Seattle Now & Then: The Chapin Block

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: The ornate Colonial Building, aka the Chapin Block, held the northeast corner of Second Avenue, on the left, and Columbia Street, on the right, from 1888 to 1906. (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)
The now century-old bank building is still looking elegant, and also fit. As a home for an exercise gym, its has turned from building annuities to building abs.

A liberal arts graduate from Harvard, the not yet thirty Herman Chapin came to Seattle to invest eastern money – most of it not his own – in Seattle real estate and also stay alert to other opportunities.  Arriving in 1886 Chapin purchased for his Boston backers the northeast and southeast corners of Columbia Street and Second Avenue.  On the latter he raised the four-story brick Boston Block and on the former what is seen here: the Colonial Building, aka the Chapin Block.

For Chapin the city’s “Great Fire” of June 6, 1889 was a most favorable real estate turn.  The heat popped the windows of both buildings, but the flames did not cross Second Avenue, making the New Englander’s two properties buzzing landmarks in Seattle’s rebuilding.  Even before the glaziers replaced all the windows, the Boston and Colonial blocks transformed to hives of enterprise, stuffed with merchants and professionals displaced by the fire.

Following the fire the city’s post office moved around the corner from the Boston building to its own classical and comely structure attached to the Colonial Building (here far-right) and facing Columbia at the alley.  The P.O. stayed there until 1899.  In this ca. 1900 view James Justice’s stationary store is signed there above the sidewalk.  Included next door among the Colonial’s tenants are Masajiro Furuya’s Japanese Bazaar (with a storefront on Second); cycling enthusiast and vegetarian Victor Hugo Smith’s office in rooms 8 and 9 for selling tideland lots, and “mail order tailors” Irving and Cannon.

In 1905 the St. Louis brewer, Adolph Busch, tried to buy the Colonial corner to raise there “the largest hotel in Seattle.”  The sale developed a “hitch.”  At $365,000, it cost too much.  Instead the Bostonians kept to this 120-foot square corner, replacing it with the two-story ornament still standing, new home then for the Seattle National Bank for which Herman Chapin was for many years a director.  Thru a prosperous life in his adopted city, the New Englander “built a dozen buildings and belonged to a dozen clubs.”  Pioneer Clarence Bagley’s History of Seattle described him in 1916 as an example of that “finest type of American citizen – the man who is born and reared in the east but seeks the West with its opportunities, in which to give scope to his dominant qualities.”  And New England cash.

Based on the photographer Asahel Curtis' number for this subject it was taken late in 1907. The view looks north on Second towards its intersection with Columbia. The new Seattle National Bank is on the right, a fresh replacement for the Chapin Block.


Anything to add, Paul?

Yes Jean by the morning – Sunday morning.  I’m scrambling up the rugged slopes of past research at the moment.  And yet we could start with a quiz – a visual one but with no prizes.   The pan below was photographed from the roof of the steam plant between Western and Post and south of  – well south of where?  I have, as a sort of studied habit, dated it 1901.  I might be a few months later, but certainly with disciplined study could be dated to within a few weeks because of the rich detail and the fact that Seattle was then booming, that is, changing rapidly.    Last thing I do this evening before climbing the stairs to join the bears is extract the detail from this pan that shows the Chapin block at the northeast corner of 2nd and Columbia – or part of it.  It is really pretty easy to find.  Most likely I’ll put off the proof reading until late morning.  Please be compassionate.  (Click and click to enlarge)

(CLICK TO ENLARGE – probably twice.)


Herman Chapin as depicted in "The Cartoon, A Reference Book of Seattle's Successful Mean - with decorations by the Seattle Cartoonists' Club" Mistakenly the text has Chapin building the Boston Block after the 1889 fire. He raised it before June 6, 1889.



