Seattle Now & Then: Fort Lawton Barracks

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: The prolific postcard producer Ellis probably recorded this view of Ft. Lawton’s new barracks soon after they were constructed in 1942. This was four years after the Army offered to sell its fort back to the city for one dollar, but the city refused for want of depression-time funds to maintain it. (Courtesy John Cooper)
NOW: Jean Sherrard’s repeat of the barracks’ site hints at landscape architect Charles Anderson’s intentions, that the new forest at first conform to the footprints of the old barracks.

There is an artful connection between the barracks in the historical photograph and the trees and bushes in the contemporary repeat.  The connection is subtle enough that Jean Sherrard needed a guide, Jon Wooton of the Magnolia Historical Society, to record his “now” scene.   As they approached the site Jon explained, “It would be obvious if you knew what you were looking for.”  What follows is a paraphrase of his revelation.

These “Area 500” standard army issue barracks were built in 1942 for the military to billet and process troops during World War Two.  Almost sixty years later they were given over to the city to become part of the Discovery Park that already surrounded them.  The Army intended to relinquish the nine-plus acres to the Seattle Park Department “in a condition that resembles the immediate surrounding environment,” which is the “urban forest and sanctuary for wildlife” that makes up Seattle’s largest park.

Once the barracks were torn down and the pavement removed the Army was ready to pay for planting whatever appropriate ground cover the Dept. of Parks prescribed.  And here enters that most clever continuity between barracks and bushes hinted above.

Once selected to design and start the transformation from fort to forest, landscape architect Charles Anderson decided to “hold the memory of the barracks for a while” by filling their old footprints with native plants that would also “escape and colonize the rest of the project.”   In time all intimations of the barracks rectangles will blend into the new native forest of birch trees, alders (about 1000 of them at the start), Oregon-grape, sword ferns, salal, strawberries, roses and more.   The few fir trees seen in the “then” that the military planted to break the monotony of their regulation barracks – some of those were kept.


Anything to add, Paul?

Yes Jean, and of course.  I’ll not surprise you and say no.  We’ll start with a story first used in Pacific Mag in 1988, and its about Officers’ Row, which survives just west of the World War Two barracks site.  I’ll up the “then” followed by the text, and the add the “now” shot of Officers’ Row that you so presciently took when you visited Discovery Park for the barracks shoot.


In 1901 the Kiehl family, with father Ambrose at the reins, climbed aboard the  family buggy and posed in front of the first-lieutenant quarters at Fort Lawton. The camera was Kiehl’s and so was the officers’ quarters, for as yet there were no lieutenants at Fort Lawton.

The engineer Kiehl was in charge of preparing the site for a fort. The family’s first home on the grounds was a board-and-batten shack (shown in another feature, below), but soon after this the first duplex on officers’ row was completed in 1899 and the family was given permission to move in. They stayed until 1905.

Ambrose Kiehl’s large glass negative for this view was cared for by his daughter Laura (here in the back seat) and given by her to architect and preservationist Frederick Mann. Mann’s consultations in the development of Discovery Park and now the Navy’s preservation of officers’ row make him the respected custodian of the site’s architectural history. (Fred has passed since this feature was first published on Dec. 4, 1988.)

Fred Mann discovered a caption for this scene in Ambrose Kiehl’s catalog to his lavish photographic record of family and fort. It reads, simply, “Billy, Doctor and Wagon. Ft. Lawton, 1901.” Billy and Doctor are the horses. Laura Kiehl recounted for Mann how the Army mule was sometimes substituted when either of the horses was not feeling well enough to cart her the long trek to school. Laura already was a teenager when the lieutenants moved in and the Kiehl family moved out to Queen Anne Hill.

The 12 sturdy Georgian Revival homes along Fort Lawton’s officers’ row (all of them duplexes excepting the captain’s quarters) are on the National Register.

Here’s Jean’s look at the row during his recent visit to Discovery Park to repeat the World War 2 barracks site.


In 1896, Ambrose Kiehl. a civil engineer, photographer, musician and family man from Port Townsend, was hired by the Army to survey and clear the new Fort Lawton site and supervise construction of its buildings. The first structure was the two-story board-and-batten shack shown here. The design is Spartan even by military standards, but it was meant to be only a temporary residence/office for Kiehl’s early work on the fort.

Here the family, Isabella and Ambrose (left and right, flanking their daughters Laura and Lorena), pose for a photographer who was probably Ambrose himself, running into the scene after setting a time-delayed shutter on one of his many cameras. Behind Isabella and supporting the bicycle is the building’s one oddity, the squat, windowless addition extending from the west side. Kiehl prepared his blueprints and then exposed them to the sun by opening the trap door. Solar energy was required because the fort lacked electricity (although it did have a telephone, as indicated by the pole on the right).

