Seattle Now & Then: The Fallen Dome

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Looking north on First Hill’s 9th Avenue on a snowbound day in early February 1916. (Courtesy, Nancy Johnson)
NOW: Both our “now” and “then” include the south and west walls of German House the two-story brick landmark left-of- center. Constructed in 1886 by Seattle editor-historian Thomas Prosch as Prosch Hall, it serve as the Seattle Assay Office during the Yukon Gold Rush.

This winter week we share another snap from The Big Snow of February 1916. Except for Puget Sound’s prolonged pioneer blizzard in 1880, the 1916 snow bounding was the deepest in our city’s history. For any media, including the thousands of box Kodak’s in the hands of Seattle citizens, the four-day blizzard of 1916 was a sensational although slippery subject.  Like motorcars at the curb, cameras were by then nearly commonplace on Seattle mantles.   The absence of cars here on First Hill’s Ninth Avenue is best understood as related to the drifts and the absence of any snowplowing in these blocks by the understandably unprepared municipal streets department.  A team of horses pulling a covered wagon can be found at the scene’s center heading west on Columbia Street from its intersection with Ninth Avenue.  For snow like this teams were favored.

For this snap an unaccredited photographer looks north on 9th Avenue with her or his back to James Street.  This First Hill prospect may have been reached from Pioneer Square aboard a James Street Cable car  – assuming that the Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power Co. cable cars were then still plowing through the drifts.   Or the photographer might have lived nearby.  First Hill was Seattle’s first neighborhood of accumulated wealth, which by 1907 would have often included cameras in the libraries.

Since 1907 the grandest interruption of Seattle’s skyline has been the Roman Catholic St. James Cathedral at Marion Street and 9th Avenue.  Before February 3, 1916, St. James had three landmark elevations including the two Renaissance Towers and the cathedral’s centered dome.  On February 2nd, it lost the dome.  The architects who examined the crashed dome lying on the chancel floor concluded that the sanctuary’s roof was five times stronger than needed to hold even the heavy wet snow left by the blizzard.  The engineering culprit was a weakness in one of the dome’ steel supports.

St. James before February, 1916, dome intact.

For comparison we have also included a print of the Cathedral dome before its collapse and crash.  The damaged roof showing with the featured photo can be compared with the intact one, which although splendid in its soaring outline was, we learn from Maria Laughlin, the current director of stewardship and development for the cathedral, a handicap to the cathedral’s acoustics. What the crash took from the church’s eye it gave back – miraculously? – to its ear.  After the crash of its sound-swallowing dome, St. James has become a revealing space for concerts and much kinder to its organ and choir.


Anything to add, brethren?

THEN: Of the three largest Seattle roofs – the Alki Point Natatorium, a grandstand section of the U.W.’s Denny Field, and the St. James Cathedral dome - that crashed under the weight of the “Northwest Blizzard” in February 1916, the last was the grandest and probably loudest. It fell “with a crashing roar that was heard many blocks distant.” (Courtesy Catholic Archdiocese.)

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

THEN: Completed in 1900, the Graham mansion on First Hill at the southwest corner of 9th Avenue and Columbia Street is getting some roof repairs in this 1937 photo looking south across Columbia Street. It was razed in the 1966 for a parking lot by its last owner and neighbor, the Catholic archdiocese.

THEN: A half-century after they reached the top of First Hill, electric streets cars and cable cars prepare to leave it. (Courtesy, The Museum of History and Industry)

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."

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: Sometime around 1890, George Moore, one of Seattle’s most prolific early photographers, recorded this portrait of the home of the architect (and Daniel Boone descendent) William E. Boone. In the recently published second edition of Shaping Seattle Architecture, the book’s editor, UW Professor of Architecture Jeffry Karl Ochsner, sketches William E. Boone’s life and career. Ochsner adds, “Boone was virtually the only pre-1889 Fire Seattle architect who continued to practice at a significant level through the 1890s and into the twentieth-century.” (Courtesy MOHAI)

THEN: Looking north from Yesler Way over the Fifth Avenue regrade in 1911. Note the Yesler Way Cable rails and slot at the bottom. (Courtesy, Seattle Municipal Archive)

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: Looking east on University Street towards Ninth Avenue, ca. 1925, with the Normandie Apartments on the left.

