Seattle Now & Then: Major Millis' Capitol Hill Treasures

(As always, click on photos to enlarge)

THEN: Both the grading on Belmont Avenue and the homes beside it are new in this “gift” to Capitol Hill taken from the family album of  Major John Millis. (Courtesy of the Major’s grandchild Walter Millis and his son, a Seattle musician, Robert Millis.)
THEN: Both the grading on Belmont Avenue and the homes beside it are new in this “gift” to Capitol Hill taken from the family album of Major John Millis. (Courtesy of the Major’s grandchild Walter Millis and his son, a Seattle musician, Robert Millis.)
NOW: Although it took much longer than in many other blocks on Capitol Hill, the old homes here were eventually replaced with two of the largest apartment houses in the neighborhood.
NOW: Although it took much longer than in many other blocks on Capitol Hill, the old homes here were eventually replaced with two of the largest apartment houses in the neighborhood.

There is really no danger that the dog crossing Belmont Avenue here will be hit by anything.  When Major John Millis recorded this photograph one could have put all the motorcars in Seattle on the front lawns of these homes with room to spare. Cars were very rare and carriages only a little less so.  One walked or took the trolley.

Another photo from Major John Millis’ album shows the same pile of construction timbers (on the left) resting on the same freshly graded but as yet unpaved Belmont Avenue. It is dated May 1901.  This view looks south from Mercer Street.  The concrete street curb on the far left is still being built.  Although all these stately homes are new,  they are also already threatened by a neighborhood trend.  In less than twenty years much of this part of Capitol Hill will be rebuilt with apartment houses.

Millis, an engineer officer with the Army Corps, lived in Seattle about five years while he directed construction on Puget Sound’s military fortifications.  But forts are not given the loving attention in his album that his home neighborhood receives.  This is most fortunate for the hill, for this work of his folding Kodak is early.  For instance, in one view looking northwest from the back of his home, probably during its construction, one block away the intersection of Summit Avenue and Mercer Street is still only a crossing of narrow paths.  (Jean and I have included that example and several more from Major Millis’ album below.)

By his grandson Walter Millis’ account, the Major graduated from West Point in 1880 at the “top of his class.” By the time he reached Seattle mid-career, he had electrified the Statue of Liberty and “devised a plan that saved New Orleans from a hurricane disaster.”

The Millis home in 1901
The Millis home in 1901

Here’s looking at the Millis home directly west across Belmont and over the same timbers  – we suspect – that show in the primary photo used in the now-then repeat. Most likely the two photographs were taken on the same outing.  And note the bonus of all the  army corps officer’s notes in the margins.   The scribbled “Hotel” in the sky on the far left is pointing in the direction of the grand Denny Hotel (aka Washington Hotel) that then still stood on top of Denny Hill, which would have still been on the southwest horizon in the “fall of 1901.”

A rare photo of a carriage, taken from Major Millis' front porch
A rare photo of a carriage, taken from Major Millis' front porch

It is rare indeed to find photographs of working Carriages on Capitol Hill or any hill.  Almost certainly this view was snapped by Major John Millis from his front porch or near it.   Walter Millis, of Long Island – the very eastern end of it – gives a caption:

The trio at the carriage are almost certainly my grandmother, Mary Raoul Millis in the center, my Uncle Ralph at the right and the darling little tyke with the long blond ringlets is almost certainly my father, Walter Millis.”

Earlier, the family’s “informant” explained,

Major John Millis (as he then was) was a distinguished officer in the United States Army Corps of Engineers (what some of us around the water on the East Coast shorten to “the Army Corps”). He graduated from West Point in 1880 at the top of his class and was commissioned into the Engineers. (Apparently it was the custom at that time for cadets who did well academically to go into the Engineers.) The Engineers are, of course, responsible for military fortifications and the like but they are also responsible for lakes, rivers, harbors and ports.  An early task, when he was still only a Lieutenant was to electrify the Statue of Liberty, which, oddly enough, was quite a big deal. He commanded levees and port facilities; and was responsible for devising a plan that saved New Orleans from a hurricane disaster. At about the midpoint of his career, he was assigned to Seattle to work on military fortifications in the Puget Sound area. For some of the five years he was there, he was accompanied by his wife and two sons, one of them my father. I assume that’s why he wanted the house.”

