Seattle Now & Then: Front Street Show Strip

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: By 1881 Seattle was the largest city in Washington Territory, and the richest too. This strip of distinguished facades was the city’s best evidence of its successes. (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)
NOW: Jean Sherrard’s “now” also looks south on First Avenue through its intersection with Columbia Street. The large parking garage that fills the southwest corner was constructed in the 1960s. It replaced the distinguished facades that were constructed following the city’s “great fire” of 1889.

These two blocks on Front Street (First Avenue) between Columbia and Mill (Yesler Way) were Seattle’s first show-strip of distinguished structures.  The view looks south on Front thru its intersection with Columbia. The subject was photographed sometime in 1887, perhaps only days before Toklas and Singerman, the city’s first department store, moved that year into its new home at the southwest corner, here right-of-center.

At the far end of this extended block, the tower of the Yesler-Leary Building (1883) tops what was known best then as Yesler’s Corner, after the pioneer who owned most of what we now call Pioneer Square.  This classy strip faced east across Front to a pioneer string of plain false-front clapboards that contrasted with the brick, tile and cast iron ornaments of the buildings shown here.

After the city’s “Great Fire” ignited at Front and Madison in the mid-afternoon of June 6, 1889 it was hoped that should the fire eventually reach these formidable landmarks that they would not allow themselves to be consumed.  The strip, however, proved almost as combustible as the wood firetraps on the east side of Front Street.  These handsome facades did, however, make the best ruins.

In his Chronological History of Seattle, Thomas Wickham Prosch, explains this strip as another sign of Seattle’s robust prosperity then.  He writes that the city’s boom began in 1886, and then “grew in volume and force in 1887, continued with unabated activity and vigor in 1888 . . . Every week at that time meant 150 more people in Seattle.” The reconstruction that followed the 1889 fire also swelled the immigration and spread the fire of ambition.

WEB EXTRAS

This time, Paul, Berangere has something to add. While she was visiting us for our MOHAI opening, she accompanied me downtown when I took the photo for this article.  Here’s her shot of me and my ten foot pole:

Jean by Berangere

Anything to add, Paul?  What a splendid profile of you and your big ten foot pole Jean.   Yes I have somethings to add, but again the question is how much may I load before I climb the padded stairs to nighty bears.   Most of it relates to FRONT STREET, the subject above – some before and some after the 1889 fire.  Again, there will be few “now” shots for I have never taken the time over the past nearly 30 years to properly file my own weekly negatives away.  I know how to find the historical shots ordinarily because they are “classed” under different collections.  Not so my own photographs of local “nows.”  This was a bad habit of mine Jean and don’t you get into it!  Some day I’ll  organize it all – hopefully.

We will start with a hand-colored version of an 1888 4th of July parade on Front Street and followed it directly with a proper mono-toned version not of the same photograph but of the same parade – with some story.

JULY 4, 1888 ON FRONT STREET

Parades of many sorts were commonplace in the pioneer city.  Streets were not so nervous, they were not overrun with motorcars.  If you wish to celebrated you election to city council or appointment to animal control, if you knew a band that march and play for it you were ordinarily welcome to arrange a parade down “main street,” which for Seattle was First Avenue, or Front Street north of Yesler Way and Commercial Street south of it.

This grand parade with all the bunting and flags is surely an Independence Day celebration. Just to this side of the only open sidewalk awning is the Lace House, a woman’s apparel shop with fancy work that opened in February of 1888. So this can only be July 4, 1888, for in another eleven months and two days everything here was consumed by the “Great Fire” of June 6, 1889.

The photographer looks north from the southeast corner of Cherry Street and Front Street. Front was named for a setting that is now long lost. When platted in 1853, First Avenue (Front) was the most westerly of the avenues, and on a windy day at high tide a pedestrian on its west side might be splattered. Now the waterfront has moved far to the west.

Here I have found a rare NOW by me shot this time not by a "big ten footer" but by my mono-pod, which is more like four feet long and so not as elevated as the historical photographer.

The fancy structures on the left are part of Seattle’s two unbroken blocks of pioneer splendor between Yesler Way and Columbia Street, its touch of San Francisco elegance. The corner structure at Columbia Street; right of center, with the grandest decorations was the Toklas and Singerman Department Store, built in 1887. Some hoped that the Great Fire might be stopped by its sturdy brick façade, but the flames were barely stalled before they burst the windows, chewed the mortar and razed all but the sturdiest of walls south of it – like the bank facade on the far left, which was left standing although the building was gutted like all the others.

 

THE ELEPHANT STORE

In this 1878 view up Front Street (First Ave.) only the Elephant store on the right – where, presumably, both the bargains and the selection were over-sized – is obviously a retail house. The others look like homes, but the street’s residential character is slightly deceptive. One of those clapboards is a foundry; another, a cigar store; another, a drugstore; and the roof on the lower left-hand comer tops a brewery.

