City records show issues plagued former Seven Gables Theater building before massive fire

SEATTLE — A massive fire that burned for hours in Seattle’s U-District destroyed a historical landmark on Christmas Eve.

The fire at the former Seven Gables Theater started at 11:46 a.m. and spread so quickly that when fire crews arrived, it was already too dangerous to enter the building at Roosevelt Way Northeast and Northeast 50th Street.

Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins said it’s the third fire at the property in recent months.

“It’s a very active building for us. It’s the third fire we’ve had at this location since September, so we’re still trying to figure it out. Our arson investigators are on the scene,” Chief Scoggins said.

>>PHOTOS: Fire rips through former Seattle theatre

It took fire crews about two-and-a-half hours to get the 3-alarm fire under control, and brought out about 130 firefighters.

“This was a very challenging fire,” Scoggins said.

The 95-year-old building has been vacant since the Seven Gables Theater closed in 2017.

“It’s a great old building. A lot of history, great old vintage theater that had a lot of charm to it,” said Dan Dazell. “It’s a real shame,” he said.

Neighbors said they’ve been contacting the city for months about squatters breaking in. Simone Barron shared emails that she sent to city council in November, saying a fire at the property was exactly her concern.

“I knew this was going to happen,” Barron said. “It just makes me so angry, I can’t even tell you how angry I am.”

It’s usually the property owner’s responsibility to secure a vacant building and Chief Scoggins said clearly someone made an effort to do so.

“But if you plywood it up - it just takes someone with the right tool, then it’s unsecured. It does look like it was boarded up, but that may have been compromised,” Scoggins said.

Dozens of neighbors watched the fire burn on this Christmas Eve, and many shared their memories.

“When I was small, we had church dinners up there, and I went to the movies up there too,” said one neighbor who has lived in the area her whole life.

“For this to happen on Christmas Eve, it’s really a tragedy too because this is really a beautiful historic building and something could’ve been saved,” Barron said.

Digging through city records on the property’s history showed trouble has plagued the building since the theater closed.

Just days after the property was granted landmark status in September 2017, the first complaint came in, reporting “homeless dumping garbage, sleeping and doing drugs in alleyway.”

Multiple complaints in 2018 reported junk on the property and overgrown land.

Things started looking up in 2019.

According to Landmark Preservation Board meeting minutes, a land use lawyer said the property owners were trying to find a developer for the building. Several inspections happened in 2019 with no complaints or violations filed.

But starting in April of 2020 this year, the complaints started coming in again - at a much higher volume.

“Squatters have been the new thing I’ve noticed in the last six months,” Barron said.

In fact, the most recent official complaint filed December 9th said: “The abandoned building is covered with graffiti. The fences around the building have been damaged, and there are now squatters in the building constantly, the neighbors have called the police multiple times due to smoke coming out from the building.”

In November, Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections issued an emergency order to the property owners, saying the building conditions are “considered high hazard,” “represent a threat to the safety or health,” and people in or around the building are in “serious jeopardy of life and limb.”

The city ordered property owners to secure the building — or be fined up to $1,000 dollars per day. The city also placed the building on a monthly vacant building monitoring program.

The document also said if violations were not corrected by November 12, the city may file a lawsuit. It’s unclear if the property owners — a company called “2929 Productions LLC” — ever responded.

Fire crews finally cleared the scene at 9 a.m. Christmas Day. The Seattle Fire Department said investigators have not yet been able to go inside the building because the structure is too unsafe, and the cause of the fire is currently undetermined.