Nestled among the wings of the old Camlin Hotel on Ninth Avenue is a narrow courtyard shaded by a canopy of several large green Japanese maple trees and serene with the burbling of a fountain. It is in my opinion one of the loveliest and serenest little spots to take a cup of coffee in that part of the city on a sunny day. I discovered it only because Monday, in a moment of uncharacteristic audacity and brio, I strolled into the hotel as if it belonged to me. (Note: it does not. It belongs to the Wyndham Resort Development Company).
The Camlin Hotel, built in 1926. As with most images below, click to enlarge.
I have always admired people who can march into places not their own. I am timid of entering places in which I do not feel I have any business being, and that turns out to be most places. If you read this blog you may think me something of an investigative swashbuckler, but almost everything I write about is on the street or open to the public. I remember often over the course of my life being embarrassed in the company of someone I considered very bold because they walked into places as though they had a perfect right to be there when I felt sheepish and guilty.
There was a time, for a while, when I rebelled against this feeling. Jeff had a defiant streak in him that I much admired and that I was willing to ride shotgun beside. I’m sure that our schooldays adventures into areas off limits to students were mostly his idea. It had started at Bellevue Junior High when we ventured into the old, brick, multistoried administration building that stood quietly at the center of the low modern complex of classrooms and breezeways. Jeff said that if anyone asked us what we were doing in there we should counter-ask if they had seen a “guy in a blue coat” come through there and say that we were looking for him. We also made a dash up the stairs to a staff-only area of the school library and then fled down a long back exit stairway, certain that the hand of authority was right behind us grasping like the fingers of some ghoul from a Scooby Doo cartoon.
This sign was once visible for a long way in all directions.
In high school we took it further. For some reason we got it into our heads to make a project of climbing onto the roof of every building at Bellevue Senior High. Most of it was easy — shimmy up a pole and heave ourselves up onto the covered breezeway, then hop onto the roof of this or that low building — but the cafeteria and gym complex eluded us. It was a tall square box with nothing next to it that was really tall enough to gain access by. One afternoon after school, we were studying a drain or vent pipe that ran down the south side of this hulking mass from top to bottom, maybe forty feet, and I decided to take a practice run at it. I ran to the wall and clambered up the pipe as far as momentum would carry me, about ten feet, and found footing against the rough-textured side of the building while holding onto the pipe with my hands. It felt a little rickety, and I was just about to turn around and shout down to Jeff my opinion that this was no safe route when he scurried up behind me. I was agitated, because I wanted down, but he urged me to get going, and his will was the stronger, so up I went. I was skinny and lithe in those days, like a spider, and it wasn’t too difficult to get to the top, though the pipe wobbled and I was unnerved. Jeff, stronger but heavier, pressed me from behind because he was getting tired. The trick at the top was getting to one side of the pipe, since it rose up above the top of the wall by a foot or so and impeded the heave-over. Once you’d let go with one arm and moved it over or around the pipe, it was possible to haul yourself over the edge, but that moment of repositioning was terrifying, since your whole weight had to hang for a long moment by the grip of four fingers on one hand. It didn’t occur to me, because I was a young idiot, that I would have to reverse that process if we had to go down that same way.
A large framed copy of this image, taken c.1926, shortly after the Camlin was completed, hangs by the elevators. I wonder how many notice that the electric sign is now mounted in a different position than it was then. Image copyright Museum of History and Industry.
While Jeff and I were investigating the skylights that lit the interior of the gymnasium beneath us, a fellow student and friend of mine named Jim happened by and hailed us from below. Jim was always game for heady experiences and asked how we had gotten up there. We indicated the pipe and he climbed up. He got stuck at the top, physically exhausted and unable to move either arm over the pipe, so that he was basically hanging there with the pipe in his way. At this moment fellow Wolverine Shawn L. walked by down below, saw us, and muttered, “Your guys brains are gonna be all over the sidewalk.” Jeff and I ran over and hauled Jim up and over the edge. Jim not only survived this ordeal, but he went on to win an Oscar a few years ago for his part in the screenwriting of a movie you’ve all seen, but out of respect for his reputation I’ll not bust him here. Suffice to say, the future of Hollywood was briefly imperilled that afternoon.
Over the front door.
It was a grotesque time for details in the stonework.