The Elephant Store is at Front’s southeast corner with Columbia, and two blocks north at Madison Street, Moses Maddock’s drugstore is the dominant white structure just left of the photo’s center.  (The subject printed next was photographed from the balcony of the drugstore, and both it and this look in the opposite direction along Front Street were photographed by Peterson and Bros., which ran their commercial studio at the waterfront foot of Cherry Street.)  Beyond Maddock’s drugstore at Madison Street, Front St. was sided for the most by homes. The gabled Amos Brown home at Spring St. rises above the drugstore and right of the tall fir.  It and the Arthur & Mary Denny home at Union St., just left of the fir, were Seattle’s first grand homes. For the Dennys, city founders, it was their third residence when they moved there in 1865. Arthur lived in this fancy Victorian mansion with the jigsaw trim until 1899, the year of his death. By then the house was surrounded by tall hotels and department stores.

Beyond the Denny home Front St. jogs a little to the left and northwest beyond Pike St.   Pike was the northern end of the street’s 1876 improvement. Before that regrading, there was a hump at Cherry St. (the site of the photographer’s studio and perch), another rise at Marion and a ravine at Seneca deep enough to require a bridge.

Finally this scene includes a subject on the horizon that is bigger than either the street or an elephant.  It is Denny Hill.  Here the top of it reaches about 100 ft. above the present elevation of Third Ave. between Stewart and Virginia streets. This is one of the few early recordings of Denny Hill that survives, while the hill itself, of course, does not.

 

FRONT STREET PROMENADE FOR THE PIPERS

The captioned subject of this Peterson brothers photograph is its vacant street. The studio has inscribed it “Front St. Seattle W. T. [Washington Territory]” along its dirty diagonal line.  As the scene shows, the street’s name was appropriate. The Petersons took this shot in 1878 or 1879. Then, at high tide, Elliott Bay beat against the timber retaining wall that held Front St. high and dry above the waterfront. This is Seattle’s first major public works – the regrading of Front St. from a stump-strewn, ravine-ridden path to a filled-in, smoothed-out public work, with guardrail and a sidewalk promenade along the city’s front. The Petersons are showing it off.

The scene was shot from the balcony above Maddock’s drugstore at the N.E. corner of Front’s intersection with Madison St. The drugstore did not survive the Great Fire of 1889. I took the “now” shot from the second floor of a brick building which was raised there soon after the fire, and which, in 1986, was still after half-a-century the home of Warshall’s Sporting Goods.  (For the moment I cannot find my “now” shot from the early 1980s.  Typical.  I did not also look to using it again while I was then preoccupied with looking back.)

The ’89 fire started across Front St. at its southwest corner with Madison in the Pontius Building. The corner of its balcony is on the older photo’s far right. It and the Woodward Grain House, the building that dominates the photo’s center, were both built on pilings.  Between them is a glimpse of a section of Yesler’s wharf and mill.

The Woodward was the business home of Peter’s Furs, Cigars and Liquors. Peter was in the right line. The 1878 city directory claimed “five out of every six men in the territory use tobacco, and nine out of every ten men use intoxicating drinks.” However, another of the directory’s statistics suggests that these prevalent vices were still lonely ones, for “There are three bachelors to every bacheloress in the territory. ”

Posing in the photograph’s lower left-hand corner are A. W. Piper, his son Wallis, and their dog Jack. As the proprietor of the Puget Sound Candy Manufactory, Piper was very popular. The 1878 directory reviewed his confections as “warranted and strictly pure.” Both Piper’s confectionary and the Peterson’s studio were on Front St. near Cherry. They were, no doubt, friends.

For 30 years the Pipers lived in Seattle making candy and friends. When Piper died here in 1904, his Post Intelligencer obituary was an unusually good-natured one. The publisher-historian Thomas Prosch first of all remembered “Piper’s cream cakes. During the 1870s they were particularly noted. The people of those days to this time think nothing of the kind … has ever approached them in excellence.”

Piper was also an artist. Prosch recounted, “He could draw true to life, could mold in clay, cut stone . . . his Christmas display was noted for its originality, humor and beauty.”

Piper's painting skills are compliments in a portion of this 1878 clip taken from a local newspaper. (Courtesy Ron Edge - of couse.)

In many ways the candy-maker was unconventional.  A religious Unitarian, he was also a socialist member of the Seattle City council, and an unsuccessful Populist candidate for Mayor.  He was, however, a successful practical joker.  Once, at a public dance, he mimicked Henry Yesler so convincingly that the real Yesler ran home to construct a sign, which read “This is the only original Yesler.”

Thomas Prosch concluded, “Everybody regarded him as a friend.”  A.W. Piper dies at the age of 76, survived by Mrs. Piper, their nine children and many friends.

 

[Somewhere within three feet of this desk is a black-white scan of this same Frye Opera House look into North Seattle and when found I’ll insert it here.]

NORTH SEATTLE

More than a few publishers and local historians have silently thanked Fred Dorsaz and/or Edward Schwerin for carrying their studio’s camera to the top floor of the nearly new Frye Opera House to record this local classic, a bird’s-eye into North Seattle. The scene looks over Madison Street, up Front Street (First Avenue), across the distant rooftops of Belltown and far beyond to the still hardly marked Magnolia Peninsula.

There was a touch of opportunism and pride in the partner’s climb and recording. The original photo card has “Souvenir Art Studio” printed across the bottom, and if you look hard, you can see their business name written again on the banner that stands out against the dark trees near the center of their photograph.

