Seattle Now & Then: A Denny Home at 3rd and Union

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Built in 1869 by Seattle pioneer Carson Boren at the southeast corner of Third Avenue and Union Street, the charming structure was home for Carson’s mother Sarah Denny and her second husband John Denny, the father of Seattle founders Arthur and David Denny. (Courtesy, Museum of History and Industry)
NOW: The city’s main branch of the federal post office was built on the corner in the first years of the 20th Century. Its sandstone beaux-arts architecture was replaced in the late 1950s by a modern glass curtain.

On the flipside of the scuffed original print, the caption reads “Built in 1869 by Carson D. Boren for his mother Sarah Latimer Boren Denny – it is now the present site of main post office at Third and Union.”  Actually this tidy home was built for both Sarah and her husband John Denny, the father of Seattle founders, Arthur and David Denny.  She was John’s second Sarah, who, in 1851, with her grown son Carson, joined David and his sons for the seven-month trek on the Oregon Trail to the Willamette Valley.  (John’s first Sarah, his wife for 27 years, died in 1841 at the age of 44.)

The early work of construction on the city’s grand P.O. at the southeast corner of Third Avenue and Union Street was confounded by the city’s decision to regrade Third Avenue the distance from James Street to Pine Street where Third was interrupted by Denny Hill. The lowering of Third Avenue resulted in the addition of new ground floors (and basements) for many of the businesses and homes facing Third Ave. Here at Union the new P.O.’s planned front doors facing Third were accommodated with steps that reached well into the sidewalk. This extension can be found above the trolley approaching Union Street in the bottom-right corner of in this photograph.  Similarly, at the corner, new steps are spread across the sidewalk.  Both proved popular, and became oft-used places for arranged meetings among workers and shoppers.  “I’ll be waiting at the Steps.”

The Dennys had been a successful farming family of exceptional industry, building successful farms in both Indiana and Illinois before together catching the “Oregon Itch” for the warmer and more lugubrious winters promised in the Willamette Valley.  There they built a third farm, while their grown children continued on to Puget Sound’s Elliott Bay to found a town they named after the helpful Duwamish headman, Seattle.  In 1858 the parents joined their pioneering children in Washington Territory.

While still in Illinois John Denny had served in the state’s legislature with his friend Abraham Lincoln.  Both were admired – and elected – as Whig wits with the gift for telling good stories.  Gordon Newell, one of Washington State’s author-solons, described John Denny as an “American pioneer and frontiersman, citizen soldier and homespun politician.”  As John’s sense of humor provoked mirth he was often chosen as speaker, or master of ceremonies for community events such as a Fourth of July celebration. In 1868, as a member of the fledgling Seattle Library Association, Denny gave what pioneer historian Thomas Prosch described as a “series of lectures on the progress of science and art,” which Prosch attended.

In her still enjoyed book “Pig-tail Days in Old Seattle,” Sophie Frye Bass remembers her great-great-grandmother Sarah and the atmosphere of her home.  (John had died in 1875, the year that Sophie started primary school.)  She writes, “Great Gramma’s place was a little white gabled house with wide porches.  It had tiny panes of glass on either side of the front paneled door and a funny bell which I loved to ring.  I recall the hit-or-miss rag carpet, the marble-topped table with the knitted cover that held the family album and stereoscope.  If I were a good girl, I was allowed to peek through the stereoscope, which seldom happened. … On the dresser in the tiny bedroom were bottles of hartshorn and camphor. The little house had the sweetest odor – indescribable – an odor of spices and old mahogany furniture and a whiff of some delicious cake backing in the oven.”

A detail pulled from the panorama below it by G. Moore in the early 1870s. Here the Territorial University stands top-center on Denny’s Knoll with a still forested First Hill horizon behind it. The clear-cutting was on its way. The John and Sarah Denny Home is at the southeast corner of Third Ave. and Union Street, directly below the school on its knoll. A portion of the coal railroad’s narrow-gauge track runs along Pike Street just beyond the undeveloped lots above the fence at the bottom.   In the 1870s the coal was carried by rail from the south endof Lake Union to bunkers at the end of the Pike Street Wharf.   The operation was moved in 1878 to the new coal wharf and bunkers off of King Street..  These CANNOT be seen in the panorama below, nor can the tracks that would be extended across the tideflats from the King Street Wharf to Renton and Newcastle for more coal. 
G. Moore’s pan looking south from the southern slop of the southern summit of Denny Hill.  (Courtesy, MUSEUM of HISTORY and  INDUSTRY)
CORRECTION: Would like to change the last  sentence of the feature above from March 5, 1995 to read “two or three years before this view was recorded.”   We continue to learn – and make  mistakes.

