Seattle Now & Then: Romans' St. James from the Great Northern Tower

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: When completed in 1907 St. James Cathedral sparkled atop First Hill. This view of it was photographed early in its life from the tower of the Great Northern Depot (Courtesy Fairlook Antiques, Pioneer Square)
NOW: Recently Jean Sherrard scaled the Great Northern tower and photographed in every direction, including this one northeast towards the “former” location of St. James Cathedral. Of course it is still there although when searched for from the depot’s tower it is now hiding behind the recently raised Skyline Retirement Community, one block south of the cathedral, also on 9th Avenue.

Call it the spiritual urge to approach heaven or public relations; the Roman Catholic Church has had a historic knack for putting their parish footprints on tops of hills or on horizons.  St. James Cathedral is Seattle’s best example of a landmark sanctuary. Dedicated late in 1907, it’s twin towers, cupola and reflecting skin lent a plush interruption to the First Hill skyline and for years St. James watched over the city, and the city look up at its good shepherd.

Most likely within the first year after the cathedral was topped-off the commercial photographer William Romans left his studio on the sixth floor of the Colman Building and headed for the nearly new Great Northern Depot on King Street. The depot with its Venetian tower first opened in the spring of 1906. Perhaps Romans noted the dynamic sky beginning to brew over the city and decided its chiaroscuro delights would make an exquisite backdrop for the gleaming St. James, and it does.

One cannot reach the top of the depots’ tall campanile by elevator but rather, as both William Romans and Jean Sherrard discovered, by an exposed stairway. Given the effort it is perhaps not surprising that so few photographs taken from the vertiginous tower survive.

Two other cross-topped churches appear here.  Directly below St. James near the base of Roman’s real photo postcard stands the cathedral’s predecessor, Our Lady of Good Help at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue & Jefferson Street. To the right of St. James but lower on the hill stands Trinity Episcopal Church at the northwest corner of 8th and James. It was built after the congregation’s first sanctuary at 3rd and Jefferson was destroyed during the city’s “great fire” of 1889. It is the rare survivor of First Hill history that can be also found in Jean Sherrard’s “now.”

This side of St. James, very little survives from the hill-climbing field of mostly flats for workers – many of them single women – who once walked to their jobs in the Central Business District. We will note one abiding five story brick: the Madison Apartments facing its namesake street one block north of the Cathedral on 9th. Its rougher alleyway façade appears on the left horizon to the right of a First Hill grove of leafy street trees.


First, Paul, a confession (perhaps appropriate considering this week’s subject). Our ‘Now’ photo was cropped from a much larger shot, which I include below:

The complete picture from the King Street Station tower

(please click here for the rest of the story)

One thought on “Seattle Now & Then: Romans' St. James from the Great Northern Tower”

  1. I think it was the movie “Trouble In Mind” that tilted up to the King Street Station tower, then cut to a supposed interior, with a ten inch clock face on a large brick wall. That set looked so inaccurate and I had wanted to know what the interior really looked like. Now I know.

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