A panorama by Millis
A panorama by Millis


It would be difficult to overestimate the uniqueness of this panorama snapped into two parts by Major John Millis either from the back of his Capitol Hill home at 523 Belmont or from the back of his homesite before the residence was ready for his family (I’m inclined to think it is the former).  The paths that lead out of the bottom of the image have “something to do” with Mercer Street.  Mercer between Belmont and Summit has at this point not yet been graded.  A good circa date for this is 1900, however, a thorough study of its parts – later – will make a confident date – to the year –  almost certainly possible.  And, again, it may well be 1900.

That is a Queen Anne Hill horizon, and along its shoreline with Lake Union the timber architecture of the old Westlake Trestle for trolleys, wagons, and pedestrians is evident.  Some of the Fremont neighborhood shows far right on the distant north shore of Lake Union.  Some of the details in this panorama may be detected in another photograph by Millis that he took later, also from the back of his property or home.  We shall include that view next.  (On some distant weekend I will try to convince the Pacific Northwest Editors – bless them – to let us run this comparison in the Times Sunday magazine, and with a “now” photo by Jean.  One of those will do.)

Millis' then & now
Millis' then & now

As promised, on the left, part of the Millis panorama shown directly above, and on the right, the neighborhood grown some and Queen Anne Hill too.  In the foreground several more homes are evident.  Summit Avenue is graded, although not yet paved, and graced with its own sidewalks.

The house that shows in part on the far left of the older view (also on the left) was – we can now see by consulting the later view on the right – at the northwest corner of Mercer and Summit.  You won’t find it there now, however.  A few of the structures that show up in the about a dozen Capitol Hill snapshots in the Major Millis picture album do survive.  (We will include at the bottom a challenge for one of these we have not yet identified.)

Note how Taylor Avenue has been recently graded up the east side of Queen Anne Hill in the later view on the right.  Between 1900 and 1910 the population of Seattle grew from about 90 thousand to about 230 thousand, and the differences here are evidence for that growth.  Millis, of course, had to record both these views during his about five years in Seattle at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Finally, thanks again to Rob Millis and his father Walter Millis for sharing these scenes, which we copied from a family album.


Who loves a mystery?
"I can do that."

But we haven’t tried.  So your turn first.  This is one of the dozen or so Capitol Hill (almost certainly) views that are included in Major John Millis’ photo album – a subject from his about five years in Seattle at the very beginning of the 20th Century.  But this one is dated by Millis himself.  At the bottom he has penciled, “May 1901.”  But where is it?  Tell us and Jean will shoot a “now” and repeat it here compliments of you.   This may be easier than we think.

Here’s another mystery shot from the Major.

Another Millis mystery
Another Millis mystery


Reader Ken comments:

Spectacular rare photos of old Capitol Hill. What a find. I have lived in this block for several years. There used to be 6 houses total on the west side of Belmont. This scene only shows 4 (the large white house 2nd from the left is actually on the south side of Republican. Two more are to be built at each end of the block. Note in the second photo of the Millis house, the north house (corner of Mercer and Belmont) has been built. I don’t think the timbers in the street are the same ones, as these two photos must have been taken months apart.
A couple more observations: In the first photo the dark house on the far left I believe is still standing. Could the small trees newly planted in the west parking strip be the same giant sycamores that are still there? Also, note how back in those days paving the sidewalk was a priority over paving the street. Now it is just the opposite. The curbs are still original I am sure.

