2009-03-29 Major Millis' Capitol Hill Treasures

(As always, click on photos to enlarge)

THEN: Both the grading on Belmont Avenue and the homes beside it are new in this “gift” to Capitol Hill taken from the family album of  Major John Millis. (Courtesy of the Major’s grandchild Walter Millis and his son, a Seattle musician, Robert Millis.)
THEN: Both the grading on Belmont Avenue and the homes beside it are new in this “gift” to Capitol Hill taken from the family album of Major John Millis. (Courtesy of the Major’s grandchild Walter Millis and his son, a Seattle musician, Robert Millis.)
NOW: Although it took much longer than in many other blocks on Capitol Hill, the old homes here were eventually replaced with two of the largest apartment houses in the neighborhood.
NOW: Although it took much longer than in many other blocks on Capitol Hill, the old homes here were eventually replaced with two of the largest apartment houses in the neighborhood.

There is really no danger that the dog crossing Belmont Avenue here will be hit by anything.  When Major John Millis recorded this photograph one could have put all the motorcars in Seattle on the front lawns of these homes with room to spare. Cars were very rare and carriages only a little less so.  One walked or took the trolley.

Another photo from Major John Millis’ album shows the same pile of construction timbers (on the left) resting on the same freshly graded but as yet unpaved Belmont Avenue. It is dated May 1901.  This view looks south from Mercer Street.  The concrete street curb on the far left is still being built.  Although all these stately homes are new,  they are also already threatened by a neighborhood trend.  In less than twenty years much of this part of Capitol Hill will be rebuilt with apartment houses.

Millis, an engineer officer with the Army Corps, lived in Seattle about five years while he directed construction on Puget Sound’s military fortifications.  But forts are not given the loving attention in his album that his home neighborhood receives.  This is most fortunate for the hill, for this work of his folding Kodak is early.  For instance, in one view looking northwest from the back of his home, probably during its construction, one block away the intersection of Summit Avenue and Mercer Street is still only a crossing of narrow paths.  (Jean and I have included that example and several more from Major Millis’ album below.)

By his grandson Walter Millis’ account, the Major graduated from West Point in 1880 at the “top of his class.” By the time he reached Seattle mid-career, he had electrified the Statue of Liberty and “devised a plan that saved New Orleans from a hurricane disaster.”

The Millis home in 1901
The Millis home in 1901

Here’s looking at the Millis home directly west across Belmont and over the same timbers  – we suspect – that show in the primary photo used in the now-then repeat. Most likely the two photographs were taken on the same outing.  And note the bonus of all the  army corps officer’s notes in the margins.   The scribbled “Hotel” in the sky on the far left is pointing in the direction of the grand Denny Hotel (aka Washington Hotel) that then still stood on top of Denny Hill, which would have still been on the southwest horizon in the “fall of 1901.”

A rare photo of a carriage, taken from Major Millis' front porch
A rare photo of a carriage, taken from Major Millis' front porch

It is rare indeed to find photographs of working Carriages on Capitol Hill or any hill.  Almost certainly this view was snapped by Major John Millis from his front porch or near it.   Walter Millis, of Long Island – the very eastern end of it – gives a caption:

The trio at the carriage are almost certainly my grandmother, Mary Raoul Millis in the center, my Uncle Ralph at the right and the darling little tyke with the long blond ringlets is almost certainly my father, Walter Millis.”

Earlier, the family’s “informant” explained,

Major John Millis (as he then was) was a distinguished officer in the United States Army Corps of Engineers (what some of us around the water on the East Coast shorten to “the Army Corps”). He graduated from West Point in 1880 at the top of his class and was commissioned into the Engineers. (Apparently it was the custom at that time for cadets who did well academically to go into the Engineers.) The Engineers are, of course, responsible for military fortifications and the like but they are also responsible for lakes, rivers, harbors and ports.  An early task, when he was still only a Lieutenant was to electrify the Statue of Liberty, which, oddly enough, was quite a big deal. He commanded levees and port facilities; and was responsible for devising a plan that saved New Orleans from a hurricane disaster. At about the midpoint of his career, he was assigned to Seattle to work on military fortifications in the Puget Sound area. For some of the five years he was there, he was accompanied by his wife and two sons, one of them my father. I assume that’s why he wanted the house.”

A panorama by Millis
A panorama by Millis


It would be difficult to overestimate the uniqueness of this panorama snapped into two parts by Major John Millis either from the back of his Capitol Hill home at 523 Belmont or from the back of his homesite before the residence was ready for his family (I’m inclined to think it is the former).  The paths that lead out of the bottom of the image have “something to do” with Mercer Street.  Mercer between Belmont and Summit has at this point not yet been graded.  A good circa date for this is 1900, however, a thorough study of its parts – later – will make a confident date – to the year –  almost certainly possible.  And, again, it may well be 1900.

