Seattle Now & Then: The Pioneer Place Pergola (and Privy), 1910

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Behind the pergola, Henry Yesler’s hallmark Pioneer Building (left, 1890) and the stately flat-iron Seattle Hotel (1891) straddle James Street. The stairway to the park’s luxurious lavatory is seen beneath the pergola at front, near First Avenue. (Webster & Stevens, Paul Dorpat collection)
NOW: A 21-foot extension pole allowed for the capture of a slightly lower prospect. In the 1960s, the red Pioneer Building (behind the trees) became an icon for preservationists who spearheaded creation of the Pioneer Square Historical District in 1970. The Seattle Hotel, infamously demolished in 1961, was replaced with the “sinking ship” parking garage, now squatting below Smith Tower (1914). Reportedly, the sealed-off lavatory still exists but can be accessed only via a utility hole. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in the Seattle Times online on Jan. 21, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Jan. 24, 2021)

Underground convenience, sheltered from the storm
By Jean Sherrard

From a rooftop vantage in 1910, our “Then” photo looks east to a newly completed cast-iron and glass pergola straddling the triangular city park of Pioneer Place, now Pioneer Square. A collision of junctions charting early settlers’ land disputes, this fertile ground set the stage for Seattle’s future.

After the Great Fire of 1889, a downtown built of brick and stone rapidly rose from the ashes. Prolific architect Elmer Fisher led the charge, designing dozens of buildings in the muscular — and fireproof — Romanesque Revival style.

Taking the lead in 1890 was Henry Yesler’s Pioneer Building, the massive edifice at left. No slouch at right, on the south side of James Street, was the Seattle Hotel, built in 1891 on the flatiron footprint of its destroyed predecessor, the Occidental.

Soon, fueled by coal and gold, adolescent Seattle nearly tripled in population to 237,194 in 1910 from 80,671 in 1900. Improvements in plumbing, electricity and transportation met the expanding need while the city also eagerly planned its coming-out party, the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.

Boosters anticipated visitors from across the globe, many of whom would arrive by train and ship, passing through Pioneer Place, Seattle’s commercial hub. But they sensed that a key convenience was missing.

Their solution — considerate but controversial — was to build a lavishly appointed public lavatory with walls of Alaskan marble, brass fixtures and terrazzo floors. To welcome the expected hordes, the vision was to bury it at Pioneer Place and cover its stairwell entrance with a graceful, Victorian-style pergola that would double as a shelter for streetcar passengers.

A flurry of letters and editorials erupted. Many lamented potential loss of the tiny greensward. Others forecast yet another promotional feather in the city’s cap. In the end, fans of the commodious “comfort station” won the debate, and excavation began.

The dig yielded an intriguing archeological find. Newspapers breathlessly reported the unearthing of Henry Yesler’s 1852 sawmill foundations, west of the Pioneer Building where his first home once stood.

The lavatory and pergola, designed by architect Julian Everett, proved late for the dance, opening Sept. 23, 1909, mere weeks before the exposition closed. But naysayers fell silent when the underground toilets proved immensely popular, averaging more than 5,000 flushes a day.

The palatial privy survived until the late 1940s, when it was abandoned and capped off forever. The pergola, however, endured. Intermittently ravaged by rust, earthquakes and errant trucks, it has been restored repeatedly over the years and continues to serve as a reservoir of history and shelter from the storm.

WEB EXTRAS

What a treat! One of those rare occasions in which Jean uses his 21′ extension pole. Its full length must be seen to be believed. Check out our 360 video for proof.

And these just in! Our longtime column partner, photo historian Ron Edge, sends along the following two photos, which more precisely illustrate the entrances to the palatial loo.

Also, we present a floor plan for the underground restroom and a 1970s view of its deteriorated state.