”Before the southeast corner of Third Avenue and Union Streets was chosen by the feds for Seattle’s new and grand beau arts P.O., the corner was home to the Plummer Block. (We have written about this with a feature but cannot for the moment find the clipping to scan – for you.


Just for beauty’s sake, I’ll toss in an early morning shot of Rainier, taken from the 80th St. overpass over I-5 last week:

Anything to add, ducks?  Jean, proud are Ron and I with our quackery are inserting more features from the neighborhood.  However, and frankly, we wonder if in choosing to insert this “The Mountain That Was God” testimony, had you taken note of what we think is an eagle soaring there and not a duck.  While we do not blame you, we wonder if you could have been more careful. 

THEN: Looking north from Seneca Street on Third Avenue during its regrade in 1906. (Photo by Lewis Whittelsey, Courtesy of Lawton Gowey)

THEN:The early evening dazzle of the Roosevelt Theatre at 515 Pike Street, probably in 1941. (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)

THEN: With the stone federal post office at its shoulder – to the left – and the mostly brick Cobb Building behind, the tiled Pantages Theatre at Third Ave. and University Street gave a glow to the block. (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)

THEN: Thanks to Pacific reader John Thomas for sharing this photograph recorded by his father in 1927. It looks north across Times Square to the almost completed Orpheum Theatre. Fifth Avenue is on the left, and Westlake on the right.

THEN: Sometime between early December 1906 and mid-February 1907 an unnamed photographer with her or his back about two lots north of Pike Street recorded landmarks on the east side of Third Avenue including, in part, the Washington Bar stables, on the right; the Union Stables at the center, a church converted for theatre at Pine Street, and north of Pine up a snow-dusted Denny Hill, the Washington Hotel. (Used courtesy of Ron Edge)

THEN: Plymouth Congregational Church barely reached maturity – twenty-one years – when it was torn down in 1913 for construction of the equally grand but less prayerful Pantages Theatre, also at the northeast corner of Third Avenue and University Street. (Museum of History & Industry)

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 east on Pike Street from Fifth Avenue early in the twentieth century. (Courtesy, Museum of History and Industry)

THEN: Looking west on Pike Street from Fourth Avenue, the variety in the first block of this retail district includes the Rhodes Bros. Ten Cent Store, Mendenhall’s Kodaks, Fountain Pens and Photo Supplies, Remick’s Song and Gift Shop, the Lotus Confectionary, Fahey-Brockman’s Clothiers, where, one may “buy upstairs and save $10.00”. (Courtesy, MOHAI)

THEN: This rare early record of the Fourth and Pike intersection was first found by Robert McDonald, both a state senator and history buff with a special interest in historical photography. He then donated this photograph - with the rest of his collection - to the Museum of History and Industry, whom we thank for its use. (Courtesy MOHAI)



Looking south on Third and thru Union Street to work-in-progress on the city’s new Post-Office. The tower of Plymouth Congregational Church stands at the end of the block facing University Street.   Ca. 1904
Showing beneath the slightly older photo printed above are the new front steps of the new P.O. facing the lowered  grade on the new Third Avenue.  And take note, perhaps, of the people meeting on the steps.






Like the two “shots” that follow, this was recorded in the mid-1980s.  The glass-curtain modern facade from the 1950s has since been remodeled for other tastes.




A pioneer Seattle baby photographed by the same Moore who recorded the panorama near the top.


One thought on “Seattle Now & Then: A Denny Home at 3rd and Union”

  1. How about an old picture of the Buick building that was one the NW corner of Westlake and Denny Way?I have several old photos. Was our family business. Did tire recapping during WW II and was a Desito-Plymouth Distributorship before that. Paul Allen now owns it.

    Martin Rood. 2067131304

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