Monday, March 1, 2010

The Rivoli at 100 - Part 2!

Part Two: Bad Days, Ghost Stories and Our Crazy Modern World

From the time of its construction in 1910, the Rivoli served as cheap housing for those who worked at the docks and in the downtown area. Its fortunes, as with those of Belltown, fluctuated with the economy. The twenties were booming, the thirties were awful and the forties were again booming. In the fifties, things began to change. Dock work became more mechanized, skilled and higher paying. Thanks to those innovations, there were also fewer jobs available. Also during the fifties, Belltown's most prominent industry, film distribution for all major studios, was also changing. The studio systems that had functioned so efficiently from the teens onward was unraveling. By the sixties, the neighborhood was in a state of flux and by the seventies it was in obvious decline. I have no sources to tell me how the Rivoli fared through these decades or about what happened here and when, but the fact that the place is still standing testifies that things couldn't have been overly terrible. Once the eighties dawned, however, things would take a turn for the worse.

In the early eighties, Belltown was not exactly the ideal Seattle neighborhood. One of the most dangerous places in the entire city was the Pike Place Market at night. The corner of 1st & Pike played host to prostitutes and a wide variety of lowlifes. Belltown had its own bad spots. The Rivoli was one of them. Its absentee owner was determined to sell the building off to developers. As a result, it had sunk into a state of serious disrepair. Many of the units were uninhabitable. You could always tell the occupied units, because they had large padlocks on them. People, many of them local junkies, used to come into the building armed with crowbars to pry apartments open and empty them of their contents. The padlocks seemed to help keep them out. The hallways themselves became dangerous. People were robbed and assaulted on nearly every floor. In 1982, there was a rather infamous murder here. A tenant was killed by her crazy boyfriend. He stuffed her body into the unit's Murphy bed and fled town. After a few weeks, neighbors complained about the smell and the grisly discovery was made. Soon after that, the owner instructed the manager not to rent any more units. He was serious about getting rid of the place and was trying hard to make a deal. The building's population dropped to just four. At the same time, the Rivoli's neighbor, the El Rey, was closed and boarded up. It seemed that a similar fate was awaiting the Rivoli. But whatever deal the owner tried to strike fell through and he once again gave the manager the go-ahead to start renting the habitable units. Those were just over half of the building's apartments. The rest had broken windows, missing appliances, no electricity or something else wrong with them that would make living in them impossible.

By the mid-eighties, things had improved in the neighborhood and its environs. Police sweeps of the Pike Place Market and Belltown had made conditions more bearable. The economy had improved and the Rivoli's new crop of tenants were fitting in well. Many were artists or artisans who customized their apartments to their liking. Some of those units, including mine, remain to this day. No one is exactly sure how, but the Rivoli was picked as one of the main locations for the Alan Rudolph film Trouble in Mind. It's not the greatest film in the world, but it does show the building as it was in 1985. For the next five years, things continued to improve. At the end of the decade, the building was sold to its present owner who turned it into low income housing. This involved giving it a major renovation to make all units habitable. At the end of the project, I moved in. That was 20 years ago. The neighboring El Rey Apartments were renovated a few years earlier and has since become home to some of Belltown's craziest residents.

Because of its age and checkered past, the Rivoli has earned a place on the Seattle Ghost Tour. I've heard the stories, because the guides give their spiel right under my window. I'm flattered that the place where I've lived for two decades is garnering such attention, but I'm afraid to say that all the tales are untrue. The Rivoli is definitely not haunted. Honestly, it isn't. The apartment where the notorious murder took place in 1982 is right across the hall from me. My former neighbor lived there for 18 years and never saw or felt or noticed anything strange. She left because she'd been living here for 18 years and felt it was time for a change. Likewise, the tour claims that two guys died of AIDS in the building. Actually, they both passed away in hospice care, not in the building and, believe it or not, one of those poor fellows occupied the other apartment across the hall. It's not haunted, but it does seem that people who live there stop paying their rent for unknown reasons. Finally, the tour spins the yarn about haunted toilet. It goes something like this: in the early eighties, a crazy woman named Christine lived in the building. She was quite desperately lonely. She was in the habit of clogging her toilet with paper towels so that the building maintenance man would visit her. She later died in her apartment. To this day, the toilet in that unit mysteriously clogs at odd times. Absolutely not true. Yes, there have been crazy people who have lived here, but there was never a "Christine" in the mid-eighties, there wasn't a maintenance man - the building was way too cheap to hire one - and there is no haunted toilet. But it does make a good story, as do all the others. Take my word for it, though, this place isn't haunted.

