A slow goodbye at Seattle's elegant Exeter House | KUOW News and Information

A slow goodbye at Seattle's elegant Exeter House

Apr 25, 2016

Exeter House in downtown Seattle was built as an apartment hotel for elegant living in the 1920s. It was part of a construction boom downtown at the time.

Its glory days announce themselves through the dark wood panels, the crystal chandelier and the grandfather clock in the lobby.

But now the building is being sold — another example of how Seattle continues to change.

One of the residents, Jeanann Francis, 86, takes me to the dining room.

She picks a table in the corner with a good view of who is lunching. Francis points to one of the tables.

“He lives here; he just came back from the hospital,” she says. “The other two men are both retired. Presbyterian pastors.”

There are only about a dozen people today. I ask Francis if the dining room has ever been full.

“When I first moved here, yes,” she says. She arrived here in 2008. “But this building is going to be closed forever. And most of us have to be out of here by the end of September. Most of us have already left.”

Francis will move to Capitol Hill sometime next month. She hears the new place, run by the same nonprofit that manages Exeter House, is nice. But it’s not Exeter House.

She’s always known she wanted to live here.

There’s the building’s unique charm. “No two apartments are the same,” she says.

And it’s downtown. “That’s where the life of the city is,” she says.

Exeter House is on First Hill near the hospitals. And it’s four blocks from her church, where she volunteers her sewing skills for the clothing drive. She says she’s going to miss that.

Torsten Hirche is president and CEO of Presbyterian Retirement Communities Northwest, the non-profit that owns and runs Exeter House.

“We need to reinvent some of our own communities to accommodate today’s residents who are asking for more amenities,” Hirche says.  

Baby boomers expect different amenities, he says. “The new generation of residents is engaged in yoga; they run on a daily basis; they want a comprehensive fitness and wellness area; they’re looking for a pool and other things.”

Hirche says his nonprofit looked into investing in those kinds of amenities at Exeter House but decided there wasn’t enough space in the property. And financially, it wouldn’t pencil out.

Hirche says it was a difficult decision to sell Exeter House. One of the criteria in selecting a buyer is that whoever takes over will maintain the building’s historic character. At the same time, he says they’re trying to transition the current residents to new homes.

“Exeter House and all of our communities are really the people in the buildings. The building infrastructure is a shell,” he says. “When you go through a transition, such with Exeter House, we always strive to preserve the culture.”

To do that, most of the staff at Exeter House will also transfer to the nonprofit’s Capitol Hill property, where many residents now live. Social workers have helped with the transition. The nonprofit plans to disclose Exeter House’s new owner next month. 

Back in the dining room at Exeter House, you can see Freeway Park out the window. Francis says she’ll also miss that about living downtown. But she doesn’t dwell on her move. Rather, she’s been philosophical.

“Yesterday is over, tomorrow isn’t here yet. Today unfolds in front of you,” she says. She says she’s still part of the city; she’s simply moving on.

Home, Francis says, is where you hang your hat.