Paul responds:

I’m holding onto my timbers. I have another photo by Millis that looks north on Belmont towards the Millis family home site but for that moment sans his home. However, the two homes to either side of the future Millis home are in the picture. This includes to the south that handsome structure with the steep roof and to the north – whopee! – the home on the corner. So although that home does not show up in the primary then-now photos we put down, it is there and so, no doubt, just off the frame/format to the right. Odd thing is – and here my perception agrees with yours – that in the photo that looks west across the timbers in the street and to the Millis home and that also shows the home on the corner, it does not seem possible that given the relatively little space between the two homes – the Millis and the corner home – that it should not also show up in the principal photo. And hence you may have concluded that those timbers could not be the same otherwise they would have rested there through the entire construction of the corner home. This was also my conclusion when I was fumbling through the album – until – until I came upon the other photo that I have just described above (and it now printed just below this ramble.) Pity I cannot [but now I can] show it to you but I do not feel confident in trying to insert it, and Jean who is away producing a play at Hillside School will need to do it this evening when he returns to his Green Lake home. So for this moment please trust me [Or better now look for yourself], but not for longer than one day [or rather only as long as it takes to dip your head.]  Jean should get that evidence up tonight. [And he has.]  I’ll also send him a semi-crude snapshot I took of a detail of that block from a 1912 real estate map. In that detail I have saturated (made more dense and brilliant too) the color (yellow) of the six houses on the block as well as the one across Republican on the southwest corner of Republican and Belmont so that they will stand out. In the footprints of those homes the one on the southwest corner of Belmont and Mercer – again the neighbor of the Millis home to the north – does not reach as close to the sidewalk on Belmont, and there is another reason why it has a chance of escaping direct inclusion in the photo we primarily wrote about. By the way we will want to repeat that ca.1900 pan from the Millis site west to the Queen Anne horizon and will need to get into an apartment in the northerly most of those two big ones. I don’t think it is the Lamplighter. That is the southerly one. Do you know the manager? Or the name? … of the apartment house.

Jean adds the photos mentioned above:


1912 map
1912 map

Seattle Now & Then: Broadening Broadway

THEN:  Looking across Capitol Hill’s Broadway Avenue during its 1931adjustments. (Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archive)
THEN: Looking across Capitol Hill’s Broadway Avenue during its 1931 adjustments. (Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archive)
NOW: Jean Sherrard had to stoop some to repeat the rooflines of the historical photo – good evidence that he is taller than the unnamed historical photographer.  But then Jean is also 6’7” tall.
NOW: Jean Sherrard had to stoop some to repeat the rooflines of the historical photo – good evidence that he is taller than the unnamed historical photographer. But then Jean is also 6’7” tall.

In 1931 the city decided to put things straight – sort of – on Capitol Hill by not only “broadening Broadway” but by pivoting it too.  Broadway Ave. got narrow north of Thomas Street and for most of the four blocks between Thomas and Roy Street it also turned a degree or two to the east.

The four-block straightening was a fussy bow to neatness.  You can still study it in the irregular widths of the sidewalks that face those buildings on the west side of Broadway that were not pivoted with the avenue.  However, the widening of the neighborhood’s principal commercial street made some sense, although many buildings on the east side of Broadway, like the brick store fronts shown here, had to be moved several feet east.  But not Pilgrim Congregational Church.

Pilgrim Church
Pilgrim Church

The sanctuary, shown here at the northeast corner of Broadway and Republican, was built in 1906 on a narrow swamp long appreciated for its vocal ensemble of frogs before its chorus of Christians.  The front yard was called the church’s “sunken garden.”  It still sinks although since the avenue’s 1931 widening the garden is smaller. (Later the top of the church’s tower was removed after it was twisted by the 1949 earthquake.)

In 1906 the neighborhood around the church was filling at first with mostly single-family residences.  Pilgrim got started in the 1880s as a Sunday school. By 1931 the broadening Broadway was faced by shops and the neighborhood was known for its apartment buildings, homes for couples that were often childless and/or secular.

A Rev. Dr. Edward Lincoln Smith was hired to help develop Pilgrim into the 20th Century as a place of worship. Perhaps it was not fair for a doctor of theology to then also enter a contest meant to extol the sublime qualities of the neighborhood where he was building a congregation.  But that is was Smith did, and he won.  Mixing church and real state his victory was announced in an Oct, 1901 advertisement by super-developer and contest originator James Moore who was rapidly opening his Capitol Hill additions south and east of Volunteer Park and thereby naming the entire neighborhood.

