Seattle Now & Then: The Abiding Smith Tower

(click on photos to enlarge)

THEN: When the Smith Tower was completed in 1914 to its claimed 42 stories, the “old town” choice for its footprint was thought by many to be a mistake, for Seattle’s business district had by then begun its big move north. (Courtesy - no courtesy needed. I found it in Garage Sale)
NOW: Because its builders chose not to first move north, by now from the south the Smith Tower stands out like a venerable doorman or butler at the front door to the city.

Judging merely from the paucity of pictures taken from it, few photographers have struggled to climb to the top of the Great Northern Depot’s tower for this unique look north into the city’s Central Business District. The tower and its depot were completed in 1906, and soon a nearly 180-degree panorama looking north like this was recorded in its first year.   The top view was recorded a quarter-century later, and I have not seen any other pans snapped between them.

Roughly one-fourth of the way into the pan from its left border there is an “unnatural” jog in the street grid.  That is where part of the left panel and the entire center panel of the panorama have been joined. (Nothing of the third right panel has been included here.) Jean Sherrard’s repeat of it all was recorded with a wide-angle lens that required just one snap.

If you can remember the city’s skyline before 1968, the year the SeaFirst tower at Third and Madison was topped off at fifty stories, you may be counted as an old timer, at least by cityscape standards.  In 1967 the skyline looked very much like it does here in circa 1930. I think the date for this cityscape is late 1930, for construction of the added floors to the City-County Building, far right, is nearing completion, and the dates inclusive for that improvement was 1929-31.  This view cannot have been recorded after Jan. 8, 1931, the day when the old King County Courthouse on First (aka Profanity) Hill was razed by dynamite.  It is still standing in the third panel, the one that is not included here.


This time, Paul, I’m going to add a couple of pans I took from the Great Northern Tower. One looks south-to-west, much backlit by the sun.

Stadia to waterfront

The other (somewhat distorted by the stitch of Photoshop) looks more to the east, over the International District.

Chinatown meets Paul Allen

My challenge is, Paul, can you find a ‘then’ photo taken in either direction?  Sir, you test me, or you tease me, for I have at least hinted to you the shapes, subjects and directions of the first two views added directly below.

The neighborhood now variously called Chinatown and the International District recorded from the Great Northern Tower sometime before the Jackson Street Regrade. King Street follows right-of-center to the east. Jackson Street parallels it on the left.
The same neighborhood from the same prospect, although now in the midst of being lowered. Holy Names and its spire at 7th and Jackson have been razed. South School, on the right horizon, survives but not for long.


One has to sign a release to climb to the top of the King Street Station’s clock tower. A steel stairway ascends through room after empty room until you reach the larger chamber with the four clockworks. Next, a somewhat shaky spiral staircase leads up to the catwalk beneath the tower’s pyramidal roof. There, 240 feet above the railway tracks, you can enjoy a 360-degree, unobstructed view that is rarely seen. Hardly anyone (including me) ever takes the time or gets permission to make this aerobic climb. Both of the “now’ and “then” panoramas were photographed from the east side of the tower looking down upon the International District. Jean Sherrard took the color “now” and – if I can still find it tonight – Genny McCoy took the black-white sort-of-now back some few weeks before this feature first appeared in Pacific Mag. on Nov. 2, 1983. (For the moment I have failed in finding McCoy’s recording.)

The oldest view was taken sometime between 1905 when the tower was completed and 1907 when work began on the Jackson Street regrade. The difference between “now” and “then” is deep. The hill has been cut away as much as 85 feet, and the neighborhood, originally part of pioneer Doc Maynard’s claim, has been entirely made over. Only one structure from the “before” remains in the “after.” In the 55 years between 1876, when First Avenue was graded between Yesler Way and Pike Street, and 1930, when the last of Denny Hill was removed, more than 50 million tons of Seattle earth were scraped and shifted about in the city’s more than 60 regrade projects. Of these, after Denny Hill, the Jackson Regrade was the largest.

In the Jackson Street Regrade water canons were used to erode the ridge.

Even from as high a prospect as the campanile’s catwalk, the grade change is obvious. King Street, which runs east from 5th Avenue up the center of both views, is now a gentle incline. In 1907 the two-block grade between Sixth, Maynard, and Seventh Avenues was a cliff too steep for a street. And on the left, the steepest grade along Jackson Street was reduced from 15 to 5 percent.

