- Historic Sites
When the author moved into a 1905 house on an island near Seattle, he found himself sharing it with the uncommon people who had lived there before him
July/august 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 5
And so in the late spring of 1934 the family moved into the barn and opened the Gazzam House, as it was now officially dubbed, to summer boarders seeking, according to the brochure, “a quiet, truly restful place to spend a vacation.” The grounds still included a lake, miles of trails, and, of course, the beach, which, the Northwestern climate being what it is, could offer only “a chance” for sunbathing.
The waitresses who tended to the summer guests at the huge table in the dining room were University of Washington students who lived in tents in a nearby meadow. But the major feature of a stay at the Gazzam House was evidently the cooking of “Black Bertha,” as the family called her, who, according to one of their brochures, won “the hearts of all at Gazzam house in the traditional southern manner.” The house owed its “adequate” heat to a series of men who lived in the cellar and stoked the furnace with cordwood cut from the surrounding estate.
Innkeeping did not suit Lulu Gazzam for long, and she eventually moved to the University of Washington, where she worked for the rest of her life as a sorority housemother. But Ruth proved a gifted hostess, and word spread quickly about the Gazzam House among Seattle’s travel agents. For the next five summers Ruth Haight filled every room with vacationers- mostly from Seattle, but a few from California, Minnesota, and even New York—lured by the low rates, good food, charming location, and rounds of bridge with the erudite and congenial Mr. Haight in the parlor.
On one of his birthdays the Colonel’s intermittently estranged family presented him with a confection in the shape of his property. But when he was asked to cut the first slice, he ordered the cake returned to the kitchen, declaring that he had never subdivided his holdings and wasn’t about to start now.
Those of us who have had our imaginations and savings caught up in the house are as hapless as the Colonel himself.
Nevertheless, when his speculations backfired during the Great Depression, the Colonel began to shed his property. Reduced by now to running a small hotel in Bremerton, he didn’t keep up his Alabama payments to the bank, and one day in 1938 Ruth’s children returned from school to find a foreclosure notice on the door. (It was Warren Gazzam’s lifelong ambition to die a millionaire, and when the Second World War filled his Bremerton hotel with visitors to the shipyard, he thought he might finally become one. But he held out too long before selling the place, and when he died, his assets seem to have amounted to only about four hundred thousand dollars. Nonetheless he got his wish, after a fashion, by bribing the editor of the local paper to headline his obituary BREMERTON MILLIONAIRE DIES .) Ruth Gazzam Haight and her family moved to a small house on a cliff overlooking Manitou Beach, from which she commuted to work for her father and here she and her family subsisted, for a time, on clams.
The bank subdivided the estate, clearing the way for an access road by tearing down the stone staircase that once led from the front porch to the orchards along the beach, and sold Alabama in 1939 to a bachelor florist named Charlie Sullivan. Sullivan studded the grounds with five thousand camellia bushes and installed a chromium kitchen that was a horror to his predecessors. After fifty years of motley ownership and sporadic occupation, the property shrank to a single acre, the orchard made way for a string of cottages, and all but a dozen of Sullivan’s camellias died in a freeze in the 1950s.
Those of us whose imaginations and savings have been caught up in the old Gazzam House have been, all in all, as hapless as the Colonel himself. Though its squandered estate is even now being nibbled up by other less romantic developers, its grandiosity remains contagious.
The house is shot through with visionary wiring concepts in varying states of incompletion, beginning with Gazzam’s own tangle of knob and tube, which he installed long before this end of the island had even been electrified. (He once attempted, without success, to generate power in the feeble trickle from a nearby spring.) Sometimes, as I fumble with the eight kitchen-light switches, it seems as though the house has been wired by the Marx Brothers. Three-prong wall sockets have been directly connected to the ungrounded wiring from the Colonel’s days, live bare sections of which, I soon discovered, jutted out into the birds’ nests under the attic eaves.
One owner decided on a Saturday morning to hike up the sag in the living-room floor. So, according to his son, he made his way into the crawl space with his car jack and happily began to pump away at a succession of joists, bracing them with cinder blocks. Everything seemed to be going great until he heard a toppling noise overhead and rushed up to find that all the downstairs plaster had fallen off the walls.
The original dark fir woodwork survived the renovations that followed, though it didn’t quite fit back in some places over the slightly thickened surface of the new Sheetrock walls. Most of the windows are still the rippled originals, and a couple of panes in the living room are even perforated by the BBs the neighborhood kids shot at the Gazzams’ ghosts during Alabama’s various phases of abandonment. The attic rafters bear the scorched traces of a fire, and the upstairs floorboards have the raised grain of wood once exposed to rain.