Seattle Now & Then: The Silver Inn, 1937

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: In 1937 the Silver Inn stood alone on the dirt left by the Denny Hill regrade.
NOW: The Denny Building’s parking garage now holds the corner.

The address “S.E. Cor. 6th & Bell St.” scrawled on the driveway might alert the reader that this is yet another King County tax photo, one of the few-thousand rescued by Stan Unger from the assessor’s office trash nearly a half-century ago. When Jean and I are through scanning and using a selection among them, usually for this column, we will put them in an archival box tied with blue ribbons and guide them to the Washington State Archives, a more responsible home for the greater Works Progresses Administration (WPA) collection.

[ABOVE, 1938 & BELOW, 1946  – The rectangular roof of the SILVER INN at the southeast corner of Bell Street and Sixth Avenue can be found near the center of both the 1938 detail above and the 1946 detail, below.  The nearly vacant blocks to the north of Blanchard Street – it starts in the upper-right corners – is the result of the Great Depression and the little development that followed the market’s bust in late 1929, the years in which the last of the Denny Regrades proceeded east of Fifth Avenue.   The Silver Inn was an exception, although not without its owners struggle. The developed neighborhood west of Fifth Avenue, which crosses the lower-left corner, was built up after the Denny Regrade of 1908-1911.]

The likely date for the steady snapshot of the Silver Inn is 1937, the year that the federally funded WPA began its photo inventory of, it was hoped, all taxable structures in King County.  These first tax photos generally showed acuity and sometimes, as here, great acuity.  That sharpness is the better to read the Silver Inn’s greasy spoon credits: chicken, steaks, and hamburger at depression-time prices that were themselves delicious: “Lunch 35 cents” and “Dinner 50 cents.”

The Twin-T-P’s were not in the Silver Inn’s South Lake Union neighborhood but rather at the northwest corner of Green Lake.   The T-P’s also pushed steaks above their front door – eccentric front door. And they shurely  sold hamburgers, lots of them., here  in 1937, the year claimed by this photograph.

If a reader wishes, he or she will find in the Archive’s tax photos hundreds of hamburger signs hanging high, on or above, the windows of many of Seattle’s more than 800 restaurants listed in the 1938 Polk City Directory.  One may visit the Archives on the Bellevue Community College campus.  Plan for at least a week of afternoons looking through the many thousands of prints.  (We will continue to hope that some happy day they will all be online.)

A clipping from The Seattle Times dated March 13, 1943.

Born in 1938, I was quickly indoctrinated into hamburger hysteria.  With the need for cheap food the “National Hamburger Diet” got off the grill during the Depression, and it kept frying during World War II when many families used their food coupons almost entirely for hamburger. Standing in the kitchen before our mother, my older brother David and I were a devoted duet pleading for hamburgers, but not for their weak substitute mere ground beef.  We very much also wanted the sandwich with the buns.

A Seattle Times clipping for December 23, 1938. Although I was not yet two months old, I could smell the hamburger popping and frying in the parsonage kitchen in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Surely.

When the Silver Inn was built and first opened by Joe and Minnie Barmon in the early 1930sl, the neighborhood was freshly scraped free of what remained of Denny Hill – eighteen years after its regrade had stalled in 1911 at Fifth Avenue.  The new digging in 1929 was inadvertently synchronized with the Great Depression.  The Barmon’s nifty box-like cafe was one of the few structures built above the many blocks of graded dirt left by the regrade.  Soon after opening the Silver Inn was shaken by an unclaimed bomb that exploded on Bell Street.  Thereafter the couple endured several overnight robberies, and then gave up in the spring of 1939 when a beer and wine violation moved the state liquor board to cancel their license.


Another clip from The Times, this one from March 8, 1928. The public works photographer looks north from the “Old Quarter” cliff that lifted above the east of Fifth Avenue from 1911 to 1929.
Yet another Times Clip, this first appears on June 25, 2000.


The Times clipping from June 14, 1942.
A Times adver. from October 22, 1944.
Barracks news in The Times from March 13, 1943

During most of World War II, the Silver Inn was rented by the dancer Mary Ann Wells, who was for decades Seattle’s most celebrated dance producer.  Converted for dance classes, Wells described the transformed Silver Inn to the public and her hundreds of pupils as her “beautiful new school.” Wells was not thrilled when in 1943 the Army Corps of Engineers surrounded the school with barracks for homeless workers, newly arrived in Seattle from the Midwest. All were looking for work, expecting it, and finding it at Boeing and in the shipyards.  My second oldest brother Norman was among them.  Ted, the eldest, was far away aboard a destroyer in the Pacific.

A Times clip from May 15, 1943.
Compliments of the Municipal Archive, here’s a Wells’ letter asking for some relief. With the war freshly over It dates from Oct. 19, 1945. Well’s got no relief, it seems, from the military.

