Seattle Now & Then: The Pioneer Place Pergola (and Privy), 1910

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Behind the pergola, Henry Yesler’s hallmark Pioneer Building (left, 1890) and the stately flat-iron Seattle Hotel (1891) straddle James Street. The stairway to the park’s luxurious lavatory is seen beneath the pergola at front, near First Avenue. (Webster & Stevens, Paul Dorpat collection)
NOW: A 21-foot extension pole allowed for the capture of a slightly lower prospect. In the 1960s, the red Pioneer Building (behind the trees) became an icon for preservationists who spearheaded creation of the Pioneer Square Historical District in 1970. The Seattle Hotel, infamously demolished in 1961, was replaced with the “sinking ship” parking garage, now squatting below Smith Tower (1914). Reportedly, the sealed-off lavatory still exists but can be accessed only via a utility hole. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in the Seattle Times online on Jan. 21, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Jan. 24, 2021)

Underground convenience, sheltered from the storm
By Jean Sherrard

From a rooftop vantage in 1910, our “Then” photo looks east to a newly completed cast-iron and glass pergola straddling the triangular city park of Pioneer Place, now Pioneer Square. A collision of junctions charting early settlers’ land disputes, this fertile ground set the stage for Seattle’s future.

After the Great Fire of 1889, a downtown built of brick and stone rapidly rose from the ashes. Prolific architect Elmer Fisher led the charge, designing dozens of buildings in the muscular — and fireproof — Romanesque Revival style.

Taking the lead in 1890 was Henry Yesler’s Pioneer Building, the massive edifice at left. No slouch at right, on the south side of James Street, was the Seattle Hotel, built in 1891 on the flatiron footprint of its destroyed predecessor, the Occidental.

Soon, fueled by coal and gold, adolescent Seattle nearly tripled in population to 237,194 in 1910 from 80,671 in 1900. Improvements in plumbing, electricity and transportation met the expanding need while the city also eagerly planned its coming-out party, the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.

Boosters anticipated visitors from across the globe, many of whom would arrive by train and ship, passing through Pioneer Place, Seattle’s commercial hub. But they sensed that a key convenience was missing.

Their solution — considerate but controversial — was to build a lavishly appointed public lavatory with walls of Alaskan marble, brass fixtures and terrazzo floors. To welcome the expected hordes, the vision was to bury it at Pioneer Place and cover its stairwell entrance with a graceful, Victorian-style pergola that would double as a shelter for streetcar passengers.

A flurry of letters and editorials erupted. Many lamented potential loss of the tiny greensward. Others forecast yet another promotional feather in the city’s cap. In the end, fans of the commodious “comfort station” won the debate, and excavation began.

The dig yielded an intriguing archeological find. Newspapers breathlessly reported the unearthing of Henry Yesler’s 1852 sawmill foundations, west of the Pioneer Building where his first home once stood.

The lavatory and pergola, designed by architect Julian Everett, proved late for the dance, opening Sept. 23, 1909, mere weeks before the exposition closed. But naysayers fell silent when the underground toilets proved immensely popular, averaging more than 5,000 flushes a day.

The palatial privy survived until the late 1940s, when it was abandoned and capped off forever. The pergola, however, endured. Intermittently ravaged by rust, earthquakes and errant trucks, it has been restored repeatedly over the years and continues to serve as a reservoir of history and shelter from the storm.


What a treat! One of those rare occasions in which Jean uses his 21′ extension pole. Its full length must be seen to be believed. Check out our 360 video for proof.

And these just in! Our longtime column partner, photo historian Ron Edge, sends along two photos, which more precisely illustrate the entrances to the palatial loo.

Also, we present a floor plan for the underground restroom, a 1970s view of its deteriorated state, and a Seattle Times photo of the excavation prior to construction of the “sinking ship” garage nearby.

The Pioneer Place pergola on a foggy day. Note the fenced stairwells leading to the underground toilets. (MOHAI)
Detail of a stairwell – the west side for “women only.” (MOHAI)
This floor plan for the underground restroom is from David Williams’ blog by way of theater historian David Jeffers.
This 1970s image of the vandalized restroom appeared in an Oct. 27, 1996, centennial section of the Seattle Times:
Excavation prior to construction of “sinking ship” garage, Sept. 2, 1961, Seattle Times, page 3.

2 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The Pioneer Place Pergola (and Privy), 1910”

  1. Seeing the inside pictures reminds me of the crazy 1960’s. A rumor floated that there was a semi circular stained glass window destined for the Pioneer Building corner entrance stored crated in the buildings basement. Also there was a portion of a Model T there as well. Being U of W freshmen with little common sense, we entered the building through a boarded up below grade window (about where the red car is in the ‘today’ picture). We found both the window and car in the lower basements. A couple of guys went exploring and found crawl-ways one into the pergola restrooms, the other clear across First Ave into the basement of the old bank there. At the time one could go into the old bank lobby, and lift some plates in the vault to access a smugglers tunnel to the Sound..

    The window ended up in a U district Coffee House. Don’t know what happened to the car.

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