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(Published in the Seattle Times online on March 4, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on March 7, 2021)
With exaggeration postcards, we’re not in Kansas anymore
By Clay Eals
As springtime wanderlust beckons, so does a road trip. Just fill the tank and drive someplace civilized but close to nature. If the town seems nice enough, consider moving there.
That’s the underlying message of our 1930s “Then” postcard. It positions the Eastern Washington burg of Yakima as a gateway to recreation on the most topographically prominent peak in the then-48 states.
Oh, but what was a newcomer or out-of-stater to think? On the card, Rainier looks as close to downtown as the fictional Emerald City appeared to Dorothy and her cinematic compatriots.
Reality was quite different. This view of Second Street, anchored by the majestic Larson Building at left, looks north, while the mountain, as locals know, rises to the west. Even if someone standing at this vantage swiveled to gaze left, Rainier would be much more distant and invisible.
This is what collectors term an exaggeration postcard. Call it early-day Photoshop. Such mass-produced novelties often superimposed outrageously enormous vegetables or fake animals (“jackalopes,” anyone?) to promote fertile farming or abundant hunting. The intent was to bring a vacation laugh to folks back home.
The whimsical cards also fed tourism, as business districts everywhere strove to survive during the Great Depression. Yakima — at 27,000 population, part of a “trading territory” of 100,000 residents, according to a 1929 chamber of commerce brochure — was no exception. (Included were 3,000 Yakama tribal members on a 30,000-acre reservation.)
If any downtown feature was a flashy draw for visitors, it was the Larson Building, constructed in 1931 by entrepreneur and civic leader Adelbert E. Larson, who devoted himself to the city he adopted in 1884 when he arrived as a 22-year-old, legendarily carrying all his belongings in a pack.
Though the financial crash had begun when Larson broke ground on the area’s first skyscraper, he “persevered because he wanted people to continue to believe in the future of Yakima,” says John Baule, archivist and longtime former director of the Yakima Valley Museum.
The resulting edifice rose to 11 stories. The Society of Architectural Historians says the detail and prestige of this John Maloney-designed structure is rivaled statewide only by Seattle’s 1929 Northern Life Tower. Inside and out, it stands as an Art Deco masterpiece.
Just north, the white Yakima Trust Building is the other remaining structure from the postcard. The massive Donnelly Hotel and other storefronts on the east side of Second Street fell victim to urban renewal in the 1970s and 1980s. A planned plaza was never built.
The result was street-level parking — the likes of which would never be seen in Oz.
Below are a two-part Yakima Chamber of Commerce brochure, an additional photo, a National Register nomination and, in chronological order, 14 historical clippings from The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer online archives (available via Seattle Public Library) and other online newspaper sources that were helpful in the preparation of this column.