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Sunday, September 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Old memories, new friendship guide restoration of 1880s Leschi house

Seattle Times staff reporter

Something about the 1880s Greek Revival house in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood, the one with the tall, fluted columns and a certain "Gone With the Wind" aura, had always captured Jeff Moidel's imagination.

He used to joke to friends that it was his summer estate.

It's not a joke anymore.

Moidel bought the national historic landmark two years ago, with plans to restore some of the architectural details lost when the home was used over the decades as a boarding house, a home for parolees and a drug rehab center.

Then this spring, Moidel bumped into a woman who spent time in the house when she was a little girl — in the early 20th century — and a lot of those details were brought to life.

The woman is 91-year-old Betty Runstad of Seattle, the granddaughter of the late James T. Ronald, a former Seattle mayor, co-developer of the City of Shoreline and King County Superior Court judge who retired from the bench in 1949.

Her Missouri-born grandfather lived in the home at 30th Avenue South near South Jackson Street from 1889 into the 1930s. He raised three children there with his wife, Rhoda, and greatly enlarged the house, adding some Southern pomp to the facade.

Moidel, 48, and Runstad have since struck up an unusual friendship.

With Moidel's desire to burnish the home's past grandeur and Runstad's colorful memories of the house when it was, in fact, grand, the two are making the walls talk, not just look good again.

As Moidel walks through the house, he places his palms against upstairs walls, as if to push the hallways and rooms back to the dimensions she described to him.

"She told me stories about how everything came about here, which was really fun," Moidel said. "She gave it a life for me that I didn't know it had."

In turn, Moidel is giving the old house a life Runstad figured had vanished for good.

Restoration by revelation

It was at Shoreline's annual Judge Ronald Day celebration in May that Moidel and Runstad first met.

Moidel, who is living alone in the house during renovation, invited Runstad over for lunch after that first meeting, but the encounter lingered for more than five hours as they bonded over what the house used to be and could be once more.

Runstad hadn't visited the home since the 1930s.

But she must have realized Moidel was the perfect new owner when she spotted the two white rocking chairs on the front porch, right where her grandfather had placed two similar rockers nearly a century ago.

Runstad told him that as a child, she and the judge's other grandchildren would crawl out of a second-floor window into a big cherry tree to play. Grandpa would take them to the rooftop "widow's walk" terrace to view ships in Puget Sound to the west and gaze at Lake Washington to the east.

For adventure, the children would mount pillows and bump, bump, bump down the front staircase at thrilling speeds, run back up via a rear staircase and repeat the ride.

"Just to hear that kind of stuff was interesting to me," Moidel said.

Some of Runstad's stories were more than entertaining. They seemed to echo Moidel's own intentions for the house.

Moidel, an opera coach, voice instructor and piano teacher, said one reason he liked the house was that it was large enough for his 9-foot concert grand piano and a smaller Steinway. The acoustics, he said, also are ideal.

With some careful restoration, Moidel mused two years ago, the poorly remodeled Ronald House could be returned to perfect proportions.

He didn't know how perfect until he started researching the house and talking to Runstad.

Ronald, one of Seattle's most prominent citizens from the late 1880s until his death in 1950, would host lavish Sunday tea parties attended by the city's upper crust, highlighted by live classical concerts in the once-sweeping living room.

A circular, covered porch off the living room, leading to a side lawn, no longer exists. Runstad said that whole area had been her favorite part of the house.

"I can remember the staccato of the stringed instruments and their perfect pitch, their perfect resonance in that drawing room," Runstad recalled recently while sipping cranberry tea at her home near downtown Seattle. "I also remember the wonderful open-faced sandwiches!"

Moidel, already armed with pianos and musical friends, plans to hold concerts in that space again, when the renovations are complete. He hopes to finish work on the first floor by late fall. Moidel said the national landmark registry is primarily concerned about preservation of the home's facade, which he isn't planning to change.

"It's being reincarnated into what it was," Runstad said in a tone of happy anticipation.

