Seattle Now & Then: The Public Safety Building

(click photos to enlarge)

THEN: It is a gratifying moment when construction photographs of our civic landmarks surface. This one dates ca. 1908, and it is shared by the Seattle Municipal Archive. The Terrace Street steps to “Profanity Hill” are on the far left and the old King County Court House tops the horizon. Yesler Way is on the right. (Courtesy, Municipal Archive)
NOW: Restored in the mid 1970s, the 400 Yesler Building still distinguishes its flat iron block. Jean Sherrard used his ten-foot pole to approach the heights that were available for the municipal photographer.

In my oldest memory of this flat iron building the stone is a soiled black and the inside is stuffed with automobiles. As I remember it they seemed to have all been made in Detroit or near it.  The pie-shaped place was well ventilated, for many of the windows were broken.

That was about fifty years ago, or roughly at its half-life. This our third City Hall was completed in 1909, and designed by local architect Clayton Wilson as a home not for the mayor or the council but rather for the local police, prisoners, courts, the city’s health and sanitation departments and emergency hospital.

When it opened in the spring of 1909 the Mayor and City Council moved in too, but temporarily.  In 1916, they moved on and nearby to join King County offices in what was then called the City-County Building. Wilson’s trapezoidal creation between Yesler Way, Terrace Street and Fifth Avenue, was renamed the Public Safety Building.

Earlier, the primary addition to the building was a penthouse built not for the mayor but for housing the nurses.  The hospital kept responding to emergencies until 1951 when the city abandoned the building, which sometime after got filled with those auto bodies, some of them also in distress.  For those an auto repair shop was in residence.

Really the best source for Public Safety Building history is Dotty DeCoster’s illustrated  – and still fresh – narrative on  Published last year, it is that digital encyclopedia’s Essay 9336.

In 1977 a restored 400 Yesler Building, its new name, welcomed some municipal offices – including the Department of Community Development  or DCD – back to its floors.  I was by coincidence nearby when a visibly beaming Mayor Wes Ullman inspected it that year, his last in office.


Anything to add, Paul?

Yes Jean, a few relevant past features from the neighborhood.  There are seven or eight more – although it is getting late.   I’ll start with something on the first city hall.

CITY HALL, ca. 1886

This ca. 1886 portrait of a police line-up (of policemen not suspects) may be also the only surviving close-up of the Seattle city hall that was built on the east side of Third Avenue (Second Ave.) south of Mill Street (Yesler Way) in 1882. This first dedicated city hall is given a succinct description by pioneer journalist Thomas Prosch in the typewritten manuscript of his helpful chronological history of the city. “The house was a two-story brick of 40 by 60 feet, the first floor being used in the front for an engine room and in the rear for a jail, the upper floor being divided into a Council Chamber and rooms for the Clerk, Treasurer and Chief of Police.” The 1884 Sanborn fire insurance map notes that the rear windows were covered with iron bars and that this was the only brick building on the block – a material that nonetheless did not save it from destruction by the city’s Great Fire of 1889.

Chief, William Murphy posed on the far left. Murphy’s part in local history is in sum an unpleasant one. Instead of prohibiting the round up of Seattle’s Chinese from their homes on the Sunday morning of February 7, 1886, Murphy joined in. And since most his victims lived south of Yesler Way in quarters within a block or two of City Hall, the Chief was both near by and knew on what doors to pound. By the time the county sheriff, deputies and the volunteer home guards were alerted by the ringing of church bells, Murphy and his gang of sinophobes had pushed the resident Chinese and their belongings to the docks. Remarkably, for this sour performance Murphy was not fired. Instead he was outranked by a new office of inspector of police. The too-human truth is that Murphy’s racist behavior was widely popular and required time and a police force stocked with new officers loyal to the new inspector to check the habits of this chief and some of his force.



In the long and comic history of Seattle’s search for a dignified city hall, the most bizarre years occurred when the city’s population exploded. Government offices for 40,000 Seattle citizens moved into the firetrap pictured in today’s historic scene just one year after the fire of 1889. It sat facing Third Avenue to the west between Jefferson Street and

Yesler Way and was saved from the fire by water buckets and wet blankets spread between the building’s roof and the shower of sparks that swept across Third.

