Seattle Culture

For Generations, Seattle’s Innovators Have Called Dexter and Westlake Home

Change is the only constant, they say, and it’s happening all over Seattle— no place more so than along a stretch of Dexter and Westlake where yesterday’s innovators settled and today’s dreamers are also finding a home

By Steve Scher May 15, 2018


This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Seattle magazine.

This article appears in print in the May 2018 issue. Click here to subscribe.

White-haired Claude N. Nelson, an 86-year-old retired Boeing technical illustrator, takes two buses to get to the Friday lunch of Swedish meatballs at the Swedish Club, housed in an early 1960s-era building perched above Lake Union on Dexter Avenue. Nelson grew up on the farm his Swedish-born father homesteaded near Mount Vernon, and the fresh lingonberry sauce on his plate holds the welcome tang of memory. 

Claude N. Nelson, holding a picture of a painting he did, makes the trek each week to the Swedish Club for lunch. Photo by Steve Scher

Seattle was built by people like Nelson’s folks—many of them Scandinavians who came to cut the trees and mine the gold. They could net salmon and pickle herring, just as they did in their European homelands. Eventually, they helped build the boats and planes that ushered the Northwest into the 20th century.

Some of Seattle’s iconic houseboats anchor one end of Dexter just underneath the Aurora Bridge. Photo by Steve Scher

Along the way, these emigrants from Europe drained, filled and built the western shore of Lake Union into a maritime hub in a little more than 100 years. Now, another generation is fabricating the digital economy on its pilings. From where Nelson sits, buildings that house thousands of Amazon workers are in easy sight.

Among the new buildings on Dexter is this one occupied by Facebook which has recently expanded into another building across the street. Photo by Alex Crook

Seattle is a watery city, carved by retreating glaciers. The narrow neighborhood along Dexter and Westlake is north of downtown, wedged into a strip of land between steep Queen Anne Hill and placid Lake Union. From the Fremont Bridge at the north end, older single-family homes and apartments give way to a wall of new apartment complexes and—just across the traffic divide of the Mercer Corridor—the glass towers of South Lake Union, as Amazon, Facebook and the emerging biotech firms replace warehouses and light manufacturing.

At Dexter Avenue and Newton Street, the Swedish Club is smack dab in the middle of Seattle’s shifting but resilient identity as a city for dreamers and innovators. 

Take Newton east down a stairway to Westlake Avenue to join the throngs on the Cheshiahud Trail, named for a Lushootseed canoe maker who lived along the shores of Lake Union. The wild shoreline has mostly disappeared, hidden behind a mix of low-rise buildings and docks; a small remnant of that shoreline can be seen at the north end of Westlake, tucked between houseboats that have been part of the neighborhood for more than 100 years. 

On the trail, bikers and walkers have separate paths, so spandex-glistening commuters can whiz along, barely spooking the evening dog walkers, out for fresh air after a long day coding the new economy. Along the way, plaques and benches that are part of artist Maggie Smith’s “Spur Line” pay tribute to the working waterfront that nurtured the last century’s high-tech workers—innovative wooden-ship builders.A plaque at a marina on Westlake tells a Salish tale. Photo by Steve Scher.

Those innovators are still at work. Moored alongside million-dollar yachts behind the squat AGC Building is Bow Grumman’s Hot Tub Boats; Grumman and his partner design and build the distinctive 15-foot electric crafts, outfitted with 8- by-4-foot hot tubs, ready to be rented (or purchased) by a close-knit group of seaworthy friends. 

Back up to Dexter by way of Aloha, the Dexter Brewhouse is awash in talk of beer and tech. The restaurant and brewery are housed on the ground floor of one of the newer apartment buildings that have sprouted up in the neighborhood. Indian-born Kumar Arkalgud arrived about seven months ago. He’s still settling in, happy for new opportunities, trying to adjust to cultural differences. People here are restrained, he says, often not reacting to things they see. If a fight broke out here, passersby would likely just ignore it. “In India, everybody is like, ‘Oh, why are you fighting?’ They try to split people up.… It’s not so easy for me to adjust to the American thing. If I do, maybe I might stay,” he says, expressing the mixed emotions felt by many immigrants.

Mollusk Brewings’ head brewer Carey Dixon grinds grain just outside the Dexter Brewhouse. Photo by Steve Scher

Cody Morris brews award-winning Mollusk Brewing beer inside the Brewhouse. He has the blond hair and blue eyes of his Swedish forebearers. The 

Seattle native says he doesn’t go in for the “Swedish heritage stuff,” but he hasn’t really moved that far from his roots. He remembers the mornings when his family would go to the Swedish Club for pancake breakfasts, and then to hear his brother’s traditional Swedish folk music band.  

And he does like pickled herring. 

Ann-Margret Lightle prepares lunch and dinner each Friday at the Swedish Club. Meatballs and roasted potatoes are often on the menu

The Swedish Club

Swedish-born chef Ann-Margret Lightle rises at 4 a.m. most Friday mornings to prepare for the regular Friday “Kafé” at the Swedish Club, where lunch and dinner are served, open to members and nonmembers alike. 

By lunchtime, Lightle, dressed in chef’s whites and red clogs, is serving smörgås—open-faced sandwiches topped with shrimp—as well as Swedish meatballs, roasted potatoes and a rosy lingonberry sauce. She and her fellow chefs, Malin Jonsson and Christine Lea, also prepare specials such as crab quiche and meat pies, and bake a wide array of pastries. An orange-cherry-almond cake slathered in whipped cream is a favorite. Lightle, who sells real estate in the Skagit Valley, came to the U.S. as a young woman. She connects to her Swedish roots by working at the club. “Food and Swedish culture is from my heart,” she says.

Between 1890 and 1910, more than 150,000 Scandinavians moved to the Pacific Northwest, becoming the largest foreign-born ethnic group in the state. There were 19,000 Scandinavians in Seattle by 1910. More than 8,600 were Swedish.  

Some of these millworkers, miners, dockworkers and railroad builders were living in the Stockholm Hotel at First Avenue and Bell Street when they founded the Swedish Club in 1892. Among its early members were the founders of the Nordstrom department store and the president of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, which helped put Seattle on the map. Swedish Medical Center, the largest medical facility in the Northwest, was founded by club members in 1910.  

Architect Einar V. Anderson was well connected in the Swedish community when his Seattle architectural firm, Steinhart, Anderson and Theriault, built the concrete and steel building perched above Lake Union in 1961. Floor-to-ceiling windows on the north and east sides illuminate an open and airy space filled with arts, crafts and artifacts of Sweden and Scandinavian America. A large portrait of the current king and queen of Sweden hangs on one wall. From the bar and dining room on the top floor, there is an unobstructed view of Lake Union, Interstate 5 and Capitol Hill.  

As Scandinavian-Americans prospered and integrated into the larger culture here, organizations like the Swedish Club, the Nordic Museum (see more on page 78) and the Leif Erikson Lodge in Ballard, the Northwest Danish Association in Northgate, and the Seattle chapter of the Finlandia Foundation helped residents maintain links to their cultural roots.

“We’re proud to claim that we are part of old Seattle,” says Kristine Leander, the club’s vibrant executive director.   

Membership is on the rise at the Swedish Club, now also known as the Swedish Cultural Center.

“We beefed up the Swedishness,” Leander says. Anyone with an interest in Sweden and the Nordic cultures can join. “The socializing is in our DNA.” 

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