Seattle Now & Then: A New Fourth Avenue aka City Within a City

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: With remarkable haste the first distinguished buildings of the Metropolitan Tract we constructed between 1908 and 1910 on what had been the original campus for the University of Washington. Pix courtesy Lawton Gowey.
NOW: 100 years later the cityscape throws bigger shadows.

How many Pacific readers can name the make, model and year for the motorcar at the lower-left corner of this look down Fourth Avenue and through its intersection with University Street? I cannot, although I nervously propose that it at least resembles a 1909 Pierce-Arrow. Perhaps a modern urge led the unnamed photographer to include the car in the composition.  It is in fine contrast to the two horse express wagon heading south on 4th at a pace that is not a gallop.  A century ago there were still many more horses on Seattle streets than automobiles.

Above the car is the brand new Cobb Building with terracotta Indian heads banding the façade at its 9th floor.  The Cobb took its first occupants early in the summer of 1910, and most of them were dentists and doctors.  The Metropolitan Building Company designed it for them – the first building on the Pacific Coast predisposed for the efficient handling of tooth extractions and the mysterious request, “cough please.”

Right of center are the White and Henry Buildings. Both were completed in 1909, the White first at Union Street.  Hip to hip they were the first two-thirds of what by 1915 was the block-long White Henry Stuart Building, an elegant show strip for this make-over of the old Territorial University campus into “a city within a city.”  The majority of the residents there had connections with lumbering.  The trio and all else on that block were razed in 1977 while the Rainier Bank tower with a pedestal boldly resembling a golfing accessory was completed.

To me the Cobb seems to still be preparing to open, so I choose a warm spring day of 1910 for this recording.  Three years earlier this part of 4th was about 30 feet higher and covered with campus grass.  Fourth neither climbed nor crossed Denny Knoll.  It stopped at Seneca Street on the south and Union on the north.  The 1907 lowering of the campus and the regarding of Fourth was completed during the first weeks of construction on the White Building in 1908.


Anything to add, Paul?  Yes Jean, a few things and some of them more than once.  There will be some repetition of points or observations in the three stories I have brought along.  They appeared in Pacific years distant from each other, and all have something like thumbnail writing in them, mentioning the basics.   And these basics overlap.

Advertising the Cobb when new.
A nearly new Cobb with the Tuberculosis center on the left, across University Street from the Cobb.
The "City Within A City" from the southwest.


The Fourth Ave. Regrade, 1907-8, looking south from University Street.


In January of 1979 the Olympic Hotel was nominated for the National Register of Historic places.  We might have hoped that years earlier the same had happened for the old Territorial University which once stood in its place.  The old school was surrounded with living memories as profoundly loving as those offered the Olympic Hotel by citizens successful in their efforts to save it from demolition.  However, in 1907, the year of the university’s removal, a booming spirit of progress was simply too insistent to be forestalled by cherished memories of school days.  (Actually, 1907 developed into a crashing year economically nation-wide.  The local regrade projects on Denny Hill and Fourth avenue then became acts of faith conceived in good times but underway in hard times.  The 1907 recession inspired anxious memories of the 1893 crash.  Digging into hills and streets was a good way to relieve these flagging recollections.)

This photographic image, clouded with exhaust fumes of steam shovels and the dust of cave-ins, is of Fourth Avenue being cut through the site of that old school.  The photographer is above University Street and his or her camera sights south across Fourth towards Seneca.  There in the center of the picture the gathering cloud half obscures what was the location of the old university.  The building was 20 to 30 feet higher as the exposed cliff on the left reveals.

The Territorial University at the northeast corner of 4th Avenue and Seneca Street seen from the northwest.

Atop the cliff is a sign reading “Metropolitan Building Co., Lessee of University Tract.”  That name “Metropolitan” was chosen to help attract eastern capitol to finance a project its local boosters advertised as showing a “business boldness amounting almost to romance . . . it will probably be the largest commercial development of its kind undertaken in any part of the world.”  And the signing of that lease in the late winter of 1907 turned into a very big deal indeed.  Within five years the entire grass-covered tract of the old campus was congested with buildings returning rents to Metropolitan and lease monies to the university.

The photographed of the regrade was taken during the winter of 1907-08.  For many years before, the only thing growing on this knoll  – beside young minds – was the deep grass, maples and first that girdled the western slopes of Denny Knoll’s greenbelt of inviting calm.  From 1861, the year it was built, through the many decades of its dominance as the young community’s most imposing landmark, the clapboards, cupola and fluted columns of the old university shone with a hard white enamel.

