Robinson Tile and Marble Company

The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was held on the campus of the University of Washington in 1909.

The year 1909 was a busy, exciting time in Seattle in preparation for a world’s fair event called the AYPE. The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was to open in June 1909 on the campus of the University of Washington in northeast Seattle.

In the days before radio, TV and the Internet, world’s fairs were major venues for display and advertising of products, and fairs were a source of tourist dollars in the local economy.  In the two years prior to the AYPE, representatives went to events in other cities to promote Seattle’s fair and encourage tourists to visit Seattle.

Perhaps it was in this way, through AYPE representatives or perhaps from stories in newspapers, that a young man, Albert Paris Robinson of Illinois, first heard of Seattle and decided to go there in 1909.  A.P. Robinson became part of the growth years of Seattle with buildings going up in downtown, and with housing expanding to areas of northeast Seattle.

Postcard showing the Smith Tower, Seattle, completed in 1914 with Mt. Rainier in the background. Museum of History and Industry Photograph Collection Image Number 2002.48.650

In 1909 twenty-one-year-old A.P. Robinson got a job as a bookkeeper in the business office of the Charles W. Rodgers Tile Company in Seattle.

The national recognition of Seattle and the economic boost provided by the AYPE in 1909 led to a boom in building, including Seattle’s first steel-frame skyscraper, the Smith Tower.

In preparation for its construction, a news article of 1913 said that Rodgers Tile Company had got the tile contract for the Smith Tower. The tile work included all hallways, stair landings and bathrooms in the building.

The contract calls for a tremendous amount of materials and a small army of men will be required to complete it.” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 20, 1913, page 92.)

At the Rodgers company, A.P. Robinson worked to establish himself financially so that he would be able to get married.  He called for his sweetheart, Katherine McAlister, to join him in Seattle to be married in 1912.

A.P. Robinson’s wife Katherine was not the first of the McAlisters of Pennsylvania to come to Washington State.  Katherine’s sister Barbara had been the first to leave their home state of Pennsylvania to journey Out West. In 1901 Barbara and her husband Henry Seneff took a land claim in the Methow Valley, Okanogan County, near Twisp, Washington. Perhaps they wrote to Barbara’s siblings about the opportunities on the frontier.  Henry & Barbara Seneff had a general store in Twisp and when they left in 1915, they put the store into the hands of two more of Barbara’s siblings, who spent the rest of their lives in Twisp. The Seneffs journeyed on to Alaska where Henry worked as a law enforcement officer in Fairbanks. Then in 1933 the Seneffs retired to Seattle.

Rodgers Tile Company and the downtown building boom

In the 1920s the Charles W. Rodgers Tile Company continued to run ads and receive mention in news articles about their contributions to the significant buildings in downtown Seattle.

A 1924 advertisement told of the company’s work in the Olympic Hotel which was then under construction at Fourth & University Streets.  The terrazzo floor in the hotel was a source of permanent advertising for Rodgers Tile Company of the kind of work they could do.

The newspaper advertisement featured terrazzo as specifically the work of Italian craftsmen. Below the Chas W. Rodgers Tile Company name in the ad, John Braida was listed as superintendent.

Braida was an Italian immigrant who established his own home with a marble, mosaic & terrazzo workshop at 3408 Woodland Park Ave in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle.  Braida’s most well-known work is the “Aurora elephant” which is still on display at 8800 Aurora Avenue North.

A.P. Robinson starts his own company in 1921

The Fairmont Olympic Hotel at 4th and University Streets in downtown Seattle.

By 1920 A.P. Robinson was a 32-year-old married man with two children.  A.P. and Katherine’s household also included nieces & nephews of Katherine’s plus A.P.’s younger brother Chalon Robinson.

In addition to needing income to help support all these people, A.P. Robinson seemed to be ambitious, wanting to advance his career.  In 1921 Robinson left the Rodgers company and started his own company called Robinson Tile & Marble.

Ads for Robinson’s company listed that they, too, had contributed to the Olympic Hotel in 1924 as well as other significant structures in downtown such as the Dexter Horton Building (710 Second Avenue, 1922-1923) and the Medical Dental Building (509 Olive Way, 1924-1925).

In 1925 Robinson Tile & Marble expanded into a huge new plant at 601 Westlake, South Lake Union, which was then considered a manufacturing district.

Art Marble moves to Westlake

A move similar to Robinson’s relocation to South Lake Union was that of a company called Art Marble which had been in Seattle since 1905. The company’s business was euphemistically called “monuments and markers,” and what they meant was gravestones. However, the company did other kinds of marble work and like Robinson Tile, Art Marble was prospering in the economic climate of the 1920s.

In 1921 Art Marble built a new showroom and factory at 731 Westlake, in the block to the north of the Robinson Tile Company at 601 Westlake.

Like Robinson’s company, Art Marble was headed by a non-Italian, Ewell Uden, but the workers were Italian craftsmen. Rather than being in competition, the two companies seemed to be in friendly coordination as they sometimes were both listed on jobs.

In the 1920s Art Marble began advertising that their specialty was “interior trim.” The business of making grave markers was probably still good, but we see that Art Marble could also do mantels, hearths and fireplace surrounds with smaller pieces of stone.  Their new Art Marble building was meant to be customer-friendly as it had a showroom for people to choose colors and types of stone.

