Tag Archives: Washington

Odd restaurant buildings: Big Tree Inn

bigtreeinn

Was there ever a building or structure so strange, so awkward, so ugly that no one yearned to turn it into a restaurant?

Chicken coop, stable, giant tree stump. Why not? Especially if it was likely to catch the eye of speeding motorists and get them to stop out of sheer curiosity if nothing else.

BigTreeInnHumboldtCountyexhibit1915That’s not to say that the Big Tree Inn, for instance, had nothing to recommend it but its oddness, but it certainly had plenty of that. Built from two sections of a redwood log it was designed to exhibit Humboldt County CA’s wood products at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

The stump house, 20 ft in diameter, plus its associated log structure, was contrived by the Rodney Burns Redwood Novelty Co. and shipped by rail in sections to San Francisco where it was reassembled.

Following the exposition, a realtor in Washington state bought the log structure, transporting it to Des Moines WA at great cost. Then he added a kitchen and dining room. The odd building quickly proved a great attraction to gawkers.

The realtor’s intentions in buying the two-part building are unclear – if he had hoped to make money from the redwood structure he was evidently disappointed. For several years the property languished among the real estate listings even though it was described as “very desirable for a chicken dinner place.”

Finally, in 1923 a couple from Seattle, middle-aged and recently married Andrew and Katherine Swanson, bought the Big Tree Inn. Andrew was a bookbinder, an occupation with no seeming suitability for operating a restaurant. Katherine, however, had worked as a cook.

BigTreeInnca1930

The two managed to make a success of the venture, running it as a seasonal business for 20 years. A 1930 postcard shows Katherine standing in front of the Big Tree with her new Oldsmobile.

It was a popular destination for parties of city dwellers wanting chicken or steak dinners – or other dishes listed on the menu shown above such as Minced Ham and Pickle Sandwiches. In 1925 a Seattle newspaper advertised the Big Tree as “The Most Unique and Attractive Summer Resort in Washington” – On Des Moines Highway – Family Chicken Dinner, $2.00 – Special ½ Fried Chicken, on Toast, 50c. Not necessary to phone. We are always ready to serve.”

The Big Tree Inn’s location on a heavily traveled highway between Seattle and Tacoma was essential to its success, so when the highway was rerouted in 1938 the Big Tree Inn followed. The Swansons sold it in 1944. The building survived a bad fire in 1946 and was back on the market five years later, described as a “summer gold mine on main hiway” that was “ideal [for] couple management.” What happened to it after that I don’t know.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Filed under odd buildings, roadside restaurants

Famous in its day: Reeves Bakery, Restaurant, Coffee Shop

The renowned Reeves of Washington, D.C. was a many splendored thing. So much so that for lack of space I had to leave out its other historical identities as Grocery Store, Tea Room, Confectionery, and Soda Fountain. Though called a restaurant, it was really a lunch room of the bakery/confectionery type which closed for the evening.

Over its eleven decades in business the homely eating place expanded, changed focus, remodeled, went through three generations of Reeveses plus two or three other owners, burned, rebuilt, closed and disappeared for a few years, reopened at a new location, and through it all managed to build and hold onto an army of loyal followers who still miss it four years after it closed for good in 2007.

How old was it when it closed? I figure it had been 112 years since its founding as a grocery store by Sewell A. Reeves in 1895. Although the restaurant itself as well as newspaper stories usually dated Reeves’s beginnings to 1886, I have found no evidence for that. In 1887, and up to at least 1892, the 1209 F Street site was occupied by G. E. Kennedy’s grocery store, while Sewell Reeves was identified in city directories as a clerk for other businesses. But whatever … Reeves was D.C.’s oldest surviving restaurant when it closed. According to a 1989 column by restaurant reviewer Phyllis Richman, its nearest competitor for longevity was Napoleon’s, established in 1925.

During its first three years of existence, Reeves expanded his grocery store by adding coffee roasting and candy making operations, a bakery, and a lunch counter which at first seated only 12 people. By 1902 he had enlarged the building with the bakery and candy departments occupying the second and third floors and the lunch counter lengthened to seat 150. At Sewell’s death in 1941 his son Algernon, who had managed the business since 1916, took ownership.

After Algernon died the business was sold in 1966 by his son John to the Abraham brothers who remodeled the premises and successfully broadened the clientele from its traditional feminine base which had largely deserted F Street stores in favor of suburban shopping centers. The middle and late 1960s, characterized by racial unrest and downtown desolation, marked a low point for Reeves, and it would not have been at all surprising if had met its end around 1970 – but in fact it still had close to 40 years of life left in it.

Reeves remained the kind of comforting eating place known for waitresses with long tenure and a menu untouched by the latest food fashions. Affordably priced dishes such as chicken salad sandwiches and pie, especially strawberry pie, were dependable favorites.

Reeves went through the 1970s with its somewhat dowdy appearance intact. High ceilings were equipped with fans and brass chandeliers, while Tiffany lamps hung over the 100-foot dark cherry counter. [pictured] Then, in 1984, a disastrous fire destroyed the interior. When Reeves reopened in 1985 it had an entirely new look, with blond counters, exposed brick walls, and a dropped ceiling effect with recessed lighting. The old booths were gone, replaced with more comfortable ones padded in dull maroon. Of the original fixtures only the wooden counter stools remained.

Customers had barely adjusted to the modernization when the next blow came in 1988 when the property was sold for $7 million to a developer planning an office building. But Reeves wasn’t finished yet. In 1992 the restaurant’s former general manager reopened it barely a block away on G Street, rehiring much of the old staff and for the next 15 years turning out thousands more strawberry pies.

I have no doubt that even now the occasional visitor can be found on F or G streets looking for Reeves.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Filed under confectionery restaurants, popular restaurants