The Souvenir banner is strung over Front Street between the Pacific Drug Store building, bottom right, and the Kenyon Block, bottom left. The Souvenir Art Studio rented quarters in capitalist J. Gardner Kenyon’s” namesake commercial building. Taking clues from the few signs attached to its sides, so did the Globe Printing Co. (one of only four job printers listed in the 1885-’86 City Directory,) William P. Stanley’s books, stationary and wallpaper store, and Robert Abernethy’s “boots and shoes” store. Like its owner Kenyon, Abernethy, it seems, also conveniently lived in the Kenyon Block.

In his “King County History,” pioneer historian Clarence Bagley dates this view “about 1887.” Given the absence in this scene of important 1887 additions and the presence of structures not around in 1885, the likely date is 1886.

 

One-half of Huntington's stereo look north on Front Street and thru its intersection with Cherry Street.

HUNTINGTON  – & Others – EARLY RECORDS of FRONT STREET

The Huntington Bros. Studio of Olympia would not allow hometown bluster to get in the way of marketing and flattery. On the flip side of this view up Front Street (First Avenue) from Cherry Street, the Huntington promoter has written a rather long paragraph on Seattle’s virtues, noting: “Seattle is the leading town of Washington Territory … Its principal exports are agriculture produce, lumber and coal . . . It also exports much fish, furniture, doors and windows, flour, etc. The town is conveniently, beautifully and healthfully situated, and gives promise of becoming a place of considerable importance . . . Its own people are very proud of Seattle, and think it inside of 10 years destined to be second on the Pacific Slope to San Francisco only.”

The added claim that Seattle’s population “numbers 3,500” suggests that the Huntington caption was written in 1881, when Seattle first overcame Walla Walla to become the largest town in Washington Territory. The photograph, however, was most likely recorded before June 20, 1879. On that day, J. Willis Sayer notes in his book, “This City of Ours,” “the last forest tree on the central waterfront, standing just north of Pike

Street, was cut down.” That tree, I’m claiming, stands nearly alone on the horizon, left of center.

A few of the identifiable businesses here are F.W. Wald’s hardware store, far right, next door to Hendrick’s plumbing. Across the street in the shade of the sidewalk porch is the Fountain Beer Hall. To Huntington and his potential customers, the noteworthy quality of this street is not that it is vacant, but that it is smooth. In 1876 the bumps of Front Street north of Yesler Way were cut away to fill its valleys. This historical scene was copied from an original Huntington Stereo view.   It may be compared to other studio’s recordings of Front Street also looking north through Cherry Street.

A Peterson & Bros Stereo, again looking north on Front through its intersection with Cherry.
Someone's yearning for color.
This one was recorded from a Pioneer Square aka Pioneer Place.

Looking south here through the same block only this time into Pioneer Square.

An 1880 Post-Intelligencer clip expressing faith that soon all the old clapboard firetraps would be replaced with brick commercial buildings along Front Street. (Courtesy Ron Edge)
Somewhat relevant detail from the 1884 Sanborn Real Estate Map.

 

BOREN & BELL at SECOND & CHERRY

This pioneer snow is neither from Seattle’s still coldest winter of 1861-’62 nor from its still deepest snow, the “big snow” of 1880. The scene is too late for the former and too early for the latter. What is most curious about this look into what was then still Seattle’s first residential neighborhood is the scene’s “centerpiece,” the two-story box with four windows on its west facade. It sits at the northwest corner of Second Avenue and Cherry Street.

Judging from the remnants of the old forest on First Hill and from the other structures, most likely this view dates from the early to mid-1870s. Above the barn or large shed on the far left is the tower to Seattle’s first sanctuary, the so-called White Church at the southeast corner of Second and Columbia Street.

Significantly, the “centerpiece” box is a frame structure. Therefore it is not the log cabin that Carson Boren built at that corner in the spring of 1852. The local tradition that the Carson cabin was the first structure completed in Seattle is remembered with a plaque on the Hoge Building (that now fills the corner). However, according to Greg Lange, a historylink.org scholar of Seattle’s pioneer life, the Boren cabin was more likely the third house.  It was completed after Doc Maynard’s home on First Avenue South and William Bell’s first home in Belltown.

Actually, Bell is also better associated with this box if not with its predecessor, the log cabin. In 1855 Boren sold the corner to him. Lange concedes that the frame building, seen here, may have been part of the deal. However, he thinks it more likely that Bell, not Boren, built it sometime after 1858. By the late 1870s the black box at Second and Cherry was replaced with a more distinguished residence.

As for the snow, we don’t know.

A nearly contemporary repeat for the subject above it.

Another snowscape looking east on Cherry from Front (First).  This one is also by Peterson & Bros and was recorded from the front door to their studio on the west side of Front.   This 1880 is still the deepest in the city’s history.  (See the Snow History buttoned on the front page if you like.)   In 1880 Seattle was a few more than 3000 citizens, a few less than Walla Walla.   Seattle would surpass Walla Walla in the next year and then become one of the country’s greatest examples of a boom town as it grew to roughly 40 thousand by 1890, more than 90s thousand by 1900, and to more than 200 thousand by 1910.  The photographs directly below also look up Cherry from First and date approximately, in this order, from 1892, and two from around 1913.  By then Cherry Street  was one of the city’s examples of an “urban canyon” with steel-frame high-rises to many sides.