In the twenty years I've lived here, Belltown has changed quite a bit. It went from a place where all the bums knew your name to a fortress of shiny condos peopled with temporary dotcom millionaires to a crack-saturated hellhole to the relatively tame club and restaurant mecca that it is today. Some of those things overlap, but whatever Belltown has gone through, the Rivoli has seen all of it. The apartments are small and drafty, but there are a few people who have called this place home for even longer than I have, so it does have its appeal. What does the future hold for the building? Well, it beats me, but some ultra-blogger in his jet pack might be celebrating its 200th anniversary in a century's time. This place is built surprisingly solid. So the next time you're passing by on 2nd & Blanchard, you'll know that a lot has happened here over the last 100 years.


Kevin said...

I wonder what the police did to improve the area, and why they can't do more of that...

Igor Keller said...

They basically arrested everyone in a certain area and charged them with trespassing or loitering. They can't do that anymore.

ruffhauser said...

Nice series of articles.

Anonymous said...

My husband sent you, Igor, an email tonight about the Rivoli. We were managers back in 1982-3. We could tell you stories about just about every apt in the Rivoli and the people who lived in some of them. Also the building was haunted at that time. You may say it isn't now but it surely was then. Some "very" interesting people living there at that time...An antiques dealer who we were friends with, two hoarders, a cartoon artist who only did nudes, 2 elderly Norwegian fisherman who were the nicest people, another fisherman and his Eskimo/Native American girlfriend who did some really crazy things, one man who died next door to us right after we moved in, another who died in his apt that we never met as we were supposed to just put rent receipts, etc. under his door. Also, one studio was absolutely & totally infested by the biggest cockroaches I have ever seen in my life. I entered that apt and hundreds fell onto me from the ceiling. Horrendous but also strange that the other apts next to it had none.
And then there was the haunted apt.
Your version of it was partially true but there was much more to it than that. I, my husband, our 10 year old son & another 2 tenants all knew about & experienced
"Stella", the murdered, young Eskimo woman who came to Seattle to start a new life and ended her life in the Rivoli...left behind to decompose. Management at that time just locked the door and left it as they found it when Stella was partially removed. And last but not least, a prostitute who never paid rent and her pimp who threatened to kill me & my family if we asked for it again.
I actually could write a book about living there.
Now that I have discovered your blog I will be following it.
Linda linda.lathrop @

Anonymous said...

An update:
I have been contacted by email by the daughter of "stella" the murdered young woman. Stella was not her real name but what the bldg inhabitants said she gave as her name. I will use the name Stella though to refer to her as I don't want to invade her daughter's or even her privacy. Stella had taken her daughter to Eastern WA and gone back to Seattle to get her property. That's when she was murdered...stabbed 27 times by a man who only served 10 years for her murder. He was a mental case from Cuba.
Stella's daughter told me that her mother was NOT Eskimo but a Sioux native American born in the Dakotas. I will tell you here that Stella was an absolutely beautiful young woman.
Her daughter arranged to come to the Rivoli in 2006 to see the apt where her mother died but at the last moment the people living there changed their minds. She was very disappointed. She wanted to find a type of closure and say "goodbye" to the Mother that left her and told her she would be back soon.
I myself would like to go inside the Rivoli again and maybe I will soon as I plan on coming up to Seattle. I'd like to see if an old friend still lives there named David.
Also, I hate to disagree with you Igor, but we did have a lady named Christine that lived there and she rented two apts and hoarded paper of all kinds. She had worked for Boeing and retired with alot of money but sadly was mentally ill.
She would go to the Theatre to see The Rings Opera wearing an old fasioned evening dress with rain boots on and a car coat over it. She wore old scarves on her head.
She was still alive when we left but had been reduced to one apt only due to fire hazards. I'm not surprised she died in that apt.
As to the hauntd toilet, my husband did have to plunger hers once. He was the maintenance man while I was the manager. There had been another maintenance man there before us. No one was paid in cash but with an apt and utilities.
If anyone wants more stories of the Rivoli, pls just ask.
Linda Lathrop

sundromos said...

