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Published in the Seattle Times online on Feb. 6, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Feb. 6, 2022
A walk can reveal the wonder of Willcox’ walls — and words
By Clay Eals
The key to outdoor living may be short and sweet. No big plan. No long trips to the hinterlands. No special equipment. Just get up on our feet and walk.
And one of the joys of life in geographically and topographically diverse Seattle is that so many enjoyable strolls and vistas beckon outside our doors, a short bus ride or drive away.
Among the most cheerful is a 4.74-mile boulevard encircling the crown of Queen Anne Hill. Technically, the scenic route’s southwest curve is a continuum of West Highland Drive and Eighth Place and Eighth Avenue West, but most people probably think of it as the stately street just west of popular Kerry Park.
One might say the promenade is Queen Anne’s version of Alki Beach. Or, Queen Anne might say, vice versa.
What makes this corner’s panorama possible is what’s beneath it: a retaining wall featuring criss-crossing steps and horseshoe arches, highlighted by decorative herringbone brick and 60-plus sphere-topped green light standards, a bold infrastructure known by locals as the Willcox Walls.
The name is that of architect and educator Walter Ross Baumes Willcox, who from 1907 to 1922 guided some 60 projects in the Seattle area, mostly residential but a few more publicly focused, including this massive west Queen Anne hillside undertaking whose construction began in 1913 and finished in 1916.
So unusual and simultaneously artistic and functional were the walls that they — and the entire boulevard — became one of Seattle’s first official landmarks in 1976. Thirteen years later, after residents complained of the walls’ deterioration, a voter-approved levy funded their restoration.
The walls reflected the activist philosophy of Willcox himself. Acquainted with and influenced by famed architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, he advocated for consulting engineer Virgil Bogue’s visionary 1911 Seattle comprehensive plan, which fell to voter defeat in 1912.
A selection of Willcox’ words, taken from the Feb. 16, 1910, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, bespeaks an articulate approach, both utilitarian and grand:
“Open air spaces in the heart of a city, as convenient to those who must dwell therein as are the parks and boulevards to the more fortunate, make for peace, happiness and good manners, which are conserving forces in the community. …
“A haphazard, piecemeal growth of a city defeats economy, efficiency and uniform contentment, while a systematic ensemble, encompassing the convenience, comfort and pleasure of its citizens, makes for all these things and results in a city from which those who have prospered largely do not hasten, nor those less fortunate long to depart.”
It’s as if Willcox were out on a Queen Anne constitutional, talking about today.
Special thanks to longtime historian and former president of the Queen Anne Historical Society Michael Herschensohn for invaluable help on this installment.
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photos, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column as soon as it’s posted mid-day.
Below are (1) four added photos, (2) a video interview, (3) a map of Queen Anne Boulevard, (4) a Dec. 13, 1974, Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board nomination for Willcox Walls, (5) a Willcox chapter from an architectural history book, and (6) four historical clippings from The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) that were helpful in the preparation of this column.