Seattle Now & Then: The Onarga Apartments

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: This week’s “then” features another tax assessor’s photo rescued a half-century ago from the department’s rubbish by Stan Unger, then a preservation-sensitive young employee. The flats here face Seventh Avenue between Spring and Seneca streets.
NOW: The cutting connected with the building of the Seattle Freeway in the early 1960s included a curving and widening of Seventh Avenue north of Spring Street and the razing of the several frame apartments, including he Onarga, that bordered it.

The Onarga, the mid-sized flats filling the center of this modest row of rentals, was most likely named for the small town founded in 1854 about 90 miles south of Chicago, Illinois.  That was three years after Seattle’s founder-pioneers first settled both on Alki Point and in the Duwamish River Valley.  (Some of them came from Illinois, if not Onarga.)


The street number 1108 for this apartment house on Seventh Avenue is tacked to the front door beneath a sign that reads “Housekeeping Rooms for Rent.”  If I have figured the evidence correctly, these apartments were first opened to renters in late 1903 or 1904; newspaper listings for the Onarga began in 1904.  I am especially fond of a classified ad placed in The Times on September 18, 1904, which reads “$200 CASH and eight monthly

payments $25 each buys the furniture of a six-room well furnished flat.  Large, light rooms, pantry closets, porcelain bath, coal and gas ranges, sideboard, golden oak furniture, French bevel plate dressers, folding and iron beds, Brussels carpets, Bigelow Axminster art squares. Rent $30. 1108 7th Avenue, first door.” One would then – if I have read this correctly – have found these offered items in an apartment on the first floor.  The Times classified was listed under “FOR SALE FURNITURE – 109.” To my reading the ad’s creators seem to be selling the flat’s furnishings while also offering for rent the large apartment itself.

A detail from the 1912 Baist Real Estate Map numbers “our” block “52”. This can be compared with a details of the same block (and more) from the 1888 and 1904 Sanborn Real Estate Maps.
A detail from the 1888 Sanborn Real Estate Map. The Onarga Apartments would replace (or remodel and enlarge?) the four units in the largest structure showing the block 294. It faced – as expected – Seventh Avenue from its east side, two blocks north of Spring Street.
Sixteen years later in the 1904 Sanborn map, the Onarga footprint appears facing Seventh Avenue from its east side, and the second lot north of Spring Street. Now four-row of houses begins to fill the remaining north half of the west half of block 294.

One of this flat’s best qualities is not noted in the 1904 Times classified.  The Onarga apartments, like its neighbors, were “within walking distance” of practically every urban need and/or opportunity.  They are “close in.” By 1904, after more than two decades of the Queen City’s booming growth, the western slope of First Hill was increasingly filling up with rentals at the expanse of single-family homes.  There was a mix of brick and frame construction among these apartment houses, and, of course, the former were ordinarily larger and classier.  As the map detail shows direclty above, in this block bordered by Seventh and Eighth Avenues and Spring and Seneca Streets, it was all frame, while in

Looking northwest from the roof or upper-floor of the Sorrento Hotel at the northwest corner of Terry Ave. and Madison, to the new and gleaming Christian Scientist sanctuary that crowds ‘our’ block bordered by Spring and Seneca Streets, Seventh and Eighth Avenues, from its northeast corner. The Onarga’s’ rooftop is left-of-center.  CLICK TO ENLARGE

neighboring blocks many of the addresses were grander, some of them high-rises.  Two examples of these are on show in our featured 1938 tax photo, and both are still standing. To the left of the parking strip tree is a sample of the Exeter House Seneca Street façade, with its Tudor Gothic style. And to the right is the well-ornamented Gothic crown of the high-rise Virginia Mason Hospital, which nearly fills the photo’s upper-right corner.   [WARNING!!!  WRONG!!!.  An alert early reader of the Time’s saturday delivery for this week’s PacificNW, made a kind (not unkind) correction.   This is not the hospital but rather the Lowell Apartments at and near the northeast corner of 8th Avenue and Spring Street, and so just south up 8th Avenue and across 8th from Town Hall.  This is embarrassing for me, and rates

Lowell Apartments

in the top ten of the many mistakes I have made since I started this feature now 35 years ago on a wet sunday in January, 1982.   Had my many flubs been then preluded before me I might have run to the Main Branch of the Seattle Public Library for penance and so correction.  The portrait of the Lowell Apts above come’s from SPL’S  prolific Werner Lenggenhager Collection. Lenggenhager has it captioned that the Lowell Apartments were built in 1928 and designed by Harry E. Hudson.  I did not find this in Shaping Seattle Architecture, where Hudson is not noted.  I’ll surely ask Diana James, author of Shared Walls, our history of Seattle’s apartment houses, about Hudson.  At this hour – 3am – she is almost certainly not awake.   The Virginia Mason is behind the Lowell, a short ways up Spring Street from ‘our block’.  It is also somewhat above the Lowell, but not high enough to alert me, and that’s working on an excuse.  Asking now for forgiveness, I’ll share a preferred excuse for this mistake once I think it up, and/or learn of a good escape thru Diana.)