Anyone who was at the Rivoli in the mid 80's would remember Christine.
She was perhaps twice the median age of the rest of the tenants there at the time.
And Stella's story was caretaken by David, the manager who succeeded Linda and her husband.
I knew the woman who was the first to move into the apartment where Stella died. This was after it was finally cleaned and made good (several years after the incident).
She was so utterly spooked by her first night's stay there that she promptly got herself an herbal healer who did her magic on the place and put the presence at peace.

Good luck finding your own peace, Igor, in this newest incarnation of Belltown.

Mary Mendoza said...

The American Indian girl you call Stella was my best friend.We always said we were sisters.I have never got closure over what that animal did to my beautiful friend.He only got ten years,not only did he murder my friend,he has destroyed a wonderful,intelligent,sensitive young lady's world,not having a mother in her life.I believe(Stella)is there.Her spirit is not at peace.Because she was a very free spirit.As an American Indian she needs to be at peace to go to the eternal resting place.

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CRYSTAL R said...

Hello to Everyone who Ever Lived at the Rivoli,

The apartments were really small, I lived in a studio, No. 219, in 1978. I was 18 years old and I loved that building, it does have soul. I was newly married to a soldier and he taught me how to cook Chef Boy-R-D from a box, it was fun and crazy, I mostly spoke German at that time, and cussed a lot in American. Seattle was fun and I do miss it. I am in Oakland now and have been in the Country for over 35 years, but those memories of Seattle still are with me til the day I die. If you currently live there, please do me a favor and send some pics of the inside of my old building if you can ( and I want to salute all of you, especially you, Igor, for living there all these years, for us, all of us, who were there at one time, and are still there in memory. Best Wishes, Crystal R.

Anonymous said...

I lived in the apartment where "Stella" was killed. Just in 2008. I found out after the fact when researching haunted places in Seattle. I had a very strange and vivid dream my first night there, and so became curious. I spoke with her daughter back in 2008 as well.

Running Dog Yankee said...


I was a resident of the Rivoli for one year (1983-4), so I am very happy to have stumbled across your blog on Belltown. I have forgotten the apartment number where I lived, but it was the back corner studio on the third floor (on Blanchard) with great views of First Ave and the waterfront. I was pretty skint at the time and remember renting the apartment because it was so cheap, had a great location and the manager (David) was so nice. When you're young and naive such things as (temporary) impoverishment mean little.

I remember the disgusting state of the gas burner with all its dead cockroaches and the murphy bed and small walk up bathroom. I think I had only one table and a couple of chairs - that was it! At that time, Belltown was becoming known for its bohemian ambiance and its lively club scene. Unfortunately, when I left it was being overrun with people from Bellevue and the suburbs slumming it on the weekends. However, if you were a known face at these clubs you were very welcome. I came back to Seattle about 5 years ago and was pleasantly surprised to see how little Belltown actually has changed. I was very happy to see the Rivoli still there. When I left there was a move to try and sell off the place for luxury condos or some whatnot. Happy to see that didn't go through.

As for ghosts, I don't recall any in my end of the building. Once, David took me by the apartment where the murder happened and it was disgusting to see that the owners of the building didn't even have the decency to remove the blood soaked mattress and to clean the place up.

Anyway, I loved the time that I had in that particular part of town. Waking up with the fresh air blowing in from the sound and the vistas across towards the Olympics always put me in a good mood. The Belltown ambiance was also pretty special with its offbeat characters and neighborhood hangouts. The proximity to central Seattle and the Pikes Place Market gave it that extra zing of romance.

Thanks for researching the history and keeping up the blog! It really brings back memories and a lot of nostalgia for my time in that pocket of Seattle's culture.