The growing housing market in northeast Seattle in the 1920s

Gardner Gwinn development in the 8100 block of Roosevelt Way, advertised in 1926.

Robinson Tile & Marble Company did not restrict itself to “big buildings.”  They, as well as Art Marble, began listing themselves in group advertisements with other contractors doing home construction. Tiled entryways and bathroom floors were advertised as not only beautiful but sanitary and easy to clean.

Tiled “drainboards and sinkbacks” which we would call countertops and backsplashes, were promoted as adding to the beauty of the kitchen, as well as easy to clean, fireproof, and would never need re-painting.

Robinson began partnering with developers such as Gardner Gwinn who was building clusters of houses in northeast Seattle.  Pictured here is a house at 8108 Roosevelt Way NE, in a row of houses built in 1926 for which Robinson Tile & Marble was one of the featured contractors.  This smaller-scale work kept the company name in the mix with other companies and builders.  The advertising was consumer-oriented for the home construction industry.

8108 Roosevelt Way NE in the Gardner Gwinn development. Robinson Tile & Marble was one of the listed contractors in 1926.

The Robinson house in northeast Seattle

Up until 1937 the Robinsons had lived in the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle which was convenient to the Robinson Tile Company plant at the corner of Westlake & Valley Streets. The company seemed to get through the economic depression years of the 1930s but we may speculate on the forces that were at work at this time, which caused the Robinsons to move to a house in remote northeast Seattle. We may guess that they might have been experiencing a financial downturn and decided to move to a cheaper place to live, which was outside of the Seattle City Limits at that time.

A house at 11506 34th Ave NE had the name of the Robinson’s relatives, Henry & Barbara Seneff, on the property records and it is possible that they might have purchased it when there was an older house on the site. That house was either torn down or the present house was expanded from an older house. The Robinsons moved into this house in about 1937 and began to make their own expansions and improvements.

11506 34th Ave NE

The Robinsons go through life transitions and stresses

Just at the time they moved into the house at 11506 34th Ave NE, the Robinson’s 23-year-old daughter Barbara died in June 1937. She’d had an operation for appendicitis and did not survive. The Robinson’s son Robert was already out on his own, so A.P. and Katherine Robinson were living alone in their house.

We may consider all the life stresses of the Robinsons including the death of their daughter, the economic downturn of the 1930s and the midlife transitions of A.P. who was turning fifty years old.  It appears that A.P. Robinson may have reduced the operations of his company because of the lack of business in the 1930s. He may also have essentially merged its operations with the Art Marble company, his neighbor on Westlake Avenue.

A.P. Robinson’s draft card for World War Two listed him, as of 1942, working for Mr. Uden at the neighboring Art Marble.  Mr. Uden died in 1943, so perhaps he was in declining health in the early 1940s and A.P. Robinson was helping with the operation of Art Marble.

Life in northeast Seattle in the 1930s

The Robinson’s house at 11506 34th Ave NE was isolated on the edge of a ravine with no other nearby houses, but it was only about a block from the arterial 35th Ave NE. There were few stores or other commercial buildings nearby in the 1930s. To get groceries the Robinsons might have travelled a few blocks to the north, to the growing Lake City business district.

Today the house at 11506 34th Ave NE shows the influence of the Robinsons in the tile work that they installed.

Tile work in the house at 11506 34th Ave NE

Northeast Seattle’s growth of housing in the 1950s

The Robinsons lived in their house at 11506 34th Ave NE for about fifteen years and then began to make retirement plans. As of 1950 they saw that northeast Seattle was booming with housing growth and they could derive income by dividing their property into house lots for sale. The Robinsons filed a plat map named Paris Park Addition, with “Paris” a reference to Albert Robinson’s middle name. Over the time from 1950 to 1957, seven houses were built along the top of the ravine at NE 115th Street.

A.P. Robinson’s official retirement from work was announced in 1954 at age 65, and the Robinsons moved away, into a house in Seattle’s Madison Valley.  As of that year of 1954, the company address of Robinson Tile & Marble was listed as 3408 Woodland Park Ave, the home & workshop of John Braida, the longtime Italian immigrant worker in terrazzo.

The story of marble, mosaic, tile and terrazzo work in the 1920s in Seattle is that of an era of appreciation of beauty in downtown buildings and touches of luxury in private homes. There are companies still in business in Seattle today which are descended from Art Marble, Robinson Tile and other companies which brought beautiful and durable craftsman work to the built environment.

Sources:

Art Marble 21: This pub and sports bar celebrates the 1921 construction of their building for the original Art Marble company at 731 Westlake.

Census and City Directory listings; Washington Digital Archives dates of marriage, death.

Newspaper search online via the Seattle Public Library website.

PCAD (Pacific Coast Architecture Database) the Smith Tower.

Seattle Historical Site Index: 3408 Woodland Park Ave N, the Braida house.

Terrazzo & Stone: A company descended from Art Marble.

THANK YOU to the present owners of 11506 34th Ave NE who love the house and were willing to share its legacy in this blog article.

Smith Tower under construction in 1913.

 

 

About Wedgwood in Seattle History

Valarie is a volunteer writer of neighborhood history in Seattle.
This entry was posted in Houses, Meadowbrook neighborhood, Seattle History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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