Seattle Now & Then: First Avenue South, 1961

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Frank Shaw’s pre-preservation visit to First Avenue South on February 26, 1961. He looks north from Main Street. (photo by Frank Shaw)
THEN: Frank Shaw’s pre-preservation visit to First Avenue South on February 26, 1961. He looks north from Main Street. (photo by Frank Shaw)

 

NOW: Jean Sherrard’s return for his repeat gives equal exposure to the preserved landmarks lining both sides of First Avenue South.
NOW: Jean Sherrard’s return for his repeat gives equal exposure to the preserved landmarks lining both sides of First Avenue South.

Here, for the third week running, we belatedly thank Frank Shaw for another cityscape he chose to record with his Hasselblad camera on one of his winter walks in 1961.  Standing off the curb of First Avenue South on the evidently idle Sunday of February 26, Shaw aimed north from Main Street through the two blocks that were for Seattle’s first half-century the principal commercial strip for this ambitious town. Commercial Street, not First Avenue South, was its name until the city’s “Great Fire” of June 6, 1889. Following that destruction, some of the avenues in the burned district were widened and here south of First Avenue the descriptive name “Commercial” was abandoned for the commonplace First Avenue.

On this Sunday in February, Shaw could safely step from the curb during his hometown sight seeing.  For his repeat Jean Sherrard made the prudent choice of standing on the planted median strip.  This landscaping was one of the charmed improvements made later on First South during the polished restoration of Seattle’s Pioneer Square Historic district – about twenty blocks of it.

Standing at the center of First Avenue South also allowed Jean to show us the sandblasted vitality of those enduring landmarks that stand to both sides of the historic street. What Shaw saw in 1961 was brick walls slathered with carbon grime and cosmetic colors and the often neon names of the street’s many taverns, single room occupancy hotels, hardware stores, loan-pawn shops, cheap-suits shops, and a few missions.

Judging from my familiarity with his many photographs, I’m confident that Frank Shaw delighted in this subject’s primary tension – that between this historic street of worn landmarks and the nearly new Norton Building (1959), which fills the center of this cityscape.  Here, with its glass curtain walls, is Seattle’s first oversized demonstration of austere international modernity looming above this worn (but not worn out) old town neighborhood like a lower court judge with clean fingernails looking down from his high bench at the morning line-up of drunks, pickers and survival improvisators.

Now, a half-century later, we know the verdict.  First Avenue South and many of its neighbors were saved.  A mix of heroic forces for historic preservation had it over the cadre of Seattle politicians and developers who proposed razing both our Pioneer Square neighborhood and our community market at Pike Place in the name of “urban renewal.”  They envisioned mostly more Nortons and convenient parking lots. And Frank Shaw would be there through it all recording many of the heartening victories for preservation.

WEB EXTRAS

This week, extras will run late, we fear. We’re engineering a switch to new servers and expect several bumps along the way.

Nevertheless, one ‘Where’s Waldo’ treat: for the eagle-eyed, spot friend of the column, John Siscoe, poised at the street corner in the ‘Now’ photo, only a few feet from the doorway of his delightful Globe Bookstore.

Back in the 80s and 90s, John and Jean worked together on the Globe Radio Repertory, producing radio theatre for NPR Playhouse
Back in the 80s and 90s, John and Jean worked together on the Globe Radio Repertory, producing radio theatre for NPR Playhouse
If you have the chance to visit, be sure and ask John about the Duchy of Grand LIchtenstein
If you have the chance to visit, be sure and ask John about the Duchy of Grand LIchtenstein

That’s it for now. But we’ll be back on a new server next week (cross our fingers).

2 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: First Avenue South, 1961”

  1. It should be noted that the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation board does not allow neon signs larger than six square feet. Looking at the picture above, it is easy to see why.

  2. You wrote: A mix of heroic forces for historic preservation won out over the cadre of Seattle politicians and developers who proposed razing both our Pioneer Square neighborhood and community market at Pike Place in the name of “urban renewal.”

    If I’m not mistaken, the local media- newspapers- were also part of that cadre.

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