Seattle Now & Then: Seattle’s First Chinatown

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: The Phoenix Hotel on Second Avenue, for the most part to the left of the darker power pole, and the Chin Gee Hee Building, behind it and facing Washington Street to the right, were both built quickly after Seattle’s Great Fire of June 6, 1889. (Courtesy: Museum of History and Industry.)
THEN: The Phoenix Hotel on Second Avenue, for the most part to the left of the darker power pole, and the Chin Gee Hee Building, behind it and facing Washington Street to the right, were both built quickly after Seattle’s Great Fire of June 6, 1889. (Courtesy: Museum of History and Industry.)
NOW: The Phoenix Hotel was destroyed with the 1928-29 Second Avenue Extension. The hotel was replaced with the new street’s intersection, while the surviving Chin Gee Hee Building, originally behind it, was reshaped for the new northeast corner of Washington Street and Second Avenue.
NOW: The Phoenix Hotel was destroyed with the 1928-29 Second Avenue Extension. The hotel was replaced with the new street’s intersection, while the surviving Chin Gee Hee Building, originally behind it, was reshaped for the new northeast corner of Washington Street and Second Avenue.

Public historian Kurt E. Armbruster, one of our sensitive explorers of Seattle’s cityscapes, recently sent me his snapshot of the Chin Gee Hee Building at the northeast corner of Washington Street and the Second Avenue Extension.  Kurt regards it as “a little gem” and, it seems, it is the last remaining piece of architecture to survive from Seattle’s First Chinatown, in the neighborhood of Washington Street and Second Avenue.  It was a community of the mostly single men who help build the region’s earliest railroads, labored as domestics and on the pick and shovel gangs that helped dig, for example, the canal between Puget Sound and Lake Washington.

Kurt Armbruster's snapshot of
Kurt Armbruster’s snapshot of the “little gem.”    Thanks Kurt.

Chin Gee Hee arrived in Seattle in the mid-1870s and soon prospered as a labor contractor, a merchant and a builder.  Partnering with Chin Chun Hock, another and even earlier Chinese contractor-merchant, Hee and Hock hired Seattle’s earliest resident architect, William E. Boone, to design two commercial buildings for them in Chinatown.  Although both were consumed by the city’s Great Fire of June 6, 1889, they were quickly replaced by the two

Chinese labor contractor at his desk.
Chinese labor contractor at his desk.
Chin Gee Hee
Chin Gee Hee
Seattle Times clip from Feb. 15, 1927 comparing Chin Gee Hee to the Great Norther Railroad's Jim Hill.
Seattle Times clip from Feb. 15, 1927 comparing Chin Gee Hee to the Great Northern Railroad’s Jim Hill.

grander three-story hotels featured in the featured photo at the top.  The greater part of Chin Chun Hock’s Phoenix Hotel is to the left of the darker power pole in the photo’s foreground, and the full front façade of the Chin Gee Hee Building, facing Washington Street, is to the right of the pole.  Boone styled both as orthodox Victorians.  It is claimed that Chin Gee Hee’s hotel was the first brick building completed following the ’89 fire, however, we may be permitted to show some reservation about this claim as we do many other “firsts” in local history.  The thirty-plus blocks of the business district was a cacophony of construction following the fire with the builders’ general racing urge to open first.

The Phoenix Hotel on the right with the
The Phoenix Hotel on the right with the Chin Gee Hee building out-of-frame to the right., ca. 1912.  Long ago we did a now-then feature using the above and blow photos.  When we find it we will insert it.

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A clip from The Seattle Times for August 25, 1897.
A clip from The Seattle Times for August 25, 1897.

Judging from news coverage, the Phoenix was the seedier of the two hotels.  On August 11, 1905, the hotel’s manager W.A. Morris was charged with robbing one of its drunken guests of $45.00.  While the manager confessed his innocence, the police told the Seattle Times that “Morris conducts one of the worst dives in the city.”  Earlier that summer the police had made an opium raid on the Phoenix, noting that the hotel had “developed into a full-fledge opium den and in the last month a half-dozen smokers have been caught there.”  Meanwhile, also in 1905, the Phoenix’s neighbor, Chin Gee Hee, left Seattle to build a railroad in China.  He was subsequently awarded by the last emperor with the honor of a peacock feather and a retinue of servants and soldiers, presumably to help him guard the rails.    