The Fourth Church of Christ Scientist and now TOWN HALL at the southwest corner of 8th Avenue and Seneca Street.

The first heavy poured construction came to the featured block with the dedication of the Fourth Church of Christ Scientist.  Prior its construction in 1923, the northeast corner of the block was undeveloped.  Since 1999 the church building has splendidly served (in my opinion) as one of Seattle’s greatest non-profits: its Town Hall, a kind secular church with little dogma.  And here in the partnership that authors “Seattle Now and Then” you have a close-to-home example of that somewhat spiritual zest: Jean Sherrard, this feature’s photographer-repeater of well-wrought “nows.”  For a dozen years now, Jean has been producing, hosting and performing in Town Hall’s Christmas edition of Act Theatre’s series, “Short Stories Live.”   After a few years he began calling it “A Rogue’s Christmas.”  Every year now someone from Central Casting call’s Jean and asks him to prepare another season’s greetings for Town Hall.  Now that the Hall is getting it elaborate restoration, I do not know where the Rogue will show his tricks.

Continuing: here in anticipation of the webmaster Jean’s question, “Anything to add, buys?” here a few somethings.

First,  A kind of spiritual sampler of Seattle in 1916 includes an example from the Onarga Apartments.  It is sublimely marked in yellow with a blue border.   Please note that this printed list does not include any of the “regular” churches in town.  They have their own section in the paper, which in 1916 could still feature printed sermons by the more celebrity preachers in town like Mark Matthews whose First Presbyterian Church was directly south across Spring Street from “our block.”

Second, the story of the precocious Walter Fogh who lived in the Onarga Apartments in 1922.  The Times clipping is dated November 25, 1922.

Third, using a neighborhood detail from a  business map dated 1925 we find the Onarga Apartments among the four structures identified on “our block.”  The others are the Morningside Apartments next door on 8th Avenue to the east of the “4th C S Church,” which is also named., and the Toraine Apartments facing Seneca Street west across the alley from the C. Scientist.   The Toraine will appear in four of the remaining illustrations that follow before Jean’s query about “anything.”

Detail from a 1925 map of the Business District.


A like of mostly protesting women march west on Spring Street with the Lowell Apts behind them and the Christian Scientists over their right shoulders. They were trying to stop the ditch, and/or have a lid put on it. By this time, ca. 1961, the block is for parking, except for the C.Scientists and the Toraine apartments – not showing here – which survived to the end.  Post-Intelligencer
Before the marching and razing. Madison Street crosses the photograph near the bottom, and Spring Street one block above it. Note the south facade of the nearly doomed Onarga Apartments above the domes of First Presbyterian.  Below: same aerial although marked  by someone long ago with the projected path of the I-5 Freeway.    You may note how it curving eastern border just misses both the Toraine Apartments on the south side of Spring Street and also the more majestic Exeter Apartments on the north side of Spring Street where the freeway turns northeast to the steeper western side of Capitol HIll..  (Also: see the Third Edge Link below for more on the preparation for this part of the curving I-5.)

A Google-Earth detail to show us how much the freeway turned west when it moved north from Spring Street. Here the Toraine Apartments are long gone, but not in the Lawton Gowey slide that follows. It looks north through the remnants of the mess made when the structures north of Madison Street were razed.  Note the west facade of First Presbyterian on the far right.  And note the surviving Toraine with its green skin.  
North from Madison Street through the litter and before the digging of the ditch. Photo by Lawton Gowey.  Surely you can find the Toraine – still.  
Beginning the ditch. Here, as well, are the survivors including, for a time, the Toraine Apartments  nearly snuggling up to the Christian Scientists and Seneca Street.  CLICK TO ENLARGE
Robert Bradley’s* look north from Madison Street on I-5, circa 1969. (* A Seattle Camera Club friend of Lawton Gowey’s.)


Anything to add, guys?   Yes Jean and starting with the first of the featured Edge Links below, the one looking northeast across the intersection of 7th Avenue and Seneca Street.  While our featured tax photo at the top concentrates on the Onarga near the center of the east side of 7th Avenue between Seneca and Spring, the first feature below reveals, far-right, the north end of this same east side of 7th.  It also shows the northwest corner of the Toraine Apartments facing Seneca Street from its south side and from this prospect above the corner grocery store, right-of-center.  So please open the link and read the rest.

