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ELLENSBURG—To explain her vision for the historic structure on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Pearl Street to prospective tenants, Mollie Edson had to clear away some clutter - in this case, a ceiling and a few walls.

Edson found herself in a Catch-22. Banks were willing to lend her money if she had tenants signfive-year leases. Edson's building, as it was composed, wasn't what she intended to rent out.

When talking to tenants Edson would need them to take a leap of faith and picture an interior to come. She didn't think that would work. For one thing, the interior was so dark, it was hard to see the future.

"I had to dig deep and find a way to do this without a bank," Edson said.

Edson cleared away about six decades of remodelings, taking the building back to 1954. Actually, it's kind of a rough sketch of 1954. The building's first floor is not ready for tenants but it is ready for tenants to see the possibilities that await.

Reclaiming historic look

The building was most recently used as the Ellensburg City Hall, but was built by early Ellensburg businessman Ben Snipes in 1930 to be the National Bank of Ellensburg. To simplify the multiple claims on the structure's heritage, Edson has renamed it the 420 Building (in honor of its address).

Edson was familiar with the building in its guise as city hall. Edson is a former Ellensburg City Council member who also served as mayor.

"Every day when I'd walk up to the building, I'd say, ‘Wow, that's a neat building,'" Edson said, referring to the exterior view of the art-deco structure. "Then I'd come inside and think, ‘What happened to this place?'"

The city's need to house its work force and multiple departments is what happened.

"The city needed the space," Edson said. "They had people in the vault in the basement." The city hall used the basement plus three floors of offices arranged in a warren-like manner, with limited natural light.

But that was not the building designed by renowned architect Carl Gould (founder of the University of Washington school of architecture) in 1930. That building featured a main floor unencumbered by a second floor with high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling north-facing windows and high arching west-facing colored windows that flooded the space with natural light.

The glory of that Gould design was relatively short-lived. The bank went out of business in 1937. The structure was then purchased by the city. In 1954 a half second floor (a mezzanine) was installed. Over the years that expanded to a full second floor. The middle portion of the side windows was covered with formica. The front windows were covered with drywall.

When Edson purchased the building in 2006, she knew its architectural pedigree (that it was a Gould building), and she knew portions of the windows were covered. Otherwise, she didn't know that much.

"I knew the outside was gorgeous," Edson said, adding that likely meant the inside had been much more attractive than it looked.

Learning as she goes

Edson said if a bank had financed the project she would have hired a contractor who likely would have done the job quickly. As it was, her approach was more like peeling off one layer - or piece of Sheetrock - at a time.

"I had time to take things away and think about it," Edson said.

The building's past slowly revealed itself - big things like the evolution of the second floor and small things like a little door accessing a metal bin in the front of the building behind the facade where a block of ice could be placed for early day air conditioning.

Edson recreated the interior to the point that all the north facing windows are uncovered, the front windows are uncovered and the second floor is back to being a half floor.

Edson said the city may have made modifications to the building over the years, but it did so carefully.

"It covered things up rather than destroying them," Edson said.

One reason for the joy of discovery is so far Edson has not found any historic photos of the interior of the building when it was a bank.

Historic importance

Fennelle Miller of Historic Ellensburg, a group that supports local historical preservation efforts, said the 420 Building is historically important for a couple of reasons.

"It is from a time period from which there are only a few buildings left," Miller said.

A good portion of downtown Ellensburg was built right after the 1889 fire. The 420 Building, built in 1930, and the Farmers Bank (also known as the Land Title building) was built in 1911.

"The juxtaposition with the 1888 Lynch building gives you an idea of the diversity of architecture possible in that time period," Miller said.

Along with the Farmers Bank, Miller said the 420 Building is also the only historic building in the downtown with a concrete exterior.

Miller said the positioning of the bank on a corner was not accidental.

"Banks were important anchors, especially on corners," Miller said. "They were signs of stability, wealth and success."

Where to go from here

At this point in the project Edson needs to secure tenants to move forward. She said she'll create a glass wall along the half second-floor - to allow for window views - and rent that out as office space.

The first floor would best serve a business dependent on foot traffic - a restaurant or retail shop. There is still work to be done, but Edson said with a tenant she could customize the space to the needs of the business.

The third floor is rented out for offices and is generating revenue.

Edson is gearing up to market the space with a website (www.420building.com) and tours.

"I'm thinking of doing tours during Jazz in the Valley," she said.

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