Seattle Now & Then: Mrs. Anderson's Eccentric Ride

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Mason County “lumberpersons” Agnes and Alfred Anderson built this big home at the southeast corner of Minor Avenue and Columbia Street, appropriately in the First Hill neighborhood of mansions. Here’s Agnes poses in her carriage, before taking her daily ride. (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)
NOW: The Anderson mansion was purchased by Seattle University and used first as a residence hall for men and then women. In 1968 Swedish Hospital bought and converted it into a clinic, which was more recently replaced by the high-rise escaping Jean Sherrard’s repeat.

It was around 1906 that Agnes Healy Anderson started taking a carriage ride every morning around 10 o’clock and kept at it for nearly thirty years.  As motorcars took over she remained faithful to her covered brougham in the cooler months and her open carriage in the warmer ones, and also to her coachman who in full livery drove her horses.

All grew old together in their routine – with side trips for shopping downtown – until 1935 when the last of the teams – by then their names, Lord and Lady, were known in the community – was retired, and Agnes switched to a chauffeur-driven limousine.  William Gyldenfeldt, the coachman, had been given his own home next door, and in ’35 a pension, and the retired brougham too.

Agnes’ husband, Alfred H. Anderson, was a lumber baron of such size that in 1897 he raised this home with seven bedrooms lined in Honduran mahogany, rosewood and Siberian Oak, 4 onyx fireplaces and five marble toilets.  One of the five thrones was fitted with a copy of the oversized President William Howard Tafts’ bathtub, eight feet long and 40 inches wide.  A hole was cut in the side of their mansion to install the tub.  Alfred needed it; he was six feet six inches tall and weight many stones. The couple had left Shelton, Washington and their mills there in the mid 1890s to invest in the opportunities of many sorts found then in booming Seattle.

When Alfred died in 1914 in the Waldorf hotel while visiting New York, Agnes was left with one of the great fortunes of the city.  At her own passing in 1940 she was described as “the largest individual stockholder of the Seattle First National Bank.” She gave generously to many charities, and always had.  Anderson Hall, home for the U.W.’s Department of Forestry, was a gift from her in 1925.  Still it is for her eccentric rides and her husband’s bathtub that journalists, like me, still primarily exploit the couple.  (In that line, the Kaiser of Germany ordered a second copy of Taft’s tub.)


Anything to add, Paul, heh heh?


Yes Jean, and additions of such radical reach that I have renamed it all “Mrs. Anderson Please Meet Mrs. Burke.” Before joining older features to this week’s new one – as is our custom –  I need to make both a correction and confession.   I was wrong!  But you know that, for earlier this day you have returned to the soiled spot of my sins of omission and recorded it as Payday Loans – Indeed!

That is not Mrs. Anderson posing in her open carriage before her First Hill Home, although I first believed it was she and her famous team well back into the last millennium.  I have had this photograph in the wide pool of possible subjects to treat with an extended caption and your repeat Jean. Then six weeks ago (our lead time) I was thumbing thru a file of “candidates” and came upon her again.  I then embraced the patient Mrs. Anderson with my foolish confidence born of habit and some success that I knew something that I, in fact, did not know.

(Click to Enlarge)

My ignorance was first suggested when I went searching yesterday for other looks at the Anderson home to share today.  The big home behind the posing carriage and its rider were otherwise not familiar to me, but I was confident that I could probably find some distant look at it for, as indicated in the feature above, the Anderson home was both large and long-lived.   Then Ron Edge came forward with his 1950 aerial (above to the right) and it was unsettling.  Although its detail is not as sharp as desired, it is clear enough to show that the home it shows at the southeast corner of Minor and Columbia is not the same home as that one in the picture with the posing carriage. It is, however, the same home that appears in the 1957 Seattle Times clipping from a story about the old home’s use as a women’s dormitory for Seattle University.   We have put them together side-by-side. (Click to Enlarge)

The Anderson footprint appears her right of center and a short ways down; that is the first lot of block 101.

