An active member of the Mountaineers, the photographer Frank Shaw also liked to hike Seattle with his Hasselblad camera, especially in pursuit of cityscapes and public art. Building the Seattle Freeway was one of the subjects he followed, and at the center of this elevated look west from University Street and 9th Ave. into the Central Business District he has recorded a surreal swath of cleared lots prepared for digging the I-5 ditch.
Almost certainly Shaw followed the freeway news, which this June of 1961 was enlivened by protests against the freeway’s design. They were led by the First Hill Improvement Club and Century 21 architect Paul Thiry. Shaw recorded this on Sunday June 4, 1961, one day before the club’s Monday protest march thru these same blocks. With practically every public official against them, the club’s proposal to cap or lid the ditch with a green parkway was doomed. In a city then ambitiously building a world’s fair, the political and technical tasks required to study the lid proposal were described as annoying by those charged to do them.
Once the ditch was dedicated in 1967 the artful urge to cap it was revived with some of the same public officials in line to, perhaps, atone. The results were Freeway Park dedicated on July 4, 1976, and seen, in part, in the “now.” The sprawling Washington State Convention Center followed in the eighties.
Most likely Frank Shaw read his Sunday Times that June morning. Front page was news of Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s enchantment “like a smitten schoolboy when the ice thaws along the Volga in the springtime” with Jacqueline Kennedy at a Vienna banquet. There was also news of “freedom riders” in the Jackson Miss. Jail, the decision to also name Century 21 as the Seattle World’s Fair, and arguments over Castro’s proposal to exchange 500 American tractors for 1,200 Cubans captured in that April’s failed invasion of the biggest island in the Caribbean.
Anything to add, Paul?
A few more features past from the neighborhood, and other to some sides of University Street Jean, and beginning with a repeat of the feature we put up in 2009, which looks back up the steep University Street clime from eighth Avenue.
FIRST HILL EXCEPTIONS
(First appeared in this blog on Aug. 15,2009)
There were only two precipitous places along the west side of what the pioneers soon learned to call First Hill where an imprudent trailblazer might have fallen to injury or worse. These steep exceptions would be obvious once the forest was reduced to stumps. But when the old growth was intact it was best to stay on native paths or stray with caution, especially to two future prospects on 9th Avenue – the one near Jefferson St. and the other here on University Street.
Exploring the hillside behind Jefferson Terrace at 8th one can still intimate the cliff, which Seattle Housing’s largest and probably also highest low-income facility nestles. Eighth Ave. stops just south of James Street at that high-rise, because the cliff behind it never would allow the avenue to continue south.
The other steep exception was here on University Street where it climbed – or tried to climb – east up First Hill between 8th and 9th Avenues. The goal is half made. On University, 9th has two levels and only pedestrians – like the gent here descending the steps – could and can still climb between them. All others had to approach the lower of the two intersections from below. They could throttle their motorcar into the photographer’s point-of-view west up University from 8th Avenue, or they could make another steep climb from the north, up from Hubble Place.
The bridge is another exception. It reached from the upper intersection of 9th and University to the top floor of the Normandie Apartments, whose south façade we see here covered in Ivy. Thanks to Jacqueline Williams and Diana James for a helpful peek into their work-in-progress “Shared Walls: Seattle Apartments 1900-1939.” We learn that when it was built a century ago James Schack, the Normandie’s architect, included the bridge as a convenience to the big apartment’s residents who rented 84 units, and all of them with disappearing beds.
For another view of the same location prior to Freeway Park, check out this post at Vintage Seattle.
Perhaps the earliest look at the creeper-free south facade of the Normandie.
(First appears in Pacific, Nov. 2, 1997)
One of our more curious local landmarks is the arrangement of four fluted columns and their surrounding screen of trees that look over Interstate 5 from a triangular patch of park at the northwest corner of Boren Avenue and Pike Street. This week’s “repeat” has followed these now-headless shafts from their original location near the northwest corner of Sixth Avenue and Seneca Street, where they were formerly united for 44 years with their classical capitals above the grand front door to Plymouth Congregational Church.