The Territorial University on the forehead of Denny's Knoll seen here from Denny Hill. Third Ave. is on the right, and Beacon Hill on the forested horizon.

When in the mid-1890s the regents moved the university to its present Interlaken location, their images of the old acreage switched from one of academic sanctuary to the pragmatic stage of real estate. Successfully resisting a city plan to turn the knoll into a park,  they dickered for a decade while the city doubled in size and commerce began to press in on the picked fence.  Still in 1907, when the deal with Metropolitan went through, the old university building was not destroyed.

Moved, turned 90 degrees clockwise and stripped of it columns.

It was moved 100 years or more to the northeast,  near Fifth and Union, where it waited while its alumni, under the charismatic urgings of Professor Edmond Meany, tried to gather support to have the building either relocated to the new university site or somehow saved.  They failed and had to settle for those fluted columns alone, which now stand at the present site of the “University of a Thousand Years.”

Above: The columns in their present on-campus home in late November, 1993.  This tree encircled park is call the Sylvan Theatre and on some moonlit nights you may find ecstatic dancers there.

YWCA (The feature that follows looks through the same block on 4th Avenue, south of University Street, as that watched during the 1907-8 regrade, above.  This was copied from Seattle Now and Then Volume One, which can be seen in-toto on the blog, by approaching it through the “History Books” button on the blog’s front page. But please be patient with the download time.  Read something else while you wait . . . perhaps.)

(Here especially click TWICE  to enlarge the text.)


Street work on the nearly new block with the Cobb Building beyond. The caption writer makes note of the man on the pole but could he really be painting it?
Looking down at University Street from the Cobb Building. The Metropolitan Theatre faced the street mid-block on its south side between 4th and 5th Avenues. Later the Olympic Hotel was built around it. The gas station was an early resident here on University Street.
The wide street was graced with a pylon during World War Two. Many bond rallies and other war-related public events were staged there. This view by Lawton Gowey.
The Metropolitan Theatre continued to book shows for decades after the hotel was wrapped around it to all sides but the one facing University Street. Here's an undated promotional event connected with the opening of perhaps the musical Show Boat (?) (We don't know.)
Another look at the Cobb Building, this time over the shoulder of Plymouth Congregational Church when it still held the northeast corner of University Street and Third Avenue. The colored card is a retouch over an Asahel Curtis photograph from ca. 1911.


Look closely and you will find the Cobb Building in the off-shore view below.

Probably 96 years separates these two off-shore records of Pier 57 at the foot of University Street. In the older view the dark dock is mostly hidden behind the sleek side-wheeler Yosemite. In the "more contemporary" view, the Pier shows the remodeled lines it received during its makeover in the mid-1970s for Waterfront Park. (Historical view courtesy Lawton Gowey)


We will consider two contrasting profiles here.  One is white – all 282 feet and 3 inches of the Yosemite — and the other dark – the west end of Pier 57.  Both are over water but only the former is afloat, and yet not for long.

The crowed skyline here is filled will clues so this view is relatively easy to date.  On the far left horizon the White Building at 4th and Union is completed (in 1908) and to the right of it the structural steel for its adjoining neighbor, the Henry Building, is about to receive its terra-cotta skin.  This is either late 1908 or 1909. Also in 1909 the 46-year-old Yosemite while on excursion with about 1000 passengers broke her back on rocks near shore in the Port Orchard Narrows.  This may be her last formal profile.

Backing out of her waterfront slip.

At the foot of University Street Pier 57 was long associated with the Chicago Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad (CMSPRR), and was often referred to as the “Milwaukee Dock” in part because that name still has such a euphonious ring to it — “The Milwaukee Dock.”   Of course it had other tenants as well and in 1902 (seven years before the CMSPRR arrived in Seattle) the ends of the Pier were blazoned “The Agen Dock.”

It was named for John B. Agen who founded the Alaska Butter and Cream Company in time to feed at least some of Alaska when gold was discovered first in the Yukon in 1897 and soon after on the beaches of Nome.  Consequently Pier 57 had two rooms for cold storage.  Here, however, Agen’s sign is gone, the Milwaukee sign is not yet up, and the Arlington Dock Company is – for the moment – obviously in charge.

Two things more about the Yosemite.  Built for the Sacramento River in 1863 it was sent north twenty years later. In 1895 the maritime encyclopedia of the time, Lewis and Dryden’s Marine History, described it as “the handsomest as well as the fastest steamer which had yet appeared in Northwestern waters.”  It was long rumored that the side-wheeler was purposely driven to the rocky shore for the insurance money.  No one was hurt and apparently the owner collected.