Next, with these unsettling doubts I rushed to find a solution – to save face.  First I checked the 1912 Baist Real Estate map’s footprint for the Anderson home, and it remained faithful to me, showing an overall shape that feature symmetrical swelling at both the northwest and southwest corners of the structure.  But this was small consolation, for both homes – the one in the photo with the carriage and the one from space – had such extended corner features.

Agnes Anderson portrait in her short obit, Seattle Times April 6, 1940.

I next compared a newsprint portrait of Agnes Anderson copied from her obituary (above) with a magnification of the Agnes – I still hoped – in the carriage.  Although the age difference was a generation – or even two – that boxish anatomy they shared – in the face – meant that they still might be the same Agnes.

Agnes or Not Agnes and still in the carriage.

Following that slight encouragement I made a mostly fruitless try at finding the three other photographs of Mrs. Anderson and/or her carriage that I knew were in my collection. I found only one of the three.  In that one Agnes was out shopping with her livery at Frederick and Nelson Dept. Store.  Here there was some encouragement because although as Agnes begins to step into her coach she is seen mostly from the rear and in shadows the features of her driver seem similar to those in the featured photo with the posing mansion.

Agnes and her Livery preparing to leave Frederick and Nelson Dept. Store.
Popular Times humorist John Reddin's treatment of Agnes and her habits - Times 9-21-1969 (Click to Enlarge - to read.)
1927 Times coverage of Agnes Anderson and her by then nearly singular routines.
Another nostalgic carriage clipping, this one also from the Times, August 6, 1961.

Still I knew my chances for redemption were slim and figured that it was time to imagine that the home with the carriage was not Mrs. Anderson’s, but another home, most likely also on First Hill, perhaps with Agnes posing during a visit.  But I was clueless as to where such a big home with towers and a metal roof might be found in the neighborhood – a neighborhood I had visited for stories many times in the past.  As is sometimes my habit, I then contrived to daydream, this time about First Hill and its appointments as I imagined floating above it.  It was when so “transcended” that I remembered that the Thomas and Caroline Burke home had a tower at last at one of its corners although not one that was, I thought, so impressive as the one with my younger Agnes and her Carriage.  After fumbling – again – this time to successfully find the photograph of the Burke’s home at the northeast corner of Madison and Boylston, all – or nearly all – was revealed.  This, indeed, was the Burke’s home and much more majestic than I remembered it from having written about it years ago.  (I include that feature below.)

[The original feature that interpreted the above now-then is printed directly below the conclusion of this confession-correction and the several poses by Caroline Burke.]

Even after this discovery I still had two strings to my old belief.  This, I put it with whatever remaining salt of self-deception I could muster, was Agnes Anderson visiting Carolyn Burke; after all they lived only four short blocks apart.  This hope was abused by comparing my Agnes in the carriage with several photographs of Carolyn.  With this I was sentenced.  The person in the carriage was surely Mrs. Carolyn Burke, wife of “He Built Seattle” Judge Thomas Burke.   But still I sputtered.  Was it possible that Agnes had brought her carriage around to take Carolyn for a ride and to also pose for her Tom in it?  Whichever – Mrs. Anderson please meet Mrs. Burke.

One consolation – it is, I think, the first such resolute mistake I have made – if we don’t count errors of direction like left-right – in the now 30 years that I have pulled these repeats from a wonderful variety of sources.

And once more MRS. ANDERSON Please Meet MRS BURKE


In the half century  – from 1875 to 1925 -that Thomas Burke made Seattle his home, he managed to so insert himself into its politics and development that the historian Robert Nesbit would stretch the truth of Burke’s effects only a little when he titled his biography of the attorney and judge, “He Built Seattle.”

The judge and his world-hopping wife Caroline moved into their First Hill home at the northeast comer of Boylston and Madison Street in 1903, a year after he retired from his legal practice. The Burkes were childless and since his wife was as fond of Paris as she was of First Hill society, he was often left alone in this big home with his library. He was an avid reader and was generally considered the town’s chief orator.