As the postcard caption indicates, the new city hall, the Public Safety Building, now the 400 Yesler Building, is up Yesler on the right.

The building was already eight years old in 1890 and had been the home of county government. When the county moved up to First Hill, the clapboard building was left to the city. Over the next 19 years, the city’s population quadrupled, and so did this city hall with an assortment of alterations and extensions that resembled the comic constructions in the then popular cartoon strip, the Katzenjammer Kids. In its last years, this city hall was popularly known as the Katzenjammer Castle.

City Hall with a line of posers on the porch.

Scores of photos exist showing the variety of permutations it took through its relatively short life. This view was recorded by Norwegian photographer Anders Wilse, who lived and worked in Seattle between 1897 and 1900. The first of these Katzenjammer scenes looks to the southwest, across the intersection of Third Avenue and Jefferson Street. By this time the city had added the extension to the clapboard muni-building visible on the right side along Third Avenue, the double stairway on the left along Jefferson, and had cut a sidewalk-level door into the odd-shaped space beneath its main entrance on Third.  In the decade after Wilse shot this scene, the Katzenjammer Castle grew to at least three times its original size.  However, the city outdistanced it and the castle was razed by 1909.


[First published in Pacific on 9-30-1984.]

Seattle’s first horseless carriage came to town in 1900. Four years later, the city took an official count. For one day in December 1904, the Seattle Street Department counted and typed every vehicle that passed through the busy intersection of Second Avenue and Pike Street. The tally came to 3,959, but only 14 of them were automobiles. But by 1907 America and Seattle were automobile crazy. Every issue of the daily newspapers featured something about them. And although most American families could not afford to “get the motorcar habit,” there were, in Seattle at least, three chances to ride in one.

The favored choice was to take the Seeing Seattle tour bus. Or, for a little more trouble, an early Seattleite could get a ride in the Seattle Police Patrol’s brand new Black Maria. The last choice was a final option: a ride in Seattle’s first motorized hearse. But it was the city’s patrolling Black Maria that seemed to get the most attention.

In the accompanying historical photo, the new paddy wagon is being shown off in front of city hall and has no problem luring a crowd.  On May 13, 1907 the Post-Intelligencer ran another photo of the police wagon with a caption that read: “The new automobile police patrol is ready to be formally delivered to the police department, provided it measures up . . . Chief Wappenstein and others made several trips in the wagon. On level streets, the machine moves along at the rate of 15 mph. It was built by the Knox Company of Springfield, Mass., and is for durability rather than speed.” And it did measure up.

The earliest record that contemporary police historian Capt. Mike Brasfield could find for the paddy wagon’s performance is from 1909. That year it made 7,637 calls, an average of almost 21 calls a day. But since it traveled an inner-city beat, its seemingly low 8,547 mile total included a lot of short trips to the jail.

Pictured in today’s contemporary photo is one of the department’s four modern vans. This one’s radio call name is David-Ten. It’s parked in the same spot as old Black Maria, but today the site of the old “Katzenjammer” City Hall is called City Hall Park.

City survey crews pose at the front steps to City Hall. The city's growth was extraordinary during the 19 years (1890 - 1909) that the Katzenjammer Castle performed as a stuffed city hall.


As far as I can recall, this is the only photograph that shows, side by side, two of the more significant structures in our pioneer history.  On the left facing Third Avenue is the Yesler Mansion; on the right, Seattle City Hall. You cannot tell it here (although you directly above), but in its lifetime the latter grew into such a heterodox structure that it was popularly called “the Katzenjammer Castle.” The nickname was drawn from a comic strip featuring the two mischievous Katzenjammer Kids, whose adventures took place in a cityscape stuffed with clumsy structures resembling Rube Goldberg inventions.

