The first clue to why the Polson House on the south slope of Queen Anne Hill has come through its first century with original white oak woodwork and artist-painted ceilings comes in the kitchen. One room remodeled dramatically in 97 years, and the family still can't get over the change.
"All of her friends were doing it," says Barbara Polson Kummer, shaking her head about her mother's 1960s folly, which took the kitchen from Gibson Girl to That Girl. "A big step backward," says her son.
The second clue comes in the third-floor apartment of the house that Mrs. Kummer's grandfather built in 1906. At age 77 and 82, Mrs. Kummer and her husband, Bob, have camped out here for more than a year in the stark, open space that is unadorned except for a bed.
This house is for sale. It's been lived in and loved by one family for four generations. Now the Kummers are letting go — but not hastily.
They live without many personal belongings so the rest of the house can be seen in all its splendor. They're holding out for no more than what this beautiful old house deserves: a buyer who will ignore that the land might be worth more without it. There has been interest but no offers.
"We did think it would be sooner," says Mrs. Kummer (rhymes with summer), "but we're making do."
When Historic Seattle leads occasional tours through the mansion built by Perry Polson, a Swedish immigrant who made his fortune selling farm implements and Klondike picks and shovels, the time-capsule qualities of the house get shown off first.
Here are the hand-painted canvas-hung ceilings. Here's the old elevator, perhaps the earliest in a Seattle house, used by the original Mrs. Polson, who had rheumatoid arthritis. Cast your eyes on the hanging lamp made by craftsmen who struck out on their own after leaving Tiffany Co., or the elaborate tin food-warmer attached to the radiator. Can you believe it? This powder room by the front door has all original fixtures.
It's extremely rare to have the same family occupy the same home for nearly 100 years, especially in these mobile times, says Larry Kreisman of Historic Seattle.
The Polson family descendants are ready to let go and move on, but they're waiting for someone who will see not only the virtue of the house but also its potential.
"I hate to be the one to lose it," says the Kummers' only child, Robert Polson Kummer, 41, who bought the house in 1989 to ensure that it would stay in the family, but not as somewhere to live again.
His grandfather, Harold Polson, one of four children of the original builder, moved into the house in 1938 with his wife, Laura, who lived here until her death in 1991. They had two daughters — Betty and Barbara, who lives there today.
"It's a wonderful place, but time moves on," says the younger Kummer.
"Exactly," says his mother.
'We're the last ones'
The family's timing for this project is good in some ways and bad in others.
Before the economy crashed, there were more high fliers willing to take a chance on a $2.6 million home that is structurally sound but a long way from accepting high-speed Internet. The house still has its original plumbing. The gaslights are gone, but the electrical system would marvel only contemporaries of Teddy Roosevelt.
Upgrades might cost a half-million dollars or more, but the house needs little "corrective surgery" and features views of Mount Rainier and the Olympic Mountains.
The living space measures just under 8,000 square feet, and the house sits on 15,000 square feet of land. If someone did knock the house down, there is room for three building sites.
But the older Mr. Kummer is right when he says it might work in the old house's favor that there are plenty of townhouses and condos for sale on the hill, according to Windermere's Lisa Strain, an associate broker working with the family. She says that some of the smaller houses still get razed for development, but not so many of the old mansions.
"It's just that each one is so significant that when one goes it feels like the numbers are greater," she said.
Standing on the three-sided veranda that once seated a "who's who" of Seattle there to celebrate the Kummers' 1950 wedding, the older couple stand with their son to point out the old neighborhood. He is gracious like his parents. A successful businessman, "another Perry Polson," says his dad, but he's "Bobby" when he visits this house.
The Gilberts lived over there, his parents remind him. The Lomens there. Mr. Leghorn, who owned the cigar stores, had the white house over there.
"We're the last ones. They're all gone now."
When Mrs. Kummer was in high school, her parents threw a party for her classmates on the third floor, which later became an apartment. The power blew out, but her father saved the party by using a penny in the fuse box.