The mother church of local Congregationalists had its cornerstone laid at this location in July 1911 (the next feature below), and 10 months later opened all 136 doors of its new sanctuary to the admiring community. The architecture was sober and demure and, except for the classical portico and belfry, showed little ornament. As explained in “The Congregational Washington,” it was a “plain, chaste example of classic architecture . . . peculiarly characteristic of New England.” As noted by Mildred Tanner Andrews in “Seeking To Serve,” her history of Plymouth, plans for this church were influenced by the “practical reformist and democratic positions of many of its members.” The architect was John Graham Sr.
Demolition began the first week of March 1966. By the 20th, all that remained were the columns, and on the 29th, these were pushed and pulled down by a tractor and crane. Meanwhile, the congregation worshiped nearby at the 5th Avenue Theatre.
The four stone columns were reconstituted largely by local builder and art collector John Hauberg, influenced, perhaps, by the example of his wife, art activist Anne Gould Hauberg, and the then relatively new enthusiasm for preservation.
Plymouth’s pillars – each of their seven four-ton segments in place – were dedicated at their new location on Oct. 24, 1967. Thirty years later, their austere formation has been considerably softened by the park’s trees.
At the column’s “new” site overlooking Interstate 5, the common misconception endures that these classical pillars were saved not from Plymouth Church but from the University of Washington’s first building on the original campus in downtown Seattle.
Above: Mark Matthews, the pastor for First Presbyterian Church, welcomes the parishioners of Plymouth Congregational Church to the neighborhood during the 1911 cornerstone laying ceremonies. Both views look from University Street south to the block between 5th and 6th Avenues; also the contemporary repeat has been adjusted to show both the street and a portion of the neighboring IBM Building on the far right. (Historical view courtesy of Plymouth Congregational Church.)
(First appeared in Pacific, Spring of 2005)
Here on the Sunday afternoon of July 30, 1911 at the southwest corner of University Street and Sixth Avenue the members of Plymouth Congregational Church are laying the cornerstone for their third sanctuary. A mere three blocks from their second home at the northeast corner of Third and University, Plymouth picked up after Alexander Pantages, the great theatre impresario, made them an offer that the congregation could not refuse.
In a passage from the 1937 parish history “The Path We Came By” this scene is described. “The shabby old frame tenements of the neighborhood, gray with dust from regrade steam shovels, must have looked down in amazement at the crowd gathered there that Sunday afternoon, women in silks and enormous beflowered hats, men in their sober best.” From the scene’s evidence, bottom-center, we may add one barefoot boy with his pants rolled up.
While the surrounding tenements were really not so old they were certainly dusty for the lots and streets of this Denny Knoll (not hill) neighborhood were still being scraped and reshaped with regrades. Less than ten months following this ceremony the completed church was dedicated on Sunday May 12,1912. On Monday an open house featured “music, refreshments and athletics” and also “130 doors – all open.”
Fifty years later Plymouth’s interim senior minister, Dr. Vere Loper, described another dusty scene. “Wrecking equipment has leveled off buildings by the wholesale around us. The new freeway under construction is tearing up the earth in front of us, and the half bock behind us is being cleared for the beautiful IBM Building.” Plymouth’s answer was to stay put and rebuild. Opened in 1967, the new sanctuary was white and gleaming like its neighbor the IBM tower and seemed like a set with it, in part, because the same architectural firm, NBBJ, was involved in the design of both.
RAILROAD AVE., 1908: LOOKING EAST to UNIVERSITY STREET
(First appeared in Pacific, Feb. 28,1982)
With his back against Elliott Bay the photographer shoots across the entire width of Railroad Avenue. The view looks east to the ramp that extended University Street from First Ave. to what was then still the extended timber quay of the waterfront. A seawall with a fill behind it was still several years in the future in this scene from 1908. This is one of about 60,000 subjects in the Asahel Curtis collection preserved, but
rarely seen, in the photo archives of the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma. The subject is oddly empty of the carriages, wagons, cautiously crossing pedestrians and plethora of boxcars that ordinarily congested Railroad Avenue.