We will add now a Seattle Times clipping from 1901 that makes note of Chapin’s part in the build-up of Second Ave..  It is a fragment clipped from a longer article, but it shows off this most wonderful gift of the internet and The Seattle Public Library and The Seattle Times.  It is now possible to do key-word searches from the Times for the years 1900 to 1984.  All you need is a library card and some instructions from SPL on how to proceed with this service.  Why it stops in 1984 I don’t know, but it may have something to do with the fact – as I remember it – that 1984 was the year that  The Times went to computers for processing their old news.  I remember when I started doing my weekly feature for Pacific in 1982 that persons in the library were still clipping past issues for research files, which I can tell you were and still are a wonderful resource.  But now everyone has access to everything in the paper and for so many years.  It is really wonderful.  Would that somehow the Post-Intelligencer and The Star and  the Flag and the Argos the Union Record and many other publications out of Seattle’s past also get this treatment.  My work on Ivar Haglund for the book “Keep Clam” is suddenly enriched by this new opening, for although I had already used the Times Library in this Ivar research, the key word search is considerably more thorough and I am finding many things I never knew about.  I urge you, if you have a subject – any subject – of interest, try it out.  Call the library.  It is also a fine hide-and-seek.



(First appeared in Pacific, Sept. 21, 1997)

Through most of the 1890s, Seattle’s U.S. Post Office was sited on the north side of Columbia Street, just west of the alley between Second and Third avenues. In this rare mid-decade view, the reliefed letters of “U.S. Post Office” at the top of the scene are half-hidden in the shadow of the building’s overhanging cornice; on the right the flag is flying.     Before Sept. 11, 1887, when free mail delivery was introduced, locals had to fetch their mail from the post office at the comer of Yesler Way and Post Street, then the commercial heart of the city. But soon after the first four carriers began their daily rounds, the post office was moved to the Boston Block at Second and Columbia, only a half-block west of this location. The new site was described in the local press as remote, and the move was decried. But the new post office survived the Great Fire of 1889: Second Avenue stopped the fire’s eastward advance, although the heat popped the building’s windows. Soon after the post office was moved to these quarters.

In 1890 the postmaster’s count of pieces handled reached more than 7 million, two-thirds delivered by carrier. The next year total receipts were $96,643, six-fold those of 1887, when home delivery began. Business dropped suddenly with the economic crash of 1893 but, as with most of the community, the post office’s revival was quickened and romanced by the late-’90s gold rush to the Yukon and Alaska.

In 1898, six substations were added, as well as trolley deliveries to Green Lake, the University District, South Park and Rainier Valley. In 1899 the post office left these cramped quarters on Columbia for a larger space at First Avenue and University Street. This temporary leap north was criticized as “like moving to Ballard.” Nine years later, the post office would pack again to its current location at Third and Union.



(First appeared in Pacific Jan 17, 1999)

This little classic of Seattle’s historical photographic record has been published many times before. And deservedly. Very few pioneer photographs survive of Second Avenue, and it seems this is the only extant view of a territorial era parade on that street.  My copy was lifted from a print in the collection of the Seattle Public Library. Marked “#15040,” its caption describes the house, upper right, at the northeast corner of Second Avenue and Columbia Street as built by Seattle’s second mayor, J.T. Jordon. In this scene, however, if the library’s 1886 date is correct, the home is occupied by Martin Van Buren Stacy and his wife, Elizabeth. By this time M.V.B. Stacy – listed as a “capitalist” in the 1879 city directory – had built a mansion only two blocks away. (Some older readers may well have had dinner in it.  It was later used as the Maison Blanc restaurant.) Yet the couple would not move from Jordon’s modest house into one of the community’s few truly lavish and oversize homes until 1887. Martin Van Buren Stacy is also often listed as living in one local hotel or another. The couple, it was rumored, did not get along when together.  After building a second mansion on First Hill (now the University Club at Boren and Madison), they built a third and lived apart.

In the late 1950s, local historian Jim Warren used this in his Changing Scene column for The Seattle Times. Warren’s regular feature was a precursor to this; it too compared a historical scene with a contemporary repeat. In his caption, Warren speculates that this is a parade of Seattle’s new Home Guard, organized in 1886. He also speculates that the Home Guard Band in the foreground is led by Seattle’s most popular pioneer musician, coronet player and conductor T.H. “Dad” Wagner.  (We learn from Kurt Armbruster in his new book about Seattle’s musical history, title “Before Seattle Rocked” that Theo H. Wagner arrived in Seattle on June 7, 1889, a day after its “Great Fire.”  Kurt writes, “He arrived in Seattle with his wife and baby.  Sitting in with the First Regiment Band of the Washington National Guard, Wagner demonstrated his natural leadership ability and was handed the baton.  The twenty-man ensemble made a modest public debut in Denny’s cow pasture, but better venues soon followed.”)