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THE SECOND AVENUE EXTENSION as seen from the SMITH TOWER.  Above before: March 14, 1928.  Below after: June 11, 1929.   The Phoenix Hotel at the former northeast corner of Second Avenue and Washington Street can still be seen (below the center) near the bottom of the 1928 photograph.  The Chin Gee Hee Building  is behind it, to the left.   In the 1929 photo below, the Phoenix has been sliced away and the southwest corner of the Chin Gee Hee clipped.

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A detail from the 1908 Baist Real Estate Map, still twenty years prior to work on the Second Avenue Extension. Our choice intends to feature at the top the intersection of Washington Street and Second Avenue with the Phoenix Hotel named at its northeast corner. And please not the green marked park at the top.
A detail from the 1908 Baist Real Estate Map, still twenty years prior to work on the Second Avenue Extension. Our choice intends to feature at its top the intersection of Washington Street and Second Avenue with the Phoenix Hotel named at its northeast corner. And please not the green marked park at the top.  We will show more of it below.  
A detail of the same intersection (upper-left) from 1912. Later an owner of the bound Baist map drew through the detail the borders of the Second Avenue Extension, which cuts through the Fire Department Headquarters at the northwest corner of Main and Third Avenue.
A detail of the same intersection (upper-left) from 1912. Later an owner of the bound Baist map drew through the detail the borders of the Second Avenue Extension, which cuts through the Fire Department Headquarters at the northwest corner of Main and Third Avenue.   In the photograph that follows directly below the extension work is underway with a remodel of the building at the southwest corner of Main Street and Third Avenue.  The doomed fire station is directly across Main Street, and behind and above it the transcendent Smith Tower inspects it all like an adolescent  hall proctor.  It’s fifteen years old.  
Looking south on Second Avenue S. over Yesler Way and the Fortson Square park and trolley stop. The Phoenix Hotel can be found on the left.
Looking south on Second Avenue S. over Yesler Way and the Fortson Square park and trolley stop. The Phoenix Hotel can be found on the left.  A feature clip about Fortson Square is include with the line of features placed at the bottom of this feature.  [CLICK TO ENLARGE]
Looking south on Second Ave. S. during an early Potlatch Parade. Note the Phoenix Hotel upper-left.
Looking south on Second Ave. S. during an early Potlatch Parade. Note the Phoenix Hotel upper-left.

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Most likely hard to read but still revealing of the early hopes for the Second Avenue Extension. The Seattle Times clip dates from Oct. 18, 1925. And far right is part of a clip on Ye Old Curiosity Shop founder Pop Standley's curios-congested West Seattle home.
Most likely too hard to read but still revealing of the early hopes for the Second Avenue Extension. The Seattle Times clip dates from Oct. 18, 1925. And far right is part of a clip on Ye Old Curiosity Shop founder Pop Standley’s curio-congested West Seattle home.
The completed extension.
The completed extension.
A detail from the citiy's 1936 mapping aerial. The completed Second Ave extension leaves several sliced structures including the Chin Gee Hee Building. Can you find it?
A detail from the city’s 1936 mapping aerial. The completed Second Ave extension leaves several sliced structures including the Chin Gee Hee Building. Can you find it?  Note the Smith Tower, upper-left, and across Yesler Way from it the triangular park  named for Fortson, a Spanish American War volunteer – a heroic one.

The Phoenix’s transgressions were fixed forever in 1928 when it was razed with the “improvement” of the Second Avenue Extension, a 1,413-foot cut through the neighborhood between Yesler Way and Jackson Street.  It was hoped that the extension would make Second Avenue a ceremonial promenade leading to and from the train depots. The Chin Gee Hee Building was saved with only its west end sliced away.  This eccentric reduction, combined with the recessed gallery cut into the third floor above Washington Street, surely heightened the building’s gem-like charms.   Martin Denny, the proprietor of the Assemblage, the Chin Gee Hee’s principal commercial tenant, shared the greater neighborhood’s underground mystery that the Phoenix Hotel’s basement may well survive under the intersection.