While his older brother Edward was roaming the west and photographically chronicling the vestiges of native America, Asahel, “the Curtis brother with the hard-to-pronounce first name,” after a gold rush reconnoitering to Alaska, kept closer to his many favored subjects hereabouts, including the Cascades.
Born in Minnesota in 1874 but reared in Port Orchard, Asahel moved to Seattle in his late teens. His photographic career ‘began in 1894, and after a few years of his wanderings first about Alaska and the Yukon and then testing his ambitions in San Francisco, tie returned to Seattle and, by the century’s turn, was owner of one of the city’s largest commercial studios.
Unlike his brother Edward, whose steadfast urge to record the “noble savage” required the patronage of Theodore Roosevelt and J. Pierpont Morgan, Asahel paid his own way. Always the businessman and only incidentally the artist – with the exception of his cherished mountainscapes – Asahel would photograph most anything as long as it paid. Like this oddly sedate View of the normally hazardous Railroad Avenue. It was surely a job done for hire or on speculation for future sale, but for or to whom?
Perhaps It was the city that hired Asahel to take a photograph showing that waterfront conditions were not as filthy, congested and dangerous as the local press kept harping they were. A weekly, The Commonwealth, summarized these charges this way: “That name, ‘Railroad Avenue,’ is a grim and ghastly joke. Four counts, four charges of negligence have been established – negligence in the matter of policing, lighting, maintenance of sanitary conditions and the enforcement of municipal ordinances regulating the blockade of streets by railway cars.” This picture is virtually clean of everything except for that lone boxcar, a few pedestrians, and that silhouetted figure at the left. That figure’s presence seems to suggest two contradicting readings of this photograph. Either the photographer did not care what moved in the way of his shot or this was the one brief instance that was free of the crowded intrusion of railroad cars and carriages that were coming in fast from all sides and would soon fill the photographic frame and so confirm popular opinions toward this boardwalk – that it was too congested to travel and too dangerous to cross.
Or was this rarely peaceful instance used to reveal the dangerously rough condition of the sea of planking over which boxcars and crowds would normally be jockeying for right-of-way? These boards were forever corning undone, stubbing the toes of commerce and revealing the rat-infested mess of refuse, driftwood and broken concrete below that put up a flimsy wall against a tide range of 16 feet. Here, in an unguarded stumble, one could run a splinter through the foot, and catch the plague to boot! (Or through it.) But it always was routinely claimed that the planking was only temporary – temporary in some places for a half a century.
Perhaps it was the proprietor of the Snug Harbor Saloon who called on Curtis to photograph his cozy drinking establishment. The flags and bunting suggest, perhaps, that the grand opening is in progress and the beer and Polish sausages are cheap. What remained of the Snug’s picturesque life on the waterfront was, however, brief. By 1910 the saloon had moved on up to First and Union, where it was not so snug with the harbor.
In 1911 the Port of Seattle was formed in part as a response to the mess on Railroad Avenue. But it was not until 1934 that an impervious seawall was constructed and that Railroad Avenue – now Alaskan Way – was given relief from the tides in this section north of Madison Street. The older part, south of Madison, got its own and earlier seawall in the teens.
By 1934, Asahel Curtis was a celebrated 60-year-old, and he was still photographing this city and the “charmed land” that surrounded it. Ever the promoter of local development, he died in 1941 and left thousands of images which still are testimony to the making of this modem American city.
WESTERN AVE. South From the UNIVERSITY STREET TRESTLE
(First appeared in Pacific, April 28, 1996)
From above the center line of Western Avenue, this week’s historical scene looks south into the Commission District. The photograph was taken from the University Street timber trestle, which once spanned from First Avenue to Railroad Avenue (Alaskan Way). Judging from its number, this view from the studio of Asahel Curtis was photographed near April Fools’ Day 1904, days before the planks were pulled up and the pilings below them buried in fill.
These street planks are five years old, about as long as they could be expected to survive the pounding of loaded wagons. In 1899 Western had been repaved when the rotting parts of the supporting piles were cut away and recapped.