Looking east on Cherry from Front/First about 1892.

 

1884 SNOW ON COLUMBIA STREET

Although the snow of 1884 did not make it into our local freezer of big snows, it lent its own perishable delights. Through the first week of February, the winter of 1883-84 had been peculiarly dry and pleasantly warm. The local paper predicted more of the same. Then on the 8th two inches of snow dropped on Seattle, and the temperature dove, sticking below freezing.

Lake Union froze over and a procession of skaters trekked the length of the boardwalk that followed the bed of an abandoned coal railroad (near the line now of Westlake Avenue) to the south end of the lake. It was safe to skate until the 15th, when the thermometer first rose above freezing. With the skates, sleds were then also surrendered, but only temporarily. In three days more the sky opened and again dropped the fun stuff you see here -18 inches of it.

The photographer, Theodore E. Peiser, was nearly as fresh to Seattle as this snow. In 1884 the oversized gear and glass-plate routines of photography were both rare and elaborate enough to gain attention. Here, everyone seems to be posing for Peiser. The commercial photographer set his tripod at the waterfront foot of Columbia Street with his back to Elliott Bay.

Peiser recorded some of the best views of Seattle in the 1880s. There might have been many more, but his “Art Studio” on Second Avenue between Marion and Columbia Streets was destroyed along with his equipment and negatives in the city’s “Big Fire of 1889.” The loss is especially grievous given the claim Peiser made on the flip side of one of his surviving prints: “The largest and finest assortment of views of Seattle and Sound towns, logging camps, etc., for sale by the copy or in large quantities, at reasonable prices.”

This also looks east on Columbia towards Front/First. The new Toklas & Singerman Department Store that replaced the one razed by the '89 fire is on the right. On the left are the original post-fire two stories of the new brick Colman Building. It was lifted several stories to its present height in 1904.

 

This is scanned from a news clipping for I temporarily lost the negative or continuous-tone print.

MACKINTOSH’S SAFE DEPOSIT BUILDING

The Safe Deposit Building was one of the Victorian jewels strung along the west side of Front Street (First Avenue) between Pioneer Place (Square) and Columbia Street in the mid-1880s. Angus MacKintosh’s Merchants Bank operated at the sidewalk level, and in the basement was what the trim Scotsman from Ontario advertised as “the best safe-deposit vaults on the West Coast.” The bank was also distinguished by its biggest customer: the U.S. government.

Arriving in Seattle in 1870, the 31-year-old MacKintosh was among a second wave of pioneers who came too late to take claims but early enough to buy land cheap. He soon married Elizabeth Peeples, who had arrived in 1866 as one of the adventurous “Mercer Girls.” Both Elizabeth and Angus were talented accountants – she as the first woman to act as enrolling clerk for the House of Representatives in Olympia and he as specialist in preparing abstracts.

A sort of contemporary repeat.

Soon after MacKintosh formed his bank, he built this building to house it. The date 1884 is set in relief at the crown of the building. Five years later the bank and more than 30 downtown blocks were destroyed by the Great Fire of June 6, 1889. The day after the fire, MacKintosh’s claims about the security of his basement vaults were given a grand affirmation when, to quote a contemporary, the Rev. H.K. Hines, “they became the storeroom for all the banks of the city until order was brought out of the existing chaos.”            MacKintosh rebuilt his bank to seven stones above the same vaults.  A nation-wide economic panic that began in 1893 brought down the Merchants National Bank four years later. MacKintosh, nearly 60, tried to recoup by joining the Yukon gold rush. When that failed he fell into depression and then poor health, dying in 1904. “Lizzie” lived another 22 years, which was time enough to see their son Kenneth become a Superior Court judge.

The ruins of the Merchant bank stand at the center of this post-89fire scene that looks northwest from the block of rubble between First and Second Aves. and south of Cherry Street. The banks front facade held up but more importantly its basement vault did even better.
The rebuilt Merchant's Safe Deposit building after the fire with its also new neighbors. Ca. 1895 looking west from Cherry Street.
Seattle Rifles standing guard following the '89 fire.

CLEMMER’S DREAM

On September 3, 1932 Seattle’s “pioneer showman” James Q. Clemmer rolled up the sleeves of his tuxedo and mounted a soapbox outside the Fifth Avenue Theater, which he managed. Above him stretched a bright red banner reading “Jim Clemmer’s Campaign Headquarters.”

In that depression and election year, radio charisma propelled Franklin Roosevelt’s promises of “a new deal for every American” far ahead of Herbert Hoover’s monotone assurances that “prosperity is just around the corner.”  The showman Clemmer was running not for an office but in the Fox Theater’s coast-wide contest for the “most popular manager in the West.” Both FDR and JQC won. Jim Clemmer beat out 200 other west coast managers by hawking the most advance sale tickets to the Fifth Avenue’s coming show, Will Rogers’ new talkie, “Down to Earth.” Clemmer personally peddled these admissions to the multitude of happy customers he’d been entertaining, by then, through 24 years of pioneering film-playing in eight Seattle theaters.

