Seattle Now & Then: Harborview from Smith Tower

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Sighting east from the Smith Tower in 1930 to the part of First Hill called Profanity Hill. (Courtesy Municipal Archives)
NOW: This past fall Jean Sherrard visited the Smith Tower’s observation deck and shot in all directions, including here east to the full Harborview Medical Center on 9th Avenue.

Last Sunday’s “now-and-then” looked northwest from the roof of the brand new Harborview Hospital into the retail section of the business district.  That photo was recorded near the time that the hospital was dedicated in February 1931.

Now we look back at Harborview when it was still under construction. Here the photographer stands on the observation deck of the Smith Tower on May 30, 1930. Harborview reaches to its 5th and 6th floors, or about half way to its ultimate height, not counting the about three-story cap of its central tower.  There’s another hospital here as well. The tower and top floors of Providence (now part of Swedish Hospital) straddling James Street on 17th Ave. E. are not yet obscured by a full Harborview.

The old King County Courthouse on the right is but seven months and 9 days from being dynamited to its foundation. A belfry at the top has already been decapitated from this ponderous and painful tower.  Here through its 41 years some King County prisoners were executed.  Here in 1930 the building is a danger to enter, and yet it is still home to the county’s prisoners who were still months away from being marched to their new quarters at the top of the King County Courthouse facing City Hall Park.

The drying tower for the Fire Department’s Engine House No. 3 rises above the courthouse roof and just to the right of Harborview.  The station survives, although not its tower.

All the structures in the bottom half of the scene have been long since razed, and the Interstate 5 Freeway now makes its concrete swatch between 6th and 7th Avenues. Bottom-center sits the Pleasanton Hotel with three-story bays, balconies and an arched front door.  The Pleasanton faced Elliott Bay from the east side of 6th Avenue and on the north side of a Terrace Street so steep that it was only climbed by steps – you can see them to the right of the hotel.


Anything to add, Paul?  Yes Jean, a few related features from the past imperfectly presented.  For two of them I could not – again – find the negatives, and so have substituted scans of clips.   We have done it before and will again.   We start with another and earlier look to First Hill from the top of the Smith Tower.

This is central portion (aka middle) of a panorama taken most likely in 1913 before the Smith Tower's dedication (of July 4, 1914). The full panorama is included after the featured text, which was first printed in Pacific on Jan. 29, 1989. (Somewhere deep in the horde of old "now" negatives rests the repeat I took then.) With rare exceptions all of this handiwork was completed within the previous quarter-century since the city's "great fire" of 1889.)


The prospect east from the observation disk of the Smith Tower looks at about eye-level with the horizon of the part of First Hill, which has been variously called Yesler’s Hill, Profanity Hill and Pill Hill.

The name Yesler derived from Henry Yesler’s first reserve of timber, which he harvested here after the easy logging along the shore was used up.  The name Profanity comes from the habit of lawyers and litigants acquired after an exhausting climb to the King County Courthouse, the dominant landmark, right of center, included in the detail, which was taken from the pan exhibited below it.   Pill Hill is a reference to the collection of hospitals that have more recently taken the place of First Hill’s mansions.

The older view – photographed most likely in 1913 – and current view  (at least on January 29, 1929 when this was first printed in Pacific) share only two landmarks.  Easiest to located is the Trinity Parish Episcopal Church at 8th and James, the northwest corner.  If you follow the line of the old James Street cable up three blocks you will find the three stained-glass windows on the rear chancel wall of what is the sanctuary for the oldest Episcopalian congregation in Seattle.  The twin towers of the second surviving landmark, Immaculate Conception Church, just escape the horizon near the middle of the 1913 view.  The original neighborhood of homes and apartments between 4th and 7th avenues has been replaced by government buildings and the I-5 Freeway.

The complete Webster and Stevens (WS) studio panorama, although this printing of it is small. (Courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry. MOHAI holds the WS collection on a grant, now years ago, from Pemco.)
The feature printed directly below was first pubished in Pacific early enough to be included in Seattle Now and Then Vol. One, which was printed in 1984. All three collection, Vols. 1,2,3, can be read and "watched" on this blog. The are found under the "history books" button. Of course, they take a while to download! They are big.


The two most evident structures in the photograph above, taken about 1906, were both once King County Courthouses, and each was called a “castle.” Their somewhat eccentric histories, though quite different, both border on the grotesque.

The frame construction in the center was built in 1882 at the southeast comer of Third Avenue and Jefferson Street, the present site of City Hall Park. It had two careers, the first as the modest home for the county’s courts. But soon after the county moved out in 1890 and up to its new imperious courts overlooking the city (the dome on the horizon), the city moved in.

In the eighteen years municipal government was managed from that comer, Seattle’s population swelled from 40,000 to more than 200,000. City Hall swelled as well into an odd collection of clapboard additions aptly renamed the “Katzenjammer Kastle.”             When, in 1890, King County gave in to the monumental urge to recommend itself with a castle-on-a-hill, it also set off a chorus of complaints. From the start it was called the “Gray Pile,” the “Tower of Despair,” and the “Cruel Castle.” This poetic invective often fell to expletives less literary when lawyers in a hurry were forced to sprint the long and steep steps on Terrace Street to reach their litigation and pant out the abuses that gave the hill its popular name, “Profanity.”

In 1914 a local landmark of both mass and scale was completed with no despair: the Smith Tower. Less than one relatively level block away, ground was ceremonially broken, beginning construction of a new courthouse: the one still with us. The Town Crier, a local tabloid, announced: “In a city and county possessing such structures as the Smith, Hoge, and Alaska buildings and the Washington, Savoy, and other fIne hotels, the old Court House has long stood as a silent and dingy bit of sarcasm… . Fifteen years of effort by county commissioners to reduce profanity in King County to a minimum is now triumphantly consummated!”

