The Alexander Years: 1903-1948
In the garden once cultivated by me and my wife, How tall and blossom-laden the trees have grown! - Otomo no Tabito, Manyoshu Poems, 759A.D. JapanThe Coval Estate was originally homesteaded by David Alexander in 1903. Alexander had a successful metal roofing business in Seattle, and dreamed of a farm where he could have orchards, vegetable gardens and farm animals, allowing him to live in solitude and self-sufficiency. Much of the island’s land had been logged by 1900, as was Alexander’s. His 5.08 acres was perched above on a hill and to the west of what would eventually become the Mercer Island business district, and was considered remote and somewhat undesirable due to the increased difficulty of obtaining water. Alexander‘s land was perfect for him however, providing open space to begin his fruit orchards, beehives and pasture for his livestock. He purchased the property for 33 dollars, and taking the steamer Aquilo from Leschi to Mercer Island went to work planting trees, clearing and putting up barns and outbuildings for his animals. He hand-dug a brick lined well, which still exists today, to provide the necessary water for the future home and gardens.
Alexander’s granddaughter, Dorothy Brandt Brazier, was a legendary columnist for the Seattle Times and had vivid memories of visiting her grandfather on his Mercer Island farm, which she documented in her unpublished memoir, “One Frenchman More”. Alexander was a difficult man and made few friends on the island. According to Brazier, he had a total of four, and his relationships with family members were not much better. But he loved his farm, and was most content when shaping the dream of his secluded paradise. Alexander immigrated from France, and Brazier remembers that he loved roasted chestnuts. On one occasion, Alexander had 10 dollars worth of chestnuts shipped from France, only to have them arrive rotten. He either attempted to plant the seeds or promptly shipped away for French chestnut seedlings; either way, two grand chestnut trees still stand proudly on the estate today, providing the same delicious nuts that Alexander enjoyed.
Around 1908 David Alexander retired, moved his wife Amelia and his children to Mercer Island, and built his dream home. The 986 square foot main house had no electricity, but did have a wood burning furnace and kitchen stove, a fireplace, and kerosene lamps for light. There was minimal plumbing, but a Halladay windmill pumped water into an elevated storage tank, providing some pressurized water to the home and outbuildings. The farm included a horse named Dick, a cow, pigs, chickens, a dog and a few cats. The orchards included many varieties of apples, pears, plums and nuts, most of which are still producing today. A number of holly trees, madronas, fir and cottonwood trees still thrive on the estate today as well.
King County Assessor records show that eventually the estate included the main house, two livestock barns, the windmill and tank, two small sheds, and two chicken coops. Had he lived, David Alexander passed away in 1932, he would have been amazed to learn that by 1939 his 33 dollar investment in 5 acres of Mercer Island was now valued at 840 dollars.
Amelia continued to live in the house as Alexander had left it, cozy but still without electricity, until 1948 when she passed away at age 95. The house was sold and torn down that year, making way for a modern ranch styled house built just 50 feet to the south of the old Alexander house. The massive concrete wine cellar remained however, finding new life for the next owners as a swimming pool, and then decades later, as a koi pond for the Coval House.