The first of these was Clemmer’s Dream. In 1907 the 26-year-old newlywed brought his wife over from Spokane to live in and manage a recent family acquisition, the Kenneth Hotel. The Kenneth was one of the first and also most pleasingly ornate stone structures put up after the fire of 1889. Its very narrow but tall seven-story facade sat at the First Avenue foot of Cherry Street. Within a year Jim Clemmer converted an abandoned bank lobby on the hotel’s first floor into his Dream Theater. It was one of Seattle’s first photoplay houses and its “most spacious and best equipped.” In our historical photograph we see the Dream’s marquee in one of its several incarnations. Clemmer was constantly making improvements, both outside and in, and the best of these was the organ. The Dream’s Wurlitzer was said to be the first organ installed in any motion picture theater anywhere. And both the organ and Clemmer were fortunate to have “Ollie on the Wurlitzer” Wallace improvising his dramatic accompaniment to sentimental films like the “one advertised above the Dream’s entrance, “A Brother’s Devotion.” Oliver G. Wallace was one of those Seattle phenomena that after a hometown nurturing went on to great things elsewhere. With Wallace it was to Hollywood and a career of writing scores for many of Walt Disney’s films including “Dumbo” and “Peter Pan.”

Dream Theatre instruments with organist Wallace.

Another of Clemmer’s Dream Theater innovations was probably the first “talking” motion picture. This it did literally. In 1910 Clemmer put actors behind the Dream’s screen to mouth aloud the screen actors’ mute lines. Predictably, after a week of this often too-comic dissonance, the noble experiment was shut up as an artistic howler.

The Dream Theater’s fare was actually a 50-50 mix of one-reelers and vaudeville. Much of the latter was on-stage singing acts. The movie shorts included Italian dramas, French comedies, pastoral forest stories, and from an American producer named Bison, the first of the cowboy pictures. Bison advertised that he still “employed men who have had actual experience in Indian fighting.”

In 1912 Jim Clemmer sold the Dream and built the 1,200-seat Clemmer, “the nation’s first grand theater devoted exclusively to photoplays.” In the next 20 years he also managed the Winter Garden, Music Box, Blue Mouse, Music Hall, Paramount, and the Orpheum. When Clemmer and Roosevelt won by landslides in 1932, Clemmer was in his second term as manager of the lavish Fifth Avenue Theater. When he died in 1942, he was remembered by John Hamrick, the Fifth Avenue’s owner, as “the best theater manager I ever knew.”

The Clemmer Theatre - on Second Ave. not First - during the 1916 snow.

 

1884 BIRDSEYE of FRONT STREET from the OCCIDENTAL HOTEL

After searching some “ancient sources,” I think it likely that this look up Front Street (First Avenue) was photographed in the late summer or fall of 1884. The scene includes a number of well-leafed trees packed between buildings, so this is not in winter. But why 1884?

The unnamed photographer stood on the top floor of the nearly new Occidental Hotel, one of the then-prospering city’s showpieces, and looked north to another, the Frye Opera House at the northeast corner of Front and Marion. Here, the reader must concentrate. The mansard roof line of the opera house and its dominating tower, shaped like an inverted basket with the hazed mass of Denny Hill behind it, can be located above and to the right of the center of the photograph.

The Frye opened in early December 1884, although the structure was not completed until 1885. Here, the rear half of the “largest theatre north of San Francisco” -that part to the right showing the seven large, vacant windows through three floors –I s still far from complete. .

More evidence for 1884 appears with the construction scene on Front Street, left of center, for the ornate Safe Deposit Building at the foot of Cherry Street. In his 1901 “Chronological History of Seattle,” Thomas Prosch notes that the first pressed bricks used in Seattle (7,000 of them) were brought from San Francisco in May of 1884 and used for the Safe Deposit Building.

By 1888 that entire west side of Front Street between Columbia Street and Yesler Way was filled with ornate brick buildings. It was Seattle’s elegant show strip. All of them, and practically everything else in this panorama, including the opera house, was kindling for the city’s Great Fire of 1889.   The pie-shaped Occidental Hotel – now the site of the “Sinking Ship Garage” facing Pioneer Square between James Street and Yesler Way – was also gutted.

 

YESLER-LEARY BUILDING

Completed in 1883, the Yesler-Leary Building was the proper symbol for its namesake owners, Henry Yesler and James Leary. Many of the 6,645 citizens counted in the Seattle census that year may have thought Yesler and Leary were, like their towering namesake landmark, made of bricks and cast iron. Yesler, the pioneer mill man, paid the most taxes, and Leary was described as “the president of everything.” The following year Leary would also be mayor of Seattle – the first to keep regular hours. Yesler had already been mayor and would be again in 1886.

William E. Boone, Seattle’s principal pre-1889 “Great Fire” architect, designed the Yesler-Leary Building. The cost of raising this Victorian ornament was, for the time, a whopping $100,000. This photograph was recorded sometime between late December 1883, when the planks evident on Mill Street (Yesler Way) were first laid, and September 1884, when the horse trolley first passed by on rails not yet part of this street scene.

The condition before planking is indicated in a Dec. 20, 1883, news story. “In attempting to cross Mill Street yesterday from the Post Office,” (the next structure on Mill Street to the left of the Yesler-Leary Building), “a woman came near drowning. She sank deeper than we care to describe, and only succeeded in saving herself, with dreadfully soiled skirts, after great difficulty.”