THREE OTHER GLIMPSES OF THE CHIN GEE HEE BUILDING

A 1963 tax photo looking north over Main Street and the Second Ave. Extension to the shining southwest facade of the Chin Gee Hee Building.
A 1963 tax photo looking north over Main Street and the Second Ave. Extension to the shining southwest facade of the Chin Gee Hee Building.
The Central Business District with Chin Gee Hee near the center of this record from the Great Northern tower., ca. 1930.
The Central Business District with Chin Gee Hee near the center of this record from the Great Northern tower., ca. 1930.  [CLICK TO ENLARGE]
Rubble from the 1949 earthquake. The subject looks south on the Second Avenue Extension from its southwest corner with Yesler Way. The southwest facade of the Chin Gee Hee Building rises with its six windows above the damaged swept-back auto parked on the right.
Rubble from the 1949 earthquake. The subject looks south on the Second Avenue Extension from its southwest corner with Yesler Way. The southwest facade of the Chin Gee Hee Building rises with its six windows above the damaged swept-back auto parked on the right.

WEB EXTRAS

Here’s detail of the Chin Gee Hee Building, which Kurt adores:

The Chin Gee Hee building
The abbreviated Chin Gee Hee building

Anything to add, les mecs?   Certainly Jean, first a long list of features pulled  by Ron Edge from the last eight years or so of Now-and-Then, and then a few more and earlier features.

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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

When compared to most city scenes relatively little has changed in his view west on Main Street from First Avenue South in the century-plus between them. (Historical photo courtesy of Lawton Gowey)

THEN: 1934 was one of the worst years of the Great Depression. This look north on Third Avenue South through Main Street and the Second Avenue South Extension was recorded on Thursday, April 19th of that year. Business was generally dire, but especially here in this neighborhood south of Yesler Way where there were many storefront vacancies. (Courtesy Ron Edge)

THEN: At Warshal's Workingman's Store a railroad conductor, for instance, could buy his uniform, get a loan, and/or hock his watch. Neighbors in 1946 included the Apollo Cafe, the Double Header Beer Parlor, and the Circle Theatre, all on Second Avenue.

Then: The Pacific House, behind the line-up of white-gloved soldiers, might have survived well into the 20th Century were it not destroyed during Seattle’s Great Fire of 1889. Courtesy, Museum of History and Industry

THEN: The Lebanon aka Jesse George building at Occidental and Main opened with the Occidental Hotel in 1891. Subsequently the hotel’s name was changed first to the Touraine and then to the Tourist. The tower could be seen easily from the railroad stations. It kept the name Tourist until replaced in 1960 with a parking lot. (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)

THEN: In the older scene daring steel workers pose atop construction towers during the 1910 building of the Union Depot that faces Jackson Street.

THEN: On his visit to the Smith Tower around 1960, Wade Stevenson recorded the western slope of First Hill showing Harborview Hospital and part of Yesler Terrace at the top between 7th and 9th Avenue but still little development in the two blocks between 7th and 5th Avenues. Soon the Seattle Freeway would create a concrete ditch between 7th and 6th (the curving Avenue that runs left-to-right through the middle of the subject.) Much of the wild and spring fed landscape between 6th and 5th near the bottom of the revealing subject was cleared for parking. (Photo by Wade Stevenson, courtesy of Noel Holley)

THEN: This “real photo postcard” was sold on stands throughout the city. It was what it claimed to be; that is, its gray tones were real. If you studied them with magnification the grays did not turn into little black dots of varying sizes. (Courtesy, David Chapman and otfrasch.com)

THEN: The address written on the photograph is incorrect. This is 717 E. Washington Street and not 723 Yesler Way. We, too, were surprised. (Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archive)

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First appeared in Pacific, Feb. 9, 2003
First appeared in Pacific, Feb. 9, 2003

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First appeared in the Times, Feb. 28, 1999.
First appeared in the Times, Feb. 28, 1999.

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First appeared in The Times, March 14, 1999
First appeared in The Times, March 14, 1999

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Evidence that Jean visited Pioneer Square during our recent flurry.
Evidence that Jean visited Pioneer Square and the Chief during our recent flurry.

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Above, and continued below, a July 2, 1929 clip from The Seattle Times.
Above, and continued below, a July 2, 1929 clip from The Seattle Times.

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First appeared in Pacific, May 9, 1999
First appeared in Pacific, May 9, 1999

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