The date is probably 1899. The summer before, 97 of Magnolia’s 700 acres donated by citizens for the fort had been cleared. The first seven buildings were completed in 1900.

Eventually, 25 main post buildings were set about an oval parade ground.  One of the first constructed was the camp’s hospital. (It is far left in the 1936 aerial included below.)  After 1910, the Army lost interest in the fort and, in 1938, as noted above, the military offered it to the city for $l. The city declined.  In any case the military might soon have taken it back. During World War II, 450 new buildings were speedily erected to make Fort Lawton the sixth-largest point of embarcation for troops in the U.S.

The Team Grader used in the early construction of Fort Lawton. The Kiehl "shack" appears to the rear.


[Much thanks to Jon and Monica Wooton of the Magnolia Historical Society for helping supply some of the illustrations used here.  And Ron Edge – not of Magnolia but of North Seattle – helped as well.]

More than ten years after local boosters began to lobby for a military post, Brig. Gen. Elwell S. Otis noted in 1894 that the rolling plateau on the western head of the Magnolia peninsula ‘might be a suitable place to house soldiers. He advised the War Department that they might be needed to keep the peace in boomtown Seattle. Many and perhaps most Americans were then hurting from the economic depression that had crashed upon them the year before, and Otis noted that in Seattle “now dwell 100,000 people, a part of whom are restless, demonstrative and often time turbulent upon fancied provocation.”

Four years later, clearing began on the acres coaxed from Magnolia pioneers for free or cheap by the local Chamber of Commerce for an as-yet-unnamed fort. In 1899, when construction began, the fort got its namesake hero and added mission from the same source: the Philippines. Maj. Gen. Henry Ware Lawton was killed in action there in 1899 and, as fanciful as it would later seem, the Spanish-American war painted the Pacific Coast with a fear of invasion.

The scene of the guard and waiting station at the Fort Lawton terminus was most likely taken soon after the branch of the Ballard trolley line was completed in the summer of 1905. During the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, Fort Lawton and every other Seattle destination reached by electric trolleys and cable cars were promoted by the Seattle Electric Co. as tourist destinations. The military obliged with regular dress parades and concerts.


You should be able to click the address directly or map above which will then take you to plate 34 of the 1912 Real Estate Map  for a very detailed examination of it.  Note that the trolley line curves into the fort and reaches its terminus between the map’s “T” and “O” in “Lawton.”

Magnolia peninsula was included in the city's late 1890s system of bike paths. Like the one that follows it, this was photographed by Anders Wilse, who after a few years accomplishing a lot with his camera in Seattle returned home to Sweden in 1900.
Another Wilse record of the bike trail in Magnolia.

Click your mouse TWICE and get good enough detail to study Seattle’s ambitious bike path system in 1900 – and more.  Magnolia’s part is, of course, on the left.  Note that it enters the then still largely proposed Ford Lawton.   The maps shows the path crossing Interbay on a bridge at Interurban, which is still a bridge on Dravus Street.  The wagon bridge to Ballard follows 14th Ave. NW and not the later bascule bridge on 15th.  The Great Northern enters Ballard from Interbay on a curving trestle that comes close to snuggling with the wagon road.  It then ran along the Ballard waterfront, and was only rerouted to its new Bascule bridge at Shilshole when committed construction on the Chittenden locks began in 1910-11.  Far right, the canal showing at Montlake is for logs and not vessels.  The ship canal was dedicated 17 years later.  Find the trestle on Westlake at the southwest corner of Lake Union, and what a strange eastern shoreline the lake shows before most of the public works tampering.  Imagine much of the bike path mileage passed then still through wooden copses thick enough to feel like forests.

A rustic bridge built somewhere on the Fort grounds during the depression as a "make work" project of the E.R.A.. (Courtesy, Municipal Archive)
Another 1934 visit to the Fort's "campus" with a portion of the trolley tracks showing on the left. (Courtesy, Municipal Archive)
Without much to do that was bellicose the Fort was opened to parades and military-style play. Here groups of lads have been lined up to act manly at something in the parade grounds in 1925. (Courtesy Municipal Archives)
Men would be boys and boys would be men, trading heavy backpacks for swagger sticks. Fort Lawton, 1925. (Courtesy Municipal Archives.)
Fort Lawton Hostess House. (Courtesy John Cooper)