When the University of Washington moved to its new campus in 1895, it left behind a 10-acre campus on Denny’s Knoll – roughly between Third and Sixth avenues, and Seneca and Union streets.  The popular proposal to make a park of the site might have proceeded quickly and cheaply except for the UW regents’ prudent aversion to mere recreation.  Still, the old campus was a sort of Central Park for the 12 more years before it became a “city within a city.”

In 1907 the Metropolitan Building Co. assumed a 50-year lease on the old campus and raised its first two show “skyscrapers,” the White and Henry buildings south from Union Street along the east side of Fourth Avenue.  Chester White was the new company’s president and, like Horace Henry, he was also a stockholder in the venture and a lumberman.  Most of the office space was quickly taken over by the regional lumber firms.  The success of this development played an important part in the voters’ rejection in 1912 of the comprehensive metropolitan Bogue Plan, which would have included another grand style civic center on the freshly cleared and subdued Denny Regrade.

In 1915 the Stuart Building was added at the corner of University Street, completing the coherent façade along Fourth Avenue.  In this view, which dates from the late 1920s, the developer’s metropolitan vision has been nearly completed with the 1925 addition of the Olympic Hotel (far right) and, one year later, the Skinner Building, (far left).

The White-Henry-Stuart Building and the block it sat on were razed in the mid 1970s for the construction of the Rainier Tower on what continues to be University of Washington property.

Not a tract but a taxi. This Metropolitan Cab was caught waiting for a fare - perhaps - on Corliss Avenue during the summer of 2008.

7 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: A New Fourth Avenue aka City Within a City”

  1. The “Olympic Show Boat” image appears to be after the theater was torn down – could this be the grand opening of the original addition to the hotel that filled in the gap left by the theater? I’m curious about the “OP” on the curtain. “Olympic Plaza”? Perhaps they felt the need to name the addition.

  2. Gavin
    Scattered throughout my collection of images I probably have enough to construct a schedule of changes in the hole or indent between the great east and west wings of the hotel. Without offering any dates this is what I faintly remember, and not from personal knowledge but rather from those pixs. The old facade was replaced with a modern one. The question is this. Was the theatre kept behind it for a while or did the hotel fill it in with appointments and rooms that they would later get rid, cutting it away and adding a new entrance closer to where the old Met’s stage stood with a drive way taking you or your cab to the hop in the costume dressed like a lord but in need of tips? I will keep an eye out for pixs that show the changes and perhaps they will also reveal the theatre’s chronology. There are, of course, theatre experts around who know this like the mat at their front door. Perhaps they will let us know. I thought the “O” and “P” might be competed with and “E” and an “N”. My oh my.

  3. I did a little research of my own.

    HistoryLink tells us the final curtain fell at the theater on December 4, 1954, and demolition started the next day:

    Here is an interior image of the “Grand Ballroom”:

    Finally, an exterior shot:

    I agree the “OP” could be the start of “OPEN”, but the “O” and “P” appear to be straddling the middle of the “curtain”, so I’m envisioning them as being the only letters present. For now, I’ll go with “Oddly Puzzling”

    None of this helps with dating your photo, I’m afraid.

  4. Looks like this was taken on Tues August 27, 1957: that’s when the grand reopening of the hotel took place.

    If you have a Seattle library card, go to the Historic Seattle Times collection from the library website, and head to page 11 of Aug 26 1957 ( ) for the advert:

    An Historic Event!
    America’s Most Spectacular Hotel Entrance
    12 NOON (tomorrow) TUESDAY, AUGUST 27

    OLYMPIC PLAZA (formerly Victory Square) University St. between 4th and 5th

    Enjoy the Olympic Showboat with its cargo of music and entertainment! Jackie Souders and his orchestra, soloists, the Barclay Dancers! Watch the mammoth curtain drawn to expose Seattle’s new “Main Entrance”:… the Olympic’s spectacular “drive-in” concourse!


    – that explains the Showboat, OP, and the curtains!

    My understanding is that the old Met theater was demolished outright in ’56 to make way for the new hotel extension, which would feature a new Grand Ballroom in the area immediately above the driveway. That whole addition was itself demolished in 81/82 and the entrance that we see today was added.

  5. Why is it I never noticed how awesome some of the buildings downtown are until I see them in images of decades past? Thank you for all these great photos.

  6. Thanks all for your elaboration. This is an occasion to remark how research has changed so in the 40 years I have been at it. And most of these changes have come – you know – in the last few years. I love it, and may be forgiven for not playing the piano as often as I once did.

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