Shamans and developers: A match made in heaven

Shamans and developers: A match made in heaven

Shamans and developers: A match made in heaven

It’s a slightly complicated ritual, but one Seb Barnett had little trouble performing. She set up eight different elements — a bowl of dirt (earth), a horn (air), a vase of flowers (plants), animal bones and skulls (animals), sage (fire), etc. — into a circle, asking each element aloud to help her cleanse the area. 

The 34-year-old shaman had also done research on the site in question, knowing its paranormal demographic — that’s why she brought tea and cookies. 

“Most spirits enjoy offerings but mostly feed off the smell of the food,” she said. “It’s not like the food disappears or anything exciting like that.”

Barnett, a shaman from Sand Point, primarily provides cleansing and protection services for private homes, but the Harvard Exit Theatre (807 E. Roy St.) was the first large public building where she’d been paid to communicate with the dead. 

And Harvard Exit has ghosts, she said, most of them chatty and gentle ladies from the 1920s. She performed this cleansing ritual on every floor, finishing in about three hours. And by the end, she felt confident she’d put the energy of the iconic building back in order.

“Like a spiritual dusting and scrub-down,” she said.


Comfortable for everyone

When it comes to developing and working in historic buildings, it’s not always the look and price tags that are most important — sometimes, it’s the supernatural.

Harvard Exit L.L.C., whose managing member is Scott Shapiro of Eagle Rock Ventures L.L.C, purchased the iconic and notoriously haunted theater building for $2.35 million in January. Built in 1925 as a clubhouse for the Woman’s Century Club, it was converted to an art-house cinema in 1968. 

The ghost stories range from former club members who lived in the building, to a portly man killed in a brawl who occasionally watched movies with the paying customers.

Shapiro hired Barnett to bless the space in January, finding her in a Google search for Seattle shamans.

“I figure it can’t hurt; it’s a small cost,” said Shapiro, a Seattle developer since 2000. “There have been stories that there might be ghosts there. Even though, for example, the former manager hadn’t seen a ghost, it couldn’t hurt to have someone come in.”

The goal was for Barnett to introduce the building’s new owners to any of the potential spirits inhabiting the building, letting them know they had good intentions and planned to stay long-term.

Barnett said she charges a sliding fee scale for low-income individuals and sometimes accepts trades and services, but, for the most part, she charges $50 to $70 per hour. 

Shapiro likened it to hiring any other professional to come in and use whatever skill he or she does best.

“It was pretty uneventful, to be honest,” Shapiro said.  “It just kind of reconfirms what we had expected: that everything was good in the building. It’s good to get confirmation from an expert.”

Skeptics might take offense to calling a shaman an expert on such an inexact science, but Shapiro is not alone in implementing this seemingly unconventional tactic.

Michelle McKinney, a shamanic practitioner in Seattle, primarily clears the energy of people, homes and apartments, but she said she was hired to assist at a Bellevue recreational pot shop that recently opened. She said there was “weird energy” in the space, but she never heard whether her work helped.

McKinney said there would always be doubters, and she doesn’t try to convince people one way or another.

“I let the work speak for itself,” she said. “You either have a sense that these things exist, or you don’t believe in it.”

In Shapiro’s mind, when it comes to business, rumors of a haunting can make some clientele uncomfortable. And in the end, comfort is the goal. 

“I look at it as a way to holistically understand a building better,” he said. “I don’t do it for every building, but it’s an easy way to provide a certainty, comfort to myself and my future tenant and their customers.”


A common practice

In 2002, Jerry Everard, who has converted multiple historic buildings in Capitol Hill, hired Madrona’s Dee Dee Rainbow, better known as the Rainbow Lady, to perform a series of ceremonies during his repurposing of the funeral home at East Pine Street and Melrose Avenue into office and bar uses. Rainbow — an art teacher known for her multicolored parasol and wand, with which she gave blessings — died in 2013. 

The building, now home to The Pine Box (1600 Melrose Ave.), was once a well-known mortuary that hosted, among others, Bruce Lee’s funeral. Everard said he was denied a loan by the International bank he was working with because the board, primarily made up of Chinese and Taiwanese investors, were superstitious about investing in the location. 

Although he didn’t believe in the otherworldly notions himself, Everard remembers thinking, “Shoot, maybe we should do something there.” 