The young Thomas Burke

The Burkes purchased an Italianate mansion built about 10 years earlier by another judge, Julius A. Stratton. They made one substantial addition: While on an around-the-world tour their “Indian Room” was attached to the north wall.

(The south and west facades appear here.) Designed by Spokane’s society architect, Kirtland K. Cutter, and completed in 1908, the new addition was 25 feet high with a surrounding interior balcony. The addition was really an exhibition hall for the Burkes’ collection of Native American artifacts, a collection that later became the ethnographic foundation for the University of Washington’s Burke Museum.

The "exhibition hall" attached to the Burke home's north side.

Besides the museum, a monument in Volunteer Park and a street in Wallingford, Burke is also remembered in the Burke Gilman bike trail, which follows the line of one of the judge’s industrial efforts, The Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern Railroad. The S.L.S.E.R.R., financed largely by Easterners, was also an example of what Nesbit so thoroughly elaborates as Burke’s principal historical role in the building of Seattle; that is, as “representative for ‘pioneer’ absentee capital.”

(Click TWICE to Enlarge)



The Carkeek home at the southeast corner of Boren and Madison.

Early members of the Seattle Historical Society pose on the front stairway to the Carkeek mansion at the southwest corner of Boren Avenue and Madison Street.  The group portrait reminds us that it was once the practice for almost any group interested in culture – the arts, heritage, and philanthropy – to have been founded, attended, and run by women.  Historical photo courtesy Lawton Gowey.

A more satisfying "repeat" than the Bartell plastic is this reunion of the Morningtown Coop, but not at the site of the Carkeek manse, but at Carkeek Park. Morningtown was a chummy small restaurant built into a two car garage near the north end of the University Bridge. I ate there often in the 1970s and sometimes tossed pizza too.


(First appeared in Pacific, Aug/Sept 2005)

Except for one man – and can you find him? (click to enlarge) – none of the costumed members of the Seattle Historical Society posing here (above) is wearing pants. (That little man in the upper-right corner seems to have snuck into the scene.)  The front porch of the Emily and Morgan Carkeek First Hill home at Boren and Madison was used more than once for such a group portrait.

Another costume occasion for the founder's of the Seattle Historical Society on the front steps of the Carkeek home.

The Carkeeks where English immigrants and their children Guendolen and Vivian kept the family’s Anglo-Saxon flame lit.  More than a student of the King Arthur legend, the lawyer Vivian Carkeek was a true believer and for years the national president of the Knights of the Round Table.  The daughter Guendolen was packed off to England as a teenager for an English education, although she wound up living in Paris and marrying a Russian count. Later she returned to Seattle to help revive the historical society that her mother founded in 1911.

A Carkeek family exhibit inside the commercial building that replaced the service station that replaced the mansion. A cut-out of Guendolen stands on the floor.

A few of these period costumes are very likely still part of the Society’s collection at the Museum of History and Industry.  Although early, this is not the first costume party.  That was held on Founders Day, Nov. 13, 1914 and there survives a different group portrait from that occasion.  This is probably soon after.

But who are these early leaders in the celebration and study of local heritage?  The only face familiar to me here (from other photographs) is that of Emily Carkeek herself.  She looks straight into the camera at the center of the fourth row down from the top.  Two rows behind her and also at the center, the woman with the large while plume in her hat resembles the artist Harriet Foster Beecher, but it is almost certainly not she.

An early panorama of part of the First Hill neighborhood seen from the Coppins water tower on Columbia Street east of 9th Ave. The Carkeek home is seen above the scene's center and to the left. On the far left is the Ranke home, which is visited in detail below. (Courtesy Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries)

On March 30, 1915, Harriet Beecher along with the historian-journalist Thomas W. Prosch, pioneer Margaret Lenora (Lenora Street) Denny and Virginia McCarver Prosch all drowned when the Carkeek’s Pierce-Arrow touring car crashed off the Riverton Bridge into the Duwamish River.  Only the chauffeur and Emily Carkeek survived.

Both Virginia Prosch and Margaret Denny were involved either as officers or trustees of the historical society and neither of them appears in the cheerful group portrait at the top.