The utility poles seen here are nearly new. Telephone service began this year. Street numbering also began in 1883 possibly because 600 homes were added to Seattle. It was a booming year before it busted in the fall with another deep recession. The cosmopolitan tone of this growth is suggested by the appearance in ’83 of Die Puget Sound Post, the first locally published non-English newspaper.

A centerfold copied from either "284 Glimpses of Historic Seattle" or its sequel "494 more . . ." The encircling advertisements were pulled from an 1887 brochure for the Occidental Hotel, which was nearby (to the right of the photographer) but not in this mid-1880s view looking north on Front from Mill St. (Yesler Way) with the Yesler-Leary Building on the left and a glimpse of the Fry Opera House three blocks north on Front, on the east side at Marion.

 

Looking north on Front from Pioneer Square. Partial ruins of the Yesler-Leary building are behind the men deliberating near the scorched center line of Yesler Way. The photographs own caption give an inaccurate date of July, 1889. The ruins left along Front by the June 6 fire were quickly razed away. By July they were gone. The copywriter here purchased this and many other 89 fire images and years later inserted his own captions.

“GREAT FIRE” OF JUNE 6, 1889

It takes a conspiring of coincidences to tum an ordinary fire into a great one. Mid-afternoon, June 6, 1889, Seattle was ready with a heat wave, a fanning wind from the north, its fire chief out of town, next to no water pressure, a clapboard business district, and an upset pot of boiling glue. By sunset Seattle had what has ever since been recalled as the Great Fire of 1889. Burning south through the night, it extinguished itself in the tideflats south of Pioneer Square – now the site of high salary sports. The next morning the exhausted citizens awoke to a smoldering landscape which, depending upon their disposition, inspired some to meditate on human folly and others to set up tents for business over warm ashes.

On the day of the fire most of the city’s photographers were too busy res?cuing their equipment from the flames to record them. So our photographic record of the Great Fire itself is not so great. But not so the ruins. On the morning of June 7, the photographers (those who still had cameras and film) got busy recording the conventional romance of ruins scattered through more than 30 picturesque if ruined city blocks.

(Note, above, the cleaned bricks at the southeast corner of Second Ave and Cherry, and above the bricks the still standing facade of the Merchant’s Bank, described above.)

Actually, there were not many distinguished ruins left in a firetrap business district made of wood. The best of the stood along the city’s incinerated “show-strip,” the buildings along the west side of Front Street (First Ave) between Yesler Way and Columbia Street, beginning with the Yesler-Leary building at Yesler Way. When it was built in 1883, it set the architectural example for masonry and decorative cast-iron that was soon after followed throughout the entire long block to Columbia Street.  When the fire crossed Yesler Way around dinnertime it had left a gutted Seattle show block behind it but had not completely subdued it.

The photographers had to shoot quickly. The picturesque ruins were soon razed. Within the first year 150 brick buildings were started and some completed that year as well. The city celebrated the first anniversary of its very own Great Fire by serving strawberry shortcake to all those who had helped to first fight the fire and then feed and shelter those made destitute by it. The strawberry shortcake tradition is continued in Pioneer Square’s annual Fire Festival, which also features craft booths, live music, and displays of fire-fighting equipment.

(Under construction, bottom-right, is the frame for one of the many tents pitched for commerce following the fire.  This one is set at the southwest corner of Second Ave. and Columbia Street.)

The 1889 Birdseye litho of Seattle was released weeks before many of its subjects were destroyed in the ’89 fire.  Here someone had given a broad-stroked border to the incinerated blocks.  Bottom left is a drawing of the extant Pioneer Building, which Henry Yesler was planning before the fire and then went on to build following it.)

 

FIRE STATION No. 1

The fancy brick façade of Seattle’s first dedicated engine house face Columbia Street from its south side mid-block between First and Second Avenues. It was built in 1883 to house the fire department’s Washington No. 1 – most likely the steam fire engine posed here with its crew and team.

Earlier, the department’s other engine, the smaller man-powered Washington No.2, was also housed here – in a bam. In the summer of 1882, when No.2 attempted to answer an alarm on the waterfront – sans horses – the weight of the rig dragged the men holding its pole down Columbia street and into the bay. Fortunately, both the firemen and the fire engine were pulled from the water with little injury.

By the time of the city’s “Great Fire” of 1889, the Seattle Fire Department had a half-dozen pieces of apparatus, but only one, No. 1 on Columbia Street, was horse-drawn. The ornate brick station that No. 1 left on the afternoon of June 6 to fight the Great Fire would not welcome it home. Of the 30-some city blocks destroyed that night, all those south of Spring Street and west of Second Avenue, were included.

 

“HIDEOUS REMAINS”

[What follows first appeared in Pacific on June 6, 2004.] Exactly 115 years ago this morning on June 6, 1889, Seattle awoke to these ruins and 30-plus blocks more. The Occidental Hotel’s three-story monoliths – perhaps the grandest wreckage – held above the still-smoking district like illustrations for the purple prose of that morning’s Seattle Daily Press.