THEN: Looking across Capitol Hill’s Broadway Avenue during its 1931adjustments. (Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archive)

THEN: Looking south on 10th Avenue E. to the freshly re-paved intersection where Broadway splits into itself and 10th Avenue North in 1932.


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: 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: This 1939 glimpse east from Ninth Avenue follows Pike Street to the end of the about three-quarter mile straight climb it makes on its run from the Pike Place Market to its first turn on Capitol Hill.


THEN: Capitol Hill’s Society Theatre first opened its doors in 1911. This record of it most likely dates from 1920, the first year in which the theatre could have shown the four films promoted with sensational posters near its front doors: the comedy “Mary’s Ankle,” “The Sagebrusher,” a western, “Silk Husbands and Calico Wives,” and “Everywoman,” a feminist allegory appropriately filmed in 1919, on the eve of women’s suffrage in the United States. (Courtesy Museum of History and Industry)

Holy Names THEN

THEN: Most likely in 1902 Marcus M. Lyter either built or bought his box-style home at the northwest corner of 15th Avenue and Aloha Street. Like many other Capitol Hill addition residences, Lyter's home was somewhat large for its lot.


THEN: The Volunteer Park water tower was completed in 1907 on Capitol Hill’s highest point in aid the water pressure of its service to the often grand homes of its many nearly new neighbors.  The jogging corner of E. Prospect Street and 15th Avenue E. is near the bottom of the Oakes postcard.  (Historical Photo courtesy Mike Fairley)

THEN: With great clouds overhead and a landscape 45 years shorter than now, one vehicle – a pickup heading east – gets this part of State Route 520 to itself on a weekday afternoon. (courtesy Lawton Gowey)

THEN: We have by three years or four missed the centenary for this distinguished brick pile, the Littlefield Apartments on Capitol Hill.  (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)

THEN: This Seattle Housing Authority photograph was recorded from the top of the Marine Hospital (now Pacific Tower) on the north head of Beacon Hill. It looks north to First Hill during the Authority’s clearing of its southern slope for the building of the Yesler Terrace Public Housing.   (Courtesy, Lawton Gowey)

THEN: Looking south on First Avenue from its northwest corner with Madison Street, circa 1905.  (Courtesy Museum of History and Industry)

THEN: Built in the early twentieth century at the northeast  corner of Jefferson Street and Boren Avenue, Bertha and Frank Gardner’s residence was large but not a mansion, as were many big homes on First Hill.   (Courtesy Washington State Museum, Tacoma)



THEN: The Big Snow of 1916 trims two jewelers’ clocks on the west side of Second Avenue, north of Marion Street. (Courtesy, Lawton Gowey)

THEN: Ballard photographer Fred Peterson looks south-southeast on Ballard Avenue on February 3rd or 4th, 1916. (Courtesy, Museum of History and Industry)

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: 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]




3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The Fallen Dome”

  1. I just happened to be researching the 1916 blizzard today (for a graphic novel I’m working on) & was so happy to see this post!

    Does anyone know whether Seattle’s newspapers were able to get out an edition on 2/02, the first day of high snow level?

    1. In the Seattle Daily Times archive available online through the Seattle Public Library, there is an issue for Feb. 2, 1916, and the front page is full of snow storm coverage, including the large masthead, “More Snow Predicted!”. If you have a SPL library card, here is the direct link:

  2. Side note: Does anyone know if the Prosch home (next to the German Hall) is a protected building? It’s lovely (except for the siding) and historic, but it’s had fencing around its entrance & I’m never sure if it’s something developers will one day get their hands one & turn into a boxy condo building. (I sure hope not!)

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