Seattle Now & Then: Denny Hill, 1903

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN1: The three bay windows of the Wayne Apartments at far left mark the start of Denny Hill’s incline prior to 1903. More than a hundred feet of its slopes were incrementally sluiced away through 1930, leaving behind flatland Belltown.
NOW1: Soon to be demolished, the Wayne Apartments’ bay windows (upper left) are partly concealed by foliage. Buster Simpson (left) and Steve Hall stand in the crosswalk at Second and Bell. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in The Seattle Times online on May 12, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on May 15, 2022)

A surviving signpost to Belltown’s origins soon will fall
By Jean Sherrard

Some ancient parchment, as historians know, is scrubbed clean and rewritten upon while leaving behind faint traces of the original text. Such a page is known as a palimpsest.

When exploring the crosshatch of Seattle streets and architecture with this column’s founder Paul Dorpat two decades ago, I realized that his X-ray photographic vision of our ephemeral city included similar traces. The residues, like double exposures, appeared in unlikely places and cracked open historical clues and mysteries aplenty.

This week’s “Then” photo revisits an early discovery of Paul’s that cemented his vocation as historical detector and photographic repeater. He penned a lengthy account of his efforts in the Dec. 20, 1978, edition of the weekly Seattle Sun. The headline: “Digging Up the Past of the Late and Great Denny Hill.”

Perusing a photo collection, he came upon a portrait of the city unlike any he had seen. While “uncannily familiar,” this image did not seem to match Seattle’s existing topography. Paul concluded that it was a place “that had somehow lost its future, for it appeared to be in no way findable in our here and now.”

Then came a “Eureka!” moment.

With a magnifying glass, the name “Bell” emerged on a street sign. Familiar with Mama’s Mexican Restaurant at the corner of Second and Bell, Paul was thrilled to recognize the triple set of bay windows belonging to the Wayne Apartments, built in 1890.

The original clapboard had been covered with asbestos “war brick” siding, but the pictorial puzzle was solved. Denny Hill’s “back side,” 220 feet above sea level, was revealed in this rare, south-facing view of what today is called Belltown, captured just before an early regrade of 1903.

Among few remaining pre-regrade structures, the bay-windowed Wayne has shone prominently and repeatedly over four decades — in “Now & Then” in 1984 and in lectures and books, including our 2018 tome “Seattle Now & Then: The Historic Hundred.” The edifice has born witness to change, loss and the thrill of discovery.

But not for long.

In early April, we received word from artist Buster Simpson and Steve Hall, a preservation advocate with Friends of Historic Belltown, that the Wayne and adjacent structures along Second Avenue soon will be destroyed. Though they achieved landmark status in 2015, exemptions to the ruling are allowing a prospective 9-floor retail-residential building to fill the space. Its height will more than match the original summit of Denny Hill.

In the rueful words of historian David B. Williams, modern developers seem to be “merely rebuilding the hill one banal building at a time.”

THEN2: This rare 1895 view looks northwest from the top of Denny Hill, on the bluff above Second Avenue. At right, the home at 216 Lenora Street belonged to Seattle ex-mayor Robert Moran, who also snapped the photo. (Courtesy Hal Will)

NOW2: Increasingly decrepit, the Wayne’s 132-year-old sagging roofline soon will be replaced by a 9-floor building, with retail on the bottom and apartments above. (Jean Sherrard)A few photos of the soon-to-vanish icon follow. Accompanied by Buster Simpson, I explored the back of the old Wayne apartments and crawled up a couple rotting staircases. A special prize for those who find the pigeon eggs.


3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Denny Hill, 1903”

    1. Sadly, developers and investors have an arsenal of tactics which they can employ to overturn landmark status. One that has proven particularly effective is to allow a landmarked structure to fall into disrepair. Simply, after a number of years of rot and decay, a structure can be deemed not worthy of repair and torn down.

  1. Although two of my favorite Belltown hangouts – Shorty’s and Rocco’s – have now relocated a block further north, I will greatly miss the eclectic mix of Belltown bars, restaurants, and clubs that occupied this side of Second Ave between Bell and Blanchard. Yet another piece of Seattle’s urban character to be replaced by all too common generic retail/residential redevelopment. So sad.

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