Home Sweet Triplex: Prominent Seattle resident, now 81, didn't have to leave her roots

From the 1960s and into the early '90s, the name Dorothy Hollingsworth was synonymous with kids and education. A trailblazer known for her intellect and graciousness, Hollingsworth was the first African-American president of the Seattle School Board, the first director of Seattle's Head Start program, and finally, an active member of the Washington State Board of Education.

Now her daughter Jackie Roberts is blazing her own trail in a most unusual way.

Rather than see Hollingsworth, 81 this month, sell her 1907 Central Area home and move to the suburbs, as so many others in the neighborhood have done, Roberts had another idea:

Remodel the home-sweet family home into a stylish triplex with one unit earmarked for her mother, the other two providing rental income.

It is, says Roberts, a way for her mom to stay in the community and stay in the home, but not have the full financial responsibility of ownership. It is also a potential blueprint for other families dealing with the needs of an older parent, an older home — and heartstrings.

Their tale begins in 1947, the year Dorothy and Raft Hollingsworth paid $5,000 for a stately house at the corner of 23rd Avenue East and East John Street. "It seemed like a lot of money," Dorothy Hollingsworth recalls.

But it was a lot of house. Almost 4,000 square feet, it had five bedrooms and commanded a view from Mount Rainier to Mount Baker.

It was to this house that the Hollingsworths brought home their two babies: Jackie and her brother Raft Jr. While Dorothy, the first black woman to earn a master's in social work from the University of Washington, made her mark in public service, her husband taught math at schools including the now-closed Queen Anne High.

Over the years, Dorothy Hollingsworth watched her Central Area neighborhood evolve from white to African American and back to white again. "When the economy got better blacks moved out and stayed out," she says.

While she applauded the upward mobility that gave African Americans choices, she worried that many who left weren't reaping financial reward. Indeed, a frequent neighborhood refrain is that investors who snapped up Central Area houses, turning them into rentals, made the real money.

"We were concerned because so many black families who were leaving were leaving a fortune," says Hollingsworth. "Jackie wanted to show you don't have to sell out and move; you can revitalize and restore, make your own fortune and choose your destiny."

The family's pivotal year was 1998. Raft Hollingsworth died. Dorothy found herself alone and lonely. The house was too much. Selling it was on everyone's mind, and Jackie sought to ease the transition by inviting Mom to move in with her.

Dorothy declined. Always a woman of strength, she said she'd rather remain independent.

That set Jackie to thinking. Over the years, her parents had bought two adjacent houses, which they managed as rentals. Maybe all three properties should come down to be replaced by apartments, with one earmarked for her mother.

That kind of redevelopment was already taking place in the neighborhood, so zoning wouldn't be a problem. But was it a good idea? Or would they be better off turning the family home, then worth $300,000, into a triplex?

Or simply selling altogether?

For 21 years Jackie worked at Boeing, honing her analytical skills as a project manager and strategic planner. Now she put those same skills to work, spending two years gathering information and perhaps most important, soliciting advice from her extensive reservoir of longtime friends.

Barbara Pool, a retired contractor (and KOMO weatherman Steve Pool's mother), sent her a list of considerations. One was parking. "It's a very important item in the determination of how much of the site space it will consume," Pool wrote in a detailed memo.

Ultimately Jackie decided against constructing one large apartment complex because her research convinced her "the land value didn't support an apartment building unless I could get a variance for a taller building." And as a first-timer she didn't want to bite off a project so big it could compromise her mother financially.

With her mother and brother leaning toward selling the family home — which certainly would have been easier and less of a financial risk — Jackie instead argued that a triplex remodel was the best use for the property and would best meet the family's overall needs.

Her extensive financial spreadsheets won them over.

"It wasn't an easy audience she had," notes her brother Raft, a Seattle athletic-field coordinator. "I would question everything she did, and make her support every issue. But Jackie is very persistent, and in the end we supported her because we support each other."

It was a win-win for all.