Although lawyers and judges no longer needed to climb the hill, that did not end the profane career of the castle on the hill. The Times of January 17, 1926 reported that after 35 top-heavy years “King County’s old Courthouse, rearing its imposing bulk atop steep, slippery Profanity Hill, is in danger of collapse. Beneath its 200-foot tower of tons of crumbling brick . . . are more than 200 human beings, prisoners locked behind bars. The jail is a relic of barbarism. The danger of collapse is no mere fancy.”

The Times writer added to this grave description a dark and ironic revelation: “In the west wing, under the statue of Justice who has lost her scales, is the execution chamber, where records show at least two condemned prisoners have been hanged.”

Six years later on January 8, 1931 36 holes were bored into the crumbling brick pillars then still tentatively supporting the old Courthouse cupola. They shared 200 sticks of dynamite. In the moment it might take an exhausted barrister to mouth a monosyllabic indecency, the old embarrassment was leveled. And now fully revealed behind it and braced against a modem sky, the new King County Hospital appeared ready and waiting for its February dedication. 2 In 1931, the prisoners were moved into their own “penthouse” in the top floors of the new addition to the King County Courthouse looking down on City Hall Park.

Another look at the part of First Hill called Profanity Hill, this time from the second floor of the old Territorial University at 4th and Seneca in 1887. There are no institutions as yet on the hill. Note the distant cliff showing to the right of Providence Hospital. That precipice was between James and Jefferson Streets and stopped 8th Avenue from continuing to the south, without first leaping, (which, of course, it could not do then and still not.)


(correction: The clip below asserts that the view looks southwest from the territorial university.  It is actually southeast.)

The new Providence Hospital in the Squire Park Neighborhood on Second Hill (behind First Hill) on 17th Avenue was first printed in Pacific on June 10, 1990.  (That seems far too long ago.) Here folows another clip substituting for a lost (temporarily) negative.  It should be noted that the new Providence follows the old with a central tower facing the setting sun.   And this is the Providence that can be seen looking over the construction of Harborview Hospital in the photograph at the top.

You will find the substation, here looming down from 7th and Jefferson, in the First Hill pans, above – those taken from the Smith Tower.


Among the pack of turn-of-the-century power companies vying for Seattle consumers, the Seattle Cataract Company headquarters was cited to show-off.   Built against the steepest grade of First Hill this temple for power generated at Snoqualmie Falls flashed upon the customers and competitors below two electric signs.  The higher sign is evident here in whole, and the lower, in part.

At the southwest corner of the fourth floor the electric letters signing “Snoqualmie Light” illuminate a space the same size as the six windows at the structure’s northwest corner.  The effect makes the symmetry of substation’s west façade more dynamic.   Lower, between the second and third floors, the second sign, “Seattle Cataract Company,” is extended two-thirds of the width of the building.  Much of this second sign is hidden behind power poles.

This view dates from 1900 or 1901 when these looming headquarters were nearly new.  In 1898-99 the civil engineer Charles H. Baker slacked the grandeur of Snoqualmie Falls by diverting the river’s water behind the falls through a rock tunnel.  With a head of 270 feet the borrowed water suddenly turned 90 degree into a chiseled chamber fitted with four water wheels for the state’s first large hydroelectric plant.  The 6,000 kilowatts of power generated there was transmitted to customers from Everett to Tacoma.

When the Cataract company headquarters was built at the southwest corner of 7th Avenue and Jefferson Street – now the northbound lane for Interstate Five – its joined a neighborhood of mostly modest clapboard lodgings like those shown here.  First Hill mansions were at the top of the hill.  The Seattle Photo Company photographer recorded this scene from a back window or porch of the pioneer Kalmar Hotel at the southeast corner of 6th Avenue and James Street.   The old landmark Kalmar was lost to the Freeway in the early 1960s – in spite of efforts by local preservationists, led by architect Victor Steinbrueck, to save it.

The roofline of the First Hill landmark recorded here appears more ornate then it was.  The smaller cupola to the right is not its own, but rather tops the King County Courthouse otherwise hidden behind this the Snoqualmie Power headquarters and substation.  (Courtesy,  Museum of History and Industry)

Another clipping for want of the "real thing", the wandering negative. It has been sleep walking for twenty years. The feature originally appeared in Pacific on August 5,1990.


We shall wind this Sunday up with some Edge Clippings – two pages from an 1889 Seattle Post-Intelligencer.   It is a curious collection of proverbs translated from European sources.  Like “Our time runs on like a stream; first fall the leaves and then the tree.” Some are by now cliches.  Others offer strange advice.  A few are by now  inscrutable.  Several are examples of what we like to excuse with a . . . “Well you know that is the way they thought back then.  They can’t be blamed for that.” And often they cannot.

CLICK THESE not once but TWICE and they will be easily read.

What then have we learned?

“Don’t throw away your old shoes until you have got new ones.” Still “Everyone must wear out one pair of fool’s shoes, if he wear no more.” But “an ass does not stumble twice over the same stone.”  It is said that “A rich man is never ugly in the eyes of a girl” and yet “fair, good, rich and wise is a woman four stories high.”  Remember then that “a melon and a woman are hard to know (or chose).”

One thought on “Seattle Now & Then: Harborview from Smith Tower”

  1. Really enjoyed this, Paul…I don’t know First Hill’s history that well, and this was a fine introduction to some of its landmarks of yore. I recall that the McNaught house was actually schlepped across Spring Street when the Carnegie library needed its plot. I’d love to see you do a piece on some of the structures that ended in different places (or orientations) than where they started. The McNaught house jumping Spring, the Stacy house being turned 90 degrees, others?

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