I was wandering around Monday and found myself in front of the Camlin. Although it is not ancient (1926) and not terribly fine, I have always loved this little hotel, mainly for its sign. It is little now, especially now that a high-rise glass condo building has gone up right next to it. But at one time it was a big deal. It still has the electric sign on its roof, one of two that I remember seeing from the freeway on rare occasions when my family was in the car driving through the downtown at night. The green sign of the Camlin and the pinkish red of the nearby Roosevelt seemed somehow special. They were unlike anything else in Seattle. Over the years, I actually lost track of where the Camlin was because of the crowd of tall buildings that have been erected in that neighborhood.
The Camlin once had views of Puget Sound, but a forest of high-rises has grown up around the hotel since then.
I had never stood in front of the Camlin before, that I recall. It was a beautiful day and the sky was blue. To the east a tiny cumulus cloud hovered over the Spam Can Buildings. I had a coffee in my hand, and I just stood outside enjoying the hotel’s architecture, the eagle’s head above the front door. (I didn’t have my camera with me then; I went back for these photos later.) Then this feeling came over me that I wanted to go inside, and another feeling came swiftly on the heels of the first saying that I had no business doing so and would be ejected, in spite of the hundreds of books and movies I have ingested in which people agree to meet in the lobby of some hotel or other that neither of them is staying in, and countless more in which the plot turns on someone actually entering someone’s hotel room unlawfully. Of course you can go into a hotel. Most hotels have restaurants or bars, after all. They WANT you to come in. But for me it is as though a moral portcullis comes slamming down in front of me.
But then I heard a voice, half mine half Jeff’s, saying that if anyone asked me what I was doing in there I could say — truthfully this time! — that I was curious if there were any historic photographs of the building on the walls inside.
"Meet me in the lobby of the Camlin as soon as you can! And make sure you don't pick up a tail!"
I walked in with my coffee. At first I was astonished. The lobby is small and you are instantly in the middle of it, but it is marbly and elegant and has high, gilt-coffered cielings. A grand piano stood to the left, the round-fronted concierge station to the right. Another desk, maybe having to do with luggage, was ahead and to the left, but I didn’t really get a chance to gawk in here much because I wanted to give the impression that I belonged here. A family with teenagers seemed to be checking in or out and the two or three people who seemed to be attached to the hotel were busy with their luggage, so I strolled past this little gathering into the elevator hall directly ahead. Here on the wall was a large framed photo of the hotel in its early days. On the opposite wall a more recent photo showed the electric sign that reads “Camlin” lit up at night. I stood appreciating these for awhile until I felt comfortable.
Past the elevators was a double wooden door marked “Terrace”. That sounded good. By now my mask of entitlement was working even on myself, and I didn’t mind if I did. I could see a pool table and some sofas in the room beyond, and I pushed through the doors, thinking as I did how embarassing it would be now if these doors were locked, or I was stopped and questioned. This room, an annex built on the back of the original hotel structure, was empty of souls, though it was brightly lit with big windows out of which I could see a small blue swimming pool and an even smaller jacuzzi. Though no one was present, the room was dominated by a monstrous television that presented an announcer belching sports news at a hideous volume. I didn’t feel like watching tv, but it occurred to me that there might be a good documentary on if this room had cable. Then I saw a glass door to the right, and the courtyard beyond, and the bench by the fountain under the tree, and I was drawn through the door as if by the intake of some magical breath willing me to enter there. I did not even doubt that this door would open. There was no thought of me not sitting on that bench in the shade of the Japanese maples, with the fountain burbling next to me.
Rear view. The top floor housed the famous Cloud Room until it closed a few years ago to make way for new penthouse suites.
I sat out there for twenty minutes, just looking at the courtyard, which is planted with several smaller Japanese maples and a number of vine maples and sarcococcas. There was a barbecue grill intruding on the pleasant curves of the patio planters and the greenery of the plants. It was a Char Broil Quantum grill with the Sure-Fire lighting system. I sat facing the back of the hotel, noticing the pattern of small, large, and double windows that suggested the way the rooms might be laid out up there.
After a few minutes I closed my eyes and listened to the water dribbling in the fountain behind me. I was glad I had come in here. When I opened my eyes again a tall, slender man in a crisp white shirt was passing me, having just come out from the television room. He smiled at me. His face was bony and his skin very dark — in my ignorance I always imagine such faces to be Ethiopian — and on his way past to go take care of something in another annex across the alley his deep set eyes showed a humility, as though he felt he were intruding on my moment of calm. Then, and only then, I felt my crime. As if he owed me anything, I thought, and yet this servant of the happiness and comfort of others tiptoes by me, unaware that it is I who trespass in this garden today.
A familiar old evening sight. Photo by M. V. Jantzen licenced through Creative Commons.