Seattle Now & Then: First Hill Exceptions

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Looking east on University Street towards Ninth Avenue, ca. 1925, with the Normandie Apartments on the left.
THEN: Looking east on University Street towards Ninth Avenue, ca. 1925, with the Normandie Apartments on the left.
NOW: On can still reach 9th Avenue on University Street, but by steps only, and f along that way one must meander through the creative labyrinth of concrete and waterfalls that is Freeway Park.
NOW: One can still reach 9th Avenue on University Street, but by steps only, and along that way one must meander through the creative labyrinth of concrete and waterfalls that is Freeway Park. (Jean Sherrard)

There were only two precipitous places along the west side of what the pioneers soon learned to call First Hill where an imprudent trailblazer might have fallen to injury or worse.  These steep exceptions would be obvious once the forest was reduced to stumps.  But when the old growth was intact it was best to stay on native paths or stray with caution, especially to two future prospects on 9th Avenue – the one near Jefferson St. and the other here on University Street.

Exploring the hillside behind Jefferson Terrace at 8th one can still intimate the cliff, which Seattle Housing’s largest and probably also highest low-income facility nestles.  Eighth Ave. stops just south of James Street at that high-rise, because the cliff behind it never would allow the avenue to continue south.

The other steep exception was here on University Street where it climbed – or tried to climb – east up First Hill between 8th and 9th Avenues.  The goal is half made. On University, 9th  has two levels and only pedestrians – like the gent here descending the steps – could and can still climb between them.  All others had to approach the lower of the two intersections from below.  They could throttle their motorcar into the photographer’s point-of-view west up University from 8th Avenue, or they could make another steep climb from the north, up from Hubble Place.

The bridge is another exception.  It reached from the upper intersection of 9th and University to the top floor of the Normandie Apartments, whose south façade we see here covered in Ivy.  Thanks to Jacqueline Williams and Diana James for a helpful peek into their work-in-progress “Shared Walls: Seattle Apartments 1900-1939.”  We learn that when it was built a century ago James Schack, the Normandie’s architect, included the bridge as a convenience to the big apartment’s residents who rented 84 units, and all of them with disappearing beds.

For another view of the same location prior to Freeway Park, check out this post at Vintage Seattle.


Now follows four views of our subject: the steep northwest “corner” of First Hill.   All four look to the east-southeast from Denny Hill, or with the last of the four what replaced part of it, the New Washington Hotel.   In order, the circa dates are 1882, 1890, 1903 and 1911.  With a little more study the dates could be made precise for with the last three views especially there is enough internal evidence to encourage a reader to visit the public library’s Seattle Room for some fine tuning.


I think it likely that this view of our subject was photographed mid-September 1882, by the famous California photographer Carleton Watkins.  From a platform he erected on the south or front hump of Denny Hill Carleton took an eight-part panorama, or so the Post-Intelligencer (rest in peace) claimed on Sept. 22, 1882.  “He got a very good view of Lake Union.”  Well, not so good really.  In that part of his pan the lake can barely be seen through the stumps and rejected trees of the ravaged forest.  But this view to the east-southeast is more revealing.  There is still a greenbelt of forest holding to that northwest corner of First Hill. Like Watkins’ obstructed look north to Lake Union, this is the first view of this part of First Hill – but I hope to be corrected by new discoveries.  (This photo was first shared with me by Loomis Miller.)


We hope that there survive better prints of this view, which was also taken from the south summit of Denny Hill.  The corner of Third Ave. and Pike Street shows far right.  Our subject, far left, has been stripped of its forest, but not yet developed.  Being steep it is still land avoided for construction.  The Methodist Protestant church is nearing completion in the middle-ground at the southeast corner of Pine Street and Third Avenue.  “Bagley’s Church” lost its parish at Second and Madison to the “Great Fire” of 1889, and this congregation like many others sold their pioneer property for much more than this corner lot then still on the fringe cost them.  A likely date is 1890 or early 1891.  (Picture courtesy of Lawton Gowey)


