PORT TOWNSEND — Sam Kyle didn’t want to sell one of Port Townsend’s most iconic buildings to just anyone.
After more than 30 years of renovating and maintaining the imposing, 130-year-old Mount Baker Block Building in the heart of the city’s historic downtown, Kyle was looking for someone he could trust to steward it into the future.
“I think that was the most important thing to me, to find someone who knew Port Townsend and had the heart and soul to keep it going,” the 74-year-old Gardiner resident said Friday.
Kyle said he had been planning to donate the property, which was owned by his Mount Baker Block Corporation, to the nonprofit Washington Trust for Historic Preservation – until he learned such a donation wouldn’t be possible under capital gains tax laws.
Then, in July, Kyle ran into restaurateur Kris Nelson outside Alchemy Bistro and Wine Bar, one of her three downtown restaurants.
“He walked by and we got to talking about the usual stuff and then I said, ‘If you ever want to sell the building, I’d be interested in buying it,’” Nelson said. “The next week, he came back and said, ‘I think you might be the right fit.’”
In September, Nelson purchased the property — valued in 2019 at $4.2 million — for $6.8 million.
“I’ve always been enamored with that building,” she said. “It’s right in the heart of this city and is home to so many different businesses, artists, professionals and community organizations. There’s just so much happening there.”
Beyond her restaurants, which include Sirens Pub and The Old Whiskey Mill, the 49-year-old owns the Bartlett Building, the Mary Webster Building and the first floor of the Heron’s Nest, between which she manages five tenants.
With her most recent purchase, she’ll inherit 56 more tenants – many of whom say they’re glad to have a longtime local resident as their new landlord.
“I think it’s nice that it’s staying in the community; it’s definitely better than some outside conglomerate,” said David Wing-Kovarik, owner of Frameworks Northwest, which has been located in the building’s renovated basement, known as Undertown, for the past seven years.
“She definitely cares a great deal about maintaining the heritage here in town and making sure that buildings are well taken care of.”
Nelson, who moved to town with her family at age 7, has served on countless boards and councils over the years, including City Council and the boards of the Port Townsend Main Street Program and the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce.
“I’ve known Kris since she was young, and I think she is the perfect person to own that building,” said Ann Welch, the great granddaughter of Charles Eisenbeis, Port Townsend’s first mayor and the man who built the massive structure at Water and Taylor streets as well as many other buildings in town.
Ann Welch said she and her brother, Mark Welch, inherited the building in the early 1970s from Hilda Eisenbeis, their aunt and one of Charles Eisenbeis’ eight children. The Welches took care of the building until 1987, when they sold it to Kyle.
“For Mark and I, we could have dedicated our lives to it, but it wasn’t our dream,” she said. “But it was Sam’s dream to keep it going and take it to the next level.”
Kyle said he paid less than $500,000 for the building at the time, after which he set about major renovations of the second, third and fourth floors. The top two had sat unfinished and unused since 1890, when Eisenbeis abruptly stopped construction of what was intended to be a five-story behemoth of building with eight ground-floor retail spaces and 69 upper-level offices.
“No one thought property or offices on the upper floors would be very valuable because who would want to walk up all those stairs?” said Ann Welch, who, in the early ’70s lived in one of two apartments on the second floor, where she had a pottery studio.
Another second-floor tenant was former Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney William J. Daly, who paid $25 in rent for decades, she said.
“The Eisenbeises and Welches were never very good landlords because we were never able to raise anyone’s rents,” Ann Welch said. “If the businesses renting from us were successful, then we were successful. It wasn’t very profitable, but over the years, we had some real characters.”
During the 1990s, Kyle also installed an elevator and modernized the building’s utilities and electrical wiring. By 2005, renovation of the building’s basement was complete and ready to host new businesses.
Both Kyle and Welch said they’re confident in Nelson’s ability to preserve and enhance the building’s historic character while continuing to host an eclectic array of tenants.
“She wouldn’t be buying this building if profit was her motive,” Ann Welch said. “She has something bigger and more important in mind. I am excited about what Kris will do with it because I know her, and I trust her.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Nicholas Johnson can be reached by phone at 360-417-3509 or by email at [email protected]