Looking east over the Fort in 1936.  (The date was carefully determined with internal evidences by the Magnolia-Ballard wit, Hal Will – since deceased.  The aerial was interpreted for me by Jon Wooton, one of Hal’s many surviving friends.  Click TWICE to enlarge.) Between the shoreline on the bottom right and Salmon Bay on the top, much of the fort is revealed.  (At the very top is the line – left/right – of the Ballard bridge on 15th Ave. nw before the new concrete piers replaced the wood pilings on its long approaches.) Officers Row is this side of the water tower, which is this side of the small forest where the barracks would be built during the Second World War.   The original barracks are the two large u-shaped structures seen from the rear and near the center of the aerial.  The next building to the left was the Fort’s entertainment venue where many bands performed. (The next photo shown features one of them.)  The building to its left near the end of the “block” is the Fort’s stockade.  The long slender buildings on the left are stables for a fort that was designed for the cavalry and not the infantry.  Part of the non-commission officers homes are in a row – with trees – above the stables.  And the hospital is above that, between two roads and two rows of trees.

Elks Band performs at Fort Lawton, Oct. 15, 1948.

Women marching at Ft. Lawton, WW2.

Another and much later aerial shows the WW2 barracks on the right, with the Nike Missile Center interrupting Officers Row. Ballard is beyond.
Real photo postcard purveyor Boyd Ellis' record of the east entrance of Fort Lawton during World War Two when one had to stop at the gate. The trolleys have stopped running to the park by then.
Standing guard at the South Gate. Another Ellis 'card from WW2, or near it.
Still standing guard aboard the Fort's Float at the 1957 Seafair Parade - the lesser part of it that followed down "The Ave" aka University Way in the District, 1957. Students might enlist with plenty of time for range practice before Viet Nam. (Courtesy Calmar McKune)


When it was completed in 1930, the sweep of the Magnolia Bridge as it ascends west of Pier 91 was considered a modern engineering wonder.  At nearly 4,000 feet, it was the largest of only three reinforced concrete spans built anywhere. The big bridge was first proposed six years earlier when the West Wheeler Street Bridge was set on fire by a spark from a Great Northern locomotive passing beneath it.

West Wheeler Street Bridge before the fire. The view is from Magnolia looking east to Queen Anne. (Courtesy Magnolia Historical Society)
Wheeler Street Bridge on fire. (Courtesy, Magnolia Historical Society)
Magnolia (Garfield Street) Bridge when new but, it seems, not yet open. The A. Curtis view was taken from Queen Anne Hill looking west towards Magnolia. (Courtesy, Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma)

At first, the Seattle city council refused to build a high bridge to the bluff, since only 4,000 people lived west of Interbay and south of Ballard. The city chose a humble alternative by extending the West Garfield Street Bridge with a timber trestle that reached Magnolia at an elevation just a few feet above high tide.

The unappreciated Garfield Bridge that the city built in hopes of pacifying Magnolia boomer's activism for a high bridge. The date, May 15, 1929, is written on the negative, bottom left. Note here how the old timber bridge takes a sharp turn north for its last leg to Magnolia. (Courtesy Municipal Archive)

Magnolians, however, organized the Garfield Bridge Club and persuaded the city to replace the trestle with the soaring trusses shown here. The strewn timbers of the temporary low bridge, cluttering the base of the new span, are also evident.

This view was photographed Dec. 22, 1930, two weeks after the high bridge was dedicated with band music, the usual speeches and a procession of motorists and pedestrians. Then the tidelands of Interbay still reached far north of Garfield Street, requiring the bridge to be built above piles driven 20 to 40 feet into the ground. Now the tide basin has been reclaimed and blacktopped as a parking lot most often for Japanese imports. (This last about imported cars was true in the spring of 1991 when the above was first written.)

Dedication - the line of cars follows a crowd of pedestrians beyond the curve.
The Auckland Dairy Farm in Magnolia's Pleasant Valley


Magnolia:  Memories and Milestones answer the question those of us who do not live in Magnolia have sometimes asked, “Why go to Magnolia?”  (beyond Discovery Park and the garage sales.)  This book is surely the most elegant neighborhood history yet produced hereabouts.  More than a dozen contributors have managed to fill it with charm and wit.  Hall Will’s chapter “Dumb Stunts and Grade School Memories” is worth the price of the cover.”

Among the chapters are expositions on the pioneers, Fort Lawton and Discovery Park, Interbay and Fisherman’s Terminal, the Village, the farms, West Point and most of the trestles and bridges.

