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The grand dame of Burton is reborn

From left, Peter, Hugh and Marion Denning, siblings who grew up in the old Burton Hotel, say the renovation has been healing. Behind them is Ginger, left, Hugh’s wife, and Nora, Peter’s wife. - Leslie Brown/Staff Photo
From left, Peter, Hugh and Marion Denning, siblings who grew up in the old Burton Hotel, say the renovation has been healing. Behind them is Ginger, left, Hugh’s wife, and Nora, Peter’s wife.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

When the Denning kids first moved into the Burton Hotel in 1956, they were certain the second floor of the sprawling place was haunted. They’d hear noises up there — likely mice, they now realize — and refused to climb the stairs. 

So for the first year, the kids — then six of them — slept in the living room, dormitory-style, until their parents had a seventh child and coaxed them upstairs.

Such are the memories the old Burton Hotel holds for the Dennings, a family that ultimately numbered 13 and that lived for a few decades in a house perched above Quartermaster Harbor on a prominent corner in Burton. It was an eventful childhood, three of the 11 siblings noted during a recent interview, and sometimes a hard one — rich with the drama of so many brothers and sisters growing into adulthood under the not always watchful eye of a harried mother. 

“There was a lot of life in this old house,” recalled Hugh Denning as tears welled up.

Now, after an investment by the Denning family of more than $300,000, the Burton Hotel — the grand dame of Burton and one of the stateliest structures on the Island — is habitable again. It’s also become a place for the Denning clan to get together, play games, walk on the beach and reminisce.

“It’s a touchstone,” said Peter Denning as he stood outside of the three-story structure.

“It’s clean, neutral territory,” Hugh added. The ghosts, he said, “have been largely expunged.”

Marion Denning said she’s particularly happy to see the next generation — the siblings’ children and grandchildren — begin to experience life there. 

“That was one of my dreams,” she said. “To see new memories get made in this home — both for me and for the children.”

The massive undertaking started four years ago, when the Denning family realized it was time to make a critical decision. The house, jointly owned by the family’s LLC, was in serious disrepair. It was time, Peter noted, to either invest the significant funds needed to repair the dilapidated structure or demolish their childhood home.

They held a family meeting in the house — which by then was in such a state of disrepair that it couldn’t get insurance  — and decided to begin the first steps towards restoration, a project that grew in scope as time went on. Hugh, a general contractor, was hired for the project.

“There’s not a surface in this house I haven’t touched,” he said, adding, “I feel beautiful about it.”

Hugh had new vertical-grain fir milled that he used to re-side the south side of the 5,500-square-foot home. He re-sheetrocked nearly every wall, sanded and re-stained the fir floors and fir banisters and replaced the forced-air heating system on the first floor. He installed small electric heaters in each of the eight bedrooms, restored several windows and put in all new fir trim on the third floor.

During a recent tour, Hugh, Peter and Marion led the way through each room, opening door after door, telling stories along the way. 

The Bird Room, for instance, was where the family briefly kept some parakeets that had been given to them — a flock that was mysteriously growing smaller over time. It finally became clear why: Claire, then a preschooler, would slip into the room and grab one of the little birds to feed to her cat, Marion recalled.

Then there was the room the family called simply “the bar” when they lived there; it was here that their father — a quiet man who ultimately left the family — disappeared for his nightly drink from a well-stocked liquor cabinet. Beautifully restored, though no longer hosting a liquor cabinet, it’s now their mother’s room when she visits the house. 

Now 80, Ardis Denning is glad for the home’s remarkable rebirth. 

“It’s marvelous. I’ve really enjoy seeing it come back to life,” she said.

Though the family has always been tight-knit, she added, the hotel’s restoration has brought them closer together. “All the kids go out there. They use it for a summer place … It keeps the family together. It’s just a marvelous retreat.”

Originally called the Mauck Hotel, the sprawling structure was built in 1908 and for a couple of decades was at the heart of a bustling burg. 

Burton was the center of the Island’s commercial life before the arrival of the automobile and the construction of the north-end and south-end ferry docks, said Vashon historian Bruce Haulman. Vashon College, perched above the hotel, was a going concern at the turn of the century. Vashon’s first pharmacy was located there, as well as a grocery store, post office and the office for the Island newspaper.

A 700-foot dock, the largest in Puget Sound, extended into Quartermaster just below the hotel, where the highway at the time ended. The mosquito fleet ferried people from Tacoma and elsewhere to Burton, and many — including traveling salesmen and school teachers who couldn’t find a place to rent on the Island — stayed in the hotel, Haulman said.

Simple and unadorned, it was not a fancy place, the Dennings noted. “It was a working man’s hotel,” said Peter Denning.

The building came into the Denning family when Ruth Ball, Ardis’ mother and the matriarch of the clan, decided to purchase it in 1951. 

Ball was one of the state’s first female real estate agents, the Dennings said, and she was highly successful. Indeed, it was proceeds from her holdings — now part of the family’s estate and owned by its LLC — that covered the costs of the hotel’s massive restoration.

Ball bought the hotel — then boarded up — as a summer home and within a few years decided to expand her Burton holdings to include a nearly adjacent peach orchard. But she soured on Burton in 1956 after what the family jokingly calls the “peach orchard incident.” After carefully tending her orchard all spring, she showed up in late summer with help to harvest her crop — only to find every tree stripped of its fruit. 

When Ardis Denning learned that her mother was about to sell the Burton Hotel, she pleaded for her to give it to her and her husband John instead. The couple had six children by 1956, and the family was squeezed into a two-bedroom home in Seattle. A hotel, Ardis Denning realized, was just what her growing family needed.

Ball agreed, and the family moved into the place that Hugh, 6 at the time, called “a shambles.” The upstairs had become their grandmother’s warehouse, where she stored furniture she’d collected from her various real estate holdings. It lacked central heating, had virtually no plumbing and boasted only one outlet on the second floor.

But the Dennings slowly made the old hotel into a home, with the girls’ bedrooms down one end of the hall and the boys’ bedrooms down the other. And thus began an eventful childhood in Burton, when the 11 kids — their father, a Catholic, wanted 12 because the 12th one would be baptized by the archbishop — played outside all day until their mother called them in with a horn made out of an old firehose nozzle. 

One of the siblings, Ronnie, was developmentally delayed, but he, too, found his place in Burton, where many people knew and loved him, the family recalled. Indeed, it was partly because of Ronnie that family members wanted to restore the place. Ronnie, who died two years ago, often visited their old homestead, even before it underwent its massive restoration.

For Peter, who now lives with his wife Nora in Dockton, it was those spontaneous get-togethers with Ronnie that have meant the most to him. “He didn’t want me to do anything for him,” he recalled. “He just wanted the family presence here.”

Today, each family member has a room in the house — painted the color of his or her choice. Hugh’s, on the south end, with a sweeping view of Quartermaster Harbor, is lavender. Ronnie’s, painted off-white, is untouched from when he used to stay in the house. 

And indeed, the new memories Marion longed for are already getting made. She got married at the house two years ago. Ardis, who lives in Seattle, has come out often with her writing group. Jigsaw puzzles, half-made, sit in Ardis and John’s former bedroom, now the upstairs parlor. Spontaneous family dinners take place often.

And not infrequently, family members said, they think of their grandmother Ruth Ball, who had deep roots on Vashon. She grew up in Rosehilla on the southern tip of Maury Island, and as a girl, she’d take a boat every day from her home to Burton, walking up the hill and past the old hotel on her way to school. 

“Her spirit’s still here, because we’re here,” Peter said. “Our being here is the fulfillment of one of her dreams.”

 

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