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Friday, December 6, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A history with mansions

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Long before microchips and the World Wide Web, when Northwest entrepreneurs made fortunes with trees, fish, gold nuggets and old-fashioned banks, Medina was already a Mecca for mansions.

The tiny town and the nearby fingers of land jutting into Lake Washington's eastern edge earned the moniker "The Gold Coast" decades before giants of the computer world, like Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, built their palatial homes there.

By the roaring 1920s, mansions with man-made streams, pagoda roofs and carefully crafted grounds dotted the lake's edge. Men of fortune shot rounds of golf at the fledgling golf club.

"The splendor that the people with money lived in there was quite something," said Junius Rochester, a Seattle historian who is writing the history of one mansion. The arrival of industry magnates in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — when much of the Eastside was forest and farmland — and their enduring presence now are a vivid illustration of the real-estate agent's cliché: location, location, location.

The Gold Coast sits closer to Seattle's business district than any other part of the Eastside, except Mercer Island. Before bridges joined Lake Washington's east and west shores, the Medina ferry dock was a hub for people looking for a quick trip to Seattle.

A 1913 newspaper ad heralded the arrival of ferry service that would carry people and their cars from Medina to Seattle's Leschi Park neighborhood in less than 10 minutes. Medina residents could reach the Smith Tower, the symbol of Seattle's commercial aspirations, in 25 minutes.

"To the business man who wants a house in the country while he spends the day in the city, great vistas of opportunity are opened," the ad declared.

The coast also offered an escape from the crush of city life and a heck of a view.

Mansions along the shore or perched on the bluffs above the lake had a panoramic vista of the lake, the setting sun and the hills of Seattle.

One early resident — Seattle Post-Intelligencer publisher and entrepreneur Leigh Hunt — wanted the view so much, he is said to have logged part of Hunts Point to get a better western look from his mansion on Yarrow Point, to the east.

Fracas over 'Medina'

Hunt was perhaps the first Seattle magnate to erect a mansion along The Gold Coast, in 1888. His mark remains. Yarrow Point earned its name from his estate, which he dubbed "Yarrow" after an estate in poems by William Wordsworth. In addition to a close shave, the other tip of land also got its name from Hunt.

But he wasn't the first non-native to settle there.

Much of the area's forests were already felled by loggers and had given way to berry farms and fruit orchards, including the strawberries that became the focus of various Eastside festivals. In the 1870s, Seattle businessmen started snapping up some of the prime waterfront property.

The title of first permanent resident of the yet-to-be-named Medina fell to Seattleite Thomas Dabney. Around 1886, he laid claim to land on the southern tip of what is now Medina, built a dock and called it "Dabney's Landing." Medina City Hall now stands near that spot.

In the following decades, huge homes began to rise along the shore. There was "The Gables" of Edward Webster, secretary and general manager of Independent Telephone in Seattle. Capt. Elias Johnston, a millionaire from the Yukon gold rush, bought land around Dabney's Landing in 1912 and built a mansion topped by a Japanese pagoda roof.

The area also gained a name after a neighborly skirmish. Dabney favored the name "Flordeline." Another resident, Flora Belote, led a campaign for "Medina Heights," named after the Middle Eastern city that is Islam's second-holiest city.

A war of attrition ensued as each side took down the other's town sign and replaced it with its own, until Dabney relented.

Fertile land for rich

The go-go days of the 1920s cemented Medina's reputation as a home for the wealthy.

A real-estate campaign begun in 1919 by Johnston and William Calvert pitched the area as "the heart of a charmed land."

A decade later, the area, while not yet a city, could count among its residents publisher Miller Freeman; James Clapp, whose family was closely tied to the Weyerhaeuser timber company; and William Neal Winter, head of Everett Telephone.

People could golf at the new Overlake Golf Club and celebrate the annual Strawberry Festival at the Clapp mansion, complete with a man-made stream that flowed into the lake. The stretch of shoreline had, by then, earned the "Gold Coast" moniker.

Jack Reynolds, one of the longest continuous residents of Medina, recalled the splendor of these homes with their soaring staircases and beautiful wood detailing.

"You should have come over and seen these big colonial mansions," the 88-year-old marveled from the porch of the Medina home where he has lived since 1942.

His presence in the town shows the area wasn't just a playground for the rich. When he bought his house for $2,000, he worked as a welder in the Seattle shipyards. Later, he became a maintenance man at the power plants of Puget Power.

In the middle of the 20th century, Medina still had a flavor of country living. Reynolds' land included an orchard of cherry and apple trees. He kept a Jersey cow, rabbits, chickens and turkeys across the street from some of the town's big estates.

A fear of losing that quiet setting helped prod the small communities along The Gold Coast to turn themselves into official towns.

The opening of the Lake Washington Floating Bridge in 1940 jump-started growth on the Eastside, as families went looking for suburban living a quick drive from Seattle.

Advent of the megamansion

Seeking to control their fate and fend off encroaching development with home-grown regulations, Medina and Hunts Point incorporated in 1955, followed by Yarrow Point in 1959.

Legal walls, however, couldn't freeze time in the cities.

Reynolds watched with part sadness, part astonishment, as at least one of the town's landmark homes was torched in a training exercise for local firefighters. Others were torn down.

In their places rose new, bigger houses. The most breathtaking: Gates' 43,000-square-foot home.

Other residents in 2002 include former Microsoft President Jon Shirley, Amazon.com chief Jeff Bezos and Costco Wholesale co-founder Jeffrey Brotman.

The mansions of old are giving way to the megamansions of barons of the new economy.

Sources include "A Point in Time: A History of Yarrow Point, Washington" edited by Suzanne Knauss; "Lakelure: A Tale of Medina, Washington" by Junius Rochester; and "Kemper Freeman, Sr. and the Bellevue Story" by Robert F. Karolevgeneric.

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