No Seattle neighborhood resembles an island community as much as Magnolia. During the melting of the last ice age it most likely was an island. Well into the 20th century it was almost an island until the Port of Seattle, the railroads and the city began filling in the once extensive Interbay tidelands. Still one must take a bridge to reach Magnolia.

Magnolia is two hills divided by a naturally cleared vale so hidden that Seattle pioneer Arthur Denny, when seeking grazing land for his livestock and following an Indian’s directions, could not find it. Later when the bucolic valley was dappled with small farms, it was called Pleasant Valley.

The early 20th-century view of a part of Pleasant Valley printed above looks to the north and a little east through a portion of the Marymount Dairy farm. The historical photographer – probably a member of the Hanson family that purchased the dairy farm in 1905 – stands either on or near what is now part of the West Magnolia Playground. One of the Hanson children holds a future milker.

To get a copy of “Magnolia Memories and Milestones” call almost any business or organization with “Magnolia” in its name and get directions on how to find one.  (Sorry.  The above was written a decade ago, and Volume One, I believe, is sold out.  It was so appreciated that the Magnolia Historical Society went forward with a second volume, which is still available through the society.)

Delivering Pleasant Valley mile to a Queen Anne Address.
Pages 64 and 65 of the Magnolia Historical Society's first of two hardbound histories of their neighborhood. The text here covers in part the dairy story. For a larger view visit their web page. The book is active as a pdf file there.


“Long ago” in December of 1981, historian Murray Morgan, U.W. architect Fred Mann and I drove up to Port Townsend to collect and record some oral history with Laura Kiehl. At the time, Laura was 89 years old and I was carrying a stack of photos printed from negatives taken by her father, Ambrose Kiehl. This week’s historical scene is one of them, and Laura remembered it well.

Laura was born in Port Townsend in 1892. At the age of 4, she moved with her younger sister and parents to Seattle. Her father, a civil engineer, had been hired by the Army to survey the forest wilderness that is now Magnolia Bluffs Discovery Park. He also helped build the fort that local politicians hoped would pad the city’s purse with military money and also help defend Seattle against the rowdy radicals then milling about the city’s economically distressed streets.

Ambrose, who paid his way through college by playing a pipe organ, did his work well in helping design and build Fort Lawton. It breaks the rules of dull rectilinear military-post design and imaginatively nestles the buildings in their striking setting. He used this artistic eye in his photography as well.

In this week’s historical photo, Laura is pictured, second from the left, between her mother, Louisa, and her sister, Lorena. Laura explained that the other three women in the costume of the day were guests, not relatives. The six are wading in the tide flats off the southern shore of West Point. That is the then-still-forested Magnolia Bluff on the left. On the right, West Seattle is barely visible through the haze across Elliott Bay.

In this scene, Laura is a teen-ager. She was always tall for her age, she said. The picture was taken around 1908, the last year of major construction at Fort Lawton, until World War II, when it flourished briefly as the second-largest point of departure on the West ‘ Coast.

Except for the latter day brief activity during World War Two, it became clear soon after the fort was completed that it would never be a big installation, and the locals started musing over what a wonderful park it would make. The Kiehl family had been treating it as a park right along, Laura said. For years they used this beach below the fort to entertain family and friends with clam and salmon bakes and, of course, wading and beachcombing.

Getting to the beach then required a long hike on a path bordered by salmon berries, devil’s club and nettles, and patrolled by giant mosquitoes. Today the nettles are gone, but the beach is still protected from the summer swarms that fill Golden Gardens and Alki Beach. To enjoy the sun-warmed tide pools, you must hike to get there.

Once an adult, Laura pursued more serious outings than beach walking. She graduated from the University of Washington in 1916. Later she became the first woman in the state to be issued a brokerage license. Since no brokerage house would hire her because of her sex, she successfully operated her own office for years in the Smith Tower. Laura died in January 1982, less than two months after our visit.

The above was printed in Pacific in the fall of 1985.  For the now Bill Burden, who took the repeat photos, and I got help from Carson F. who was a good friend of Bill’s daughter Caroline.  Carson persuaded a few of her friends to take the several poses of the Kiehl “wading party” at West Point, and then to improvise with a pyramid on the sands with the, perhaps, inevitable results. I sat on a log and watched.  (Carson is on the far right Imagine! She and the rest are now in their forties. In order at least for the first orderly repeat are Liesel Murray, Erin McCaffery, Terri Sullivan, Sabina Steffens, Leslie Steward and Carson F.)