Her mother would get a refurbished home plus increased income.

Raft wouldn't have to do the work because Jackie, newly retired from Boeing, volunteered to be project manager. ("It became the hardest non-job I've ever had," she jokes.)

And Jackie could retain her family heritage, which was important to her — but not so much so that she couldn't be pragmatic.

That was crucial to the conversion's success, says Coldwell Banker Bain real-estate agent Bryen Von Priece, a longtime neighbor Jackie turned to for advice.

"She had to step back from it emotionally. It wasn't easy to do that, but that's what she had to do and she was willing," says Von Priece. Even when he advised her to gut the interior down to the studs, and build again.

He also did a comparative rent analysis for the neighborhood and told her what amenities she'd need — like individual washers and dryers — to command the rents necessary to make the project pencil out.

That, Jackie felt, was absolutely crucial to its success. "The No. 1 thing is it had to have a positive cash flow. We didn't want to put any of our own money in. We wanted to leverage what was there." This she did, getting a 7.1 percent construction loan that used the house as collateral and didn't require payments until the project was completed.

Another friend steered her to architect David Sircoloumb. Finding the house structurally sound, he assured her it could be converted at a reasonable cost.

"One nice thing was that we were able to leave most of the exterior shell intact, which saved a lot on the cost and helped preserve the character of the neighborhood," says Sircoloumb. Jackie paid him to draft plans for two one-bedroom units and one two-bedroom unit ranging from 952 to 1,102 square feet.

The plans called for the apartments to keep as much of the home's original charm as possible — leaded-glass windows, window seats — while adding some high-end touches.

Jackie's niece, Megan Harris, an interior-design student at Bellevue Community College, selected the paint and other finishes. They include hardwood floors, granite accents, Shaker-style kitchen cabinets, columns and in one unit a refurbished claw-foot bathtub.

Jackie interviewed contractors, selecting one whose bid was $256,000. Part of the deal was that he had to hire a family friend, a retired police detective turned construction worker. This friend became Jackie's ears and eyes.

Also a huge help, she says, were the permit folks at Seattle's Department of Design, Construction and Land Use. "They were wonderful; they took time to explain things."

Even with all the advance work, things didn't go according to plan. During construction the ground-floor unit flooded. Fixing that ate up the cushion Jackie had built into the budget. She belatedly discovered the need for new windows, roof and gutters. The six-month project stretched to nine.

Jackie and her husband, Melvin Roberts, economized by doing some of the wiring, plumbing and new landscaping. And they saved $4,500 by canceling a second bath in one unit.

Still, she tried to keep changes to a minimum. "In a remodel, you can't change your mind and say, 'This will be nice; that will be nice.' Those are just dollar signs to a contractor."

Finally, on Aug. 28, the project was completed. Jackie Roberts had her coveted occupancy permit, along with an estimate, by her banker, that the property's worth had doubled and then some.

Charging $1,100 a unit or more, she had no trouble finding tenants, drawn no doubt to the view, the amenities and the five-minute commute to downtown Seattle.

Dorothy Hollingsworth, who relocated to Jackie's house during construction, hasn't moved in yet. But she will when a health concern improves.

Meantime, she has nothing but praise for her daughter's effort. "She did an excellent job; I think it's fabulous, it's beautiful," she says, beaming.

Jackie returns the favor.

"I applaud Mother for staying in that community 54 years, and holding onto that property and at the same time being willing to do this project. It was really a family affair and a network of friends that made this happen."

To learn more

The Hollingsworth and Roberts families will present a more detailed look at how they accomplished their project at a free community forum, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Nov. 6 at Safeco Jackson Street Center, 306 23rd Ave. S., Seattle. To register contact Jackie Roberts by email: jhroberts47@home.com.

Also on hand will be the lenders, real- estate attorneys, contractor consultants, developers and real-estate professionals who helped the triplex project along the way.

Elizabeth Rhodes can be reached at erhodes@seattletimes.com.