Seattle Now & Then: Comet becomes Star

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Faced, in part, with brick veneer and stucco, and opened in 191l, the Comet Apartments at 170 11th Avenue have made it nicely through their first century.  (Courtesy, Lawton Gowey)
THEN: Faced, in part, with brick veneer and stucco, and opened in 191l, the Comet Apartments at 170 11th Avenue have made it nicely through their first century. (Courtesy, Lawton Gowey)
NOW: Missing only a few architectural bands that once wrapped its sides, the now Star Apartments have gained a landscape that caresses the daylight basement windows.
NOW: Missing only a few architectural bands that once wrapped its sides, the now Star Apartments have gained a landscape that caresses the daylight basement windows.

By the estimable authority of Diana James, the Comet Apartments, this Sunday’s subject at the First Hill corner of Spruce Street and 11th Avenue, is a solid example of a building form she calls “Seattle-Centric.”  In “Shared Walls,” her book history of our city’s apartment houses, James explains, “Driving or walking through Seattle neighborhoods that have concentrations of apartment buildings, one is struck by the repetition of a particular form, best described as rectangular or square in shape and featuring at least one bay on either side of a centrally located and recessed opening at each floor above the entrance.  Variations on this theme exist in every Seattle neighborhood.”

The Comet Apartments are found above the center of this detail pulled - again - from the 1912 Baist Map. (Courtesy, again, Ron Edge)
The Comet Apartments are found above the center of this detail pulled – again – from the 1912 Baist Map. (Courtesy, again, Ron Edge)  CLICK TO ENLARGE – PLEASE.

By another authority, King County tax records, organized in the late 1930s by the depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Comet (its original name) was built in 1910 with twenty-eight apartments. Seven of these were fit with four rooms, and the rest with three.  West and Wheeler, the Comet’s real estate agent, described it in The Seattle Times “Apt Unclassified” listings for March 4, 1912, as “an unusually attractive building.”  We still agree.

The Comet/Star depression-era tax card. (Courtesy, Washington State Archive, Bellevue Community College Branch)
The Comet/Star depression-era tax card. (Courtesy, Washington State Archive, Bellevue Community College Branch)

The Comet’s 1912 classified packed a terse list of its qualities, including “large light rooms,” “very reasonable rates (twenty to thirty dollars),” and the unnamed but “usually up-to-date apt. house conveniences.”  The Comet was also in a “paved district” that was conveniently in “walking distance.”  Surely these First Hill apartments were within a reasonable stroll of nearly every necessity. Pacific Grade School was three blocks north on 11th at Jefferson Street, and professional baseball, a mere two blocks away at the Seattle Athletic Field. (see below)  If walking was not wanted, the Comet was surrounded by common carriers, including the trollies on Broadway and 12th Avenues and the cable cars on James Street and Yesler Way.  For the mostly downhill three-quarters of a mile trip to Pioneer Square, a brisk step might get there almost as quickly as a ride on the famously rattling cable cars.

Near it last day, a Yesler Way Cable Car approaches Seventh Avenue on Yesler Way, now the eastern border of the 1-5 Freeway.  The photograph was taken by a trolley and cable enthusiast in 1940.  (Courtesy, Lawton Gowey)
Near it last day, a Yesler Way Cable Car approaches Seventh Avenue on Yesler Way, now the eastern border of the 1-5 Freeway. The photograph was taken by a trolley and cable enthusiast in 1940. (Courtesy, Lawton Gowey)

On November 21, 1938, the Comet – by then the Star, the name that stuck – was enrolled on the year’s list of victims of the nearly sixty apartments and homes visited in the night by the then best-known – as yet unnamed and uncaught – person in Seattle: a firebug.  Of the four apartments – three on First Hill – ignited “by a pyromaniac” that early morning, the city’s fire Chief William Fitzgerald described the Star’s as “the most successful.”  It was set in a dumb-waiter shaft, did $2,000 damage and “routed 100 persons from their beds at 3:30 in the morning.”  Addressing the city – especially the residents of First Hill – the fire chief asked for “intelligent assistance” rather than “mass hysteria.”  The fire chief may have also had Police Chief William Sears in mind, who earlier had let it out that he “feared a catastrophe if the firebug is not apprehended.”

(The fire bugs – two of them during the Great Depression – left an impressive paper trail in the local press.  An industrious historian might consider telling this story while using the very handy and almost omnipresent tax photos of the victims, of which very few were burned to the ground.)