"Which you're never supposed to do," says Mrs. Kummer, who is quick to laugh — and tall, like her husband and son, which makes the third-floor ceiling seem even lower.
From this round tower, Great-Grandma Polson, largely immobilized and in a wheelchair because of arthritis, watched at night to see if a new electric light came on in West Seattle. When one did, she'd have the driver take her to see the new home or business.
Driver? "Oh, yes, they always had help," said Mr. Kummer, who was not so pampered during his long stints of living in the house but can back up this story, as always, with evidence: The original intercom system is still in place.
Sorting through the years
Patience runs in the Polson family.
Perry Polson waited a year for the foundation to cure in 1904 before building. It was a luxury, Mr. Kummer says, and prudent.
Queen Anne has a daunting 18 percent grade, which made it the last of Seattle's famous "seven hills" to be developed.
Cable cars opened up the hillside in 1890. A decade later, electric streetcars plied Queen Anne Avenue, thanks to an underground system of counterweights — the so-called "Counterbalance" — that pulled the cable cars up the hill and slowed their progress coming down.
The hillside earned the name Queen Anne when houses were built using the ornate architectural style popular in the late 1800s, according to HistoryLink.org. But Kreisman of Historic Seattle says Perry Polson's 2½-story brick veneer and wood frame house is actually a craftsman, inspired by the Art & Crafts movement, though it's often mistaken for Queen Anne because of its tower. (So often, in fact, that the house was chosen as a promotional image for Queen Anne Hill in the 1970s.)
The elevator was installed soon after the house was completed in 1906 to give Great-Grandma Polson access to the upstairs. They used barn tracks to swing her chair out, according to Kummer, which would be in keeping with Perry Polson's trade. He found his niche selling farm implements in La Conner and within a few years, expanded to Seattle, where he bought out Portland-based competitors.
"He was a very dynamic man," says Kummer, thumbing through yellowed Polson Implement Co. catalogs, which span from 1885 to 1995.
When Kummer married Barbara Polson in 1950, he also committed himself to the family business, giving up his trade as an attorney. Barbara Polson Kummer's father died within two years, and the couple moved into the third-floor apartment to help her mother with the big house.
They lived there for more than a decade before buying their own house next door when "Bobby" was 18 months old.
But they were back in the Polson House again by 1981 when her mother grew frail. Laura Polson lived another decade, but they never considered asking her to move into their house or anyplace else.
"No, no," Mrs. Kummer says. "This house was her whole world in the end."
It's true that she loved the house, but she probably also couldn't face going through a century's worth of family belongings, the younger Bob Kummer suggests. That's something they all understand now.
The Kummers began sorting through a packed basement and third floor three years ago after deciding to sell. They thought it would take three months, even with their son helping on weekends and afternoons.
They found Great-Grandpa Polson's guns. Grandpa Harold's photos of U.S. naval training at the University of Washington, taken by a Boeing airplane from 252 feet in the air in 1916.
"Just priceless," says Mr. Kummer.
So much fit in that category, it took the family a year to sort through the treasures before putting the house on the market in 2002. Even so, they all lament what of historical interest might have accidentally gotten away in the yard sale.
A family waits
The older Kummers dream of moving to a smaller, one-story house that opens onto a garden.
Their son and his wife, Pamela Harlow, are also in a holding pattern. They're staying in another house, waiting to remodel a home they own in the North End, which is now unlivable, serving as a storage bin for this house.
There have been interested potential buyers at the Polson house, including one now pondering a remodel. It's time for someone to own it who can put in the love and attention the house needs, the younger Bob Kummer says.
The family has opted not to tie the hands of any potential owner by putting a historical designation on the house, so it's always possible someone could take a wrecking ball to the place. But the younger Kummer doesn't think that will happen.
Some people see the house and have no interest, but for others there's an almost "magical connection."
"We have the luxury of time," he says, "and we're content to wait."
Sherry Stripling: 206-464-2520 or firstname.lastname@example.org