In its own, ornate way, the 40-room Yesler Mansion was also clumsy. In “Shaping Seattle Architecture,” Jeffrey Karl Ochsner of the University of Washington Department of Architecture, notes its “highly agitated forms . . . irregular bays, picturesque profile and varied details . . . are typical of American High Victorian architecture.”  I, for one, fall for this kind of clumsiness. When construction began on the mansion in 1883 in time for the depression or “Panic of 1883,” its municipal neighbor was already standing for two years as the King County Courthouse. When, in 1886, Henry and Sara Yesler moved two blocks from their home in Pioneer Place (Square) to their big home, it was barely furnished. After Sara died the following year, Henry and his nephew James Lowman went east to visit relatives and buy furniture. Henry died in late 1892. Seven years later, the Seattle Public Library moved in. The stay was short. On New Year’s Day 1901, fire destroyed the Yesler Mansion and 25,000 books. Twelve years earlier both buildings just escaped the city’s “Great Fire.” ~


In 1883 the city’s first industrialists, Henry and Sarah Yesler, rewarded themselves by building a 40-room mansion in their orchard facing Third Avenue between Jefferson and James Streets. The oversized home was not yet twenty when it burned down early in the morning of New Years Day, 1901. Actually, from this view of the ruins it is clear that while the big home was gutted by fire neither the corner tower (facing 3rd and Jefferson) nor the front porch – including the library sign over the front stairs – were more than blistered by it.

The Yesler landmark had a somewhat smoky history. Although completed in 1883 Sara and Henry did not move in, and instead continued to live in their little home facing Pioneer Place for three years more. When Sarah died in the late summer of 1887 it was in the mansion, which was then opened for the viewing of both Sarah – she was “resting” in its north parlor -and the big home too.

Soon after Sarah’s death Henry and James Lowman, Yesler’s younger nephew who was by then managing his affairs, took a long trip east to visit relatives, buy furnishings for the still largely empty mansion and, as it turned out, find a second wife for Henry. It was a local sensation when next the not-Iong-for-this-world octogenarian married in his 20-year-old (she may have been 19) cousin Minnie Gagler.

After Henry died in the master bedroom in 1892 no will could be found. While Minnie was suspected of having destroyed it this could not be proved. Consequently, the home was not — as Lowman and others expected — given to the city for use as a city hall.  Instead Minnie stayed on secluded in it until 1899 when she moved out and the Seattle Public Library moved in.

The library sign swings above the front porch in this ca. 1898 photograph of the Yesler home.

Instead of partying on New Years Eve 1900 Librarian Charles Wesley Smith worked until midnight completing the annual inventory of books that only hours later would make an impressive fire. Except for the volumes that were checked out, the Seattle Public Library lost about 25 thousand volumes to the pyre. (The charge that Smith had started the fire was never proven.)

Looking north across the 4th Avenue side of City Hall Park to the Coliseum Theatre that temporarily took the place of the Yesler Mansion on the east side of Third Avenue, extending the full block between James and Jefferson Streets.

After its destruction the site was temporarily filled with the Coliseum Theatre (“The largest west of Chicago, seating 2600.”) until the first floors of the King County Courthouse – aka the City-County Building – replaced it in 1916 . . This comparison (the principal one) looks east across Third Avenue.

Both public saftey - with the police and the city jail - and public health - with a hospital, were the principal abiding concerns of the new city hall when it opened in 1909. This view looks west from above 5th Avenues and dates from about 1912. The Public Safety Building is on the right and the Frye Hotel is in place, left of center. It is currently celebrating its 100th anniversary.


The Idaho was probably one of the last ships to be buried beneath Seattle’s waterfront. The irony of this sidewheeler’s last days was sensational enough to be popularly told and retold. As a 1903 article in the weekly Commonwealth put it, the Idaho’s career was “a happy instance of compensation” in which an “opium-smuggling ship became an ark of refuge for opium victims.”

Built to work on the Columbia River out of The Dalles, the Idaho was soon successfully taken over that river’s treacherous cascades and then, in 1882, was sent on to Puget Sound. Here its shadier labors included smuggling illegal aliens and opium. But in 1899 the ship was redeemed by a Spanish Jesuit turned surgeon.