“The forked tongues of a pierce pitiless holocaust have licked up with greedy rapacity the business portion of Seattle . . . It was a catastrophe sudden and terrific. Besides the smoking tomb-like ruins of a few standing walls . . . people are left living to endure with sheer despair . . . blackness, gloom, bereavement, suffering, poverty, the hideous remains of a feast of fire.”

Predictably, the city’s photographers were soon making sidewalk sales of scenes like this one. If the best of these ruins had been allowed to stand, it would have become both romantic and revered, but it was not. The Occidental’s “towers” were blown up on the evening of the 8th. Most likely it was either on the 7th or 8th that this record of their silhouette was captured, for the district was still generally hot and smoldering on the sixth.

Another look from Front Street south and a little east to the Occidental Hotel ruins with some of the firemen posing valiantly to the side in their uniforms. (Courtesy U.W. Libraries Special Collections.)

The fire started about 2:30 in the afternoon of June 5 at the southwest corner of Front Street (First Avenue) and Madison. It took a little less than four hours to reach and jump James Street and ignite the north wall of the hotel. In another dozen minutes the fire passed through the distinguished landmark and jumped Yesler Way to spread through the firetrap frame structures between Yesler and the tideflats that were then still south of King Street.

 

GOLDEN RULE BAZAAR

One of Seattle’s first department stores, the Golden Rule Bazaar, was founded by a man who failed in the gold fields.  Down and out in Comstock, Nev., Julius Bomstein chose Seattle over Portland and Walla Walla to begin again. He brought his family here in 1882, and within three years the Bomsteins had their own storefront on First Avenue, at Marion Street.

Eighty years later Julius and Louisa’s son, Sam, recited for Seattle Times writer Lucille McDonald some of the pioneer staples the Bomsteins sold here: “Lamp chimneys and wicks, dollar watches, chamber pots, spectacles, clothes hampers, market baskets, wooden potato smashers, .nutmeg grinders, luggage . . . telescopes and toys at Christmas.” Sam Bomstein recalled a brisk business in baskets that his father purchased from the natives in exchange for cooking utensils. Sam also claimed that the Golden Rule Bazaar was the first store on the Pacific Coast to have counters devoted exclusively to cut-rate items priced at a nickel, a dime, 15 cents and a quarter.

Seattle’s “Great Fire” of June 6, 1889 was made considerably less spectacular by the 12-year-old Sam. News of the fire reached his school soon after it started about one block north of the family business. Sam bolted, commandeered an idle wagon and two horses, and hauled away three truckloads of fireworks that his father had recently purchased for a Fourth of July promotion. The fireworks and a few blackened pieces of china were all the Bomsteins saved from the flames, which soon consumed nearly the entire business district. They did, however, hold their Independence Day sale from a tent.

The family’s business prospered again. During the gold rush Sam recalled that “the miners were nuts. They just took the stuff away from us. We didn’t have to do any selling.” By 1910 the firm of J. Bomstein and Sons was operating exclusively wholesale, a business that in 1927 was favorably sold to the Dohrman Hotel Supply Company.

 

The Gottstein Block at the southeast corner of First and Columbia then and now - although the "now" dates from the summer of 1994.

THE GOTTSTEIN BLOCK
In the dawn of urban renewal, in the mid-1950s, the then-dilapidated Pioneer Square area of Seattle was envisioned as a parking lot for the central business district. A number of distinguished buildings were razed for the comfort of motorists before preservationists mobilized to save what remained of this historic district. The Gottstein Block at the southeast comer of First Avenue and Columbia Street was one of the losses.
Soon after the Great Fire of June 6, 1889 destroyed its predecessor, plans for this brick block were announced by the Gottsteins, local wholesalers of liquor and cigars. The Frisch Brothers jewelers were in the pre-fire building and returned to its ornate replacement. Their sign spans the building’s main entrance at 720 First Ave. The somewhat swift change in the character of First Avenue is repeated in the changing of the Gottsteins’ tenants. Eventually, the Brunswick Hotel upstairs became the Right Hotel, a semi-dive for mostly single men working the waterfront or moving Through it. The Frisch Brothers fled with their diamonds, and the Flag Pool Parlor moved in.


Beginning in 1930 until its sacrifice to parking, the Gottstein was home for the Seattle Seamen’s Mission. With a nautical decor featuring paintings of sailing ships, a reading-room window with stained-glass fish, and a blinking lighthouse at the mission’s entrance, the Norwegian Lutherans offered free meals and free or cheap bunks, found jobs, made loans, kept and forwarded mail, and preached the gospel in “a service to all seamen.” In the beginning most of the Mission’s users were Scandinavians and so often also Lutherans. When the center moved from First Avenue to Dexter Avenue in 1957 more were Buddhists and Shintoists.

Looking south on First ca. 1892 from Marion St and through the intersection of First and Columbia.

FRONT STREET FROM PIONEER SQUARE, 1891

In 1891 any Seattle resident of three years residency looking over the shoulder of photographer Frank LaRoche would have understood the wonders of his subject. Everything here (above) is new, including the portion of Front Street (First Avenue) in the foreground.

The streetcar at the center of the scene is not an electric trolley but a cable car. When it began its service in March 1889, the Front Street Cable Railway ran between Yesler Way in Pioneer Square and the line’s powerhouse near Second Avenue and Denny. Three months later the tracks south of Seneca Street were destroyed in Seattle’s “Great Fire” of June 6, 1889.