Emily Carkeek, the hostess, is second from the right.


Built in 1883, the Haller Mansion filled the block on the north side of James Street between Minor and Broadway Avenues.  The homes was replaced with federally leased housing during the Second World War, and was later developed with the modest glass curtain Swedish Hospital Annex showing in the “now.”

A WARRIOR’S REWARD – Castlemount

(First appeared in Pacific, Oct. 2005)

To a retirement of writing memories about his battles, Col. Granville O. Haller blazed his last trail.  With wife Henrietta and their four children the five Hallers built the first mansion on First Hill.  There were as yet no streets so the home, at the future northeast corner of Minor and James, was approached by path.

“Castlemount” – their name for it – stood so high that at night the light in its tower could be seen from the end of Yesler’s wharf.   It helped that by then Yesler had clear-cut First Hill and also that no exotic urban landscape had yet taken its place to shroud the new mansion’s singularity on the Seattle horizon.   Still Henrietta soon went to work draping this naked landscape with flowers.  Known for her gardening she was also generous with her bulbs helping neighbors – all of them, of course, new – plant their own flower beds.   Behind the home – although not seen here – was a barn and on the far (north) side an orchard.

Henrietta’s talents were also applied inside.  At night by candle light she made the hooked rugs that helped warm the high-ceilinged rooms that were often in the cold months penetrated by drafts.  Some, no doubt, came from the crawl space below the first floor where in shallow ground Indian sculls had been found when the foundation for the big home was being prepared.

These bleached body parts were on permanent exhibition at Castlemount beside the oil portraits of several of Henrietta’s distinguished 17th century English ancestors.  The Colonel who had fought in several Indian wars — besides the war with Mexico, the Civil War and the exceptionally bloodless “Pig War” in the San Juans – may have found inspiration in them for his writing.

Lifted from the Beau Arts book on Seattle big homes published in the early 20th Century.

(Most of these tidbits of Haller history were recycled from Margaret Pitcairn Strachan’s always-helpful series on Seattle Mansions published weekly in the Seattle Times in 1944-45.)


When Norval Latimer (in the front seat) married Margaret Moore (in the back seat) in 1890 he was the manager of the pioneer Dexter Horton bank.  When they posed with three of their children for this 1907 view on Terry Street with the family home behind them, Norval was still managing the bank and would soon be made both president and director as well.

THE LATIMERS of First Hill

(First appeared in Pacific, 2006)

There are certainly two artifacts that have survived the 99 years since the historical view was recorded of the Latimer family – or part of it  – posing in the family car and in front of the family home on First Hill.

The scene was almost certainly recorded in 1907 because a slightly wider version of the same photograph shows construction scaffolding still attached to the north side of St. James Cathedral’s south tower, far right.  The Cathedral is the most obvious survivor.  By the time of the church’s dedication on Dec. 22, 1907 the scaffolding was removed.   The second artifact is the stonewall that once restrained the Latimer lawn and now separates the Blood Bank parking lot from the sidewalks that meet at the southwest corner of Terry and Columbia.

In the “now” Margaret Latimer Callahan stands about two feet into Terry Street and near where her banker father Norval sits behind the wheel in the family Locomobile.   Born on July 22, 1906, Margaret is the youngest of Norval and Margaret Latimer’s children.

For a while, Margaret, it was thought, might be a third visible link between the then and now — although certainly no artifact.  The evidentiary question is this.  Who is sitting on papa Norval’s lap?  Is it his only daughter or his youngest son Vernon?  After polling about – yes – 100 discerning friends and Latimer descendents the great consensus is that this is Vernon under the white bonnet.   And Margaret agrees.  “I was probably inside with a nurse while three of my brothers posed with my parents.”

Margaret also notes that her father is truly a poser behind the wheel, for he was never a driver.   Sitting next to him is Gus the family’s chauffeur with whom he has traded seats for the moment. (See Margaret’s explanation at the bottom of this feature.)