Looking east up Jackson Street from 5th Avenue, circa 1905, before the regrade.
Looking west on Jackson from near 9th Avenue, Jackson's highest pre-regrade point on the ridge that once extended between First and Beacon hills. This view dates from the late 1880s and is used courtesy of the Provincial Archives of British Columbia.

The regrade’s promoters referred to Jackson Street as “the Pike Street of the South.” Their promotions for the project explained that it would make the Rainier Valley as accessible to the business district as Capitol Hill was by way of Pike Street. Jackson’s deepest cut was, again, 85 feet at Ninth Avenue. If the dirt were reapplied, then in the contemporary view it would reach to the top of the Interstate-5 freeway. The highest part of Jackson was just to the left of the rooftop of Holy Names Academy, the dominant structure whose gothic spire pierces the center horizon of the ca. 1906 historical scene.

Looking south on 7th Avenue and across Jackson Street to Holy Names Academy ca. 1890.

Holy Names was built along the east side of Seventh Avenue in 1884. Six years later, South School, the dark profile on the right horizon (referring here, again, to the top pan that looks east from the GN tower), was put up at Twelfth and Weller. Both of these landmarks were razed by the regrade.

A few windows here display Ron Sims campaign posters. Sims was first elected to the King County Council in the mid-1980s.

That one structure that was not removed was the Japanese Baptist Church. This four-story clapboard still stands at the northwest corner of Jackson and Maynard, although it has seen be remodeled. In Jean’s “now” view east from the tower, its imitation war-brick exterior rises directly across Jackson Street from the much larger Bush Hotel. In the historical view the Baptist Church is the three-story gabled building located across Jackson Street from the large vacant lot which is just left of the photograph’s center.

In this detail pulled from the tower-view above a red arrow points to the Japanese Baptist Church at the northwest corner of Jackson and Maynard.

The actual work of lowering and so preserving this church “fell upon” L.B. Gullett who advertised himself as an “experienced house mover.”  He used a picture of the Japanese Baptist Church to prove it.  Actually, this church was one of the few sacred institutions in a more profane neighborhood of flophouses for single immigrant men and establishments with names like “The Dreamland Cabaret,” “Miss Emma’s New Stars,” “The Gaity,” and “The Red Light.” On November 1, 1909 the politicians and promoters who thought this kind of neighborhood expendable gathered on the regrade to celebrate its conclusion. They envisioned a new neighborhood of modern construction. Fortunately, we got the International District instead.

Frank Harwood’s Stereo

Frank Harwood took his stereoscopic camera to the north side of Weller Street and pointed it northeast towards Maynard Avenue.  The boxish rooming house that dominates the upper-right-hand corner sat midblock between Weller and King Streets.  The white streak near the center of the photograph(s) is a high-pressure jet of water being thrown at the hill along King Street.  Before the regrade King Street, too steep for a street in the two blocks between Sixth, Maynard and Seventh avenues, was a switchback trail.  The trail can be located easily in the earliest look into the neighborhood east from the Great Northern tower.   Now the King Street grade runs about 5 percent.  Maynard Avenue, supported behind cribbing in this view, was also lowered and its grade reduced.

The stereo was made not long after the 1907 beginning of the Jackson Street Regrade which, when it was completed in 1909, took as much as 85 feet of sandy loam and glacial hardpan from the ridge between First and Beacon hills.  In a public work second in size only to the Denny Regrade, 27 blocks on and near the tidelands were filled with the mud blasted with hoses from 29 blocks above the tides.   The regraders next moved south to cut Dearborn Street through the northern flank of Beacon Hill.

The two regrades – Jackson and Dearborn – razed several landmarks, including South School and Holy Names Academy; part of the academy’s tower shows at upper right above the rooming house.

The Dearborn Cut looking west from near Rainier Blvd. Before more of Beacon Hill was hosed away the original 12th Ave. steel bridge had the temporary timber extender or elevator shown here.
A panorama of many things including the railroad yards built south of the here new Union Pacific Depot. The pan was photographed on Sept. 27, 1911, and also shows that part of the neighborhood, which was raised by the Jackson Street regrade: the boxish flats, some still on stilts, at the center and on the right side of the pan. Beyond them are the mostly brick structures that climb the newly lowered ridge at the new easy grade as the then new International Distirct aka Chinatown. The Great Northern tower is on the left and the King County Courthouse on the First Hill horizon. (Courtesy Municipal Archive.)

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