History only deepens community love for Kirkland’s ‘mystery cottage’

May 3, 2024, 1:02 PM | Updated: 2:04 pm

Photo: The "little red barn" - aka "the mystery cottage" at Fisk Family Park in Kirkland....

The "little red barn" - aka "the mystery cottage" at Fisk Family Park in Kirkland. (Photo: Feliks Banel, KIRO Newsradio)

(Photo: Feliks Banel, KIRO Newsradio)

Remember the “mystery cottage” in Kirkland’s newest public park which KIRO Newsradio first reported on back in January?

Previous story: Seeking clues to the mystery cottage at Kirkland’s newest park

A former neighbor shared some of its additional history and backstory earlier this week.

Fisk Family Park is on 6th Street South in Kirkland, just north of the Google campus, and right alongside where the railroad tracks once were. The route of those tracks — the old Northern Pacific Belt Line — is now part of the Eastrail, the pedestrian and bike path between Renton and Woodinville.

As reported in January, the City of Kirkland was in the process of converting private property they had recently purchased into a park. The outstanding features of this somewhat wooded tract are tiny Everest Creek which runs down the middle and a little red “mystery cottage” that stands atop a gentle rise just south of the creek.

Image :Map from 1953 shows (in oval area) where 6th Street South was a dead-end on both sides and did not cross the railroad tracks; yellow X shows approximate location of the "mystery cottage" at Fisk Family Park.

Map from 1953 shows (in oval area) where 6th Street South was a dead-end on both sides and did not cross the railroad tracks; yellow X shows approximate location of the “mystery cottage” at Fisk Family Park. (Image courtesy of Loita Hawkinson, Kirkland Heritage Society with notations by Feliks Banel)

Speculation has surrounded the “mystery cottage” for decades; the setting and the little cottage itself are just so picturesque, so different compared to all the surrounding houses and nearby strip malls and offices, the spot seems to inspire an intensity of speculation that even borders on mythologizing.

Help to understand the history of the cottage — and to understand the long history of interest in the history of the cottage — came from Loita Hawkinson of the Kirkland Heritage Society. KIRO Newsradio also made the call-out for anyone who had more information to share.

Former neighbor shares origin of mystery cottage

That call came a few days ago from Shelley Winfrey, who grew up across the street from the mystery cottage, and whose family first lived in that spot more than 100 years ago.

Winfrey told KIRO Newsradio that she was good friends with the late Jim Fisk. Fisk is the man who passed away in 2022 and previously owned the property. His parents lived in a home there (abutting the “mystery cottage” tract to the north) for much of the 20th century.

Some of the facts shared by Shelley Winfrey had already been researched and shared by Loita Hawkinson. But Winfrey, with help from her mom, succinctly described to KIRO Newsradio the key points of the mystery cottage’s history.

“That was built by Jim’s dad, who worked at Boeing,” Winfrey said. “And he would bring home scrap wood in his pickup, mom said,” describing what was once a common method by which the Boeing Company unwittingly contributed to construction projects around the region.

It was back in the 1940s when the elder Fisk “built this barn that started out as a chicken coop, and then I think Jim had pigeons,” Winfrey said. “And then it just kind of became this little red barn. And then Jim was an antique collector, and so he opened up a little antique store there called The Red Barn Antiques.”

The era of “Red Barn Antiques” was in the early 1970s. Shelley Winfrey said that it was more hobby than business for her friend Jim Fisk and not really a full-time job.

“It was just small,” Winfrey said. “And he just had furniture and trinkets, and probably lights and things that you would find in an antique store.”

Those ornate posts holding up the front of the red barn? Winfrey said those were probably Jim Fisk’s handiwork.

“He was very good with wood,” Winfrey said. “He had a lathe (and) he would make things.”

Winfrey said she and her siblings and other neighborhood kids would hang out at the little red barn and went on to describe an idyllic childhood in an earlier version of Kirkland nearly 60 years ago.

On Winfrey’s side of the road, she lived with her parents, and her grandparents lived next door, on the other side of Everest Creek.

There was “a couple of (foot) bridges,” built by her grandfather to get across the creek. “There was a fish pond,” Winfrey continued. “We used to have water rights to the creek, actually my grandfather did for irrigation.”

Along with the creek, the former railroad tracks added another romantic element to the place where Winfrey grew up, and where her mother did before her.

This meant what were then called “hoboes” living behind where the little red barn now stands, farther along the tracks toward the site of the old Kirkland depot.

“When my mother was a girl, they would come to my grandmother’s house and ask if there was any jobs that they could do in trade for food,” Winfrey said. “You know, chop wood, anything, they would do anything. Mom says they were just people that were riding the trains and out of work during the Depression.”

