100 years old and still providing for community

Bernice Ras came from the Everett Gospel Mission Women and Children’s Shelter.

Before her sixth months at the shelter, she rented a room in someone else’s home. Ras, 59, said she left that place after encountering

domestic violence.

Don Torgerson, 60, has lived in the back of a van and in a nephew’s garage. Once a crab fisherman in Alaska, Torgerson said he suffered severe depression and lost his livelihood after his wife died in 2005.

“This is a building of hope and recovery,” Torgerson said when I visited his small apartment in the Commerce Building on Everett’s Hewitt Avenue. “Once you’re down, everybody needs a helping hand.”

This is a story about window renovations. It’s also a story about the history of Everett, and maintaining the integrity of a building that has stood on a downtown corner since 1910.

Those things are important — not as important, though, as Ras, Torgerson and other Commerce Building tenants having a safe, affordable place to live.

With its 48 single-resident-occupancy rooms and small apartments, the Commerce Building houses low-income renters. Some have mental health issues. In 1993, the nonprofit agency Housing Hope acquired the Commerce Building with the help of a state grant and many other funding sources.

Residents pay a third of their gross income in rent. For Ras, that’s $192 per month.

On Wednesday, Housing Hope hosted a 100th birthday celebration of the building — a year late. There was good cause for the delay. The gathering also marked the recent completion of a $700,000 window restoration project.

Fred Safstrom, deputy executive director of Housing Hope, said the project was needed for safety and financial reasons. He recalled driving past the building and seeing the center-pivot windows wide open. That raised awareness of the potential danger of someone falling from as far as the fifth floor.

“We also had the problem of energy bills,” said Safstrom, adding that windows were often left wide open while heat was on. In addition to the large windows, which pivot open at the center, smaller top windows drop open to the inside.

In 2008, the agency began the process of restoring the windows, which had deteriorated but were structurally sound. The original frames are built of old-growth fir.

Renovation plans were complicated because the Commerce Building is on the Washington Historic Register and the Everett Register of Historic Places, Safstrom said.

Housing Hope made an initial presentation to the Everett Historical Commission proposing replacement with vinyl windows. When that was discouraged by the commission, Housing Hope came back to the panel in 2009 with plans to rehabilitate the existing windows and replace single-pane glass with double-pane glass in the original window sashes.

That option won the Historical Commission’s approval.

Safstrom credited Glass by Lund in Lake Stevens for the company’s advice. Window work befitting the old building was done by Legacy Renovation of Tacoma and subcontractor CDK Construction Services, Inc.

After JPMorgan Chase took over Washington Mutual Bank, Safstrom said, the Commerce Building had to be refinanced. Some money for the project came from that. Housing Hope also had help covering the project’s costs from Snohomish County PUD energy funds, the city’s Community Housing Improvement Program and other sources.

In his apartment Wednesday, Torgerson showed how the lovely old windows now have a stop that won’t let them to open too far. He used a pole to reach the top window, which will bring in cooling breezes on hot summer days. Shutting the big window, he demonstrated how new double panes block street noise.

Everett Public Library historian David Dilgard talked at Wednesday’s event about the colorful past of the Commerce Building, which was designed by architect Benjamin Turnbull. The Everett Suffrage Club had an office on the building’s third floor as women fought for their right to vote.

Other Everett landmarks were built in 1910. Among them are the First Presbyterian Church with its magnificent stained glass, and banker William Butler’s house, which became the Grand Avenue home of U.S. Sen. Henry M. Jackson.

A grand structure itself, the Commerce Building “is now serving a vital purpose,” Safstrom said.

“It’s a nice place,” said Ras, who moved to her cozy room from a homeless shelter.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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