Looking west shows the little park on Mercer Street that is permanent. Photo by Michael Herschensohn
Looking west shows the little park on Mercer Street that is permanent. Photo by Michael Herschensohn
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Queen Anne folks have surely forgotten the history of the K block which after nearly 35 years of temporary uses is being transformed into a permanent beacon of Uptown’s future. Most people know the block as the home of Teatro Zinzanni which has rented the eastern edge along Third Avenue North for nearly 15 years.  The 43,000 square foot block now consists of five different parcels, all of which were originally given to the city in the early 1980s by Charles Osborn, the trustee of the Kreielsheimer Foundation, which lent the block the ‘K’ in its familiar name. After several trades in ownership, the three northern parcels were finally given to the Seattle Opera in 2000. Now, sometime this year developer Maria Barrientos will begin the construction of a transformative high-rise apartment building on the Roy Street or northern part of the block.

It hasn’t been decided yet if the tower will loom 85 or 160 feet over Roy Street, but either way this is the first of many high buildings encouraged by the soon to be adopted Urban Design Framework prepared by the City of Seattle for Uptown’s redevelopment. The new building — hopefully Barrientos acknowledges the site’s rich local history and calls the new building the K Block — will occupy a little more than half of the large site, leaving the small strip like park along Mercer Street in front of the actual Teatro Zinzanni and the full southwest quarter of the block for development by the city as low income housing.  

When Kreielsheimer trustee Osborn purchased the block for the city for a whopping $2,269,161, he intended it for the Seattle Art Museum. Osborn was angered when the museum chose to go downtown. Later, rejecting the site as a place for a relocated Museum of History and Industry, Osborn selected the Seattle Symphony for the site of a new concert hall. In 1989, he quietly funded the design of the hall by the firm of Loschky Marquardt & Nesholm, now known as LMN. This design that was later modified to fit the downtown site of Benaroya Hall. 

In 1991, Seattle Center’s leadership along with the elected officials of the city and the county decided it was time to pass a referendum to rebuild a slowly deteriorating Seattle Center. For what now seems like unwise reasons, the referendum was divided into two parts, one to be voted on by city residents, the other by people living in the county. The city portion included redoing the International Fountain and building the Seattle Children’s Theatre and Fisher Pavilion among other structures. The county portion would have supported the new symphony hall and a combined children’s branch of the public library and children’s museum on what is now the site of the recently renamed MoPOP, designed by Frank Gehry. It is no surprise that the city referendum passed while county’s failed. 

The Children’s Museum of Seattle, where I served as Executive Director, immediately regrouped and for less money than the cost of a new facility, remodeled the lower floor of Center House (once the Food Circus. now again the Armory), growing from 5,000 to 65,000 sq. ft. The symphony despaired. It had a huge deficit, no reserves and no money with which to start either a capital campaign or a new building. Making things even worse, Charlie Osborn, the visionary trustee of the Kreielsheimer Foundation died the following year. Fortunately, Leo Kreielsheimer had named Donald F. Johnson as Osborn ’s successor in the case of his death. Under Johnson, a Magnolia native who attended Queen Anne High School and like Osborn, an attorney at Bogle and Gates, the foundation sustained its spectacular impact on the funding of the arts in Seattle and tried to give the symphony the time to raise the money to build the hall. To Johnson’s dismay, the symphony also decamped to downtown after the levy failed. Much as the two Kreielsheimer trustees loved Seattle Center, Norm Rice, Seattle’s mayor at the time, had committed to revitalizing Seattle’s dying downtown. With the art museum, Benaroya Hall, the garage at Pacific Place and the convention center, he succeeded. In the end, everybody won. The art museum and the symphony got places in which they thrive while Johnson realized his hope for a revitalized Seattle Center and home for the opera.

The Kreielsheimer Foundation was the creation of Lou and Greye Kreielsheimer guided by Charles Osborn their lawyer at Bogle and Gates. Founded in September 1975 when Leo K. died and fully funded in 1980 when Greye passed away, the foundation started with $22 million; however, wise investment of foundation forces provided nearly $100,000,000 in grants by the time it closed its doors 25 years from the day it started. The family fortune began with wholesaling liquor and leather businesses started in the late 1880s by the three Kreielsheimer bothers Jake, Simon and Max (Leo’s father). When Prohibition ended the liquor business, the family invested in canneries in Alaska that Leo eventually sold in the 1960s. From the get go, the foundation limited funding to gifts that seeded important projects such as capital campaigns or endowments. It never supported day-to-day operations. Perhaps, the most prescient aspect of the foundation’s design were the trustees. Tasked to oversee the wise disbursement of funds, they had no skin in the game and made awards without worrying about whose name was on the door. Family members had no role in spending.

Don Johnson, the sharp, savvy gemutlichkeit trustee who still lives at age 87 in Bellevue, is surely pleased the way Osborn’s investment in the K block is turning out. The two parcels on Mercer Street still belong to the city, but the Seattle Opera’s three northern parcels, which it acquired at no cost through the Kreielsheimer Foundation, are being sold. 

Best of all, the sale of K block parcels for the high-rise tower brings a happy ending to this Seattle Center saga. The opera will use the money from the sale to invest in building its long-needed back of house warehouse and shop on the site of the old Arena just east of Marion Oliver McCaw Hall on Mercer. Seed money indeed!

MICHAEL HERSCHENSOHN is president of the Queen Anne Historical Society (qahistory.org). To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com