Farther up Second Avenue two pioneer landmark towers should be noted. The first tops the Stetson Post residential arcade at Marion Street. It was Seattle’s original upscale apartments. Finally – and dimly – breaking the horizon, upper left, is the spire atop Plymouth Congregational church north of Spring Street.

A section of one of the several parades featured during the city's 1911 Golden Potlatch celebration. Like the pioneer view above it, this one looks north on Second to Columbia and beyond.


Above: Looking west down a planked Columbia Street to the waterfront from Third Avenue, circa 1900.   [Photo courtesy Larry Hamilton]  Below: The Colman Building is the only survivor from the “then” but it can barely be detected, right-of-center, with added stories at the northwest corner of First Ave. and Columbia Street.  It is directly across First from the Norton Building, in 1959 one of Seattle’s first glass curtain wall skyscrapers.  [Now by Jean Sherrard]


(Appeared in Pacific early in 2008.)

Looking west on Columbia St. from Third Ave. to Elliot Bay.   In the foreground worn planking gives a texture to Columbia but at Second Avenue it runs into brick.Behind the pole on the right, stands the stately little classic that was Seattle’s post office for most of the 1890s.   When it moved to new quarters in 1899, the sidewalk news depot and stationary store survived.  A few of the periodicals offered are hung in display beneath the large sidewalk awning.

At the corner with 2nd Avenue, the ornate two story Colonial Building was built by Harvard graduate Herman Chapin who also raised the plain four-story brick Boston Block directly across Columbia at its southeast corner with Second.  Constructed in 1887-88, their timing and locations were most fortunate for both buildings just escaped the city’s Great Fire of 1889 (although it cracked their windows) and following the fire they were temporarily stuffed with businesses displaced by it.

The broad-shoulder Haller Building holds the northwest corner of Second and Columbia, right of center. Built directly after the fire from a design by the prolific architect Elmer Fisher, its principal tenant here is the Seattle National Bank, one of whose directors was the “capitalist” Theodore Haller.

Just by the signs evident here in this first block on Columbia one can buy a sewing machine, photograph supplies, a haircut, a Turkish bath, a newspaper, and a meal at the Alley Restaurant, sensibly in the alley north of Columbia.  At the waterfront it is still a tall ship with two masts that rests in the slip between the Yesler and Colman docks.


Above: In the shadow of the Haller Building at Columbia Street an unnamed photographer looks south on Second into what was then still the city’s primary financial district.  (Courtesy Michael Cirelli.) Below: Second Avenue has been elaborately altered in the century between this now and then.  Still the Alaska building can be detected in both.   (Pix by Jean Sherrard)


(Appeared in Pacific, Spring of 2008)

Looking south on Second to its intersection with Columbia, this is another look at Seattle’s financial district during its greatest boom years, the two decades following the “Great Fire” of 1889 when the City grew from about 40 thousand to almost that many more than 200 thousand.

In the feature that precedes this one (above), Columbia Street was the subject, looking west from Third to Second, ca. 1900.  And here about another six years later an unnamed photographer records Second Avenue, again, looking south from mid-block between Marion and Columbia, which is being crossed by a lonely motorcar and an electric trolley on the Lake Union line.

What stands out and up in this view is at is center: the Alaska Building (1904) at the southeast corner of Cherry, Seattle’s first skyscraper.

The banner strung across Second Avenue mid-block above the trolley reads, in part, “Old Time 4th at Pleasant Beach (on Bainbridge Island), Boats Leave on the Hour, 50 cents.  Including Dancing and Sports.”  So the photograph was recorded early in the summer.  We choose 1906 as a likely date.   It is the last “full year” for the Chapin building on the left.

The Hinkley Block, far right, dates from 1892 and here it is filled with lawyers, dentists, and even some artists. The brick paving on Second is about 10 years old.  The oldest structures in this scene are the two on the left: the Colonial or Chapin Block on the northeast corner of Columbia and the Boston Block south across Columbia.  As noted in the feature directly above this one, both were built before the fire of 1889 and provided great service to businesses following it.  Post-fire photographs from 1889 show these two buildings standing along above the burned-out business district.  (We will include one soon below.)