Smith wrote in part, “The charms of no other district are so abundant with riches.  From this eminence, what is left in view to be desired?”  The clergyman was more likely writing from the tower than from the garden.

Pilgrim Congregational Church on Broadway

(For more on the broadening of Broadway, see one of Paul’s earliest columns from March 11, 1984. Just click here)

Restoration in the heart of Paris: the Hôtel de Sully

(Click on photos to enlarge)

The Hôtel de Sully under restoration

Bérangère Lomont, our eyes and ears in Paris, has been documenting the restoration of the Hôtel de Sully in the Marais. By way of introduction, she writes:

Without a doubt, the Hôtel de Sully is one of the most beautiful buildings in the Marais. Located on the old Gallo-Roman way which leads from Lutèce to Melun (and later became rue Saint Antoine) it was built during the reign of King Henri IV, first urbanist of Paris, on today’s Place des Vosges in the heart of Marais.

Looking down on the Place des Vosges

In 1625, Mesme Gallet, superintendent of finance and bon vivant, began to build a private mansion with a garden and an orangery, but sold it unfinished.  For nine years, it languished until its third owner, 74 year old Maximilien de Béthune, first Duke  of Sully, completed its interior decor.

The organization of the rooms is very typical of an apartment of the 17th century; the painted decors by Antoine Paillet with their large simulated perspectives give the illusion of space, which was in the mood in the Marais because of the tiny houses and the narrow streets.

Springtime in the Place des Vosges

The Hôtel kept the name of Sully, although it became an investment property with little shops in the 19th century.  In 1944 it was bought by the State and entirely renovated. Since 2000, it has become the head office of Centre des Monuments Nationaux. In 2009, the restoration began of the façades and of the Duchess ‘s Apartment (added to the original structure in 1660) under the direction of Atelier Arcoa manager Jean-Sylvain Fourquet.

UV reveals
Tungsten conceals

In the spirit of “Now and Then” I offer the following record of restoration…

(to read the rest of BB’s remarkable behind-the-scenes photo essay, please click here)

A Correction from reader L. Vine and Paul's response

[We are grateful to L. Vine, who just posted the comment that follows. The results of this reader’s close reading and careful analysis are detailed below. We thought it significant enough to post immediately. –Jean]

As I reviewed the photos posted with the Now and Then article at the Seattle Times website this morning I noticed discrepancies between the architectural character of the Union Station of the present and the historic photograph.

Suspicious of the accuracy of the article, I came to this blog from the Seattle Times website, and found the larger versions of the photos I could more closely exam. After doing so, I believe the Webster and Stevens photo from the MOHAI collection is in fact a photograph of the construction of King Street Station, not Union Station. I believe this for the following reasons:

(1) Differing Architectural Details. Looking at the historic photo side-by-side with the contemporary photo of Union Station taken from the plaza above International District/Chinatown transit tunnel station, a casual viewer might not be cognizant that the ground level of Union Station is indeed hidden below the level of the plaza. But if we examine the contemporary photo with the emerging details of the second floor of the building under construction in the historic photo, you’ll see differing details–details that indicate that we’re looking at two different buildings. First, if we look at the corner of Union Station nearest the viewer in the contemporary photo (the southeast corner), you can see a brick reveal that creates a repeating horizontal shadow line that extends up to the frieze and cornice band. Now looking at the historic photograph we do not see this same repeating horizontal detail, instead we see a blind window being gradually surrounded by concrete or stone jambs (see it there in the historic photo–its that light colored material) at the corner of the building as the building is built. Second, examine the south elevation of both buildings. The contemporary photo of Union Station shows a gable with a large arched window which hints at the magnificent barrel vault inside. These two features are on a form that “bumps” out from the main mass of the building further south than the rest of the building. Now look at the historic photo–there is no such form evident.

