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Friday, November 2, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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An Extraordinary Life -- Her Life As A Social Butterfly Not Enough For Plestcheeff

Guendolen Carkeek Plestcheeff is from a time when young ladies from well-to-do American homes attended private schools in Europe, married someone with at least a few drops of royal blood and reveled in parties and teas.

The slender, impeccably groomed Plestcheeff, now in her 90s, has done all those things. But British-born Morgan and Emily Carkeek, who settled in Seattle in 1885, also taught their children, including daughter Guendolen, that there was a lot more to life than just being a social butterfly.

Morgan - heeding the advice of Henry Yesler, who said everyone should give something back to the community - donated the land for Carkeek Park.

Emily - astounded to learn there was no organization to preserve Seattle's colorful frontier history - founded the Seattle Historical Society in 1911.

Vivian Carkeek - Morgan and Emily's late son - left funds to pay for 52 scholarships at the University of Washington.

Guendolen - inspired by example - served for many years as president of the historical society and was a founder of the Museum of History and Industry.

Three years ago, she formed the Plestcheeff Institute and bequeathed her Capitol Hill mansion and all its contents to the University of Washington's school of architecture as a study center for the decorative arts. According to provisions of the bequest, she will remain in the mansion as long as she lives.

Meanwhile, through the institute, she exhibits her collections of furniture, French silver and Russian glassware at the Bank of California.

``She's truly a remarkable woman,'' says Bill Alpert, a director of the institute. ``She takes an active role, calling me every day. Although she likes to discuss the past, she's very much in the present and looks forward to the future.''

The fortresslike mansion in which Guen Plestcheeff has lived the past 52 years is on the National Register of Historic Places. It looks and feels like old money. Flemish paintings on the walls. Photographs of princes and dukes on the tables. But an air of informality, too, as evidenced by a charcoal portrait ``to Guen and Teddy,'' signed Bill (Boeing).

The 18-room mansion was built in 1928 by Sam Hill, an eccentric Quaker who left behind some of the state's most enduring structures: Maryhill Museum, on a bank overlooking the Columbia River near Goldendale in Klickitat County; a replica of England's Stonehenge, near the museum; and the Blaine Peace Arch at the Canadian border.

The Capitol Hill home, with its 2.5 acres of land, is a miniature Maryhill. Edwardian architecture. Five-feet-thick walls at the base, narrowing to 18 inches at the top. Storied past.

Hill, world-traveler and son-in-law of railroad magnate Jim Hill, rushed the mansion to completion so he could entertain his friend, the prince of Belgium. But when Belgium's king died and the prince ascended the throne, the visit was canceled. Hill then invited Queen Marie of Romania, who happily accepted.

Queen Marie arrived, with several of her children, bearing numerous gifts that eventually wound up in Maryhill Museum.

Plestcheeff, who has carefully researched the history of the mansion and its first owner, discounts rumors, widespread at the time, of a romance between Hill and the queen.

``Oh, I think not,'' says Plestcheeff. ``One reason there was so much gossip was that Mrs. Hill wasn't around. She hated Seattle and the house. She thought they were out in the sticks. She returned to her home in the Midwest shortly after her first visit here.''

Plestcheeff and her husband, Theodore, grandson of Russian Count Paul Stroganoff, bought the house in 1938. Theodore Plestcheeff died in 1962.

One of the first things they did was remove a 12-person elevator that ran through four floors and hadn't been used in years. The elevator, the Plestcheeffs learned, used the same power that operated streetcars in the street outside. When the streetcars quit running each day, so did the elevator.

``We were especially fascinated by the huge vault in the basement, certain it must hold great treasures,'' Plestcheeff says. ``One day we got it open. It was so disappointing. The only thing we found was a plaster hand of Marshall (Joseph Jacques) Joffre, a French hero of World War I. It bore the words, `They shall not pass.' ''

Joffre, she learned, had been a guest in Hill's home. The plaster hand was sent to Maryhill to be exhibited with Hill's other memorabilia.

Plestcheeff was born in the Carkeek family home, an enormous structure with a huge tower on top, at the southeast corner of Boren Avenue and Madison Street.

Carkeek had been a stonemason in England. In Seattle, he became a builder and developer, exhibiting a remarkable vision for buying property that would increase dramatically in value. He purchased 160 acres south of Seattle, at what was to become Boeing Field, and a large piece of property at the Northwest end of Lake Washington, at what became Sand Point Naval Air Station.

After finishing the eighth grade at Seattle's old Pacific School, Miss Carkeek was sent off to a French school in England, then to convents and finishing schools in Switzerland, to smooth off the rough edges. She grew up pretty, charming and witty, sought after by European society.

In 1921, she married Paulo Brenna, an Italian who was named ambassador to the newly formed country of Estonia.

``We had to go everywhere by sleigh,'' Plestcheeff recalls of Estonia. ``But they were exciting times. All of the countries sent ambassadors to Estonia, and there were wonderful parties.

``We had this great big house,

and a great many servants. And the most extraordinary thing, they didn't wear shoes because they thought shoes made noise.''

``Extraordinary'' - one of Plestcheeff's favorite words - falls from her lips with a British twist. ``Extraw-din-ry,'' she says, usually about something quite extraordinary by normal standards.

The vivacious Plestcheeff became such a darling of high society that an author, Bertrand Collins, wrote a novel, ``Rome Express,'' loosely based on her life. It was published in 1928, the year she divorced the Italian ambassador.