Long before the fort and the neighborhood an early off-shore view of the West Point Lighthouse.
One on-shore and . . .
. . . Frank Shaw's recording of the light's north side ca. 1970.
Fort Lawton: from cavalry to abandoned motor pool, Feb. 28, 1979. Photo by Frank Shaw.

25 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Fort Lawton Barracks”

  1. I recently went to a flea market in Richmond, Kentucky and came across 3 old photographs (each adhered to an aged matte board) of Fort Lawton circa 1907. After some research, I came across this site. One appears to be of the band in front of the respective building in which they were housed. The other is a rather candid shot of the soldiers at a celebratory dinner. The bottom right corner of this one is labeled as is: Xmas Dinner 07 Co. G. 3D Inf. Fort Lawton. The third image is of a gentleman in a billiard room although I am uncertain if this particular one was taken within the Fort. If perhaps these images would be useful to your archive, I would be happy to mail them to you at no charge, of course.

  2. what a great site with super photo’s! one of the best sites of its kind in the web!

    Harry Proctor, resident of magnolia and student of its history!

  3. Great information and pictures! I lived on officers row as a child. This Web site has brought back some amazing memories. Thanks so much!

  4. Amazing collection,

    Fort warden is such a special place, with its vast history, I love the place

  5. I’ve been in possession of a photo of the separation at Fort Lawton Dec. 19 1947, for several years. I’d like to find a museum that holds similar pieces.


    1. I was born at the Ft. Lawton Hospital too, but on Aug 7, 1961
      Our house still stands too, 906 Montana Circle , Seattle and I was baptised at the Catholic Chapel of the Pines I believe it was called.

  7. I was a medical lab tech there in 1965-1966. I loved the place then – I miss it even today. Having been back 3 times since my Army days, I still can picture the location of the hospital in which I worked.

    1. Where was the hospital located in relation to the cemetery or the grounds as they are today? Do you remember where the 2nd chapel stood also? There is one chapel still standing, but one was torn down, but I don’t know the name or the location of it

      1. The other church is the Chapel on the Hill. This was located near the South Gate. I lived outside of Fort Lawton, as a military dependent, on Government Way from 1948 to 1969 and was stationed their 1971-1972. As a kid, Fort Lawton was my playground.

      2. The Fort Lawton Cemetery is located 200 yards up the hill from the 50th General Hospital old location. The Cemetery is across the road from the old Chapel in the Pines location. The Cemetery is still open and well maintained.

  8. Just thought you would like to know the Hostess House was the old hospital. In 1958 we spent the night at the Hostess House before boarding the General M. M. Patrick to Alaska. Our room was an old operating room.

    1. I arrived ft lawton nov 1949. Lived in the tar papered barracks close to the smoke stack next to the dinning hall at bottom of the hill. Was there during the jan1950 snow storm, the tar paper was ripped from our 1st assignment after basic training at ft knox, 37th aib 3rd armored div

      Billy cheuvront, us army retired

    2. Sometime before ‘47, my grandfather sailed under the Golden Gate on the General M M Patrick at sunset.

  9. My husband was stationed at Ft. Lawton during 1961-1963. He worked as a Payroll Clerk. We were newlyweds and our first baby was born in the hospital there. Neither my husband nor I can remember exactly where the hospital was located. We had our baby baptized at a little Catholic church on the base, and we do not remember where that was located either.

    Does anyone know a link to photos or a map of the base during those early 60s years or a map of the base to locate the various buildings? If you can send any tips or links, I’m forever grateful!

    1. The 50th Gen Hospital was next to the East Gate off Government Way. The Catholic Church was the Chapel in the Pines located about 1/4 mile west up the hill from the East Gate.The other church (Protestant) was the Chapel on the Hill. This was located near the South Gate. I lived outside of Fort Lawton, as a military dependent, on Government Way from 1948 to 1969 and was stationed their 1971-1972. As a kid, Fort Lawton was my playground.

      1. Is the Chapel in the Pines the one that is still standing at Ft Lawton today or is it the Chapel on the hill that is still standing?

    2. Mary Meskell, I was born on Ft Lawton and I also was baptised in 1961 at the Chapel of the Pines, we were transferred to the Netherlands soon after. Now I live in the Mt Rainier area and my original house is still standing on Montana Circle, Ft Lawton 🙂 Pleased to meet you!

  10. I was born in Ft Lawton in 1956. Our home was in Fort Lewis. I now live in No. Seattle and loved hiking around the area this last weekend. I hope to find out more about the hospital.

  11. My grandfather applied for his WWII honorable discharge at Fort Lawton. Neat to step back in time looking at the photos of a place he once trod. Wish he were still here to see these photos. Thank you!

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