That is a Queen Anne Hill horizon, and along its shoreline with Lake Union the timber architecture of the old Westlake Trestle for trolleys, wagons, and pedestrians is evident.  Some of the Fremont neighborhood shows far right on the distant north shore of Lake Union.  Some of the details in this panorama may be detected in another photograph by Millis that he took later, also from the back of his property or home.  We shall include that view next.  (On some distant weekend I will try to convince the Pacific Northwest Editors – bless them – to let us run this comparison in the Times Sunday magazine, and with a “now” photo by Jean.  One of those will do.)

Millis' then & now
Millis' then & now

As promised, on the left, part of the Millis panorama shown directly above, and on the right, the neighborhood grown some and Queen Anne Hill too.  In the foreground several more homes are evident.  Summit Avenue is graded, although not yet paved, and graced with its own sidewalks.

The house that shows in part on the far left of the older view (also on the left) was – we can now see by consulting the later view on the right – at the northwest corner of Mercer and Summit.  You won’t find it there now, however.  A few of the structures that show up in the about a dozen Capitol Hill snapshots in the Major Millis picture album do survive.  (We will include at the bottom a challenge for one of these we have not yet identified.)

Note how Taylor Avenue has been recently graded up the east side of Queen Anne Hill in the later view on the right.  Between 1900 and 1910 the population of Seattle grew from about 90 thousand to about 230 thousand, and the differences here are evidence for that growth.  Millis, of course, had to record both these views during his about five years in Seattle at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Finally, thanks again to Rob Millis and his father Walter Millis for sharing these scenes, which we copied from a family album.


Who loves a mystery?
"I can do that."

But we haven’t tried.  So your turn first.  This is one of the dozen or so Capitol Hill (almost certainly) views that are included in Major John Millis’ photo album – a subject from his about five years in Seattle at the very beginning of the 20th Century.  But this one is dated by Millis himself.  At the bottom he has penciled, “May 1901.”  But where is it?  Tell us and Jean will shoot a “now” and repeat it here compliments of you.   This may be easier than we think.

Here’s another mystery shot from the Major.

Another Millis mystery
Another Millis mystery


Reader Ken comments:

Spectacular rare photos of old Capitol Hill. What a find. I have lived in this block for several years. There used to be 6 houses total on the west side of Belmont. This scene only shows 4 (the large white house 2nd from the left is actually on the south side of Republican. Two more are to be built at each end of the block. Note in the second photo of the Millis house, the north house (corner of Mercer and Belmont) has been built. I don’t think the timbers in the street are the same ones, as these two photos must have been taken months apart.
A couple more observations: In the first photo the dark house on the far left I believe is still standing. Could the small trees newly planted in the west parking strip be the same giant sycamores that are still there? Also, note how back in those days paving the sidewalk was a priority over paving the street. Now it is just the opposite. The curbs are still original I am sure.

Paul responds:

I’m holding onto my timbers. I have another photo by Millis that looks north on Belmont towards the Millis family home site but for that moment sans his home. However, the two homes to either side of the future Millis home are in the picture. This includes to the south that handsome structure with the steep roof and to the north – whopee! – the home on the corner. So although that home does not show up in the primary then-now photos we put down, it is there and so, no doubt, just off the frame/format to the right. Odd thing is – and here my perception agrees with yours – that in the photo that looks west across the timbers in the street and to the Millis home and that also shows the home on the corner, it does not seem possible that given the relatively little space between the two homes – the Millis and the corner home – that it should not also show up in the principal photo. And hence you may have concluded that those timbers could not be the same otherwise they would have rested there through the entire construction of the corner home. This was also my conclusion when I was fumbling through the album – until – until I came upon the other photo that I have just described above (and it now printed just below this ramble.) Pity I cannot [but now I can] show it to you but I do not feel confident in trying to insert it, and Jean who is away producing a play at Hillside School will need to do it this evening when he returns to his Green Lake home. So for this moment please trust me [Or better now look for yourself], but not for longer than one day [or rather only as long as it takes to dip your head.]  Jean should get that evidence up tonight. [And he has.]  I’ll also send him a semi-crude snapshot I took of a detail of that block from a 1912 real estate map. In that detail I have saturated (made more dense and brilliant too) the color (yellow) of the six houses on the block as well as the one across Republican on the southwest corner of Republican and Belmont so that they will stand out. In the footprints of those homes the one on the southwest corner of Belmont and Mercer – again the neighbor of the Millis home to the north – does not reach as close to the sidewalk on Belmont, and there is another reason why it has a chance of escaping direct inclusion in the photo we primarily wrote about. By the way we will want to repeat that ca.1900 pan from the Millis site west to the Queen Anne horizon and will need to get into an apartment in the northerly most of those two big ones. I don’t think it is the Lamplighter. That is the southerly one. Do you know the manager? Or the name? … of the apartment house.

Jean adds the photos mentioned above:


1912 map
1912 map

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