Dr. Alexander de Soto bought the steamer with money made from practicing surgery on the well-to-do and converted it into a hospital for the down-and-out. With the ship set above high tide on pilings at the foot of Jackson Street, De Soto and his wards abandoned their first hospital, a borrowed bam where he not only cared for but also lived with his indigent patients. The good works of De Soto’s Wayside Mission were so in demand that his example eventually spurred the city itself to provide health care for the indigent. With the 1909 completion of the new Public Safety ·Building (now the 400 Yesler Building); Seattle opened its own clinic.

The Idaho under repair in the Moran Bros. shipyard on the Seattle Waterfront, and only a short distance south of its future and last home as the Wayside Mission. (Courtesy Hal Will)

Two years earlier, in 1907, the Wayside Mission was forced from its land-bound sidewheeler and moved to a temporary site at Second and Republican, now the part of the Seattle Center taken by the Bagley Write Repertory Theatre.  Soon after, the redeemed Idaho was laid to rest beneath fill near the foot of Jackson Street.

[ CLICK TWICE on the two Commonwealth pages that follow from May 23, 1903, and they will leap to a size for reading.]



Under the headline “Many Evidences of Progress,” The Sunday Times of Nov. 22, 1908 reported that the completion of the Fourth Avenue regrade “comes doubtless something of a surprise to many who did not realized the progress that has been made.”  Looking at the evidence of this photograph that looks north on Fourth from the Terrace Street overpass two days earlier we may also be surprised.

But we shouldn’t be.   While the new street is not yet completed the lowering of it to a new grade has been.  Within a year all of the structures — save for the middle one of five on the right — would be destroyed including the historic Turner Hall on the left.  Built in 1886 it survived the city’s Great Fire of 1889 to be renamed the Seattle Opera House, although its standard faire was not Mozart or Verdi but minstrel shows.  (Note: on the Friday night this photograph was shot Maud Powell, America’s greatest violinist of the time, played Ernst’s ‘Fantasia’ on airs from Verdi’s Othello to more than 1000 packed into the U.W.’s then new gymnasium.)

Fourth Avenue looking north from the Terrace Street overpass.

Also in the Sunday Times just noted, Henry Broderick, then the most quotable of local real estate agents, shared his philosophy of progress in this upheaval.  “Someone has said that, in an American sense, a dead town is one in which the streets are not all torn up.”  Broderick added this statistic, “It is interesting to know that at the moment there are not less than 15 lineal miles of Seattle streets in various processes of improvement.”

Fourth Ave. looking south from the Yesler Way overpass on Nov. 20, 1908. The temporary trestle with tracks was constructed to make use of the dirt removed during the regrade on Fourth to help fill the tideflats to the sides of the Great Northern Railroad's then newly developed railroad yard. The familiar GNRR tower appears center-top.

Finally, November 1908 was also a month for spiritual upheaval between two Presbyterian ministers: the Rev. C. H. Killen and the Rev. Mark Matthews.  Speaking at Matthew’s invitation before the Ministerial Federation of Seattle, Killen warned his fellow preachers that if they did not reinstitute early Christian practices like “feet washing ceremonies, love feasts and holy kissing bees” that they with their flocks would “tumble head foremost into perdition.”

Embarrassed at having been “buncoed by a religious crank” Matthews soon put it strait on who is really going below.  “There is no place where the ruin of young lives can be carried on so easily as in Seattle. The pernicious dance hall, the wine room and the quack doctor are inseparably involved in the steps of progress toward destruction.  After that ring down the curtain, for the next act is in hell.”

North on Fifth Avenue from the Yesler Way overpass, with the northeast corner of the Seattle Public Saftey building showing far left. The tower on the right tops Our Lady of Good Help at the southweat corner of 4th and Jefferson. (Photo, courtesy Seattle Municipal Archive).
Construction work of some sort is underway on the Yesler Way overpass. The subject looks south from 5th and Terrace.
Jean is fond of this look south on 5th from the Yesler Way overpass, and he has also recorded a "now" of it. However, since he is at this moment away in Arizona (visiting and not living in a retirement community) we will need to wait for his return to see it. Meanwhile we can ask ourselves to date it. Reasonable suggestions accepted - please.