The 1904 filling of Western represented the public-works commitment to solidify a waterfront that had been quickly rebuilt above the lapping tides after the Great Fire of 1889, which destroyed everything along the waterfront as far north as University Street. The row of makeshift tin shacks on the left was another post-fire commercial improvisation, meant to get the offshore neighborhood quickly back to work. Three horse stables separate the two-story hotel at the far (Seneca) end of the block from Compton Lumber Co. at this end. This last is still in business, although not at this corner. These shacks survived for five more years before they were removed, their tideland basements filled to grade and new brick warehouses eventually built in their place.
The contemporary photo steps back to show off Harbor Steps Park and its monumental staircase, which repeats with ornamental relish the funky old timber trestle along University Street. The park is part of the Harbor Steps project, a work in progress (in 1996), the 17-story residential-commercial building glimpsed here on the right takes the place of the old tin shacks and more.
The red brick Diller Hotel shows here left-of-center across First Avenue at the top of the steps.
THE DILLER HOTEL
(First appeared in Pacific, March 20, 1994)
Edward Diller opened his hotel on the southeast comer of Front Street (First Avenue) and University on June 6,1890. As the first anniversary of Seattle’s “Great Fire” of 1889, the day was a celebration of renewal – and a good way to get attention.
Scores of new buildings were being built side by side above the ashes of the fire district, more than 30 blocks of the city’s business center. The demand for brick was so great after the fire that Puget Sound brick yards could not keep up with it. A number of local commercial buildings, including Diller’s, were built with brick imported from Japan.
Diller built his new hotel in front of the family home and later extended it to alley lots originally saved for the family. This is that full hotel as it was photographed about 1909. The differences between the two bricks is quite obvious if you stand below the hotel’s facade on University Street. These views look cater-cornered across First and University. .
With the 1897 beginning of the Klondike gold rush, the Diller Hotel got busy. The following spring Diller was elected to the City Council. Especially in those years, First Avenue north of Yesler Way was crowded with hotels, mostly for men working on or near the waterfront or traveling to or from the gold fields. No block was as packed as this one, with seven hostelries between Seneca and University.
The Diller is one of the last landmarks surviving from those energetic years. The hotel’s decorative cornice was judiciously removed after the area’s 1949 earthquake. Now (in 1994, that is) within the old hotel’s walls are Asian importers and galleries, professional fashion designers and photographers, a shop specializing in fine papers, the antique store on the comer and several artists in the upper floors. The building, which is still owned by the Diller family, stands directly across University Street from the new art museum. [Perhaps someone who knows the Diller’s recent past will help us learn of it with a written comment.]
MAIL CAR A
(First appeared in Pacific, May 1, 1997)
The centerpiece of this early-century look down First Avenue from University Street is the bright white trolley on the southbound tracks. That is Mail Car A, the first of the Seattle Electric Company’s 400-series freight cars, signed on its side, “United States Railway Post Office.”
Standing mail cars were commonplace at First and University; the city’s main post office was in the Arlington Hotel, far right, for a few years while the new Federal Building was completed at Third and Union. After sorting, the mail was distributed by the white cars to several branch post offices.
The opening of the new post office in 1908 – a short while after this photograph was made – was no doubt a relief to the seven hotels that crowded First Avenue between University and Seneca streets. The Diller Hotel, far left, is the only one that survives (in 1997, at least). Built in the first year after the “Great Fire” of June 6, 1889, in this view it is only the second-oldest building on the block. Construction on the Arlington Hotel began before the fire, and the brick work of its foundation is credited with stopping the fire’s northerly advance.
Among the Arlington’s other occupants were the city’s first tour service, “Seeing Seattle” (far right), and United Parcel Service, which in 1918 moved into the post office’s old sorting room.
By the depressed ’30s, First Avenue had become a relatively low-rent strip for people on fixed or no income. The 1974 razing of the Arlington was seen by some as a kickoff for the avenue’s gentrification. Only now (1997), however, is that hole being topped with the 31 stories of Harbor Steps East. When completed, the entire Harbor Steps project will have added 750 new apartments (plus a 20-unit bed and breakfast) to the harbor side of First Avenue, a development that cannot help but swell the old avenue’s street life.