``It was just a novel, some truth and a lot of fiction,'' says Plestcheeff, who wasn't particularly upset that the women in the book were rather flirtatious, drank a lot of champagne and engaged in such then-shocking practices as smoking cigarettes. What did upset her, she says, was what she felt were uncomplimentary things about her father.

``So, about halfway through the book, I simply put it down and never did finish it.''

The next year, she married Plestcheeff, who not only had some royal Russian blood in his veins, but had served for a time in the court of Czar Nicholas II.

Plestcheeff became one of the most fashionable women in the world, buying all her clothes from Chanel, Schiaparelli and other famous Paris designers. She recalls, with a laugh, the time she was walking down a street in Paris and passed the Duchess of Windsor, ``wearing an identical dress and identical shoes.''

Truly extraordinary!

Being well bred, neither gave any hint of seeing the other. But after what she deemed a proper interval, Plestcheeff discreetly turned her head to catch a glimpse of the retreating duchess.

``And what did I see but her looking back at me,'' says Plestcheeff. ``I really didn't think she'd look.''

Many of Plestcheeff's famous-designer gowns are now at the Henry Gallery on the University of Washington campus.

After her father's death in 1931, Plestcheeff returned from Paris with her husband to settle her father's affairs and live in the family home at Boren and Madison.

She sold the house and property in 1934 (it was replaced by a service station). But before moving out, she staged what for many years was regarded as one of the grandest parties in Seattle's history.

``Everyone came in Gay '90s costumes,'' Plestcheeff recalls. ``Most of the big names in Seattle were there, I guess. Afterward, I was always identified with parties.''

Four years later, the Plestcheeffs bought the Hill mansion, ``because it was isolated and my husband thought it would make a wonderful hunting lodge.'' The mansion's large top-floor penthouse, with its spectacular view of Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains, was, in Plestcheeff's words, ``made for New Year's parties.''

But, adds Plestcheeff, one can endure the social whirl only so long. Parties are grand, but one needs to perform some sort of service. Plestcheeff felt drawn to history.

For years, she kept afloat almost single-handedly the historical society founded by her mother. In the late 1940s, she and several other women got the idea for the Museum of History and Industry.

Plestcheeff, Kate Johnson, wife of then-Boeing president Phil Johnson, and Ruth McCreery, manager of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra for many years, raised $230,000 toward a museum. Plestcheeff then got Emil Sick, the beer baron, to agree to raise the rest so the project could begin. It was completed in 1952.

Plestcheeff donated to the museum many of the treasures collected by her parents. Later, she played a major role in raising $80,000 in seed money so Boeing could build the museum's aeronautics wing.

Although Plestcheeff rarely visits the museum now that she walks with a cane, back in 1979 she was chairman of the Seattle Historical Society-sponsored Founders Day Tea at the museum. The list of guests - Bloedel, Boeing, Clise, Sick, McCurdy - read like a Who's Who of Seattle.

Plestcheeff first offered her mansion to the Seattle Art Museum. But when she felt art museum officials were dragging their feet - ``after all, I was giving, not asking for anything'' - she turned to the University of Washington.

``I couldn't be happier about the arrangement,'' she says. ``I work every day with what is quite an extensive decorative-arts library in the basement. When I'm gone, there should be enough money from my estate to keep this place up. The problem is, if they want to acquire additional things, they'll have to get more money. I'm working on that now. I call my old friends, and when I mention money, they change the subject. I guess I expected them to say, `Yes, Gwennie dear, I'll have a $20,000 check in the next mail.

``I always felt Sam Hill intended this place to become a museum, because it's built so much like one. I'm happy, too, that the institute can put on exhibits at the Bank of California. It gives people an opportunity to see authentic period pieces, such as this one (she indicates the chair in which she's sitting). Good grief, you think you're buying a Louis XV these days and there's no way to be sure it's genuine.''

Plestcheeff is still very concerned about fashion. Bracelets and earrings are carefully chosen to match each outfit. On a recent day, she wore a blue-and-green knit suit with gold buttons. ``It's a Givenchy,'' she said, then added, a bit apologetically, ``it's last year's.''

Plestcheeff no longer gives parties. But she still has a home on Bainbridge Island, which she visits in the summer. The home she and her husband had in Paris was sold long ago.

``I hate not going to Paris these days, because I really love Paris,'' she says. ``It's a woman's city. Open and gay, and the designers have such wonderful things. I want to go back, but my friend Annie Hauberg, who recently returned from Paris, said Cokes now cost $4. Well, I simply will not pay such outrageous prices.''

Plestcheeff may love Paris, but she's also rather proud of her birthplace.

``I was down on Fourth Avenue the other day,'' she says, ``and I thought to myself, `Seattle is getting to be very smart looking now.' We've turned out pretty well for an old mill town.

``I've done such a lot. I didn't arrange it. I was like a puppet on a string. All of a sudden, I'd be somewhere else. In Paris. In London. In New York. Extraordinary, really.''

Although she declines to divulge her age - ``I wouldn't tell the truth anyway,'' she says with a smile - she doesn't mind talking about aging.

``When my husband died,'' she says, ``he was 74; 74 seemed awfully old at the time. It was old. Now it seems so very young. All of my young friends are in their 70s.''

A few years ago, Plestcheeff said she might have to live to be 200 ``to get all the things done that need doing.''

She's almost halfway there.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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