Winfrey’s grandparents were active gardeners, which eventually led to her grandmother going into business in a way not too different from what Jim Fisk had done across the street.

“We spent so much time landscaping and maintaining all of that land,” Winfrey said. “It was a park, between my mom’s yard and my grandmother’s.”

“My grandmother used to sell flowers,” Winfrey said. “She was known as the Kirkland Flower Lady of 6th Street South.”

The Kirkland Flower Lady reigned from the late 1970s until sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, Winfrey said.

“She had like a card table out by where the creek would be in between the two houses,” Winfrey described. “And people would come. She’d have bouquets and they would come take them and then they would put money under a rock, I think, on the picnic table. And then that evolved into she had an old fishing basket, I think, that she hung by the back door. And I think people used to come up to the porch and put money in there.”

Winfrey said the flower business generated a steady stream of $1 bills that her grandmother would roll tightly and secure firmly with a rubber band.

“When you took the rubber band off (the dollar bills), I mean they never did straighten out,” Winfrey recalled, chuckling at the memory.

Along with specific details about the little red barn, Winfrey also shared some bigger-picture history of the Eastside that many people probably have no idea about, or perhaps have forgotten.

Winfrey said that 6th Street South – again, that’s the busy road where Google now stands and that goes right past Fisk Family Park – was a dead-end on either side of the railroad tracks until sometime in the 1960s. The road didn’t go through until a major construction project to upgrade the roadbed, build an expanded culvert for Everest Creek and create a grade-crossing over the Belt Line.

Kirkland once neighbored a city called Houghton

In those days, where Winfrey lived north of the tracks was within Kirkland city limits, but the other side of the tracks was Houghton. Houghton was its city – with its own city hall, police department and other services – until Kirkland annexed it more than 50 years ago.

That dividing line loomed especially large for kids because it meant attending different elementary schools.

“Houghton was another city to us because our world ended at the railroad tracks,” Winfrey said. “So we went to Central, and everybody on the south side of the tracks went to Lakeview,” she continued.

Central School once stood on the hill above downtown Kirkland at the site of what’s now Kirkland City Hall; Lakeview Elementary still stands but is a modern replacement for a school originally built in the 1950s.

The City of Kirkland has put up signage and a fence at Fisk Family Park, and they’re still deciding what’s going to happen to the little red barn (aka “the mystery cottage”).

John Lloyd is deputy director of Kirkland Parks and Community Services. In an email Thursday, he outlined what may lie ahead for the rich and storied structure.

Future of the mystery cottage

“We are still evaluating our options for the park, which is more complicated than it may seem due to the buffer/setback requirements associated with the creek running through the property,” Lloyd wrote. “Additionally, the mystery cottage is not in great shape. While it looks nice from afar, it is actually in a very rough shape. Staff are currently evaluating options for the structure and the overall park.”

Asked to clarify what those options being evaluated are, Lloyd responded, “We are evaluating our options within the city’s zoning code as well as evaluating what could be done to save the structure itself that would be allowable within the buffer.”

“The structure was not built on a foundation – it is just sitting on dirt, which further exacerbates the problem,” Lloyd continued. “Adding a foundation to the building is not considered maintenance, rather this is considered construction, and therefore does not appear to be allowable under the code.”

The popularity of the cottage – er, little red barn – seems to be growing as Loita Hawkinson (and KIRO Newsradio listeners) have helped uncover more of its distinctive Kirkland and Northwest history, and filled in some of the blanks in the bigger mythology of the structure and the setting.

More from Feliks Banel: Vatican decides in favor of Tacoma’s Holy Rosary Church

Speculation about its backstory, now that it’s a public park, has understandably inspired many to imagine what role the little red barn could play at Fisk Family Park in the future, to serve the growing numbers of Eastrail users passing by just a few yards away, and preserve a distinctive piece of Kirkland’s past.

Loita Hawkinson from Kirkland Heritage Society told KIRO Newsradio that she has been invited to tour the cottage on Tuesday and get a close look at its interior. She said those construction materials – vintage plywood pilfered from Boeing 80 years ago – have actually aged quite well, and the size of the structure is such that preservation and restoration would not require significant funding.

Hawkinson has been digging deep to research more of the little red barn’s history and to make sure that the City of Kirkland and Kirkland residents understand its historic significance.

As Hawkinson said in January, the mystery cottage/little red barn probably generates more questions to the Kirkland Heritage Society than any other place in town, and so the group would love to be part of an effort to preserve it and tell its many stories to people who drive past on 6th Street South, and to all those hikers and bikers passing by just yards away on the new trail.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, follow him on X here and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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