The Pioneer Place pergola on a foggy day. Note the fenced stairwells leading to the underground toilets. (MOHAI)
Detail of a stairwell – the west side for “women only.” (MOHAI)
This floor plan for the underground restroom is from David Williams’ blog GeologyWriter.com by way of theater historian David Jeffers.
This 1970s image of the vandalized restroom appeared in an Oct. 27, 1996, centennial section of the Seattle Times: https://special.seattletimes.com/o/special/centennial/october/saving.html

Seattle Now & Then: President Hotel, 1937-38

(click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN: The President Hotel rises on Olive Way in 1937-38, in this assessor’s photo rescued among thousands of others by now-retired county employee Stan Unger, of Magnolia. Below right, a New Richmond Laundry truck services the President, trumpeting Zoric fluid, “the most revolutionary dry cleaning process of all time.” The motherly laundry’s longtime slogan: “Sox, we darn ’em.” (Courtesy Stan Unger)
NOW: With Interstate 5 to their backs, descendants of Matthew Zindorf stand socially distanced at the former President Hotel site: (from left) Audrey and Adrian Tarr, Christine Brauner and Christine and Gus Marshall, all of South Seattle. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in the Seattle Times online on Jan. 14, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Jan. 17, 2021)

Builder Matthew Zindorf once installed a prudent President
By Clay Eals

On the cusp of Wednesday’s inauguration in Washington, D.C., we at “Now & Then” unequivocally commit ourselves to a peaceful transition — to a pertinent Seattle subject.

We reference, faithful readers might have guessed, the President Apartment Hotel. This seven-story brick building served a 34-year term from 1927 to 1961 while perched northeast of downtown on Olive Way atop what today is Interstate 5.

Though an elegant edifice, this was no overnight abode for the likes of Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower or Kennedy, as its name could imply. With 36 single rooms and 58 two-room suites, each with pull-down wall beds, the President hosted longer stays starting at $30 a month.

Upon its opening, newspapers rallied public support. They touted electric refrigeration, radio outlets and hardwood floors and lauded “automatic elevator service to all floors,” including a basement garage, “doing away with the sometimes unpleasant necessity of going out of the building to reach the car.”

Matthew P. Zindorf as a young adult. (J.H. Blome Studio, courtesy Leon Blauner)

Headstrong entrepreneur Matthew P. Zindorf both designed and owned the President. Known as an engineer who constructed Seattle’s first reinforced concrete structure (the 1910 Zindorf Apartments, still standing at 714 Seventh Ave.), he had developed major projects here and in Canada since 1890.

He also dabbled in public policy. In three 1934 letters to The Seattle Times, he proposed how to cast off the Depression: “I would keep every honest, willing worker at work. No children nor women would be needed. I would begin to reduce the hours of the employed to give work to the unemployed. I would keep them employed all the time.”

Politics on the home front earned him tabloid-style coverage in 1929. “Wealthy Realtor Sued for Divorce On Cruelty Charge,” bellowed The Seattle Times, as Zindorf conceded custody of a daughter, a house and alimony. A Seattle Post-Intelligencer subhead said his wife, Daisy, complained that “She Did Own Housework To Save Money.” Daisy reportedly testified that Zindorf had canceled her charge accounts, limiting her to spending $80 a month to run their household with no help. Zindorf’s side went unreported.

Zindorf died in 1952 at age 93, stepping down from work just three years earlier. While residing at the Elks Club, he often walked downtown with grandson Leon Brauner, now of Ocean Shores, who recalls, “Every time we passed a particular Fourth Avenue bank, he whacked his cane against the plate-glass window.” His granddad’s rationale is a fuzzy memory, but surely “it was his way of making a point.”

Power-cranes clawed away the President’s walls in March 1961, declaring another victory in the inevitable campaign to build I-5. Pardon the expression: All in favor?

WEB EXTRAS

To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!

Our automotive informant Bob Carney discloses that our “Then” photo depicts (from right) a 1928-29 Ford Model A panel truck, a 1929-30 Chevrolet coupe and a 1935 Ford Tudor. The car at far left is unidentifiable.

Below are an additional photo, a map and, in chronological order, 38 historical clippings from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and other online newspaper sources that were helpful in the preparation of this column.

As a bonus, at the bottom, we include 27 additional clippings that convey the creativity of the anonymous advertising copy writer for New Richmond Laundry, who certainly wasn’t depressed during the Great Depression!

Special thanks to Leon Brauner and Diana James for their assistance with this column!

