Seattle Now & Then: Look Down into Belltown

(click photos to enlarge)

THEN: Crowding the bluff above Second Avenue to his left (west) ex-mayor Robert Moran looked northwest into the heart of Belltown from near his home site on top of Denny Hill. (Courtesy of Hal Will)
NOW: In his attempt to reach Moran’s altitude on the north side of Lenora Street, Jean Sherrard had to leave his prospect and visit instead a rooftop on the south side of Lenora. That he was still some feet lower than Moran can be determined by the relative location of the distant Magnolia Peninsula in the two views.

On a windy summer afternoon (can you see the bush shaking?) Robert Moran loaded his camera with a glass negative and exposed this look down – way down – from the summit of Denny Hill into the heart of Belltown.  The 37-year old ship builder and former mayor was one of Seattle’s best expressions of the post civil war Horatio Alger ideal of a guileless young man who by dint of energy and ambition turns a dime into a fortune.  Moran steadied himself against the wind in the back yard of his neighbor to the west, hardware dealer Percy Polson, whose home like Moran’s also looked south over Lenora Street between Second and Third Avenues.

This is one of the rare intimate views of the old “North Seattle” neighborhood before it was razed for the commercial convenience of flatter land. The Denny Regrade was completed just in time for the automotive age when it was no longer needed.

Most of the many surviving photographs of the neighborhood are of that dramatic regrading which began on First Avenue in 1899 and, after a pause, resumed here along Second Avenue in 1903. A small portion of the pre-regrade Second Avenue directly north of Blanchard Street is evident bottom-left.  By 1906 the not-so-old house, shown here in 1895 with the distinguished bay window looking west to Elliot Bay, was either moved or destroyed – most likely the later – as a steep bluff along the east side of Second Avenue was formed with the lowering of Second Avenue to its existing grade.

For the contemporary repeat of Moran’s recording Jean Sherrard and I underestimated Denny Hill.  Returning to the prospect of Polson’s back yard was not possible without a hook and ladder.  But across Lenora the roof of the new six-story apartment building awaited Jean.  From there he could look directly across or thru Moran’s point-of-view – or nearly.  That rooftop is also lower than the hill by about twenty feet.

(And from this point on, Paul’s web-only additions:)

Mayor Moran's home - another view (Courtesy Hal Will)


Sharing new evidence of the old Denny Hill neighborhood is always a treat.  That his home at 216 Lenora Street was also the domestic retreat for the industrious Moran clan lets us imagine what magnitude of zest must have been regularly played out here.
As its own caption indicates this photograph was taken in 1895.  That was five years after Robert Moran concluded his second term as Seattle Mayor and only twenty years since with one dime in his pocket he was on a dark November morning – in his own words – “dumped on Yesler’s wharf at the foot of Yesler way at the age of seventeen, without a friend or relative nearer than New York.”

The hungry teenager’s nose led him to the café run on the wharf by Bill Gross, whom he remembered as a “fine five hundred weight colored man who operated what he named ‘Our House.’ Well, it certainly proved to be my house. I got my breakfast on credit. Bill was a fine cook.”

Moran at his desk
Moran at his desk

After seven years of working on steamboats, Robert Moran opened his own marine repair shop on Yesler’s wharf in 1882 and sent for his mother and four younger siblings to join him from New York.  Five years later he was elected to the city council and in two years more mayor.  The city’s Great Fire of 1889 came on his watch and the talented machinist helped engineer the rebuilding of Seattle.

In the year Robert Moran shot the above photograph of his Denny Hill home, he added steel-hulled shipbuilding to his ever-growing business.  In nine years more he launched the Battleship Nebraska from his shipyard south of Pioneer Square.  Also in 1904 he retired with his wife and five children to Rosaria, the lavish country estate he was then building on Orcas Island.

In the 1960s another industrialist, John Fluke, discovered this view and many more glass negatives tucked in the Rosaria attic.  Fluke Foreman Hal Will printed them up and it is Will — founder and long-time editor of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society publication SeaChest — who shares with us this new glimpse into the lost neighborhood of Denny Hill.

The Willard home (courtesy Hal Will)


Homes with ornaments, especially ones like this Victorian number, are described by architects as having “expressive vocabularies.”   This duplex could talk to itself.  The porches are like portraits with perfectly round eyes, large arching noses and steps for lips.   The chitchat between them would be well stocked with puns, playful arguments by analogy, florid and yet controlled digressions and the occasional spontaneous rhyme.

During the late 1880s and throughout the 1890s the hills of booming Seattle were quickly developed with many fanciful residences like these.   Working variations on the Victorian home style then popular, Seattle builders were well stocked with relatively cheap lumber and an army of Scandinavian carpenters who knew how to use a scroll saw, read a pattern book with imagination, and paint these ladies with three, four, or five sympathetic hues.

Between its skirt and the combed cresting and finial points on its roof this duplex is plenty expressive.  With bands of fish scale shingles and patterned trim, paneled doors, spindle work and sunburst gables above those expressive front porches, this is the type of architecture that would soon repel modernity. Consequently, very few homes like this one survive.

The likely date for this view of 217 Lenora Street is 1895, the year given a photograph of Mayor Robert Moran’s home across the street at 216 Lenora Street.  That scene – like this one also from the Moran collection of large glass negatives — appeared here about three months ago.   “The Willard’s home” is written on the negative holder.

In 1890 Lot Sabin Willard moved into this duplex.   Soon after this photograph was recorded and captioned, Willard left this duplex on Denny Hill for a home on First Hill.  Willard was a deputy county clerk and Miss May Willard – most likely his daughter – who also lived here, was a teacher at Central School.  (Since first writing this piece in 2001 we have discovered with help from our “clip master” Ron Edge, that the “Musical Institute” with Mrs. Willard, principal, was soliciting students to this address in the classified advertisements for the Seattle Press for the first of December, 1890.  We include, then, another edge clipping.)


If and when I find the “now” photographs I took years ago for the historical photo of the Willard’s ornate duplex, and also of the Moran home across the street (Lenora) the difference between them would be, as I wrote in 2001, a little more than 100 years and a little less than 100 feet.  Now it is, of course, a few years more than a century, but the change in elevation is still roughly 100 feet.  The Moran Home and the duplex at 217 Lenora Street were parts of the Denny Hill neighborhood and so razed with the hill in the early 20th Century.  To repeat, perhaps for your slack-jaw amazement, the Denny Regrade block on Lenora between Second and Third Avenues sits now nearly 100 feet below the old street grade.  Jean has some views of Lenora between Second and Third Avenues that will do the trick of showing it off “now.”

Looking toward Lenora & 3rd
Looking west on Lenora
Looking north up 2nd from Lenora - a wider view

2 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Look Down into Belltown”

  1. I wonder what Robert Moran might have said if he’d known the intersection of Second and Lenora would become a hotbed of drugs, prostitution and predatory violence? In the late 1990’s I biked through this area every morning before dawn, on my way to work. I recall seeing dozens of people “hanging out” while Seattle’s Finest sat in their squad cars and appeared to do nothing. Hasn’t this situation grown much worse today?

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