Seattle Now & Then: car-sales lots, 1957, and today’s Amazon Spheres

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THEN: This property-value assessor’s photo, looking west and slightly north from the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Lenora Street north of downtown, was taken Dec. 18, 1957. Car details from our automotive informant Bob Carney: (from left) on street 1953 Chevrolet, 1956 Buick Special and 1953 Chevrolet 210 sedan. To left of Lee Moran building: 1953 Chevrolet. To right of building: 1955 Mercury. The lineup of used cars facing the street: 1956 Lincoln, 1956 Mercury, 1954 Mercury, 1956 Mercury, 1955 Oldsmobile 88, 1955 Studebaker coupe, 1950 Buick (can barely see the portholes) and, at far right, 1957 Ford. (Puget Sound Regional Branch, Washington State Archives)
NOW: Opened Jan. 30, 2018, the Amazon Spheres complex serves as the signature structure for the internet-based colossus. Standing three to four stories tall, the spheres mix 40,000 plants with meeting spaces and stores, but the orbs are closed during the coronavirus pandemic. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in the Seattle Times online on Oct. 15, 2020
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Oct. 18, 2020)

Who could have predicted what these car lots would become?
By Clay Eals

Will Ferrell is mortally worried. Using the phrase “little did he know,” a stranger’s voice in his head is foretelling his death. He consults a literature professor, Dustin Hoffman, who warms to the puzzle by saying that he “once gave an entire seminar on ‘little did he know’ .”

Dustin Hoffman (left) and Will Ferrell in the 2006 film “Stranger Than Fiction.”

We jump from that scene in the 2006 film “Stranger than Fiction” (left) to our “Then” photo from Dec. 18, 1957. It captures a gent in a fedora driving a 1956 Buick Special and in momentary contemplation while stopped on Seventh Avenue at Lenora Street. Little did he know — or could anyone conceive — of the transformation 60 years later of this down-to-earth commercial tableau.

A stone’s throw from post-World War II downtown, this block is a typical 1950s tribute to the internal combustion engine, featuring the Lee Moran, W.R. Smith and ABC Fair-Way businesses and their symphony of signs: from “Cash for Cars” and “Cars under Cover” to “Highest Price for Used Cars” and “All Makes All Prices.” Car dealers had covered the block since the early 1940s, preceded by rental housing back to the century’s turn.

On the day this photo was taken (for use by the county to aid in assessing property tax), the weather forecast was familiar: “mostly cloudy with a few showers, occasional sun,” with a high of 45 to 50 degrees.

Gov. Albert Rosellini was inviting Seattle and King County to lead construction of a controversial second bridge across Lake Washington. Nationally, the first Atlas intercontinental missile was launched at Cape Canaveral, Alabama voters allowed the state to abolish a county in which Blacks outnumbered whites by more than 7 to 1, and actress Elizabeth Taylor underwent an appendectomy. Internationally, NATO delegates pushed Russia to resume disarmament talks.

Dec. 18, 1957, Frederick & Nelson ad, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 16. The “ultra-chrome dome home” resembles, among other things, the legendary Kalakala ferry.

Among newspaper ads this day was one for the classy Frederick & Nelson department store (right). The pitched product was women’s stockings, but the accompanying illustration was a huge, pre-Jetsons cartoon featuring a “man of tomorrow” having landed in a space vehicle and his wife dashing to greet him — in “Round-the-Clock superb sheers” — at the front door of their “ultra-chrome dome home.”

One might say that the many round-topped sedans in our “Then” photo serve as figurative domes, each one a sphere to represent the life of a driver or family.

Today we find the block dominated by the triple-orb greenhouse of Seattle-based Amazon. The online giant is doing everything it can — including, most recently, dabbling in drone delivery — to encompass all of us in its shopping sphere.

Where will that lead? Little do we know.

WEB EXTRAS

To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!

Below are three supplemental photos and, in chronological order, 21 historical clippings from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and other online newspaper sources that were helpful in the preparation of this column.