The Front Street that rose from the ashes was made 18 feet wider and turned through its last block between Cherry Street and Yesler Way to connect with Commercial Street, now First Avenue South. Cutting this little stretch of street through Henry Yesler’s corner – the pre-fire home of the Yesler-Leary Building – cost the city $150,000, about half of its entire post-fire bill for street condemnations. Talk about pioneer clout.

The Starr-Boyd building on the far left was another of the (by one reckoning) 51 Seattle buildings architect Elmer Fisher designed in the first year after the fire. After an earthquake in 1949, the top three floors were dismantled as a precaution. Seven years later the surviving ground floor was razed for the parking lot still in use.

F.J. Haines, the Northern Pacific RR's official photographer, visited Seattle in 1890 and recorded this look north up Front Street from Yesler Way. The Starr-Boyd building is nearing completion on the left. The Pioneer Building, which was in its planning even before the fire, is still only at its foundation level. Note the rubble still on the site of the former Yesler-Learly Building, left of center. This may have something to do with the protracted struggle between the city and Henry Yesler over how much he should be paid for that triangular piece of real estate. (Courtesy Tacoma Public Library)
Another early 90s look up Front/First from Pioneer Square. The Star-Boyd building is on the left, and the Merchants National Bank (later the Kenneth Hotel) rises high at the center.
Anders Wilse's late 1890s look north of First from the south side of Yesler Way - most likely a second floor window of the Merchants Cafe. Wilse returned to Norway for good in 1900. Note that now the Stewart and Holmes drug company sign is at the top of the Merchants Bank Building. Within a few years the name will change again, this time to the Kenneth Hotel.
Real photo postcard artist Otto Frasch's look north on First with his back to Pioneer Square, circa 1908.
On his way to the "summer of love" Robert Bradley paused to look north on First from Yesler Way on March 10, 1967.

 

This subject may be compared to the one at the top of this Sunday's contribution. This story first appears in Pacific for Feb. 22, 1987, but still there may well be - and probably should be - some repetition in this week's feature from what appeared now nearly a quarter-century ago.

SHOW STRIP SEATTLE ca. 1887

This is the best face of the pre-fire Seattle – the west side of Front Street (now First Avenue) between Columbia Street and Mill Street (now Yesler Way). The fire, of course, was that “great” one of June 6, 1889, which reduced this and about 30 other blocks to a few brick ruins rising above the ashes. These are all substantial buildings, built with brick and ornate caste iron in a showy style that delighted in details – the architectural trimmings of a community self-conscious of its successes. And this pre-fire Seattle was booming with an average of 150 new residents arriving each week.

The photographer – probably David Judkins – took this view of the elegant side of city life at eight minutes to three o’clock on the afternoon of a gray day during the winter of 1887-88. The time is indicated on the clock to the left, and the date speculated from the signs on the right.

C. C. Calkins, of the banner-advertised real estate firm Calkins, Moore & Wood, came to town in 1887 with $300 dollars in his pocket, plenty of promotional savvy in his head and luck in his hands. After borrowing, buying, and selling, he was left holding, within the year, $170,000 worth of real estate. Below the Calkins banner, the sign in the window reads, in part, “The Lace House will open about February 10th.” We can conclude that this February was in 1888 from the little vanity biography of its proprietor, J. A. Baillargeon, included in the Reverend H. K. Hines 1893 Illustrated History of Washington State. Baillargeon ‘s window sign promotes the motto for his shop of “Fancy goods and materials of every description” as “reliable goods, lowest prices.” The historian-parson Hines explains his low prices fell from his policy of only selling on a cash basis and thus “proving the old adage that a nimble penny is better than a slow shilling.”

For all its distinction, this was a difficult two blocks to show off photographically – the pre-fire street was narrow and its east side was lined with non-photogenic frontier clapboards that were a confession of the boom town’s still somewhat pimitive soul. Here the photographer shoots from one of those false-fronts, misses them, but still manages to half-hide the block’s distant crowning touch – the tower atop the Yesler Leary Building, obscured behind the long pole on the left.

The reason for this apparent sloppiness is in the street itself. Front is being paved in a public work meant to cover the dirt with a little class of its own – planks. Here the eastern half of the street has been planked, and just to the right of the long pole that hides the tower we can see the line of men at work beginning the planking on the elegant west side of Front Street. The photographer cut off the tower because he was primarily interested in the street.

Another pre-fire look at the elegant strip, or the part of it from the Toklas and Singerman Department Store on the far right to the Merchants Bank on the left.

We might wonder what would have become of this long block had not the Great Fire of ’89 nipped it in its distinguished youth. These structures were solid and might have made it well into the 20th century – perhaps as far as the early twenties when a higher but still ornate strip of terra cotta tiled landmarks could have taken their place. Such a successor would have had a better chance of surviving today – in place of the more Spartan parking garage that now dominates the western side of First south of Columbia Street.

Etching of the pre-89 Front Street strip between Yesler Way and Columbia Street.

The post-fire impression for a new Toklas and Singerman.

The public work that started it: the regrading of Front Street between James and Pike Streets. The Pacific Tribune clip describes a contractor's bidding requirements for winning the job.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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