(First appeared in Pacific, May 24, 1998)

The photographer’s intentions for this mid-1920s view of Seattle’s urban canyon are, I think, transparent. The view looks south on Second Avenue across its intersection with Columbia Street. The camera’s architectural lens has straightened the skyscrapers that would otherwise, from the street, seem to lean toward infinity. And the soaring dignity of these subjects is increased by the silence of the street and sidewalk. There is nothing to distract us from the mass.

When it was dedicated in 1914, the Smith Tower, far right at Yesler Way, was trumpeted by its builders as the “largest building west of New York.” Also by a somewhat impressionist counting, it was figured to reach 42 stories at the skylight ball that balanced on its pyramidal tower.

At Cherry Street, two blocks north of the Smith Tower, Seattle’s first steel-frame skyscraper, the Alaska Building, was topped off in 1904 at 14 stories. From its penthouse the members of the building’s namesake dub enjoyed an unsurpassed prospect of the city.

The Smith Tower is covered with a skin of white terra-cotta tiles – “it shined like a beacon” to mariners. The brick-clad Alaska Building limited its tile work to ornamental bands and its bricks do not gleam. Nestled here between its neighbors, the Alaska Building is noticeably darker.

The real “shiner” is the Dexter Horton Bank Building, named for Seattle’s first banker. From this view (primarily of its plain backside) we can measure the structure’s mass. However, only one of the 15 terra-cotta sides that complete the building’s four great wings facing the Alaska Building across Cherry Street is evident. The revealed Second Avenue facade does feature, rising from the sidewalk, the building’s great three-story columns. Perhaps they intimate this institution’s monumental future as Seafirst Bank – for those who remember it.


With ashes still smoking but having escaped the destruction of the 1889 Fire, the Boston Block (center) and the Colonial Block (left of the Boston and behind the chimney ruins) are filling up as temporary post-fire quarters for merchants and professionals of every sort who have lost their addresses if not their businesses.

Above: Looking south from the south facade of the Boston Block.  The Wycoff residence at the southeast corner of Second and Cherry is at the bottom of the scene.  The new neighborhood of temporary tents is spreading thru the burned district.  Below: Looking north and back at the Boston Block, upper-right, with the roof of the Wycoff home in the foreground and Second Avenue and more tents beyond it.

More ruins as seen from an upper floor in the Boston Block. Columbia Street is on the right. The standing ruins were part of Front Street's (First Ave.) showstrip of elegant and well-ornamented brick business blocks. It extended from Pioneer Square to Columbia Street without break on the west side of the avenue.


MEYDENBAUER HOME – 3rd and Columbia Northeast Corner

(First appear in Pacific, Feb. 1, 1987)

Before the 1907 regrading of Third Avenue, the neighborhood was graced with old homes and churches. One home belonged to William Meydenbauer, the town confectioner. Meydenbauer was 18 when he headed for the United States after an apprenticeship with a candy maker in Prussia. That was in 1850. He made his way to San Francisco in 1854. After a ruinous try at gold mining, and a short experiment with teamstering, he returned to the small but sweet rewards of confections.

The Meydenbauers moved to the Northwest in 1868 when Seattle had less than 1,000 cash-poor residents waiting for something big to happen in the 16-year-old village. Those post-civil-war years were still sour, so the confectioner was welcome. The candy man built a home on Third Avenue at Columbia Street around 1880. Before that there may have been a crude shack on the property but little else. At the time, Seattle’s idea of refreshments for fancy public receptions was sliced apples and gingerbread.   Meydenbauer bought the Eureka Bakery on Commercial Street (now First Avenue South) and soon made a significant addition to the town’s sweet offerings with a selection of well-dressed candies and sweets, including their celebrated Yule cakes.

He and the town prospered and in the mid-1880s, Meydenbauer moved his business into the new and bigger bakery he had built behind the family home. The rear of that plant is pictured above behind the tree and to the left of the family home, and below prominently on the north side of Columbia between Third and Fourth Avenues near the center of the subject.

