Part 2: From Union Hall to Restaurant – the evolution of the building at Seattle’s First and Wall Street

This is the second in a two part series detailing the structure at First and Wall, now home to El Gaucho Seattle and the Inn at El Gaucho. Part one takes us from construction to El Gaucho’s opening in 1996. Part two features El Gaucho’s expansion to the rest of the building.

El Gaucho Seattle enjoyed a “soft opening” November 30, 1996 to accommodate private holiday parties that had already been booked. The restaurant officially opened to the public on December 12, 1996, when their liquor license was granted.

As outlined in part one, when El Gaucho Seattle opened, it only occupied part of the main floor of the building. The basement included a restaurant called “My Susie’s,” along with a movie theater called “The Casbah,” which played foreign and old films. The third floor had changed from housing retired sailors to “The Wall Street Inn,” a bed and breakfast, and a portion of the main floor still included union offices along the north side of the building.

The Pampas Room

“My Susie’s” was run by a married couple, Tony and Susie, and in addition to running the restaurant, Tony was the “boiler man.” Let’s talk a minute about the legendary boiler: it’s as big as a ship (appropriately so, since the building was designed and built by the Sailors of the Pacific Union (SUP)). The entire building depended on it, requiring daily checks and continual upkeep. Paul recalls, “The thing was so massive, that if it exploded, it would have taken the entire block with it.”

Tony was not the most upstanding citizen – he had a bit of a checkered past. He approached Paul after El Gaucho opened and explained that he was a part of the boiler union, which required $60/hour, 24/7 for it to run. Paul was not willing to be strong-armed, so he called a local company to help with the situation, and they came up with a brilliant plan: since boilers are rated by nozzles, he replaced the original with smaller ones and added a timer, so that an inspection was only required once a week. The locks were changed to the boiler room and Tony was locked out, officially ending his reign as the boiler man. He continued to run My Susie’s with his wife.

In the summer of 1997, Paul realized they needed air conditioning, but there was simply not enough electricity in the building to provide it. “My Susie’s” had an all-electric kitchen, which not only used much of the available electricity, but it was expensive to operate. Paul offered a generous proposal to Tony: he would replace all of his appliances and upgrade them to gas. Tony agreed. That left enough electricity to air condition El Gaucho.

Six months later, the landlord, Bruce Cowan, announced he was not going to renew “My Susie’s” lease, and Tony left – taking all of the equipment that Paul had purchased, and to add insult to injury, cut holes in the walls and stuffed them with salmon.

Soon thereafter, Paul was offered the basement, and he opened the Pampas Club in 1998, which featured a Cabaret show. It only lasted a few months. Paul explains, “We had a great show. The concept was great, the enthusiasm was there and it was a beautiful space but it just wasn’t big enough. It was just bad planning – live and learn!” Paul shut it down, refunded the investors, and brought back the Pampas Room.

“The investors were happy because for them, it was like coming into (Las) Vegas to play and dine and have a good time, and then leave with all of their money,” Paul laughs. “It made me really popular with investors.” From then on, Paul never had an issue finding funding for future projects.

The new Pampas Room offered full dinner service and live music every Friday and Saturday night – for no cover charge. The Billy Wallace Quartet played for eight years, and BB White graced the stage as well. Paul says, “It worked well and people loved it. We had the best musicians in town – they had a home. They didn’t want to travel anymore.”

In 2007, the Pampas Room closed, but it still exists as a private dining space (including the occasional cabaret show).

The Big Picture
In addition to the Pampas Room, the basement housed a movie theater, originally called “The Casbah,” which showed old and foreign movies. Noise issues became a constant complaint between the two operating venues. Paul asked, and was eventually granted, the lease to the space.

In 1998, Mark and Katie Stern approached Paul about taking over the movie theater. After investing in insulation, the space was remodeled, and the Big Picture was born. It still exists today and is run separately from El Gaucho Hospitality.

The Inn at El Gaucho
The final piece of the puzzle was the top floor. When the SUP moved out, so did the retired sailors, and the space became a bed and breakfast called “The Wall Street Inn” run by a husband and wife team with their four children. It became a liability for the landlord, and he offered it to Paul, rent free, for a year. During that time, Paul gutted the space and built the Inn at El Gaucho – a 17-room, boutique inn, creating the “ultimate night cap” for diners. The Inn officially opened in 2006, and still operates today.

What’s next?
Discussions are taking place to remodel the Inn rooms, and with new city permits for “Sidewalk Cafes” being granted, outside seating along First Avenue may also become a possibility.

With all that has been accomplished in the last 20 years, there’s no limit to what the future holds for El Gaucho Hospitality. While times and buildings may change, honoring our past and values will remain: El Gaucho will continue to set the standard for elegant, old-school, tableside service for people celebrating their lives.

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