Matthew P. Zindorf as a young adult. (J.H. Blome Studio, courtesy Leon Blauner)
A section of the 1912 Baist map shows the future location of the President Hotel, indicated by red arrow. (Ron Edge)
July 24, 1905, Seattle Times, page 10. This ad indicates a five-room cottage stood on the site where the President Hotel was later built.
Sept. 3, 1911, Seattle Post-Intelligencer letter to the editor, page 7.
March 24, 1913, Seattle Times, page 19.
May 2, 1926, Seattle Times, page 80.
July 18, 1926, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 35.
Sept. 18, 1926, Hotel News of the West. (Diana James)
Feb. 20, 1927, Seattle Times, page 14.
Feb. 1, 1928, Seattle Times, page 2.
Feb. 15, 1928, Seattle Times. (Diana James)
Dec. 3, 1928, Seattle Times, page 28.
June 20, 1929, Seattle Times, page 7.
June 29, 1929, Seattle Times, page 2.
Oct. 11, 1929, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 19.
Feb. 15, 1931, Seattle Times, page 3.
May 11, 1933, Seattle Times, page 24.
Aug. 7, 1934, Seattle Times letter to the editor, page 6.
Sept. 1, 1934, Seattle Times letter to the editor, page 6.
Sept. 17, 1934, Seattle Times, page 6.
May 8, 1936, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 10.
Feb. 27, 1945, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 15.
May 18, 1945, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 19.
June 22, 1945, Seattle Times, page 19.
Oct. 14, 1945, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 33.
March 1, 1946, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 21.
Feb. 16, 1952, Seattle Times, page 12.
April 13, 1952, Seattle Times, page 30.
July 5, 1953, Seattle Times, page 25.
Dec. 30, 1955, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 26.
Sept. 21, 1959, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 1.
Oct. 31, 1959, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 16.
Jan. 2, 1960, Seattle Times, page 17.
March 15, 1960, Seattle Times, page 25.
Oct. 28, 1960, Seattle Times, page 21.
Oct. 29, 1960, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 5.
Oct. 30, 1960, Seattle Times, page 52.
Nov. 5, 1960, Seattle Times, page 18.
Dec. 3, 1960, Seattle Times, page 21.
March 9, 1961, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 5.

New Richmond Laundry ads

Here is a selection of 27 creative classified ads for New Richmond Laundry, whose truck appears at bottom right in our “Then” photo. At the very bottom are an article and ad for Zoric, the fluid touted by New Richmond Laundry.

Jan. 20, 1932, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 20.
Feb. 5, 1932, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 18.
Feb. 7, 1932, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 51.
Feb. 13, 1932, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 14.
Feb. 24, 1932, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 22.
Feb. 28, 1932, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 46.
March 8, 1932, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 23.
April 12, 1932, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 20.
April 14, 1932, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 23.
April 16, 1932, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 18.
May 31, 1932, Seattle Times, page 23.
Dec. 20, 1932, Seattle Times, page 24.
Jan. 25, 1933, Seattle Times, page 18.
Feb. 5, 1933, Seattle Times, page 23.
March 23, 1933, Seattle Times, page 25.
March 26, 1933, Seattle Times, page 23.
April 7, 1933, Seattle Times, page 31.
April 16, Seattle Times, page 29.
April 22, 1933, Seattle Times, page 11.
Oct. 29, 1933, Seattle Times, page 31.
Nov. 3, 1933, Seattle Times, page 34.
Oct. 4, 1935, Seattle Times, page 40.
Dec. 31, 1935, Seattle Times, page 17.
Jan. 6, 1937, Seattle Times, page 21.
Aug. 6, 1937, Seattle Times, page 17.
March 9, 1940, Seattle Times, page 12.
April 19, 1944, Seattle Times, page 23.
Nov. 13, 1933, Catholic Transcript, page 11.
Nov. 13, 1933, Catholic Transcript, page 9.

Seattle Now & Then: The Jackson Street Regrade, 1908

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: To accommodate fill dirt expected from the Jackson Street regrade, pre-existing structures like these hotels near the southeast corner of Sixth and Weller were lifted by their owners onto posts. After the regrade, the incline between Twelfth and Fifth avenues was reduced to less than 5% grade from the previous 15%. This photo was taken on May 20, 1908, halfway through the project. (Lewis & Wiley, courtesy Ron Edge)
NOW: Shoppers line a walkway between Fifth and Sixth avenues in the Chinatown-International District in early December 2020. Photo historian Ron Edge positions the “Then” hotels just inside the walls of today’s Uwajimaya Village at right. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in the Seattle Times online on Jan. 7, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Jan. 10, 2021)

Sluicing away Jackson Street to unclog the city’s future arteries
By Jean Sherrard

Long before becoming a student of Seattle history, I had a recurring (and oddly unsettling) dream of hiking an unbroken ridge between First Hill and Beacon Hill. Were it not for Reginald Heber Thomson (1856-1949), our city’s current topography may have matched my dreamscape.

