Burke’s ‘patina of history’ won’t be forgotten

Some UW students travel to Europe to sample castles and cafés, but for many the trip has been much shorter—just through the doors of the Burke Museum.

The one-room Burke café, clad in tall hand-carved pine panels from the 1720s, has long been an elegant embrace—an escape to the scent of roasted coffee and the subtle sound of classical music.

What will become of all that when the museum moves across the parking lot and into the New Burke in 2019? That’s one of the most frequently asked questions around the museum project, according to staffers. Then, of course, there’s also the question of how a museum of Northwest culture and natural history ended up with the nearly 12-foot-tall European panels in the first place.

The provenance of the paneling has been something of a mystery, says Hollye Keister, ’04, who manages fine art in the Burke’s collection. Details have been lost through retirements and time, though some recent theories among alumni and staff include that they came from a Seattle mansion. Or maybe from the grounds of Versailles.

For now, their tale starts in 1931 at a port in Venice, according to records in the UW archives. They came to Seattle to be installed in a newly-built mansion in the Seattle Highlands. It was the home of Donald Edward Frederick, one of the founders of Frederick & Nelson Department Store, and his young wife Fay Swick Frederick. They had just sold their interest in the successful store and hired Beaux Arts architect Lewis Hobart to design a near-castle of more than 18,000 square feet.

Their grandson, Donald Padelford, says he was told the panels came from the residence of a noble in Italy. “The Highlands house is reinforced concrete,” notes Padelford. “To use the panels and other such overlays gave the residence a kind of instant patina of history.”

His grandmother lived in the home until her death in 1959. Adding an interesting twist, the Frederick family’s ties with the University included their daughter Fay, who married Philip S. Padelford, son of the prominent dean of the UW Graduate School. And for a very brief time, the University owned the mansion and the panels inside it.
But the neighbors didn’t like the idea of the UW in their backyards and the mansion was sold to a Seattle businessman who removed the boiserie and offered it up for auction in New York in the spring of 1967.

At this point another prominent Seattle family with UW ties joins the story. Charlotte and Louis Brechemin, who provided annual scholarships for UW music students, bought the boiserie. Louis had been a concert pianist and Charlotte the daughter of the Bloedel timber family. Their granddaughter Debra Person recalls they had a similar wood-clad music space at their home on Orcas Island. According to the Board of Regents meeting minutes in 1968, the Brechemins’ gift of the panels would be used in the “new wing of the Music Building.”

But that new wing was not in the offing. When, just a few years later, the Burke wanted to create a café space, magic happened. Robert Free, an assistant director at the museum, deserves credit for putting the panels and the café together. Seeking them out in storage, he knew the wood room, which included several sets of doors, over-the-door paintings and a limestone fireplace, would transform the space.

Once the café opened in July 1979, it became a popular and beloved hangout until closing its doors last fall. The panels are now part of the Burke’s permanent collection, says Keister. While some of them will go into storage, a selection will be hung on a sliding wall in the new museum’s Legacy Room, which has been designed with the panels and the many people who have been charmed by them in mind.

Do you have special memories of the café at the Burke? We would love to hear about them in the comments below.