Sept. 29, 1943, tax assessor’s photo of the same site as our “then” but taken from Sixth Avenue at the address 2016 Sixth Ave. Car details from our automotive informant Bob Carney: (from left) 1934 Studebaker, 1940 Plymouth, 1939 Ford Standard, and 1930 Studebaker Dictator. (Puget Sound Regional Branch, Washington State Archives)
Dec. 18, 1957, tax assessor’s photo of the same site as our “then” but taken from Sixth Avenue at the address 2016 Sixth Ave. Car details from our automotive informant Bob Carney: (from left) 1956 Ford Fairlane, 1954 Chevrolet 210 station wagon, 1951 Nash and 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air. (Puget Sound Regional Branch, Washington State Archives)
Sept. 8, 2020, Amazon Spheres, facing east from Sixth Avenue. (Jean Sherrard)
May 31, 1903, Seattle Times, page 26.
June 12, 1904, Seattle Times, page 13.
June 3, 1910, Seattle Times, page 23.
April 30, 1911, Seattle Times, page 39.
July 9, 1911, Seattle Times, page 22.
Oct. 5, 1913, Seattle Times, page 43.
Dec. 14, 1913, Seattle Times, page 38.
March 1, 1914, Seattle Times, page 43.
Sept. 2, 1926, Seattle Times, page 27.
Sept. 3, 1926, Seattle Times, page 29.
Feb. 1, 1944, Seattle Times, page 19.
Sept. 3, 1948, Seattle Times, page 35.
May 19, 1954, Seattle Times, page 48.
Feb. 25, 1955, Seattle Times, page 39.
May 19, 1957, Seattle Times, page 56.
Dec. 17, 1957, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 28.
Dec. 18, 1957, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 11.
Dec. 18, 1957, Frederick & Nelson ad, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 16.
Dec. 18, 1957, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 17.
Dec. 18, 1957, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 27.
Dec. 19, 1957, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 40.

3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: car-sales lots, 1957, and today’s Amazon Spheres”

  1. A great article! But one minor correction. There is no “tax assessor.” It’s just “assessor,” no “tax” in the title. The assessor sets value. The tax is calculated and collected by the county treasurer. Signed: a retired assessor’s deputy 🙂

    1. Thank you, Andy. I appreciate the distinction, and in the “THEN” caption I just changed “tax assessor’s photo” to “property-value assessor’s photo” to more precisely define the job. You’ll notice that the job isn’t capitalized. That’s Associated Press style. The only time a job is capitalized is when it precedes the name of the jobholder. Even “president,” used by itself, is not capitalized. This also allows journalists to be more plainspoken in describing jobs instead of being unclear or using bureaucratese. In other words, if I were to use “assessor” by itself, the question begged is “Assessor of what?” Hence, “property-value assessor.”

      PS: You will notice in the print version this Sunday that “tax assessor’s photo” will remain. That’s because the magazine is printed weeks in advance of its publication date, so it can’t be changed at this point. I wouldn’t worry overly, however. The phrase “tax assessor,” as you say, may be technically incorrect, but, as you also know, it is accurate in the understanding of most people, which is the direct correlation that the assessed value of a property determines its level of property tax. In other words, in general societal understanding the distinction between county “assessor” and “treasurer” is, and probably always will be, conflated. Comes with the territory, so to speak. –Clay

  2. How much fun to read your article, especially when I got to the part about the F&N cartoon featuring the “man of tomorrow” arriving home in his space ship! My dad, Bob Cram, drew that cartoon along with a host of others during his tenure in F&N’s advertising department. The date, 1957, and the reference to the store and cartoon, well, we just had to look it up. Sure enough, Dad’s unmistakable work! I was just 3 years old when he drew that ad, and it’s always a treat to discover another piece of his work. Thank you for your articles- remembering what Seattle was and following the threads to even more about the past is wonderful. Thanks for the memories!

    Cheers,
    Robin (Cram) Hall

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