THEN 2: Reginald H. Thomson, Seattle city engineer, in 1905. (courtesy, Seattle Municipal Archives)

When Thomson first stepped onto Seattle docks on Sept. 25, 1881, he told a friend that the city was built in a hole and he meant to dig it out. The 25-year-old’s ambition might have been attributed to youthful exuberance, but in the decades to come, his words would prove prophetic. Appointed city engineer in 1892, Thomson began by installing water and sewage infrastructures (still in use today) before attacking Seattle’s hills and valleys.

Notes David Williams in his masterful 2015 history of Seattle topography “Too High and Too Steep,” to Thomson “a functioning city was like a human body.” He insisted that “enlarging and improving what he called the city’s arteries” was vital to Seattle’s future health.

A view from lost Denny Hill, looking north to Magnolia

Picturesque piles of glacial deposit — like Denny Hill north of downtown — were, in Thomson’s view “an offense to the public,” interrupting the free flow of traffic. In 1898, the hill’s decapitation commenced, using hydraulic hoses (called “giants”) to liquify and sluice away the moraine.

One of the “giants” in action (courtesy Ron Edge)

When Rainier Valley residents complained that the Jackson Street incline’s steep 15% grade obstructed access to Seattle’s business district, Thomson lent a sympathetic ear. Intrigued by their initial suggestion to tunnel through the hill, he eventually advanced a “far cheaper and far better” solution — utter removal. “Every house and every garden and every street” in the affected areas might be lost, but he judged the sacrifice necessary to make municipal headway.

Looking east from the corner of Weller and Maynard

In May 1907, the hydraulic giants began their work. Enormous pumps fed up to 25 million gallons of salt and fresh water daily to their pressurized hoses, expelling a thousand cubic yards of dirt during each eight-hour shift.

Another view looking west from Eighth and Weller

Completed in December 1909, the Jackson Street project covered the largest surface area of all Seattle regrades: 56 blocks in total, with 29 lowered and 27 raised. More than three million cubic yards of dirt were moved, lowering Ninth and Jackson by 85 feet and raising Sixth and Weller by about 30.

My recurring dream may harbor some whiff of lost geography, yet the force of R.H. Thomson’s vision resides. While often trading natural beauty for an engineer’s expedience, his straightened, flattened, stretched Seattle provided a blank canvas for cityscapes to come.

WEB EXTRAS

To see our Now & Then featured in spectacular 360 video, along with an audio narration by Jean, click here.

A few more regrade-themed spectacles below:

A western view of the regrade, with King Street station’s clock tower just right of center

Seattle Now & Then: rally for open housing, 1964

(click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN: In an image featured in a journal article by historian Dale Soden, 1,500 open-housing advocates gather March 7, 1964, at the old Westlake Mall after a march from Mount Zion Baptist Church. An open-housing ordinance on the city ballot three days later lost by a more than two-to-one margin. Visible beyond the Monorail tracks are the old Orpheum Theatre and, more distant, the Trailways bus depot. (Harvey Davis, Seattle Post-Intelligencer / Museum of History & Industry)
NOW: Dale Soden chooses a Black Lives Matter sign to stand near the same spot as the 1964 rally. Behind him is today’s Westlake Center, a 4-story shopping center and 25-floor office tower that replaced the old mall in the mid-1980s while the Monorail was slightly truncated and a new Westlake Park stretched to the south. On the old Orpheum site rose today’s Westin Hotel. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in the Seattle Times online on Dec. 31, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Jan. 3, 2021)

Tracking the role of spiritual leadership in the public square
By Clay Eals

Here’s a New Year’s reflection as newly elected public servants take office this month:

While the First Amendment commands social distancing between government and religion, there’s never been a year they haven’t mixed it up. Indeed, spiritual leaders have long challenged citizens to use free speech and the ballot box for what they see as the public good.

This week’s “Then” photo, looking north at Seattle’s old Westlake Mall, is an apt demonstration. Led by Catholic, Jewish and Protestant clerics, some 1,500 opponents of racist real-estate covenants hoisted a sea of signs on March 7, 1964, to urge voter passage of a city open-housing ordinance.