The clever reader has already concluded that Margaret Latimer Callahan will be celebrating her centennial in a few days.   Happy 100th Margaret.  [This, of course, was first published in 2006.]

A ca. 1930 look north from the then brand new Harborview Hospital. The south facade and roofline of the Latimer can be searched for - and much else.

[Margaret suggests, “The Locomobile used the English configuration for the driver’s position (to the right) until about 1912.  Gus (I think his name was Gus.) the normal driver or (that French word) Chauffeur is closest to the camera.  He is a big guy with either a lantern jaw or a weak jaw as I remember.  On the other side of Gus is Norval.  He is all suited up with gloves and riding gear and behind the wheel with his child on his lap.  Yes this is Norval and so father is further from the camera than is the big-guy-gus-that-is-not-behind-the-wheel but would normally be because Norval was not a driver and he is only posing like one here.”]


The Ranke home at the southeast corner of Terry Avenue and Madison Street was once one of the great mansions of First Hill.  Built in 1890-91 it was razed in 1957 for an extension of the Columbus Hospital.  Presently [in 2004] the home and hospital site are owned by the Cabrini Sisters and are being prepared by the Low Income Housing Institute in two stages for a mix-use development that will feature for the most part low income housing. (Historical view courtesy Lawton Gowey)


(First appeared in Pacific, 2004)

When new in 1891 Dora and Otto Ranke’s First Hill home was appropriately baronial for a family of six and one of the Seattle’s most prosperous pioneer contractors.   The mansion was lavishly appointed with carved hardwoods, painted tiles, stained glass, and deep Persian rugs.  On the first landing of the grand stairway was a conservatory of exotic plants including oversize palms that grew to envelope the place.

Also inside were the family’s famous traditions of performance and fun. The Rankes were married in Germany and immigrated together.  Dora was a dancer and Otto a tenor.  Together they supported and performed in the local productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas.  The couple also helped found the Seattle Juvenile Opera Company giving it rehearsal space in their home and instructions from an imported coach.

Perhaps the most surprising moment of Ranke family theatre was the informal one noted by Margaret Pitcairn Strachan in her 1944-45 Seattle Times series on Seattle Mansions.  After Dora confounded Otto by declining to accompany him to a masquerade ball at Yesler’s Hall, she sneaked down in a baby costume with baby mask, and baby bottle.  Dora danced with many men and sat on the laps of many more – including her husband’s although he did not know it was she – offering them a drink.  Near the end of the evening with the judging of the costumes, Otto, who was one of the judges, “was chagrined to find he had awarded a prize to his wife.”

Most of the Ranke’s playful life was centered in their home at Fifth and Pike.  Otto had little time to enjoy this their third Seattle home.  He died in 1892.  The family stayed on until1901 when the house was sold to Moritz Thomsen.  The last occupants were student nurses training at Columbus Hospital that much earlier had been converted from what was originally the Perry Apartments, the large structure seen here directly behind the Ranke Mansion.


The Furth family followed the procession of the Seattle’s movers and shakers to First Hill in the late 1880s and built this mansion at the northeast corner of 9th Avenue and Terrace Street.  By the early 1900s they had move again, a few blocks to Summit Avenue, and for a few years thereafter their first mansion was home for the Seattle Boys Club.  With the building of Harborview Hospital in 1930 Terrace at Ninth was vacated and bricked over as part of the hospital campus.  (Historical View courtesy Museum of History and Industry.)


(First appeared in Pacific, 2006)

When the Furths moved to Seattle in 1882 their new hometown was enjoying its first buoyant year as the largest community in Washington Territory.  (It stepped ahead of Walla Walla in 1881.)  In the next 30 years Seattle would roar, its population expanding from about five thousand to nearly 240 thousand, and much of this prosperous noise was Furth’s contribution, the ringing of his wealth and the rattle of his trolleys.

