Seattle Now & Then: Willcox Walls, 1914

(Click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN 1: The Willcox Walls under construction April 17, 1914, below Eighth Place and Eighth Street West. (Seattle Municipal Archives)
NOW: Standing on the stairs and boulevard sidewalk of the Willcox Walls are Queen Anne Historical Society members (from bottom to top of “S” shape): Dan Kerlee, Nicole Demers Changelo, Maureen Elenga (president), Cindy Hughes, Jan Hadley, Marga Rose Hancock, Julia Herschensohn, Leanne Olson, Michael Herschensohn, Kathleen Conner, Mary Chapman Cole and Richard Cole. For more on Willcox walls, visit (Jean Sherrard)

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.

THEN 2: Walter Ross Baumes Willcox, 1913. (Pacific Coast Architecture Database)

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.

The south-facing view from the street above Willcox Walls, captured Jan. 3, 2022. (Jean Sherrard)
Here is a more precise “Now” replication of the 1914 “Then” of Willcox Walls, taken May 7, 2020. For our column “Now,” we opted for a wider view to also reveal the adjacent promenade. (Michael Herschensohn)
This snowy view of Willcox Walls was taken Jan. 1, 2022. (Clay Eals)
This snowy view of Willcox Walls was taken Jan. 1, 2022. (Clay Eals)
This snowy view of Willcox Walls was taken Jan. 1, 2022. (Clay Eals)
VIDEO: 3:28. Click on the image to see and hear Maureen Elenga, president of the Queen Anne Historical Society, talk about the significance of Willcox Walls. (Clay Eals)
This map shows the landmarked boulevard that circles the crown of Queen Anne Hill. (Maureen Elenga)
Click this image to download the Dec. 13, 1974, Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board nomination for Willcox Walls and Queen Anne Boulevard.
Click this image to download a pdf of the Willcox chapter of “Shaping Seattle Architecture” by Jeffrey Karl Ochsner.
Feb. 16, 1910, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p5.
April 3, 1975, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p8.
April 3, 1975, Seattle Times, p20.
Nov. 23, 2006, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p91.
Nov. 23, 2006, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p92.
Nov. 23, 2006, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p93.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.