by Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times -
Based on architecture alone, First Hill seems to be going through a minor renaissance as of late. Following suit with other neighborhoods in the downtown core, First Hill has acquired some new buildings, many of them taller than anything else in the area. Big names in local business like Top Pot Doughnuts have moved onto the thoroughfare of Madison Avenue while luxury apartments have sprouted up just off of Broadway where a small, disused piece of Old Seattle stood little more than a year ago.
Quaint as much of classic First Hill may seem, slick storefronts and high-end residential property harken back to the neighborhood’s glory days at the turn of the 20th century. Historian and longtime Harborview Medical employee Stephen Edwin Lundgren paints a picture of First Hill that has more than a fleck of Jane Austen.
“Perusing back issues of the Seattle Daily Times it seems that most of the First Hill families were giving teas and playing bridge a hundred years ago, while perusing the naval officer lists at the Bremerton shipyard for eligible bachelor lieutenants to invite to meet their Sophies and Lydias,” Lundgren said.
It’s true that the hills overlooking downtown were prime destinations for young Seattle’s wealthy. The list of notable families who put down roots in the neighborhood in the early 1900s reads like a who’s who of Washington State business. Seattle’s first King County Courthouse was on First Hill and the climb from downtown up the steep roads led to disgruntled lawyers referring to it as “Profanity Hill.” Judge Cornelius Hanford lived in First Hill to be close to work, later lending his name to a small farming town in Eastern Washington that would eventually be instrumental in America’s nuclear power and research industry, the so-called Hanford Site. First Hill is also where William Boeing made his home and transitioned from lumber magnate to airplane manufacturer.
Bits of this early history still remain in First Hill. One of Seattle’s most successful meat packers, Charles Frye, was an avid art collector, eventually seeing his private gallery turned into the public (and often free to visit) Frye Art Museum on Terry Avenue. The three hospital groups in the neighborhood – Virginia Mason, Harborview Medical and Swedish Medical – were built on top of a small arts mecca, most famous for housing photographer Imogen Cunningham. Like another famous First Hill resident of the era, artist and feminist Alice B. Toklas, Cunningham ventured away from Seattle for more artistically vibrant climes like San Francisco by the 1920s.
It’s morsels of historical intrigue like these that inspired Historic Seattle to put together their book, calling on amateur and professional authors, journalists and historians to contribute. The book’s editor is Larry Kreisman, and it will feature chapters by Paul Dorpat, Jacqueline Williams, Dotty DeCoster, Dennis Andersen, Luci J. Baker Johnson, and Brooke Best. According to Lundgren, the foundation for the book was in a far drier, less narrative pursuit, though.
“It was a city funded inventory of resources and structures, resulting in a couple of file cabinets of unfinished work. I reviewed this about six years ago and it was a good basis for a First Hill history.”
Beyond simply documenting the history of First Hill, the aim of the book is to create a reference point for future landmark preservation efforts. Now is a very active time for landmark preservation throughout Seattle, with many properties under contention for landmark status. Somewhat infamously, a developer sued the City of Seattle in 2013 to remove the landmark status of the former auto shop at 777 Thomas Street hoping to turn the land into new residential property. The suit resulted in the developer agreeing to incorporate the existing structure into the new building. Other proposed landmarks, like the Pineview Apartments building, failed to achieve landmark status in the eyes of city regulators.
“Seattle’s First Hill: Transformation of a Neighborhood” is still in production but is due out later this year. It is supported by grants from 4Culture and donations from the community. The book will have a limited first run of 2,500 copies and it is available for pre-purchase through Historic Seattle. It also has the support of long-running community group the First Hill Improvement Association.