(click to enlarge photos)
The Lombardy Poplars that once lined much of Madison Street from Fourth Avenue to Broadway made First Hill’s favorite arterial “the most attractive place in town.” That is on the pioneer authority of Sophie Frye Bass, found in her delightful book of reminiscences, “Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle.” Here the photographer A. Curtis looks west-southwest, through the intersection of Madison Street and Seventh Avenue to Central School, on the left, and the Knickerbocker Hotel, on the right. Central School opened in 1889
with Seattle’s first high school installed on its third floor. Sixty years later the school’s landmark towers were prudently removed after Seattle’s 1949 earthquake.
This ordinarily busy intersection is oddly vacant in the feature subject, crossed by neither motorcar nor team. However, the pavement bricks – no doubt slippery – are layered with clues. A combined mess of auto oil, horse droppings – and what else? – marks them.
Above and below, looking east on Madison Street from Sixth Avenue. Rising high at the center, the Knickerbocher is nearly new in the ca. 1909 photograph above by Arthur Churchill Warner. The poplars are long since stripped away in Lawton Gowey’s recording from June 19, 1961. Knowing Lawton, I’d say that he was capturing a last look thru the block before it was razed for the Seattle Freeway.
The Knickerbocker was built in time for Seattle’s first world’s fair, the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific-Exposition, held on the UW campus. Advertised as “strictly modern,” the hotel’s ninety rooms were for the most part taken as apartments. In 1911 weekly rents were three dollars and up. Included among its more sensationally newsworthy residents in the half-century before the hotel was razed for the Seattle Freeway, were a forger, a three-and-one-half year old boy deserted by his parents, and a Knickerbocker manager who – it seems – murdered his wife. And the hotel’s visitors featured more than one robber.
On the brighter side, in a letter to the Times editor, Knickerbocker resident Carol Cornish expressed her thanks that living at 616 Madison put her “close-in” to downtown opera and concerts. In her letter from Oct. 28 1940, Ms. Cornish also included a culture-conscious complaint about concert audience behavior. “I hate to be stuffy, but the shallow, careless frivolities of the so-called smart set often fill us unaspiring social plebeians with a definite distaste.” During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Times, awarded the Knickerbocker Hotel by including it in its “Business and Professional Ledger.” After the Second World War some hotel rooms were outfitted with dark rooms for rent to amateur photographers. And through much of the 1950s, the Knickerbocker was home to the Seattle Chess Club.
Writing her little classic “Pig-Tail Days” in 1937, Sophie Frye Bass, granddaughter of Arthur and Mary Denny, mourned the loss of both the poplars and the First Hill neighborhood of her childhood. “The fine residences and stately poplars have given way protestingly to business.”
Anything to add, Paul? Sure Jean. Between the two of us, Ron Edge and I have collected seven links to earlier features that relate to this subject with Central School and the Knickerbocher. They may also include subjects in their own “Web Extras” that are far afield of Seventh and Madison, and there may be some repetitions between them. But all are placed with good will while remembering still my own mother’s encouragement that “repetition is the mother of all learning.”
One thought on “Seattle Now & Then: Madison’s Lost Poplars”
Hi. I have loved your column in the paper and this blog as well for a very long time. Your post featuring a “now” looking west on Madison drew a long awaited question for me. I live at the Dover apartments on 6th and Marion and I would love to find more history on my building. You also fascinate me as my prime interest for many years has been the history of our wonderful city. Any guidance would be much appreciated and thank you for providing such a great resource for my ever present mind on the fantastic history of our fine lady: Seattle.