Seattle Now & Then: The Medical Dental Building

(click photos to enlarge)

THEN: Looking south from Virginia Street on 5th Avenue to the new Medical Dental Building, ca. 1925. (Courtesy, Mark Ambler)
NOW: Jean Sherrard climbed to the roof of the Griffin Building at 5th and Virginia for his look south on Fifth.

Soon after the Medical Dental Building at 509 Olive Way was completed in 1925 a photographer climbed to the roof of the Wilson Business College, one long block north at 5th and Virginia, and recorded this view looking back at the grand new health center’s soaring irregularities. The new skyscraper was a brilliant standout for the business district’s north end.  Built on five-star Times Square corner of 5th, Olive, Stewart, and Westlake it gained the charms of asymmetry, a commitment that crowns the top with a small stepping tower.

That the Medical Dental Building it not easily mistaken for any other Seattle structure is because of its odd and soaring shape as much as for its gleaming tiles, which at the time were the preferred skin used in construction projects throughout the business district – if the tiles could be afforded. The new building continued the clean reflecting glow of the brilliant Frederick and Nelson Department Store (1918), seen here behind it at 5th and pine.  It also complimented the brilliance of architects Bebb and Gould’s home for The Seattle Times.  The Times Square Building is both cut like a piece of cake and decorated like one with a terra-cotta egg shell “frosting.”

Apart from these buoyant structures practically all else in this view is dark and made of wood and warm brick.  For instance, the top three stories of the Times home, showing here on the right, rise above the dark Hotel Rainbow. Although here only in its “teens,” the big wooden box with small towers and simple bays was a Victorian hangover constructed soon after the Denny Regrade had completed lowering Denny Hill west of 5th Avenue to its present grades in 1910-11.

The Rainbow sat at the northwest corner of 5th and Stewart and survived into the 1930s when it was replaced with a small service station.  That it is now a mere parking lot puzzles this writer about how such an important site can be so modestly employed.

We will conclude with a readers’ quiz followed by the answer.  What two distinguished landmarks – not surviving in either our “then” or “now” – filled the block showing here on the left or east side of 5th Ave.?  The answer: the Orpheum Theatre (1927-1967) and the Benjamin Franklin Hotel (1928-1967).  Remember them?


Jean writes: I occasionally find myself wandering Seattle rooftops when searching for ‘Then’ footprints. Here are a few alternate views from the Griffin building:

Looking southeast from the middle of the Griffin Building roof's south side
Facing east. The 'then' photographer stood in the center right corner
On the Fifth Avenue side, looking south. The extremely wide angle captures the nearby and looming Westin towers.

Anything to add, Paul?

Yup Jean, and as time allows and seems prudent I’ll go looking for past features that hang around the neighborhood.  Again, I am more likely to find the “then’s” than the “nows” for over nearly 25 pre-digital years I had a careless habit of not looking back at my own “now” negatives, and they are rather a jumble now, although they are safe in binders and with time they could all be put in order and dated.  But not now.  I will grab what we can before retiring.  Tomorrow – Sunday – I’ll find some more.  Meanwhile please forgive my typos and dyslexic flips.  I’ll hope to discover and correct or flip them tomorrow.  Now we will start with another story that is at the same intersection of 5th and Virginia although much earlier – ca. 1886.  But you know this, because you took the “now” for it recently.  We agree that these two views from Virginia south on 5th will be a pair to use in our show with Berangere at the Museum of History and Industry next April and thereafter for a few months.


In the mid-l880s there was no suburbia separating the city from the country. This week’s historical scene is evidence of that. It was photographed looking south across downtown Seattle’s northern border. The foreground is bucolic.

The view was photographed from the eastern slope of now-regraded Denny Hill.  The evidence for this claim is the shaft of light that streaks across the scene’s foreground and bathes the fence posts in a late-afternoon glow. That beam cuts through the hill in line with Virginia Street, which was a valley between the two humps of Denny Hill.

After a little homework, I determined that the boxy white building just right of the scene’s center and above the break in the fence sits on the north side of Pike Street in the second lot west of Fifth Avenue. The clear break running diagonally between the buildings across the scene’s center is Fifth Avenue. The view shows Fifth ending at the Territorial University’s greenbelt.