From this prospect of the old Denny/Washington Hotel atop that south summit of Denny Hill we may ascend the steeple of the Norwegian-Danish Lutheran Church at the northeast corner of 4th Avenue and Pine Street and continue to the barren hillside block bordered by 8th and 9th avenues and Seneca and University Street, our subject, or part of it.  To the left of this cleared block is the intersection of 9th and University – both levels of it.  A steep bank of spilled fill dirt separates them.  It is from the top of that formation that the bridge would lead to the upper floors of the Normandie.  Top-center is the Ohaveth Sholem Synagogue showing its rear facade.  It was built in 1892 for what was Seattle’s first Jewish congregation.  It sits close to the northwest corner of Seneca and 8th Avenue, where the Exeter is now, and across Seneca from where Christian Scientists would build what is now Town Hall at the southwest corner of Seneca and 8th.  The steeple of the Unitarian Church is far left, on the east side of 7th Avenue, north of Union Street.  Above the synagogue at the northeast corner of Minor Ave. and James Street, the tower of Castlemont, the first oversized home – or mansion – built on First Hill, punctures the horizon.  Col. Granville O. Haller was the owner.


While Otto Frasch’s “real photo postcards” cannot always be dated by their number – here #210 – that is no excuse for my uncertainty of the exact date for this scene, which was taken not from Denny Hill (or Hotel) but from the New Washington Hotel at the northeast corner of Stewart Street and Second Avenue (now the Josephinum).  There certainly is a splendor of evidence here for dating – I just have not made the effort.  Like you dear reader, I’ll wait on another reader to peg the year, and perhaps even the month – or nearly and share them with us as a comment.  Here, far right, architect William Doty Van Siclen’s Northern Bank and Trust Company Building (now the Seaboard Building) at the northeast corner of 4th Avenue and Pike Street has its full-storied 1909 addition.  And the architect-developer Van Siclen’s namesake Van Siclen apartment building also appears here above the Seaboard Building, where facing 8th Avenue from its east side and mid-block between Seneca and University Streets, it is also a key to this week’s subject-neighborhood, that steep northwest corner of First Hill.  The Van Siclen was recently torn down, and the last I looked – when accompanying Jean for his “now” view in Freeway Park, it was still a hole.  (Perhaps Jean took a photo of it and will add it here later.)  The corner bottom-center is 4th Avenue and Pine Street.  The triangular Plaza Hotel with bay windows and nice details – frame not brick or tile – was built in 1906-07 when Westlake Avenue was being cut through the neighborhood between 4th and Pike and Denny Way.  The nearly new Normandie Apartments are easy to find, right-of-center at the northwest corner (lower level, you know) of 9th Avenue and University Street.  They appear above the roof of Hotel Wilhard.

As a closing on this subject, here is photographer Robert Bradley’s 1963 look into Seattle Freeway construction through the rubble of the apartment houses that once stood on the north side of Madison between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.  The freeway ditch here is not yet dug.  First Presbyterian is far right (the penultimate sanctuary to the modern one used now).   The Beaux-Arts Christian Scientist church – now Town Hall – is next.  Exeter House, another survivor, is at the scene’s center and like the Sholum Congregation before it stands at the “gate” to the steep neighborhood shown and described this week.  The reader may wish to compare Jean’s “After Gotterdaemerung” look into the I-5 trench at night from nearly the same prospect.  It is included two contributions below.


3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: First Hill Exceptions”

  1. The Vintage Seattle image is great! I’d dare to say the current landscape is a tremendous improvement over the scruffy hillside and long concrete stairway. It must have been a respiratory challenge to pre-freeway First Hill residents. With mature plantings and a recently renovated water feature, the terraced appendage of Freeway Park is a cool, shady passageway to downtown. Horizon House residents now have an elevator bypass also. As with any urban setting, a sensible avoidance of secluded places after dark is in order here, but this may be the most attractive feature of the entire park.

  2. Thanks David, but I will only sort of agree with your “respiratory challenge.” For me the historical photo with its stairway and Ivy covered Normandie and pedestrian overpass on the slant is quite enchanting. And exercise you know is good for all ages – except mine. I mean “good for all ages” that have the knees.

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