WEB EXTRAS

Anything to add, Paul? Rob? Diana?   Sure Jean.  Rob has pulled a number of past blog features that “approach” this week’s subject on the southeast corner of First Hill.  Again, because these links are often packed with other features they may also approach other corners or even hills.    At the bottom we will add the Pacific Mag. clipping with the story about Dugdale Park (the first one) aka the Yesler Athletic Field at 12th and Yesler.   These feature local baseball historian Dan Eskenazi and are used with his courtesy and with the repeat your Nikon Jean.   Turning now to you dear reader, please explore these links.  The first one features the pie-shaped Sprague Hotel in the original flat-iron block nestled between Spruce and Yesler,  and then reformed as part of Yesler Terrace.   You may wish to also key-word “Yesler Terrace” in the search box above. As you know Jean, Diana does not have a key to this inner sanctum, only to hearts and minds, your’s and mine.,

THEN: The Sprague Hotel at 706 Yesler Way was one of many large structures –hotels, apartments and duplexes, built on First Hill to accommodate the housing needs of the city’s manic years of grown between its Great Fire in 1889 and the First World War. Photo courtesy Lawton Gowey

THEN: Harborview Hospital takes the horizon in this 1940 recording. That year, a hospital report noted that "the backwash of the depression" had overwhelmed the hospital's outpatient service for "the country's indigents who must return periodically for treatment." Built in 1931 to treat 100 cases a day, in 1939 the hospital "tries bravely to accommodate 700 to 800 visits a day."

childhaven-then-lr

THEN: First Hill’s distinguished Old Colony Apartments at 615 Boren Avenue, 1910.

THEN:

THEN: The Perry Apartments is nearly new in “postcard artist” M. L. Oakes look at them south on Boren to where it intersects with Madison Street. (Courtesy John Cooper)

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Yesler Athletic Field, 12th and Yesler.
Yesler Athletic Field, 12th and Yesler. (Courtesy, David Eskenazi)

Dugdale-Park-1912-EskenaziWEB

Yesler-Way-UMPIRE-DAY-WEB

David Eskenazi on the roof.
David Eskenazi on the roof.

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MEANWHILE AND NEARBY – MORE BILLBOARD PORTRAITS FROM THE FOSTER-KLEISER COLLECTION

Looking south on 12th Avenue to the corner of Alder Street, on March 14, 1940.
Looking south on 12th Avenue to the corner of Alder Street, on March 14, 1940.
Twelfth Avenue looking south towards Main Street,
Twelfth Avenue looking south towards Main Street, Nov. 31, 1936
Twelfth Ave. looking north thru Fir Street corner,
Twelfth Ave. looking north thru Fir Street corner, 1939.
Jackson Street looking west towards 12th Avenue - if I have "read" this correctly.
Jackson Street looking west towards 12th Avenue – if I have “read” this correctly.

2 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Comet becomes Star”

  1. Greetings! I lived in the Star Apartment building for 23 years, 1985-2008, and thought you’d be interested to know that it was built by George Washington Carmack and his second wife, Marguerite, with Klondike gold rush money. Here is a quote from p. 158 of the book “George Carmack, Man of Mystery Who Set Off the Klondike Gold Rush” by James Albert Johnson:

    “Late in 1909, Carmack and his wife decided to build a large apartment building at 170 Eleventh Avenue, only a few blocks from their new home, to be known as the Carmack Apartments. The plans called for a four-story building divided into 29 apartments, 110 rooms in all. Marguerite bossed the construction job while Carmack busied himself with his mine.”

    The architect was Victor Voorhees, who designed many Seattle houses and buildings in the early 1900s:

    http://www.antiquehomestyle.com/plans/voorhees/index.htm

    The Seattle Public Library holds several of Voorhees’ “Western Home Builder” catalogs in its collection.

    I suspect the name change to “Comet Apartments” can be attributed to Halley’s Comet, which made one of its naked-eye-view appearances in April of 1910.

  2. Paul, I appreciate the posting of the photograph of The Gables Apartments. When my wife and I were young we lived there in 1972-3. Our front window is down the central court, just right of the main entry. We used to hang out at Horizon Books and in the U District. I was maced and arrested at the latter location. I’m pretty sure I ran into you and Walt on several occasions, but my memory of those days is kind of foggy. Steve Emerson, former History Link contributor.
    semerson@ewu.edu.

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