Born in Bohemia in 1840 – the eighth of twelve children – at the age of 16 Jacob immigrated to San Francisco, and managed during his quarter-century in California to express his turns as both a brilliant manager and caring citizen.  In 1865 Jacob married Lucy Dunton, a Californian, and with her had three daughters.   Once in Seattle with the help of San Francisco friends he founded the Puget Sound National Bank, and was in the beginning its only employee.  After Furth built this substantial family home on First Hill he continued to list himself as the “cashier” for the bank.  But he was effectively the bank’s president long before he was named such in 1893.

After the city’s “Great Fire” of 1889 Furth is quoted as cautioning his own board of directors to restrain their urge to take advantage of the ruined by calling in their loans.  “Gentleman . . . what you propose may be good banking, but it is not human.”

When the 74-year-old capitalist died in 1914 he was probably Seattle’s most influential citizen, president of its big bank, its private power and streetcar company, a large iron works – fittingly named Vulcan – and much else.  But it was his thoughtful kindnesses that were memorialized.  His First Hill neighbor Thomas Burke noted how Jacob Furth’s “faculty for placing himself in another’s situation gave him insight . . . [and] he always found time to express understanding of and sympathy for the motives of even those who were against him.”  (Click to Enlarge)

(Jacob Furth would have surely have had his life story told in detail had Seattle historian Bill Speidel managed to live a year to two more than his seventy-six.  With his death in 1988 the creator of the Seattle Underground Tours was not able to complete the biography of Furth he was then preparing.)


The obvious continuities between this week’s photographs are the monumental twin towers of St. James Cathedral, upper right, at 9th and Marion and far left the unadorned rear west wall and south sidewall of the Lee Hotel that faces 8th Avenue.  Judging from the cars, the older scene dates from near the end of World War Two. The weathered two-story frame building at the scene’s center also marks time.  It was torn down in 1950 and replaced with the parking lot seen in the “now.” (Historical photo by Werner Lenggenhager, courtesy of Seattle Public Library.)


(First appeared in Pacific, 2004)

In 1949 architects Naramore, Bain and Brady began construction on new offices for themselves at the northeast corner of 7th Avenue and Marion Street. Their new two-story building filled the vacant lot that shows here, in part, in the foreground of the older scene.  Consequently if I had returned to the precise prospect from which Werner Lenggenhager (the historical photographer) recorded his view ca. 1947 I would have faced the interior wall of an office that was likely large enough to have once held several draughting tables.  Instead I went to the alley between 7th and 8th and took the “now” scene about eight feet to the left of where the little boy stands near the bottom of the older view.

That little boy is still younger than many of us – myself included – and he helps me make a point about nostalgia.  The less ancient is the historical photograph used here the more likely am I to receive responses (and corrections) from readers.  Clearly for identifying photographs like the thousands that Lenggenhager recorded around Seattle there are many surviving “experts.” And more often than not they are familiar not only with his “middle-aged” subjects but also with the feelings that may hold tight to them like hosiery – Rayon hosiery.

Swiss by birth Lenggenhager arrived in Seattle in 1939, went to work for Boeing and soon started taking his pictures.  He never stopped.  Several books – including two in collaboration with long-time Seattle Times reporter Lucile McDonald – resulted and honors as well like the Seattle Historical Society’s Certificate of Merit in 1959 for building a photographic record of Seattle’s past.  The greater part of his collection is held at the Seattle Public Library. For a few years more at least Lenggenhager will be Seattle’s principle recorder of nostalgia.


From 1894 to their deaths in 1928 Henry and Kate Holmes raised their family in the ornate Victorian mansion seen here in part at the center of the historical scene.  The residence in the foreground that survives in the “now” view was for many years the home of one of the Holmes daughters; Ruth Huntoon and her lawyer husband Richard. The historical photo is used courtesy of their grandson, also an attorney, Peter Buck.


(First appeared in Pacific, 2005)

In 1894 the retail-wholesale druggist Henry and his wife Kate Holmes followed the increasingly fashionable move to the ridge overlooking Lake Washington. Their grand home was three houses north of Jackson Street on 30th Avenue S and consequently conveniently close to the Yesler Way Cable Railway.  When the Holmes moved in the Leschi neighborhood was already clear-cut and the view east unimpeded.  Now the lofty greenbelt of Frink Park partially obscures it.