THEN: Looking north-northeast from a low knoll at the southwest corner of Seneca Street and Seventh Avenue, circa 1916. By 1925, a commercial automobile garage filled the vacant lot in the foreground. [Courtesy, Ron Edge]

THEN: Looking west on Madison Street from Seventh Avenue circa 1909. (Courtesy, Washington State Museum, Tacoma)


THEN: We give this panorama from the roof of the Washington Athletic Club a circa date of 1961, the year that Horizon House, a First Hill retirement community, first opened its doors to residents at Ninth Avenue and University Street. The high-rise L-shaped Horizon stands top-center. (Lawton Gowey)

THEN: Built in 1909-10 on one of First Hill’s steepest slopes, the dark brick Normandie Apartments' three wings, when seen from the sky, resemble a bird in flight. (Lawton Gowey)


THEN: Frank Shaw’s late winter composition of waterfront landmarks at the foot of Madison Street in 1963. (Photo by Frank Shaw)


THEN: A circa 1923 view looks south on Eighth Avenue over Pike Street, at bottom left.

THEN: In the 32 years between Frank Shaw's dedication picture and Jean Sherrard's dance scene, Freeway Park has gained in verdure what it has lost in human use.

THEN: The home at bottom right looks across Madison Street (out of frame) to Central School. The cleared intersection of Spring Street and Seventh Avenue shows on the right.

THEN: The city’s north end skyline in 1923 looking northwest from the roof of the then new Cambridge Apartments at 9th Avenue and Union Street. (Courtesy, Museum of History and Industry)

THEN: A.J. McDonald’s panorama of Lake Union and its surrounds dates from the early 1890s. It was taken from First Hill, looking north from near the intersection of Terry Avenue and Union Street. (Courtesy, Museum of History and Industry)

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)


THEN: Built quickly in the winter of 1906-07, the Prince Rupert Hotel faced Boren Avenue from the third lot north of Pike Street. About fifty-five years later it was razed for the I-5 Freeway. (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)

THEN: At the northwest corner of Columbia Street and Boren Avenue, two of the more ordinary housing stock on First Hill in the 1890s. (Courtesy MOHAI)

THEN: The brand new N&K Packard dealership at Belmont and Pike in 1909. Thanks to both antique car expert Fred Cruger for identifying as Packards the cars on show here, and to collector Ron Edge for finding them listed at this corner in a 1909 Post-Intelligencer. (Courtesy Museum of History and Industry.)

THEN: First dedicated in 1889 by Seattle’s Unitarians, the congregation soon needed a larger sanctuary and moved to Capitol Hill. Here on 7th Avenue, their first home was next used for a great variety of events, including a temporary home for the Christian Church, a concert hall for the Ladies Musical Club, and a venue for political events like anarchist Emma Goldman’s visit to Seattle in 1910. (Compliments Lawton Gowey)

THEN: Looking northwest to Seattle General Hospital at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Marion Street, circa 1909. (Courtesy of Michael Maslan)

THEN: The “then” photo looks southeast across Union Street to the old territorial university campus. It was recorded in the Fall of 1907, briefly before the old park-like campus was transformed into a grand commercial property, whose rents still support the running of the University of Washington. (Courtesy Museum of History and Industry)

THEN: Looking west on Madison Street from Seventh Avenue circa 1909. (Courtesy, Washington State Museum, Tacoma)


THEN: An early view of Virginia Mason Hospital, which opened in the fall of 1920 at the northwest corner of Terry Avenue and Spring Street. In 1980 for its anniversary, the clinic-hospital could make the proud statement that it had “spanned sixty years and four city blocks.” Courtesy Lawton Gowey

THEN: The row house at the southwest corner of 6th Avenue and Pine Street in its last months, ca. 1922-23. (Museum of History and Industry)










4 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The Onarga Apartments”

  1. I look forward to this column every Sunday….This article is incorrect however, as the Gothic crowned high rise is NOT Virginia Mason Hospital. It is the Lowell and Emerson apartments on 1102 and 1108 8th Avenue, still standing between Spring and Seneca.

    1. I look forward to this column every Sunday……This article is incorrect however, as the Gothic crowned high rise is not Virginia Mason Hospital. It is the Lowell and Emerson apartments on 1102 and 1108 8th Avenue, still standing between Spring and Seneca.

    2. I’m getting caught up on my reading of the Pacific NW magazine. The one feature I always read, even if I skip everything else, is Now & Then. Having just finished the September 17th edition, I’m glad to know that I am not seeing things! Since I have both lived at the Lowell, and worked at VM, I also noticed the incorrect description. For a moment I thought it could be the Inn at Virginia Mason (where I also worked – formerly the Rhododendron Apartments) but the building size and especially top structure is wrong. Well, nobody’s perfect. As someone born and raised in the Seattle area, I always appreciate the photos and history of Now & Then.

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