Every detail Runstad shares about the house, from its views to its hiding nooks, seems to spring from a golden place. Moidel can't help but be intrigued, even as he creates his own memories in the house.

"In some ways, when I hear her stories, I feel like I'm under her spell," Moidel said. "You can see layers of lives as you go through the house. All the rooms take on a different cast, a different glow."

House of spirits

Runstad, whose son Jon co-founded Seattle's Wright Runstad & Co. real-estate-development firm, beams whenever she talks about the many weekends she and her three siblings spent there with her grandfather and grandmother.

"We always called grandfather's house the Big House," she said. At several thousand square feet after an expansion near the turn of the century, it was just that.

For Runstad and more than half a dozen other grandchildren, the house was a huge wonderland, with the judge as the resident funnyman.

"I find myself waking up thinking about it, and I'll have little pictures in my head of how he would play with us," she said.

Another snapshot comes to her: "Grandmother saved old hats and clothes so we could go down and surprise her and grandfather," she said.

Then another: "The attic was one of the most fascinating places in the world — it was filled with steamer trunks" used for long trips.

And another, from the days when gas lamps lit the street in front of the judge's house: "I remember the gas lighter who'd go up and down to light the streetlights," she said. "And then in the morning he'd come and put them out with a stick."

"You remember one thing, and it leads to something else," Runstad explained with a smile.

Though Runstad has an older sister in California, she is the only local family member who can act as an authority on the home's early years. Eventually, her memories will help Moidel identify features in the house that have long since been removed or covered up.

The children, for example, used to play hide-and-seek in a big linen closet adjacent to an upstairs bathroom. But the upstairs was later remodeled to make room for more sleeping space.

The living room featured a large inset bookcase, which is barely recognizable behind the wall Moidel has punched through as he refurbishes that room. He plans to build a new bookcase.

As Moidel stripped the downstairs walls, he also noticed a layer of linen underneath. Runstad confirmed that the walls indeed were covered with fabric.

Knocking down a wall off of what used to be a library stocked with first editions, Moidel exposed the brickwork of a hidden fireplace. Runstad recalled that the library fireplace came with a dual face, the other side opening onto the adjoining dining room. The fireplace's intricate, carved-wood mantle is one of the few elements to survive decades of remodels.

Reclaiming the past

On a recent, second visit to the mansion, Runstad was enchanted all over again.

Walking gingerly with a cane and wearing a pink suit jacket, she toured each downstairs room, painting more word pictures as she strolled.

There used to be a porch off the dining room, she said, setting the scene for another anecdote.

"When we children were too boisterous, we'd be invited to leave the table and go outside," Runstad said, noting how polite her grandparents were, even when they reprimanded the kids. "It was always an invitation — very gentle. They were really quite Southern."

In the old library, Runstad pointed her cane at the area in front of the fireplace.

"Grandmother spent hours crocheting in a great big ol' mahogany rocker," she said, aiming to the left. Aiming to the right, she marked where the judge sat in his rocker, reading under a bright light.

Runstad couldn't believe that the vestibule, surrounded by leaded glass windows and floored with inlaid wood panels, was in mostly original form.

She recalled that Ronald had the double entrance built to shield the kids, and the interior, from high winds.

"It's such a thrill to be here," she said again and again, to Moidel's obvious delight.

Moidel said the experience of knowing Runstad and restoring the house with her help has been like stepping into another family's scrapbook.

"To find out how rich the house is is kind of unique," he said. "I feel privileged."

"I also feel a certain responsibility — to Betty and her family — to do it right for Judge Ronald," Moidel said. "I can't be reckless."

Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or tbeason@seattletimes.com

Footnotes

More about the judge: "Judge J.T. Ronald: Reflections Along the Wayside of Life" ($24.95), edited by Mildred Tanner Andrews and published by the Shoreline Historical Museum, is available at the museum, 749 N. 175th St. Call 206-542-7111 for more information.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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