in 1906, inside, it’s gone through some major evolutions, from its posh beginnings to its decades as a boarding house and, finally, after a 15-year remodel and restoration project, as a creative return to opulent form.

For the first two decades of its existence, this home hosted a rotating cast of Seattle’s high society. It was originally built for real estate mogul Edwin F. James and his family, who brought in prestigious architecture firm Bebb and Mendel to design it; the pair also designed the first phase of Fischer Studio, which we featured a couple of weeks ago. An article in the July 26, 1908 issue of The Seattle Times covering the big move-in notes a unique design of pilaster casing and a vast expanse of living room, measuring a whopping 35 feet long.

It wouldn’t stay the James place for long. By September of that year, it was home to then-burgeoning real estate broker Leroy D. Lewis and his wife, Louise, the youngest daughter of famed Walla Walla doctor/banker/railroad pioneer/Renaissance man Dorsey Syng Baker. The couple hosted frequent parties, receptions, and even dances. The last person for decades to run the house as a single-family (and many-servant) home was prominent businessman and bank president Edward C. Neufelder—he bought the home sometime before 1920, and had died there by 1923. 

This is where, after some interior alterations, the home started a brand-new life as a boarding house. At the time of the 1930 census, a German nurse rented the place and hosted at least seven lodgers. By 1940, according to that year’s census, a Swiss divorcee and campfire girls leader bought the house and upped that number to at least 15. (You can fit a lot of people in a 7,480-square-foot building, apparently.) The home operated this way for decades, and room-for-rent ads appeared in The Seattle Times until at least 1982; a for-sale listing of the property in 1983 advertises it (and its 11 bedrooms) as a “superb location for a bed and breakfast facility.”

Over the last 15 years, the house has undergone a major restoration—and a return to its high-society roots. But rather than revert it back to 1906, the current owner, working with JAS Design Build, has given it a new, unique identity for the next chapter of its life. It’s colorful, a little whimsical, and very fancy, with high-end detailing, new surprises, and spaces to get lost in.

Past the two-story portico held aloft by two recently restored 18-foot ionic columns, a classic, grand foyer complete with an open banister staircase greets visitors. The blend of old-timey and newfangled luxury is already apparent, with detailed millwork meeting more contemporary art displays. To the right, a hideaway decked out in blue blends the eras together more, combining the vibes of a stately parlor with vintage-inspired but assuredly modern-day upgraded finishes, like the built-in hutch with wet bar and brass-and-glass shelving.

The living room, on the other side, is still quite long, with gathering spots around an intricately carved fireplace and a shallow bay window. At the end, a cased opening separates it from the dining room—and lo and behold, it has a unique design featuring some unexpected pilasters on either side. This casing motif appears throughout the home. 

The kitchen has been thoroughly updated, but still with a kind of streamlined maximalism appropriate to a mansion of this era: Marble is absolutely everywhere, and a present-day luxury stove mimics the design of a turn-of-the-century one. Little personal details start to emerge here, like the built-in doggy gate closing off the cooking area from a back mudroom. The pantry cabinets are like little walk-in closets with workspaces, and even have windows above the doors.

Like in its boarding house days, the home has gathering spaces both above and below, including two tucked right into the wide second-floor hall—one den-like area with a door to the spacious rear balcony, another opening to a front balcony just under the portico. The latter is surrounded by built-in bookshelves…including a bookshelf that’s a hidden door to a more secluded den or bedroom and half-bath, just for the VIPs.

The grandest of the bedrooms is a palatial suite. The spacious main room has its own fireplace with a marble hearth, plus elaborately cased double doors to a back balcony. The cedar closet, more common in older homes, gets a modern walk-in treatment with generous shelving. Its en suite bath, which is bigger than some studio apartments, features both an oversized walk-in shower and a soaking tub. This is just one of eight bedrooms.

On the attic level, finished rooms nestle into four dormers—including one peeking out above the front entry, with access to that top balcony visible from the front of the house. Right now, this floor is styled as an office suite, and even has wiring and racks ready to operate an included Dell server.

The house is surrounded on all sides, tidily landscaped, with some hedges, shrubbery, and showy topiary. The back is built more for entertaining, with an arbored back porch and ornate patio and lawn areas. Several back windows by the kitchen counter actually accordion over for a seven-foot pass-through window directly to the barbecue.

Don’t let the circle driveway out front fool you, because the real parking is in an underground four-car garage with an entrance on Aloha Street. While it may have been improved over the years, that’s actually an original feature; the Times remarked on how the slope allowed the original owners to put their lawn on top. Other things are solely modern luxuries: a wireless sound system installed throughout the inside and out, AC, and a solar power system. The first-floor bathroom sink, however—made of terracotta, with a lion-shaped spout poised to jump into an ornately carved bowl—is timeless.

Listing Fast Facts

905 12th Ave E
Size: 7,480 square feet/9,048 square foot lot, 8 bedrooms/6 baths
List Date: 9/9/2022
List Price: $5,975,000
Listing Agents:
Sam Cunningham, Compass

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