“Voting against basic rights of men is against the will of God,” the Rev. James Lynch of St. James Cathedral told the crowd beneath the beams of the Monorail, which opened for the World’s Fair two years prior, and in front of the elegant 1927 Orpheum Theatre three years away from its razing.

With opponents stoking fears of “forced” housing, the 1964 measure failed, 115,627 to 54,448. But as vowed at the rally by the Rev. Dr. John Adams, chair of the Central Area Committee for Civil Rights, “We will not be deterred until we have the respect, dignity and freedom we deserve.”

The political tide turned in 1968 when the city council passed an open-housing ordinance whose ban on racial discrimination expanded in 1975 to gender, marital status, sexual orientation and political ideology; in 1979 to age and parental status; in 1986 to creed and disability; and in 1999 to gender identity.

Such issues captivate Dale Soden, a 35-year history professor at Spokane’s Whitworth University. He’s written two books and many articles documenting how religious activism — for good and ill — has shaped Northwest politics. His life’s work earned him the 2019-2020 Robert Gray Medal, the Washington State Historical Society’s highest honor, bestowed last September.

Soden, a white Lutheran, grew up in Bellevue, then nearly all-white. The earliest of his many career influences was his Black sixth-grade teacher at Robinswood Elementary School, the booming-voiced Don Phelps, a later KOMO-TV analyst and community-college chancellor in Seattle and Los Angeles.

Civil rights and Vietnam War protests fueled Soden’s adult direction: “I was always trying to figure out whether Christianity made any difference in how you looked at the world or lived your life.”

Clearly, he believes it has — and should. Though the Northwest is acknowledged as the least-churched region of the country, and while its religious leaders may seem less prominent in the public square than in 1964, Soden says their function “is still potent.”

WEB EXTRAS

To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!

Below are an additional photo, a PowerPoint presentation from the Washington State Historical Society, a video interview of Dale Soden and a historical clipping from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, all of which were helpful in the preparation of this column.

Special thanks to Dale Soden for traveling to Seattle from Spokane to pose for our “Now” photo!

The covers of Dale Soden’s books.
A brief PowerPoint presentation on Dale Soden by the Washington State Historical Society.
Click this photo to see a 12-minute video interview of Dale Soden (Clay Eals)
March 8, 1964, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 77.

 

Seven Gables burning…

The Seven Gables Theater in flames on Christmas Eve, 2020

Was just emptying my spam filter and found this stunning photo shared by historian Kurt E. Armbruster.

Kurt comments: “We live just a couple of blocks away and Cedar saw a big puff of smoke, so I grabbed my phone and dashed over. Quite a spectacle. Sorry to see it go, but it was going anyway.”

Black Santa, 1985

By Clay Eals

PacificNW magazine of The Seattle Times is not running “Now & Then” in the Sunday print editions of Dec. 20 and Dec. 27, 2020.

So as one way to fill the gap for you, our faithful blog subscribers, I offer this “Black Santa” story of mine that appeared Christmas Day 1985 on the front page of the West Seattle Herald, for which I served as editor. The fine photos were by Herald photographer Brad Garrison. This is posted with the permission of Robinson Newspapers.

A couple months ago, thinking this story and photos might make the basis for a “Now & Then” column this month, I tried searching online for Tracy Bennett, the subject of this story, who would be 57 today. Alas, I turned up nothing.

Still, in our coronaviral time of health crisis and social, economic and political upheaval, this 35-year-old story about Tracy and his view on the Santa milieu remains timely, powerful and inspiring — at least that’s my hope.

At the time I wrote it, the story resonated quite personally, From 1985 to 1993, I volunteered more than 100 times to play Santa for children and adults at parties and in schools, community halls and private homes throughout Puget Sound as part of the American Heart Association’s “Santa with a Heart” fundraising program. As any Santa will tell you, it was a uniquely heartwarming and unforgettable experience. (See clippings at bottom.)

Please click any of the images once or twice to enlarge them for easy reading. And if you want to read the transcribed Black Santa text instead of reading directly from the images, scroll down.

Merry merry, and ho, ho, ho!

Dec. 25, 1985, West Seattle Herald, page one. (Posted with permission of Robinson Newspapers.)
Dec. 25, 1985, West Seattle Herald, page two. (Posted with permission of Robinson Newspapers.)