The Meydenbauder home peeks from the northeast corner of 3rd and Columbia around the Eureka Bakery, which faces Columbia. The Rainier Hotel is on the center horizon and Central School to the left of it. The roof of the Boston Block fill's the bottom right corner and more. The subject was recorded from the Hinkley Block at the southwest corner of Second and Columbia.

By employing several helping hands and running two delivery wagons, Meydenbauer was efficient enough to sell wholesale. Meydenbauer and his wife, Thelka, raised eight children. A son, Albert, continued in his father’s profession after the latter’s death in 1906. After the 1907 regrading of Third Avenue, the Meydenbauer home was replaced by the Central Building, which survives.

Central Building on the left; a scene from the sizeable 1968 snow. (See, if you will, the History of Seattle Snows included with the blog.)

Not so oddly, this family is not remembered for its perishable sweets but for sustaining real estate. In 1868 Meydenbauer rowed across Lake Washington and set a claim beside the Bellevue bay which still is called by the family name.

The Bellevue-Seattle ferry at Meydenbauer Bay, May 30, 1914. This docking subject as well as the neighborhood subject shown in the body of the feature, above, are both included with essays in Seattle Now and Then, Vol. 1, which you can explore on this blog thru the history books section or button or tab or icon. (There! We have been dragged to it by a current cultural necessity. We have used it! "Icon") The chapters there in are 19 & 80.


The Haller Building at the northwest corner of 2nd and Columbia in 1908. On the right is the corner of the northeast corner and part of the brand new Seattle National Bank building, which replaced the Colonial Block.


(First appeared in Pacific, 2-10-1985)

Seattle was aroar with excitement in May of 1908. Fags were hung everywhere and the city dripped with red, white and blue. All the pomp and fuss was over the arrival of 13 battleships from Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet. During the morning hours of May 26, 1908, a three-mile-long military parade was the last big hurrah of a four-day event celebrating the show of force in Elliott Bay.

According to a local newspaper, “Seattle never before in its history appeared in such gay attire.” The old Haller Building (see here), at Second Avenue and Columbia Street, was “decorated in a tasteful and artistic manner,” The Post-Intelligencer reported. But it was a modest adornment compared to some of the garnishing done by businesses along the parade route. “Vying with one another, the mercantile firms have created a veritable spasm of color on First, Second and Third avenues . . . the eye almost wearies of the view.”

Frederick and Nelson facing Second at Madison Street, adorned with bunting for the 1908 fleet visit.

The Alaska Building – the city’s first skyscraper – was adorn with more than 500 flags. The 14-story building was a block south of the Haller Building at Cherry Street, and at night it was a target for the barrage of spotlights shot from the 13 fighting machines in Elliott Bay.

Some of the many flags attached to the Second Ave. facade of the Alaska Building ascend along the right border of this view that looks north on Second on parade day but during a parade of trolleys only.
A scene from Fleet Week looking south on First Avenue from near Madison Street. (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)
The fleet approaches Elliott Bay.

Throughout the four days, Seattle was hit by a wave of humanity as an estimated 200,000 visitors took the city by storm. “Night and day the streets are full, alive with a rushing time of humanity restless as the-sea,” the P-I reported. The next day, Wednesday, May 27, Roosevelt’s big show moved on to Tacoma for four more days of boat races, parades, barbecues, dress balls and more buildings dressed in patriotic colors.


Columbia Street, looking east from the waterfront during the 1884 snow. (A story that accompanies this snow scene was included earlier on this blog and can be found by searching for "1884" or "Columbia Street."
Pioneer photographer LaRouche's look east on Columbia, ca. 1891, from Post Alley. A glimpse of the Chapin corner can be had near the scene's center - above the Front Street (First Ave.) cable car.


The brand new Seattle National Bank - at the northeast corner of Columbia and 2nd. The photo has been dated March 9, 1907. (Courtesy, Michael Maslan)


Returning now to the roof of the power plant on Post Alley.

You will find the Chapin Block - part of it with sidewalk awnings - very near the center of this section pulled from the panorama printed again below.

This panorama extends about 180 degrees from the Colman Dock on the far left to the King County Courthouse on the First Hill  horizon, far right.  (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)



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