The three principal landmarks – with towers – on the horizon left to right are Coppins Watertower at 9th and Columbia, Central School at 6th and Madison, and the Territorial University at 4th and Seneca. No structures survive from the old scene to the new. And Denny Hill and Denny Knoll have long since been graded away.   In place of the wagon ruts are monorail struts.  The level of the pre-regrade intersection is about 40 feet higher than Jean’s recent “now.”  So the wagon road was in places close to the level of the monorail.  Believe it or not.


Both this Frank Shaw slide and the one direclty below it were photographed on March 17,1962. The monorail is nearly new and no doubt seems the very sign of future transportation. The Medical Dental building is evident to the right of the Monorail and the red brick facade of the Ben Franklin Hotel gives to this recording a warmth when compared to the other, which was taken closer to Stewart. Perhaps Shaw used different film stock for the two shots.
Cooler and closer to Steward and the Medical Dental building too. A sliver of the Times Square Building holds to the border on the right, and the west facade of the Frederick and Nelson Department Store fill the 5th Avenue corridor between them. The drivers and pedestrians below the rolling Monorail surely compared it to the city buses on the street, like those appearing here. The swept-back Chevy heading south on 4th is already about a dozen years old. It may remind us of the Horace Sykes mobile.


The photograph above of Times Square includes three prominent Seattle fixtures.  One is moving, one is long gone and the third survives. The survivor, of course, is the Times Square Building, home of The Seattle Times from 1916 to 1931 at the irregular intersection of Westlake and Fifth avenues with Olive and Stewart streets. The moving subject is Car 51, one of the six Niles cars that the Pacific Northwest Traction Co. bought from Niles, Ohio, for the Seattle-Everett Interurban. Car 51 continued to serve until the Interurban’s last day, Feb. 20,1939. The missing landmark is the noble little structure in the foreground, built in 1917 for a bus stop and underground rest rooms. It has been replaced by a simple bus shelter.

The same shelter looking east from Westlake on Sept. 18, 1917. Stewart Street is on the right. (Courtesy Municipal Archive)

Times Square borrowed its name from New York City’s Times Square and, like its East Coast namesake, was highlighted by a newspaper. The building, embellished with granite and terra cotta, is perhaps the city’s best memorial to the art of Carl Gould, Seattle’s most celebrated turn-of-the-century architect. He designed it in a Beaux Arts style and this flatiron confection is still widely admired.

Looking down on the Times Square Building from the Tower Building at 7th and Stewart during the summer of 1959.
East on Olive from 4th Avenue with the Times Square Building on the left and the Mayflower Hotel on the right. The Medical Dental Building fills much of the scene's center on the 4th of May, 1956. The brilliant white structure left of center is the parking garage at the northeast corner of 6th and Olive. We featured in this place a few months back. It was named the Fox Garage in the early photograph we used, and you can search for it if you wish to review the significance of this early business district parking facility enclosed and built with many floors.


The 1906 construction of Westlake Avenue left a litter of triangular-shaped blocks on either side of the swath cut by the new street. Ten years later, the wedge at Sixth Avenue and Virginia Street, photographed March 23, 1915, was still a hole surrounded by billboards, as was most of the complementing block across Westlake. Owner T.J. Nestor's small For Sale sign sits atop the Wrigley's Doublemint mural just left of the telephone pole closest to the photographer. Nestor did not have to wait much longer to make a deal. In 1916 the gaudy block was replaced by a two-story commercial building. Through the years its occupants were a sampling of businesses one might expect to find at the northern border of the city's retail core. The list includes a B.F. Goodrich tire store, the Seattle Home Show, the Triangle Hat Shop, Preservative Paint Company, Pacific Lighting Fixtures and Otto's Hamburgers. In 1979, McDonald's, a hamburger vendor with a grill bigger than Otto's, renewed the odd-shaped site with a new brick structure and hopes of servicing the corporation's trillionth customer. The historical view was photographed from the last bit of Denny Hill that survived the early-century regrade. In 1919 this final bit of elevation was also steam-shoveled to the district's present grade.
Looking north down Westlake to Lake Union from the nearly new Medical Dental Building. Much of the "Old Quarter" shows left of center. It was the popular name for the part of the Denny Regrade left untouched when the first lone effort at razing the hill reached the east side of 5th Avenue and stopped in 1911. Left of center is the triangular block at 6th and Virginia seen with billboards in the scene above. Stewart street is on the right. The darkest part of this scene is the "urban forest" of Denny Park at the corner of 9th Avenue and Denny Way, seen here towards the photograph's upper-left corner. The shadows or hazed-over silhouettes of some of the remnants of World War One's unused wooden fleet can be seen anchored in Lake Union, upper right.