Everard said Rainbow invited the construction crew and members of the incoming law firm to take part in the cleansing process. Everard recalls that they “burnt stuff and chanted stuff,” shook rattles and clanged bells.

“It was interesting because, for some people, it was a kind of a serious thing, and some people a fun, curious thing,” he said. “If nothing else, the law firm rallied behind it as sort of a bonding experience as part of their move from downtown to Capitol Hill. It was a positive experience on many levels.”

Everard said he’s not one that is “in tune” with spirits or energy, but others are.

“There were people at the law firm that felt they sensed bad energy and felt completely comfortable at the end of the process,” he said. “There were very real reactions to it by people, even if I wasn’t one of those people. It definitely changed people’s perception in that process.”

Despite the relatively positive experience, Everard said he has never recommended a shaman to other businesspeople.

“That was the first time I’ve done anything like that, and the only time,” he said.

The Derschang group is also accustomed to dealing with old, sometimes believed-to-be-haunted spaces. Linda Derschang, who owns five Capitol Hill bars and restaurants, remembers an investor suggesting she hire someone to clean the energy of The Baltic Room (1207 Pine St.) dance club in 1997, though she can’t recall the details.

She does, however, remember the ghosts.

Derschang said many people, including herself, saw a couple wearing 1920s garb who haunted the mezzanine area of the dance club. Around 3 a.m. one morning, talking with a manager at the bar, sober, she claims to have seen the female spirits’ feet, bottom of her shoes and dress coming down the stairs.

“I just got a shiver right now,” she said. “It was pretty cool, I have to say.”

Derschang said she’s always been a believer in the supernatural, but she never felt the need to call in any professional shamans — even for the “mischievous spirit” at the Capitol Club — other than at the Baltic Room.

“I just know we brought someone in,” she said. “Obviously, it didn’t do anything. That couple stayed there the whole time I owned the Baltic Room.”

She added, “It’s fun to believe in it, yet I don’t think that it would prevent me from moving into a home or renting a space for a business because I thought that it might possibly be haunted — unless something really horrible had happened.”

Multiple employees at Oddfellows Café+Bar (1525 10th Ave. E.) have shared stories of ghostly encounters — hearing unaccounted-for footsteps, trays and teapots inexplicably flying off shelves — but Shenandoah Davis, marketing director for the Derschang Group, doesn’t believe any employees have ever quit or stopped working over ghost fears.

“If part of the personality of the space happens to be that maybe it’s haunted, then maybe that comes with the territory,” Davis said. “Even if someone got scared for a few minutes while it was happening, the reaction would be, ‘Wow, cool” — like a little kid watching a movie that they shouldn’t have been watching until they were a few years older. That kind of fun scary.”

Barnett isn’t so sure that is true, saying an employee might leave a space because he or she is having experiences with a spirit that no one else is.

“You’d feel terribly undermined by co-workers and bosses,” she said. “Sometimes, they won’t acknowledge that it’s an experience and assume the employee is going crazy.”


Not everyone uses shamans

Kelley Moldstead, Seattle division president for Toll Brothers, the largest home builder in King County, said the developer gets requests, especially on the Eastside, for individual homeowners who ask for special rooms to be built for prayer. 

But he’s never been specifically asked to have a séance performed or an energy cleansing on a building — though, he said, he’s open to it.

“I would respect everyone’s thoughts, beliefs, whatever you want to call it,” he said. “Would I personally do it? Probably not. But I don’t think the opportunity has really faced me. I would never discourage anyone from doing what they feel they need to do.”

Ross Allison, author of multiple ghost books, including “Spooked in Seattle,” said his AGHOST paranormal investigation team is occasionally called by businesses to check for paranormal activity. That included calls years ago to Harvard Exit and the Richard Hugo House (1634 11th Ave.). 

Allison said they don’t advertise as “ghost-busters,” though there is a shaman in his group who works for free. He said the volunteer group primarily documents any types of activities or evidence that something might be happening.

Allison called Harvard Exit one of Seattle’s most-documented haunted locations, with published stories that go back to the late ‘70s.

“I could see why any new business owners would want to do a blessing or cleansing of the property,” he said.

Barnett said alternative spirituality is increasingly coming to the forefront in society and believes these types of jobs will continue to be a tool for developers.

“If you just bought a public space and some of your clients believe in what I do, in that way, you’re serving the client base and helping clients,” she said.

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