From 1868 to 1914, more than a million Swedes immigrated to the United States. Among them was John A. Lorentz, who was to become one of Queen Anne’s most prolific builders.
John A. Lorentz was born Johan Amandus Lorentzson in Ulvhult, Sweden, in October 1879. His family owned a farm, but the soil was poor and rocky. Like many Scandinavian immigrants, he left his native land because dividing the family farm with his brother would not have provided a viable living.
Being adventurous, in 1903, he boarded a ship to the United States to seek a better life. He found work first as a blacksmith at the Old Star Carriage Co. and later as a carpenter, living on Garfield Street on Queen Anne. At that time, he was one of many newly arrived immigrants from Scandinavia working in the building trades.
In 1905, he married his wife, Bena, also a Swedish immigrant, who became not only his lifelong companion but also a partner in his business. With her assistance, in 1910, Lorentz began a career as a building contractor.
During his career, he built an estimated 200 single-family homes on Queen Anne, many of which still exist with minimal exterior alterations, as well as apartment buildings in the Denny Regrade and on First Hill.
At the time, much of Queen Anne had yet to be developed. Few streets, particularly on the north side of the hill, were laid or paved. Early in his career, Lorentz would often buy the lot on which to build a home and begin construction, living in the basement while he completed the rest of the house.
He often hired other Scandinavian immigrants as carpenters and craftsmen. Lumber and other materials were readily available. A classified ad he placed on Sept. 30, 1916, in The Seattle Times column “For Sale Real Estate” is characteristic of the times: “Desirable Queen Anne paved district, brand-new, six-room house, modern and complete…. Owner will sell very cheap.”
As a measure of his growing prominence in the Scandinavian community, Lorentz was among the 75 “prosperous Scandinavian citizens of this state” selected in 1913 to travel by train to New York to board the White Star ocean liner Olympic for a voyage to Norway, Sweden and Finland. The purpose of the trip was to spread the word about opportunities in the great Northwest.
As noted in the May 20, 1913, Seattle Times, “As most of the travelers had come out to the Puget Sound country with practically nothing and had found comparative affluence here, members of the party expressed a willingness to act as missionaries in persuading relatives and friends to come to this section and even to accompany the local party on its return.”
A legacy of construction
As Lorentz became wealthier and more successful, he entered into more ambitious projects. In April 1923, he began construction of the Lexington Apartments on the corner of Second Avenue and Battery Street.
The Concord, an adjoining apartment building, was built in 1924. These three-story, brick-and-terra cotta buildings have been owned by the YWCA since 1988.
A year later, Lorentz completed another successful project, the Union Arms – Union Manor Apartments, on East Union Street between Boylston Street and Belmont Avenue. In April 1926, Lorentz sold the Union Arms – Union Manor to then-Seattle Mayor E.J. Brown.
In 1925, the Colonial Park Addition, an area of several blocks on the northeast sector of Queen Anne Hill, was platted by Lorentz’s wife, Bena. Seattle Times archives reveal that Lorentz constructed at least several of the homes built in this tract, and it’s likely that he built many other distinctive homes in the plat.
This area of Queen Anne contains primarily variations of the Tudor Revival style known as “Builder’s Tudor,” one of the most popular architectural styles in Seattle in the 1920s. Steep gable roofs, leaded windows and decorative brick or stucco finishes, all on a relatively modest scale, are characteristic of this style.
It was also during this time period that Lorentz developed Lorentz Place North, one of his enduring achievements.
In October 1926, Lorentz formed a corporation, the Union Improvement Co. During the company’s existence, from October 1926 until approximately 1929, he applied for building permits in its name for residential lots on Halladay Street, Nob Hill Avenue, Nob Hill Place and Smith Place in the Colonial Park Addition.
While Lorentz continued to build homes, the Great Depression of the 1930s devastated his business. During those difficult years, he became personally liable for deficiency judgments obtained by creditors. Rather than file for bankruptcy, he and his wife worked long hours to pay off their debts.
In later life, Lorentz and his wife were supported by his eldest son, Joseph, who also became a carpenter and a successful builder.
Lorentz passed away in April 1958. His legacy includes the many fine homes he built that are still standing on the north slopes of Queen Anne.
JAN HADLEY AND LEANNE OLSON serve on the board of the Queen Anne Historical Society (qahistory.org). To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.