In “RAISE HELL and Sell Newspapers,” Sharon Boswell and Lorraine McConagy’s 1996 history of Col. Alden J. Blethen marking the centennial of the founding of The Seattle Times, the 69-year-old editor-publisher is shown in shirtsleeves vigorously scooping the first shovel for the 1914 groundbreaking of his new Times Square plant.  As the authors explain, this was a momentary vigor, for Blethen’s health was in steep decline. Actual construction was put off until after his death in July 1915, and resumed by his sons as a monument to their father’s uncommon life.

Boyd Ellis' postcard from the 1930s looking east to 4th where Olive Street on the right make its break with Stewart Street on the left.

The building of Times Square began in September 1915 and proceeded with such speed that one year later, on Sept. 25, 1916, The Times could devote an entire edition to its move north from Second Avenue and Union Street to its new terra cotta-tile palace at Fifth and Olive.

The architects, Carl F. Gould and Charles Herbert Bebb, created a monument as much to Renaissance Revival style as to the Colonel. The new partners repeated the division of labor employed so effectively by Bebb’s former Chicago employers, the famous “prophet of modern architecture,” Louis Sullivan, and his partner, Dankmar Adler. Here the practical Bebb, like Adler in Chicago, handled the business and engineering while the Harvard-educated aesthete Gould, like Sullivan, created the designs. Gould took the Gothic plans Bebb had drawn earlier with another partner and transformed them into this gleaming Beaux Arts landmark.

The rare view (at the top of this feature) of the full northern facade was photographed before much of it was hidden between its neighbors. The flatiron block was Blethen’s direct and proud allusion to the similarly styled New York Times Building, which also faced a Times Square in Gotham.

The newspaper continued to publish here until 1930, when it moved north again, this time to its current offices on Fairview Avenue North.

The home at the northeast corner of Union and Second Avenue, which is left in 1916 for the new Beau Arts beauty.
The Times left its flatiron creation facing Times Square for this bigger plant at John and Fairview.
A 1925 Seattle Times clip that makes note of construction on its new neighbor, the Medical Dental Building.
Front Page for The Times on Oct. 27, 1925. Although the fine print may be hard to read the headlines are suggestive enough of contemporary stories that one could change a few names while keeping the disasters, controversies, tragedies, city politics conspiracies, scandals, accidental shootings, French radicals and the rest. Give it a try. Make your substitutions.


I confess to having featured this intersection four times – that I remember – in the now 28-year life of this feature. Here’s the fifth (first put up five years ago), and I wondered then what took me so long. There are so many delightful photographs taken from this five-star corner looking north on Westlake from Fourth Avenue and Pike Street, and we have shown a few already on this blog acting like a webpage. But this scene with the officer probably counts as a “classic” because it has been published a number of times and has not grown tired.

It is only recently that I looked closely at the policeman, and I think I have figured out what he is doing. He is scratching his head. I suggest that the officer may be marveling at the great changes that had occurred in the three years before he was sent to help with traffic on the day this photo was taken. (I’m figuring that this is 1909 or near it.) Heading north for Fremont, trolley car No. 578 to the left of the officer, is only 2 years old, and so is the Hotel Plaza to the left of it. If the officer returns to this beat in a few years, he’ll probably know that there is a speakeasy running in the hotel basement.

Out of the half-studied clutter of my old negative sheets I figure that this was taken in 1992.

Westlake Avenue was cut through the neighborhood in 1906 along what its planners described as “a low-lying valley, fairly level, with just enough pitch to give it satisfactory drainage.” The plan was to connect it with “a magnificent driveway around the lake.  Readers may remember that there have been many magnificent plans for this part of Westlake. Beginning in 1960 with the opening of the Westlake Summer Mall, which quickly changed to Seafair Mall, the blocks between Pike and Stewart streets were dreamed over for a quarter century as the best available site for developing a civic center for a central business district that somehow wound up without one.  One key to this dream was stopping the traffic on Pine Street between 4th and 5th Avenues, a dream accomplished but for only a while.  The big retailers didn’t like it, thinking that any inhibition on the motorcar would make it harder for citizens to reach them.

Westlake is pretty new year. Fourth Avenue on the left still climbs Denny Hill. By 1911 the ascending Fourth would be grade to it present humiliation.