West Seattle Herald, Dec. 25, 1985

‘Just for you’

Black Santa relishes children’s happiness

Santa Claus, known as Tracy Bennett in the “off”-season, walks into a class of busy fifth- and sixth-graders at Hughes Elementary School in West Seattle.

“Hi, boys and girls,” says Santa.

“Oh, hi Santa Claus!” the students respond, almost in unison.

“Howya doin’?”

“Fine.”

“That’s good. I thought I’d drop in and visit you for a minute.”

“Yeah,” say a couple of students. “You changed colors.”

“Yeah,” answers Santa, “I sure did, didn’t I?”

By CLAY EALS

When most of those who are opening packages under the Christmas tree this morning think about “the man with all the toys,” their vision probably doesn’t look like Tracy Bennett.

That’s because Bennett is Black, while nearly all of the Santas in the world — at least in the United States — seem to be as white as the North Pole’s year-round snow.

Bennett isn’t bothered, however. He keeps an upbeat, optimistic attitude about the seasonal craft he’s practiced for the past 12 years. He says he’s encountered subtle prejudice from adults and skepticism from kids, but he boasts of being able to win over most of the doubters.

Exposure is what Bennett says he needs most. And so do the other Black Santas in America, he says.

Bennett got some of the exposure he desired last week when he walked the halls of both Hughes and Van Asselt elementary schools, the latter of which is attended by some students who live in southern West Seattle and the city side of White Center.

He roamed the halls at Hughes and, with the assistance of teacher Willa Williams, peeked into classrooms and dropped off sacks of candy canes, occasionally stopping for a few minutes to talk to kids on his lap. Bearing a staccato, smile-inducing “ho, ho, ho,” he almost resembled a politician, repeatedly extending his hand for a shake and greeting children with a steady stream of “Howyadoin’? … Howyadoin’, guy? … Hiya guys. Workin’ hard?”

The racially mixed classes responded in a generally positive way. Although one sixth-grader was heard to say, “I thought Santa Claus was white, because I saw a white Santa Claus at The Bon,” for the most part any negative comments centered on whether he was “real,” not on his skin color.

“He’s nice, but his hair’s made out of cotton. Weird,” said fourth-grader Jessica Canfield. “And he has clothes under his other clothes.”

“He’s fine, and I like him,” said fellow fourth-grader Johnny Cassanova. “He said that he would visit me, and he would try to get everything that I want for Christmas and to get good grades.”

Was he the “real” Santa? “Yeah,” said Johnny, “to me he is.”

“It went real good,” Bennett said afterward. “They were very polite. They weren’t skeptical. Mostly loving, you can tell.”

Bennett, who at 22 is unemployed and intends to go to school so that he can get a job either as a police officer or working with handicapped kids, began his Santa “career” at the young age of 10. “I started as a little dwarf and moved my way up,” the Rainier Valley resident said with a laugh.

Over the years, Bennett said, he’s been Santa at private gatherings and community centers in Seattle’s south end, and he’s pieced together a costume he thinks is unimposing. The key part, he said, is his beard, which is a rather flat affair.

“The big Santa Claus beards and hairs are so flocky, so thick, that it scares some children,” Bennett said. “His color of his suit and his beard is so bright already, along with the brightness of his face.

“A Black Santa Claus with a white beard seems to bring out an older look, and the color of my skin makes it look like a normal Black man wearing a suit.”

Consequently, he said, kids warm up to him rather quickly. “Apparently I work out pretty good,” he said.

Children, both white and minority, raise the racial question fairly often, Bennett said. They usually just say, “Santa Claus is white,” expecting a response, he said.

“But I really don’t say nothing. I just look at ’em and smile, or I say ‘Ho, ho, ho,’ and they usually don’t ask anymore,” he said. “I’m used to it, so it’s no problem.”

Bennett does look forward to a day when more Black Santas are around to break the racial ice at Christmastime.

“I’m not the only one, but I never see ’em in stores,” he said. If just one major downtown store would feature a Black Santa, “that would mean the 12 years that I’ve been working on it has started to come through,” he said. “It would be a breakthrough. I want it to happen.”

He also would like to see children exposed to Santas of a variety of races. “If we bring the children Black Santa Clauses, Korean Santa Clauses, Japanese Santa Clauses, the kids will like it after a while,” he said.

