In 1931, a Paris socialite blew back into her hometown of Seattle, determined to carry on her family’s civic legacy. The woman born as Guendolen Carkeek lived the sort of gilded existence usually found in Netflix period dramas: Swiss finishing school, failed marriage to an Italian diplomat, a social whirl propelled by designer gowns. But most of it happened in a Seattle still rising out of the mud and forest.
Born in 1892 to a pair of philanthropic Seattle pioneers, Guendolen grew up in a mansion at Madison and Boren; after her father died, she returned home with her jewels, her art collection, and her new husband, Theodor Plestcheeff, grandson of a Russian count. By the 1930s, First Hill wasn’t as fashionable as it once was, so “Guen and Teddy” threw one final epic party—a Gay Nineties–themed bash where guests wore petticoat skirts and faux handlebar mustaches—then sold the building to be razed. Today it’s the site of a gas station.
This destruction proved a high-flying exception to a subsequent life spent fortifying our city’s cultural institutions. Guendolen’s parents donated land for parks and founded the Seattle Historical Society. Their daughter, then ensconced in a neoclassical monolith of a mansion on Capitol Hill, presided over the historical society her mother founded, transforming it from a society club that threw elaborate founder’s day parties into an institution serious about preserving our city’s history. In the early 1950s, she navigated intense federal and political bureaucracy to secure land for the original site of the Museum of History and Industry. A lifelong collector of “decorative arts” like porcelain, silver, and glassware, she devoted her estate to supporting these crafts. Seattle Art Museum named its auditorium in her honor.