(2) Structural Clues in the Historical Photograph. I believe some clues in the original photo have been overlooked or misinterpreted. First, I believe it is erroneous when Mr. Dorpat’s writes that the skeletal steel trusses in the photograph are being erected to support the great hall. What is portrayed in the photo are roof trusses that are not designed for a clear span. Look closely, you can see vertical columns supporting the trusses at mid span. But there are clues that indicate this is a historical photo of King Street Station under construction. Looking just above and beyond the corner with blind windows (the southeast corner) you can see some rather beefy looking steel–that’s the rising King Street Station clock tower. Also, rising above the partially complete south elevation you see six columns which will shortly support the trusses and ceiling of King Street Station’s waiting room. If these were for Union Station, they would be positioned on the east and west sides.

These things I can see in short order by comparing the two photographs. But the mistake is truly revealed by,

(3) The Metadata of Original Photograph. The entry for the photograph in MOHAI collection explicitly says that the historical photograph is King Street Station. There you can read the caption on the back of the photograph where it says “King St. Station being built”.

I think somewhere along the way, a mistake was made. If you agree with my assessment, please provide a correction here and in the Times in the service of historic accuracy.

All the best,

L. Vine

[Paul’s response:]

Mea Culpa. And stupid too.

Greetings dear L. We are working at rectitude. Jean thinks he also took a view from 4th (not 5th) of the Great Northern Depot. If not he will snap it late Monday. I will rewrite the description of this now-then – with something about the King Street Station – and preface that with a “true confession” and a suggestion that the readers also look at your detailed analysis. For that we will also keep a copy of Jean’s photo from 5th near it and near the new pair. Thanks for your interest and thoughtful care in this. It makes good hide-and-seek reading and should be appreciated for that too. My best excuses are that I first thought it was the King Station, that I might have better used the landmark fire station on the old not yet extended 2nd Ave. and beyond it the Stewart and Holmes drugs signs as clues. All are in the photo. There must be other excuses too. Unfortuntely, I don’t think that I am sick, nor was I instructed by any politician, preacher or other authority to make this mistake. I did it on my own. But I have not made another such blooper in 27 years – or about 1400 stories – and that may be taken into consideration during the sentencing. Here’s the other excuse. I am at this time preoccupied. I need to get this Ivar biography “Keep Clam” out by the end of the year or I’ll be ostracized by my friends, but if I make any more mistakes like this one, perhaps also ostracized by the community. I’ll need to move to Tacoma. Yes I WILL move to Tacoma. Meanwhile I shall try to Keep Clam.

More than the best for you L. Thanks much.


[While taking the pix for this Sunday’s Now and Then, I walked across the street and snapped King Street Station from the road above.  While it’s not an exact repeat, it must suffice for a day or so.  And as he promised – but can we trust him? – Paul will also write a new brief essay  – or extended caption – for the new comparison before he takes a train to Tacoma.  Let’s hope he is not confused about the station.–Jean]

The correct NOW - King Street Station
The correct NOW - King Street Station

2009-03-15 Union Station on Gas Cove

THEN: 1910 construction of the Union Pacific Railroad’s grand depot. (Courtesy Museum of History and Industry)
NOW: Jean Sherrard has moved a few feet north of the historical photographer’s prospect on 5th Avenue South in order to see the landmark station around the corner an International District Station artifact, on the left.
NOW: Jean Sherrard has moved a few feet north of the historical photographer’s prospect on 5th Avenue South in order to see the landmark station around the corner an International District Station artifact, on the left.

For the historical construction scene a staff photographer from Webster and Stevens (the studio that the Seattle Times contracted early in the 20th Century to do much of the paper’s photography) stands on a then Fifth Avenue S. trestle a few feet south of King Street to record this work-in-progress on the Union Station, the second of the big “palace stations” built facing Jackson Street and the business district.

The steel supports for the vaulted roof are being set.  The waiting lobby below it  – what is now called the “Great Hall” – gave Union Pacific and Milwaukee road riders a sublime welcome and/or good bye.  At its peak, the Washington-Oregon Station (its other name) employed more than 100 men in the baggage room providing for the almost 40 daily train arrivals and departures.

The station was built in 1910-11 at the corner of the reclaimed tideflats close to what would become the International District, or Chinatown.  Because of this location the site was a tidal collector and one of the most polluted parts of the waterfront. Had the photographer stood here three years earlier she or he would have look into the sprawling gas manufacturing plant that then still filled this pit, which was sometimes called Gas Cove.  (In 1907 the gas makers moved to Wallingford – Gas Works Park – and lower Queen Anne – the “Blue Flame Building” – to open the cove for the coming railroad.)