From whomever the couple bought the well detailed and mansion-sized Victorian – (the tower rises here at the center of the scene) they may have got it at a good price from an owner injured by the nation-wide financial crash of the year before.  And the purchase may have also been speculative for it was expected by many of their neighbors that one day the ridge would be lined with hotels and apartments.

But the Holmes stayed put and raised a family of daughters.  As each grew to maturity they stayed on the block building homes beside their parents and creating thereby a kind of Holmes family compound.  The larger modern bungalow in the foreground was built in 1910 (if you believe the tax records) for Ruth Holmes Huntoon and her lawyer husband Richard W. Huntoon, and they lived there for many decades.  After the druggist and his wife both died in 1928 none of their children wanted to live in the ornate mansion of high ceilings and winter drafts. So it was razed in 1929.

A stand alone showing of the old Holmes home is featured on page 116 of “Leschi Snaps”, the third of Wade Vaughn’s books on the neighborhood.  Of the three, this photo essay is the best evocation of Vaughn’s sensitive eye for his surrounds and like the first two it can only be purchased at the Leschi Food Mart.  The proceeds all go to the Leschi Public Grade School Children’s Choir.


This two-story office building with the First Hill address, 613 Ninth Avenue, is one of the oldest and also distinguished structures in Seattle.  The “Victorian” was built in 1886 by the hard-working historian-journalist Thomas Prosch with an inclination here also for dalliance.   He included a ballroom.  In 1898 the feds took control of it for the U.S. Assay Office and stayed until they moved in 1932 to a government building.  The landmark next returned to play when it became the German House in 1935.  The building is still owned by the German Heritage Society.


(First appeared in Pacific, 2006)

If I have counted correctly there are here nineteen men posing before the U.S. Assay Office.   Most likely they are all federal employees.  Those in aprons had the direct and semi-sacred duty of testing the gold and silver brought then to this First Hill address from all directions.   Of course, in 1898 the year the office opened, most of it came across the waterfront.

After the Yukon-Alaska gold rush erupted in the summer of 1897 Seattle quickly established itself as the “outfitter” of choice.  Most of the “traveling men” bought their gear here before heading north aboard one or another vessel in the flotilla of steamers that went back and forth between Seattle and Alaska.  The importance of the Assay Office was to make sure that when the few of these “latter-day Argonauts” who returned actually burdened with gold that they would be able to readily convert it to cash here in Seattle, for by far the biggest purchaser of these minerals was the U.S. Treasury.

In the competition with its northwest neighbors by 1898 Seattle was getting pretty much anything it wanted it and so it also got this office and these “alchemists.”  Still the anxious Seattle lobby worked especially hard on this for locals understood that having the assayers here considerably improved the chances that the lucky few might well spend their winnings here as well.


In 1883 the city’s first industrialists Henry and Sarah Yesler rewarded themselves by building a 40-room mansion in their orchard facing Third Avenue between Jefferson and James Streets.  After its destruction by fire in 1901, the site was temporarily filled with the Coliseum Theatre (“The largest west of Chicago, seating 2600.”) until the first floors of the King County Courthouse – aka the City-County Building – replaced it in 1916.  This comparison looks east across Third Avenue. (Historical photo courtesy Plymouth Congregational Church.)

Henry and Sarah Yesler’s mansion was not yet twenty when it burned down early in the morning of New Years Day, 1901.  Actually, from this view of the ruins it is clear that while the big home was gutted by fire neither the corner tower (facing 3rd and Jefferson) nor the front porch – including the library sign over the front stairs – were more than blistered by it.

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

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

After Henry died in the master bedroom in1892 no will could be found. While Minnie was suspected of having destroyed it this could not be proved.  Consequently, the home was not — as Lowman and others expected — given to the city for use as a city hall.  Instead Minnie stayed on secluded in it until 1899 when she moved out and the Seattle Public Library moved in.

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

YESLER home across Jefferson Street.

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