Seattle Now & Then: The King County Courthouse, circa 1900

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN1: The King County Courthouse and attached jail loomed above Seattle atop First Hill for nearly 40 years. In 1916, the courthouse moved to its current digs on Third Avenue between James Street and Yesler Way, leaving behind only prisoners and jailers. (Webster & Stevens, Museum of History and Industry)
NOW: This view looks southeast at Harborview Medical Center’s south parking structure, whose roof also serves as a medical heliport. An Airlift Northwest helicopter takes flight on a recent spring afternoon. (Jean Sherrard)

Published in The Seattle Times online on May 11, 2023
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on May 14, 2023

Fireproof ‘Cruel Castle’ rises on Profanity Hill after big blaze
By Jean Sherrard

In a popular Middle Eastern folktale, the magic words “Open Sesame” provide poor woodcutter Ali Baba entrée to a treasure-bedecked robber’s den.

After Seattle’s devastating June 6, 1889, fire, which burned nearly 30 downtown blocks, the incantation “fireproof” conjured access to a hopeful future. As smoke rose from the ashes, residents assembled in a surviving Armory unanimously voicing their intention to rebuild “in brick and stone.”

Willis A. Ritchie, circa 1890, at the height of his career. By the time he reached his mid-30s, demand for his designs waned. (Public Domain)

When precocious, if prickly, architect Willis Ritchie (1864-1931) arrived in the scorched city a month later, a few days shy of his 25th birthday, he shrewdly adopted “fireproof” as his watchword, opening doors to rich opportunities.

After taking an architectural correspondence course and apprenticeship in his teens, the cocksure Ritchie had designed banks, opera houses and courthouses throughout Kansas by his early 20s. Overseeing construction of the Wichita Federal Building supplied on-the-job training in the latest fire-resistant techniques.

It wasn’t long before the newly arrived fire-proofing architectural prodigy won over Seattle — and King County — planners.

By late summer, his designs for a new, flammable King County Courthouse were adopted, and construction soon commenced atop First Hill. Proclaimed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on Nov. 3: “It will undoubtedly be the finest building of the kind on the coast.”

Local competitors were less enthusiastic. Decades later, noted architect John Parkinson disdainfully recalled Ritchie: “With his hard, slick looking face… [he was] someone we all despised, but he managed to get the public buildings.”

When the courthouse opened on June 6, 1891, precisely two years after the Great Fire, lawyers and clerks dismissed the structure as “The Gray Pile,” the “Tower of Despair” and the “Cruel Castle,” reached only by climbing “Profanity Hill.” Opined The Seattle Times, “[It] deserves its bad name… Struggling up a steep hill with armfuls of law books [is] not conducive to judicial dignity.”

The new courthouse, despite its graceless tower, became Ritchie’s calling card. Commissions for “fireproof” public buildings poured in, and his mostly Romanesque revival designs soon dotted the state. Port Townsend’s Jefferson County Courthouse (1891), Olympia’s Thurston County Courthouse (1892) and the Spokane County Courthouse (1895), modeled after France’s Loire Valley chateaux, all survive.

The Spokane County Courthouse, modeled after French chateaux

The King County Courthouse’s ungainly profile photobombed countless Seattle cityscape portraits for four decades. But on Jan. 8, 1931, the flammable pile was dynamited, making room for King County Hospital, now Harborview.

In mid-1930, several months before the courthouse (right) was demolished, the new campus of King County Hospital, now Harborview, neared completion. (Seattle Municipal Archives)

To quote column founder Paul Dorpat, “In the moment it might take an exhausted barrister to mouth a monosyllabic indecency, the old embarrassment was leveled.”

Nine days later, Willis Ritchie died without so much as a “Close Sesame” to mark his passing.


First, a link to our 360 video of this column.

Next, an edifying contribution from the inimitable Stephen Edwin Lundgren, longtime friend of the column:

The pile of standing rubble that was the old courthouse  had a magnificent 360 view which I once saw captured in a series of Frank Nowell photographs taken from the bell tower level (found in an estate sale salvage,  whereabouts now unknown but believed to be in good hands)

The former King County Courthouse wasn’t quite levelled in an eyeblink (it took a while to disassemble) when the structure was demolished in the early 1930s, and thefoundations remained, visible in aerial views of the site and causing nearly $100,000 in additional expenses to remove when the current South Viewpark Garage you have pictured, (apparently forgotten by the planners) when the garage and helipad were constructed in the late 1990s as the project architect once told me.  

The site was vacant during the Yesler Terrace housing era (surrounded by those buildings 1941-1964) until the west side of Yesler hill was regraded (yes, that’s the word) for the freeway cut), and used for a MASH chopper landing site at the beginning of the trauma hospital era in the 1970s, the ER entrance then still being on the back (west) side. 

You might not know that Yesler (southwest First Hill) was proposed to be more fully regraded in a secret 1929 Seattle City Council ordinance, which obviously didn’t happen. David Williams missed that one. 

Also, the King County supervisors, after a poll of Seattle Times readers, accepted their vote to name the new hospital HARBORVIEW, in a 1929 resolution. At its 1931 dedication it was referred to as “Harborview Hospital” (photograph is of the envisioned campus, rather than the center tower and nursing dorm, the rest not built until decades later). There was a brief consideration by trustees (still County appointed) to rename it simply “County Hospital” in late 1931 but that didn’t happen. 

Its current name is Harborview Medical Center, after the council suggested last decade that their ownership rights be more fully recognized, and the operator UW Medicine and owner King County, and MLK’s image were added to our logo.

The former late 20th century  version of our logo, after the UW Medicine inception, with the center tower and cloud swoosh

or this reverse version: 

Also, if you ever do a column on the former 1910 public safety building (Yesler), note that the City Hospital there was merged into Harborview in 1931.  Per advise from the Municipal Archivist (Scott Cline) email of March 25 2015: 

According to records in the City Clerk’s Office, arrangements were made for Harborview to take over the City Hospital once the former was constructed. The transfer of operation must have taken place in March or April of 1931, as we have correspondence from the County in early April indicating the Harborview construction was finished and the transfer of operations complete. In addition, in June, the City transferred physical therapy equipment that had belonged to the City Hospital to Harborview for the consideration of one dollar.

Thanks, Stephen!


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