Standing on the same spot 29 years earlier anyone would have felt the commotion of the trains loaded with coal charging directly through this scene over a trestle and under full steam to carry them up and on to the oversized King Street wharf where California colliers lined up waiting for the coals of Newcastle and Renton.

Now much of the old cleaned-up cove between 5th Avenue and Union Station is covered with a patio, which itself only partly covers the open-air International District Station.  This is the southern terminus for the Downtown Transit Tunnel, and soon Sound Transit Central Link light rail trains will be stopping here as well.  A century ago the Union Pacific Railroad still had plans to continue north from here with their own tunnel beneath the city.

A closer view from the plaza
A closer view from the plaza
Inside Union Station
Union Station's "Great Hall"

For more on Seattle’s Union Station, please see the following related Seattle Now & Thens: “The King Street Gas Yard” (originally from 1993) and “High on Labor” (from 2002)

Seattle Now & Then: Seattle AKA Paramount Theatre Opening Night

(click on photos to enlarge)

THEN: As explained in the accompanying story the cut corner in this search-lighted photo of the “first-nighters” lined up for the March 1, 1928 opening of the Seattle Theatre at 9th and Pine was intended. Courtesy Ron Phillips
THEN: As explained in the accompanying story, the cut corner in this search-lighted photo of the “first-nighters” lined up for the March 1, 1928 opening of the Seattle Theatre at 9th and Pine was intended. Courtesy Ron Phillips
THEN: Again, Jean Sherrard used whatever was available – a ladder and an extension pole - to approach the prospect taken by the Seattle Times photographer in 1928. The theatre’s name was changed to Paramount in 1930.
NOW: Again, Jean Sherrard used whatever was available – a ladder and an extension pole - to approach the prospect taken by the Seattle Times photographer in 1928. The theatre’s name was changed to Paramount in 1930.

Some of the changes here – by no means all – in the 27 years I have now scribbled this weekly feature have made me nostalgic for lost places and – well – pleasures.   But much is also the better for it – much better.  Ida Coles restoration of the Paramount Theatre is a fine example.

Another improvement is the community of scholars that has grown up in the interval to often write about heritage.  The creative – but not closed – circle at the by now familiar web encyclopedia called historylink is the most obvious example.  But there are many others, and I’ll use the apparent mutilation of this photograph of the Seattle Theatre on its opening night in 1928 as a way to introduce one of them: David Jeffers.  Jeffers is an impassioned and by now very knowledgeable student of local theatre history.  His interest in the era of silent films is such that he helps in the exhibition of them, sometimes here at what has long since been renamed the Paramount Theatre.

Ron Phillips, Seattle Symphony’s now deceased legend of the clarinet, first shared with me this fragment of a photograph.  He had both played and lived at the Paramount. (David Jeffers also once lived there.)  With a lamentation about its torn condition attached, I sent a copy of the photograph to Jeffers.

Jeffers soon answered that the “tear” was really a “designer cut.”  The photo was used in The Seattle Times’ review of the joyful grand opening.  There the “black hole,” upper-left, is artfully filled with a news photograph of uncomfortable mayoral contestants Mayor Bertha Landes and her challenger Frank B. Edwards purchasing the first tickets to the grand opening.  Almost certainly they did not sit together.

For a delightful description of the Seattle/Paramount Theatre history – including details on this opening night – you might start by reading theatre historian Eric L. Flom’s historylink essay.  Postscript: Edwards beat Landes out of a second term.  Three years later he was impeached.

An alternate view of that night's Garrison Keillor concert.
Another view from around the corner.

Now & Then Tidbit: When the Paramount was the Seattle Theatre, Wallingford’s Guild 45th was the Paramount.

An early incarnation: The Paramount on 45th
An early incarnation: The Paramount on 45th

For the story behind that name change, please visit this Seattle Now & Then column from January 31, 1993.