For that to happen, however, some prejudices will have to be broken down gradually. “You can feel it’s there,” he said. “You try to believe it’s not there, but you can see it in people’s eyes.”

Like any Santa Claus, Bennett finds it a “thrill” to portray Saint Nick to children. “When kids are happy, I’m happy. When they’re sad, I feel for ’em. I’d like to give ’em more than I can.”

He insists, however, that it’s important not to insist that he’s the “real” Santa when kids challenge him. He tells children, “You don’t have to believe in me. But I’m doing this just for you.”

“Why ruin a kid’s mind and say, ‘I’m real, believe me’?” he said. “He (Santa) is a beautiful man, OK? No one can take that away from him. But we have to tell what’s real from not. We have to tell our kids we play Santa Claus because we love children.”

Bennett also said it’s important not to push the religious aspects of Christmas as Santa. “When we talk about religion, we have to let kids do what they want, do not force them.”

Williams, the teacher, took the same approach in deciding to invite Bennett, a friend of hers, to visit Hughes. While Christmas “is a fun time and should be a time for joy,” she said she’s well aware of the Seattle School District’s policy that’s intended to separate religion from school activity.

Bringing Santa to the classroom — and a Black Santa at that — was an attempt to get students to “understand each other’s differences,” she said.

“When I told them Santa Claus might visit, one student told me, ‘I don’t believe in Santa Claus.’ Another said, ‘Santa Claus is my mom and dad,’ and another said, ‘Santa Claus is Jesus’,” Williams said. “It was just the idea of general thought and letting them express themselves and learning to accept each and every person and their differences as long as there isn’t any harm.”

For Bennett, the delight of being Santa is that “guy is just a giving person, you know?

“He gives away things to make people happy. If a child’s sick in bed, he sees Santa Claus, he’s going to try to smile as much as he can because he’s happy. When they say, ‘Santa Claus, you didn’t give me so-and-so,’ I say, ‘Well, maybe next year, OK?’

“I don’t tell them I’m going to get this (particular item) for them and get their hopes up. I tell them that maybe somebody will get it for them very soon.

“One guy said he wanted to go to college, and I said, ‘Maybe next Christmas or a few Christmases from now, you’ll be going to college and be saying you got your wish.’ ”

Bennett clearly is hooked on his annual role: “As long as I live and as long as I stay healthy, I’ll always be Santa Claus.”

P.S. Clay as Santa

As promised at the top, here are tidbits from my eight-year volunteer Santa Claus “career” for the American Heart Association: two clippings in which I demonstrate for other Santas the best way to don the uniform, plus a sketch I created to provide step-by-step guidance. Click once or twice on the images to enlarge them. —Clay

Nov. 11, 1992, North Central Outlook.
Dec. 16, 1992, West Seattle Herald.
Clay’s sketched guide to the most efficient order for donning elements of a Santa Claus suit.

A bonus:

Just for fun and to keep with the theme, I also dug up and am including a Santa article I wrote that appeared on Christmas Eve 1980 in the Oregonian near the end of my eight-year stint as a reporter and photographer for that newspaper. Again, click once or twice on the image to enlarge it for easy readability. Enjoy! —Clay

Dec. 24, 1980, Oregonian, page B8.

‘Seattle Now & Then: The Historic Hundred’ – still available for last minute gifting!

 

A quick reminder for column friends and fans: our prize-winning collection of ‘Seattle Now & Then’ columns (published in November 2018) is still available!

We’ve only got a few copies signed by Paul Dorpat and Jean Sherrard on hand, but they’re ready to be inscribed with a personal note and mailed out as last minute gifts.

Any questions, contact Jean directly at seattlenowandthen@gmail.com.

Here’s how to order

Another Rogue’s Christmas Carol at Town Hall, Sunday 2PM

Join us for our 13th annual Rogue’s Christmas in a live reading of Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ – this year featuring Seattle’s favorite Scrooge, Kurt Beattie, as well as Marianne Owen, Julie Briskman and Jean Sherrard.

Also, through the magic of video, Paul Dorpat sings ‘The Little Birdie Song’ not to mention a special pre-recorded appearance of our house band Pineola.

For more information, click on through:

A Rogue’s Christmas 2020 (livestream)

Now & Then here and now