[A REMINDER:  Comparing the two aerial details above – nearer the top of this feature – will reveal the character of the Silver Inn’s immediate neighborhood before and after the building of military housing.  Ron Edge distinguishes between the narrow men’s dorms immediately behind the Silver Inn, and the larger women’s housing above the men.]


On a personal note, I took the ‘now’ for this column on a day when Seattle’s air was rated worst in the world. While shooting the corner, I witnessed one asthma sufferer, bent over, trying to recover his breath before shakily crossing the street. Within a day or so of that photo, I shot another at Lapush’s First Beach, probably one of the most discombobulating sunsets I’ve ever witnessed.

Smoke-darkened sunset at Lapush

In contrast, let me add in a Lapush sunset from a previous year, smoke free:

Lapush sunset, August 2011

Anything to add, lads?  Alas, nothing to compare with you stirring filtered sunsets Jean.   Gosh, we do have more stuff on the neighborhood, beginning first below with with the Dog House and its Hamburgers on Denny Way near Dexter and Aurora and so not far from the Silver Inn at 6th and Bell.

THEN: The Dog House at 714 Denny Way was strategically placed at the southern terminus for the Aurora Speedway when it was new in the mid-1930s. (Photo courtesy of Washington State Archive, Bellevue Community College Branch.)

THEN: Before this the first shovel of the last of Denny Hill was ceremonially dropped to the conveyor belt at Battery Street, an “initial bite of 30,000 cubic yards of material” was carved from the cliff along the east side of 5th Avenue to make room for both the steam shovel and several moveable belts that extended like fingers across the hill. It was here that they met the elevated and fixed last leg of the conveyor system that ran west on Battery Street to the waterfront. (Courtesy, Seattle Municipal Archive)


THEN: St. Vincent de Paul’s first storefront opened in 1926 in Belltown’s grand clapboard hostelry at the corner of First and Battery. Originally the Bellevue Hotel, it’s reduced here to the “house keeping and transient rooms” of the Bay State Hotel. (MOHAI)

THEN: Werner Lenggenhager's recording of the old St. Vinnie's on Lake Union's southwest shore in the 1950s should remind a few readers of the joys that once were theirs while searching and picking in that exceedingly irregular place.


Great railroad signs, theatre signs and ranks of neon were still the greatest contributors to night light at 4th and Westlake in 1949. (Photo by Robert Bradley compliment of Lawton and Jean Gowey)


THEN: Built in 1888-89 at the northeast corner of Fourth Avenue and Pine Street, the then named Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church marked the southeast corner of Denny Hill. Eventually the lower land to the east of the church (here behind it) would be filled, in part, with hill dirt scraped and eroded from North Seattle lots to the north and west of this corner. (Courtesy, Denny Park Lutheran Church)

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: While visiting Seattle for some promoting, silent film star Wallace Reid shares the sidewalk at 4th and Olive with a borrowed Stutz Bearcat. (Courtesy, Museum of History & Industry)


THEN: Louis Rowe’s row of storefronts at the southwest corner of First Ave. (then still named Front Street) and Bell Street appear in both the 1884 Sanborn real estate map and the city’s 1884 birdseye sketch. Most likely this view dates from 1888-89. (Courtesy: Ron Edge)

THEN: A float for the 1911 Potlatch parade carries piggyback a smaller 1897 version of a Polk City Directory on a much bigger 1911 copy. The fourteen years between them is meant to symbolize the growth of the city since the Alaskan/Yukon gold rush of 1897 that the Golden Potlatch of 1911 was created to commemorate. (Courtesy, Lawton Gowey)

THEN: Thanks again and again to Lawton Gowey for another contribution to this feature, this ca. 1917 look into a fresh Denny Regrade and nearly new “office-factory” at 1921 Fifth Avenue. (Courtesy, Lawton Gowey.)

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: Looking west (not east) on Battery Street from Seventh Avenue, approaching the end of the last of Denny Hill’s six regrade reductions. The dirt was carried to Elliott Bay on conveyor belts like the two shown here. (courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives)














[Now once again, we climb the stairway to the kind of Nighty-Bears we commemorate to Bill Burden, who we have heard is about to open a coffee shop in Nevada City, California and so closer to Reno than to Oakland.]

CLICK TO ENLARGE A. Curtis’s panorama looking east-north-east from the Denny Hotel in the very early 20th century. Denny looks over the hotel’s gorunds to the housing stock on east side of  Fourth Avenue. Olive is far ;;right and Stewart joins it (or vice-versa) out-of-frame at the pan’s bottom-right corner. There’s part of Wallingford upper-left on the distant north side of Lake Union.


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