Two colored postcards looking over the Westlake, 4th, Pine Street triangle follow.  For may years grand lighted signs for railroads and coke were displayed at this odd corner.   You are asked to date the cards.  The last has got the name wrong.  Times Square is down the ways at 5th, Stewart, Westlake & Olive.


The corner of Pine and 5th during the Sixth War Loan Drive.
The same corner, Christmas 1966 (photo by Lawton Gowey)

DURING WORLD WAR II, the local effort and ingenuity applied to the sale of war bonds reached the monumental when for the nation’s Sixth War Loan Drive the “two largest flags on the Pacific Coast” were draped across the Pine Street and Fifth Avenue facades of the Frederick & Nelson department store. In addition to rolling Red Cross bandages and selling bonds and stamps at the main-floor Victory Post, more than 90 percent of Frederick & Nelson’s employees invested at least 10 percent of their income in war bonds. During the Fifth War Loan Drive this was added to management’s investment, pushing Frederick & Nelson’s total purchases past $1.5 million, a prize-winning performance worthy of the Treasury Department’s T-flag award.

With decorative sandbags at the door and sensational battlefield comics on its roof, the Pine Street entrance to F&N continued the you-are-there impressions of the bonds drive.

Billboard-size murals promoting bonds were commonplace outside and inside the store. Facing the bank of main-floor elevators, the names of former employees who were off to the war were displayed on a plaque that read, “Staff members who served you here . . . now serve our country.” To the sides were military uniforms draped on store mannequins.

F&N at Boeing Plant #2

Frederick & Nelson also opened a branch in a white cottage at Boeing Plant No.2, where civilian staples (toilet articles, bras, street suits, work clothing) were available. This convenience also was another way of saving the gas and rubber required to shop downtown. The war revived the flow of cash around Seattle, where nearly 50,000 people were employed making airplanes and twice that number making ships. But necessities were commonly rationed and luxuries postponed. War bonds, the nation’s price administrator explained, were a good way not only to aid the forces abroad but also to help ease inflation on the home front by taking extra cash out of circulation.

The sidewalk at F&N in peace time with a cadre of F&N elevator operators.

The Frederick and Nelson Christmas appointments photographed by either Gowey or Bradley through the door (see the street reflections?) on Nov. 28, 1957.
Another look at F&N north through the intersection of 5th Ave. and Pine Street. This was recorded in the spring of 1996, during the building's long hiatus, after the department store folded in 1992 and Norstrom too possession in 1998.

6 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The Medical Dental Building”

  1. Wow! In the nearly thirty years you’ve been producing this column Paul, this is one of the most dramatic I can recall. Quite a contrast, and a great vantage point. Sensational job on the “Now” Jean!

  2. After closer examination, I see an Interurban streetcar on Westlake just south of Olive. I can almost smell cafeteria food, horses and cigar smoke when I look at this picture.

  3. Ahh the pink lights…1966 that sounds right.
    Thanks Paul and Jean. My Grandma was an elevator operator at Fredrick and Nelson and met my Grandpa in the elevator when he was delivering meat for Carston’s to the restaurants in the building.

  4. Paul,

    I have liked and appreciated your historic efforts for many years, since your work started appearing in the Seattle Times. I enjoy matching what I can from my memories of Seattle (since I was a kid in the early 60s) with your “Now & Thens”. I have just recently discovered your website with the more detailed presentations. I’ll visit often.

    I am sure someone has already pointed this out to you, but in your caption about the Medical Dental building with the Monorail pictured in March of ’62, you mention the red brick facade of the Benjamin Franklin Hotel. It actually is the west wall of the sadly demolished Orpheum theater, replaced by the first (south) tower of the (now) Westin Hotel, built as the Washington Plaza in the late 60s.

  5. I ventured to Seattle from NYC in 1961, worked first in the Advertising Dept. of F&N, watched the Monorail being built, sold tickets in the amusement area of the 1962 Seattle Worlds Fair, observed Elvis performing nearby for his film, “It Happened at the World’s Fair,” worked on staff in advertising at the Bon Marche, joined The Mountaineers and hiked Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker — shopped and ate at Pike Street Market, even bought my first pet, a Chihuahua in a pet store nearby. What a city!

  6. Great page! Thank you! So, the two “Times Square” postcards got it wrong, but what was the name (historically) for the Bartell area? I heard it only once, living in Seattle for 40 years, and trying to remember it has been annoying me for 15 more. I think it was a monorail operator in the 70’s who dropped it. Where is he now?

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