The above historical scene on Yesler Way was photographed on Friday afternoon August 9th, 1940.  It was the last day of cable car service in Seattle, and on Saturday the Yesler line was turned over to gas busses.

Enough locals understood the significance of this Friday that the Municipal transit had to put two extra cars on the line.  Before the last car was silenced at 2 a.m. Saturday morning the typical whirring and clanging noises of the cable line were counterpointed by the cheering and singing of the trolley fans that crowded onto the cars.  The operators added to this noise by clanging the cable cars bells all along the line.

Car 22, same last day, same "station," but here looking at it from the east.

Earlier a spirit citizen attempt to save the cable lines only postponed their demise and first the James Street line, followed by the Madison cable and last the Yesler system were closed in 1940.  Since its death at 52 there have been periodic calls for the system’s return and, no doubt, a rumbling and ringing cable line between Pioneer Square and Leschi Park would be a very popular “unrapid” transit for tourists and locals alike.

Car 22 was constructed in 1907 by the Seattle Electric Company at its Georgetown shops.  It was part of the fleet sold with the city’s transit system to the city in 1919.  Painted orange like the rest of the municipal fleet Car 22 was soon scraped.

This morning - Sunday - Ron Edge has found this revelation of the safety island at 3rd and Yesler when it was new in 1928. And note that the striped window coverings (or shades) on the Public Safety Building are still in place. Ron pulled this from the Muni. Archive site.

In 1920 the Yesler Cable line’s western terminus was moved two blocks east from First Avenue to Prefontaine Place where here (in both photographs above) twenty years later Cable Car 22 takes on passengers for one of its last trips to Leschi Park on cable railway’s last day of operation in Seattle. More than half a century later both the Prefontaine Building, right, and the 400 Yesler Building, left, survive.

Climbing Yesler Way another cable car approaches the "summit." (The three trolley pixs are used courtesy of Lawton Gowey.)
Looking up Yesler Way and Terrace Street from the Smith Tower. The flatiron public safety building, near center fits the blocl between them and 4th and 5th Avenues. The date is circa 1930 for the City-County building's new top floors are being completed, Harborview Hospital is also a work-in-progress, and the King County Courthouse on First Hill has not yet been dropped with dynamite. (Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archive.)
The Smith Tower seen from Yesler Way and near the Public Safety Building (out of frame to the right) on Nov. 1, 1958. Either Lawton Gowey or Robert Bradley recorded this slide. Some of their collections got mixed.
The Public Saftey Building when nearly new. Courtesy Museum of History and Industry.
Another early frontal view, this one by the prolific real photo postcard "artist" Otto Frasch. The "Old City Hall and New City Hall" postard printed far above was als recorded by Frasch - perhaps on the same day.
Another early look at the new Public Safety Building from behind. Although the surviving print has deteriorated some, the stylish elegance of the striped window shades shows.
Jefferson, far left, and Yesler Way meet at the bottom left corner between Second and Third Avenues. The old King County Courthouse is on the horizon.

It has reached “nighty bears” time and so we will cut it off with a detail from the new City Hall, or Municipal Building – a moving piece of its sliding water.   Tomorrow late morning we will look for two missing subjects and add them – if we find them.

3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The Public Safety Building”

  1. Wow! So much great research with these photos! Thank you for sharing. Speaking of Mark Matthews – you wouldn’t by chance, have seen photos of him possibly at his home? My mother-in-law’s mother worked for him possibly between 1907-1910. I have a photo of her which looks to be in uniform and cut from a larger photo so I’ve always wondered if there might be a posed shot for some reason of his staff. Thank you for any direction you can send me.

  2. I used to park in the Public Safety Bldg in the early 80s and the warning was that the building was sinking.

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