Erin Maher at her Row House Cafe
Erin Maher at her Row House Cafe Courtesy Erin Maher
The Row House Cafe has been in the headlines quite a bit recently. The funky little conjoined cottages it operates out of was nominated by various community groups, including Historic Seattle, to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board, where it failed to gain landmark status by one vote. The building, which is nestled amid towering luxury apartments, is evocative of Ballard’s Edith Macefield house (colloquially known as the ‘Up’ house), and is a similarly perfect touchstone for anti-development sentiments. The board’s decision certainly ruffled a few feathers, as evidenced by the comments on the Seattle Times’ story about it.

As someone who wrote an early entry into this decade’s spate of “your favorite place that you never go to anymore but totally care about is becoming condos”-themed articles, I had a pretty predetermined notion of what my take on Row House would look like: Beloved place gets denied historic status, regulars and locals moan in despair about Seattle losing its character, developer gets villainized, and the phrase “inevitable march of progress” is used at some point. Then, you file that shit, you go get a beer at some bar that opened less than two years ago without even stopping to acknowledge the intrinsic irony, and you call it a day.

Indeed, I originally intended this to be just a couple of paragraphs in my regular Food News column. But then, in response to a request for food photos, Row House’s owner, Erin Maher, emailed me back and asked that I give her a quick phone call. And there went my neat little narrative about developers bulldozing another emblem of Seattle’s soul.

For one, I discovered that this is not a small business sob story.

“I knew going in that the property would be redeveloped,” she says. “I’m now on year seven and it’ll be nearly nine before we actually close.”

Though the building wasn’t designated as a landmark—which will allow redevelopment to move forward—the permitting process for that development is likely to take as long as two years, and the owners of the building have assured her that she can stay put until they’re ready to break ground. Nine years in restaurant time, she notes, is actually a very, very long lifespan. As someone who covers the life cycle of Seattle’s restaurants, I can certainly attest to that.

Furthermore, while some reports mentioned that Maher wasn’t supportive of the nomination, they didn’t do much to dispel the notion that the house was a historic treasure, which she says wasn’t the case.

“I thought that the nomination of this building made a mockery of the whole process,” she says. “I actually think that’s a very destructive effort. In my opinion they’re wasting their tax dollars on hearings to save a structure that really doesn’t preserve any architectural authenticity. “

The buildings current appearance—old and funky—is something she curated, she says. Indeed, she blames her own design aesthetic for getting the building nominated in the first place.

“Someone at DPD [Department of Planning & Development] told me that it was workforce housing in the early 1900s and so I built my brand on that,” she says. “I created a brand story. The people who nominated row house [for landmark status] lifted my words verbatim from my blog and put that in their petition. I didn’t know until the hearing that that [DPD story] wasn’t true! Now everybody’s propagating it.”

In the ’80s, when the cottages were combined into one structure to serve as offices for the new owner, engineer Robert Nurendorfer, she says that “nearly every single wall was destroyed or rebuilt.” During its subsequent time as his offices and later as a hair salon, it sported a relatively normal modern look. Any of the building’s original architectural character, she contends, has been gone for decades.

“I just made them cute,” she jokes. “They would not have been nominated had I made them look even more modern or kept them the way Nurendorfer had remodeled them.”

Ironically, she adds that she was originally planning for a very, very different design aesthetic: a techy coffee shop called Domain.

But a few weeks before opening, she found herself having a late night meal at a Tom Douglas restaurant when Douglas and a small entourage of chefs, fresh from celebrating the opening of Seatown Snack Bar, crashed in. T-Doug, feeling apologetic about subjecting the restaurant’s only other patron to his raucous crew, sat down next to her and struck up a conversation. Naturally, the coffee shop came up, and he gave her a bit of friendly advice.

Cajun chicken wings at Row House Cafe
Cajun chicken wings at Row House Cafe Courtesy Erin Maher
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” she recalls him saying. “Every single one of those Amazon buildings is going to have a coffee shop in them. If you want to survive, you’re going to need to do food.” Thus, the techy coffee shop was abandoned, and Row House’s worn-in character was born.

Beyond her issues with the authenticity of the landmark preservation process, she’s also pretty pro-development, which is not exactly what I expected to hear from the owner of a tiny, funky cafe losing her building to development.

“I think it’s unfortunate that communities sometimes villainize developers,” she says. “I think that’s a very narrow perspective. Cities redevelop, it’s just the process. Buildings aren’t built forever. We all need to be participants in development if we want it to be done in a thoughtful manner.”

Furthermore, she contends that anti-development sentiment actually makes it harder for small businesses, another somewhat counterintuitive position, given that most of the anti-development comments in that Seattle Times piece are bemoaning the loss of her small business. Her argument? The Row House building’s owners had no obligation to rent to her in the first place, and might not have done so if they’d known what a hassle it would be later.

“They had the choice to have left that building boarded up, or they could have torn it down,” she says. “But they didn’t, they gave me an opportunity, and I think they should be applauded for it.” The fact that they are receiving such backlash could even be a deterrent, she contends, positing that, “It’s going to send a message to other property owners, when they buy an older building they’re going to tear it down immediately.”

Despite kind of being the poster child for it, she isn’t aware of the local YIMBY movement, made up of Seattleites who see growth as the path to affordability.

“I’m a huge advocate of [affordable housing], because we need it,” she says. “But they place these restrictions upon developers which make it economically unfeasible to build appropriately. The real equation is just supply and demand, so let them build fast and furiously and then the equation of supply and demand will be flipped.”

That said, she has to be at least a tiny bit sad that the business she’s poured so much into is on its way out, right? Not after the nine-year mark, she says.

“It’s a long damn time and I’m going to be pooped by the end of it,” she jokes, emphasizing that the end is really not that nigh. “We are staying open and we want to engage with the community. I’d like to be able to close this in a really fun, community-based way.”