Allbin vs. City of Seattle

The internet is a great tool for access to many older items previously unavailable.  One local example is the picture archive for the City of Seattle.  Now any of us can peruse hundreds of pictures that were previously available only on old glass plates.  And that’s where I first saw him.  According to the date on the image, it was May, 1914. There he was–standing on a small ledge of a very large house in Queen Anne, looking out at the view.

Allbin Boarding House, May 18, 1914
Allbin Boarding House, May 18, 1914

It was hard to understand just what he was doing, but also the bigger question existed–why did someone from the City of Seattle think they needed to record the scene?  “Allbin vs. City” the description on the photo read.  And where was this grand old house today?  Was it still there?

“Come now the above named plaintiffs and for a cause of action against the above named defendant allege:” That sounds pretty official.  And it was, for it was the opening line on a lawsuit filed in Superior Court in January of 1922, accusing the City of negligence in their grading of the street in front of the Allbin residence in west Queen Anne.  John and Anna Allbin owned a large rooming house (built across three platted lots in Gilman’s Addition) on the uphill side of 13th Avenue West, and in late 1913, the City of Seattle started to grade and improve the street in front of the Allbin house.

Since that area on the west side of Queen Anne hill was quite steep, it was decided to divide the street into an upper and lower roadway, supporting the upper roadway with a wooden bulkhead in the middle of the street.  While improving the upper roadway, the City also cut into the Allbin property 12 to 15 feet, but did not provide any bulkhead between the property and the street.  After a severe winter of wet weather (remember all those pictures of 1916 snow in Seattle?), the house settled due to mud sliding down the hill into the street, so the Allbins sued, and collected a judgment in the amount of $4,500 from the City in January of 1918 (along with photos of a beautiful boarding house).

Front steps: what a difference 4 years make!
Front steps: what a difference 2 years made!

But why did the Allbins return for another suit in 1922?  Well, according to the documentation, that wooden bulkhead holding up the northbound street just didn’t do the job.  By 1919, it had bowed significantly and slid partially to the west.  But it seemed to have stopped sliding….as well as can be expected in earthquake-prone Seattle.

The City decided to fix the problem, and started work in December of 1919, removing a portion of the wooden bulkhead.  And that’s when it happened, according to the lawsuit…“…to-wit, on January 29th, 1920, said street sunk and slid to the westward thereby causing the water mains located in said street to break and to wash out and flood said street and as a consequence of the sliding and sinking of said street and the breaking of said water main plaintiffs’ said property slid and sunk and has continued to slide and sink with the result that said dwelling house…has been practically destroyed and said lots rendered practically worthless, and in addition thereto necessitated the incurring of considerable expense on the part of plaintiffs in attempting to save said dwelling.”  The Allbins claimed lost rentals of $120 per month for two years (as the tenants had to move out after the house slide), $500 spent attempting to protect the property, and a loss to the premises and improvements of $15,000, no small amount when the average wage was less than three dollars per day.

Well, the City’s lawyers replied. What was their strategy?  They denied everything, EVERYTHING.  That the plaintiff owned the property?  “[the City] has no knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to the truth of the matters therein alleged, and therefore denies the same.”  That the plaintiff rented out portions of the house?  “Denied!”  That no compensation has been paid for this damage?  “Denied!” And so it goes on throughout the complaint.  Then as further defense, the City essentially said “when your property was damaged the first time, you stated your house was made worthless as a result, and we paid you as per the judgment then, so we couldn’t possibly owe you anything more now.”

That must have been a good strategy, because the City won the case at the Superior Court level. But the Allbins continued the fight, with their next stop at the State Supreme Court.  In documents filed July 5th, 1923, the Allbins stated that “this slide was caused by the [City’s] act in December, 1919, in negligently repairing the old bulkhead.” They contended the city was at fault for contributory negligence, but they were denied the ability to prove it because the documents they offered for proof were not accepted for admission into evidence by the Court. So the State Supreme Court sent it back for retrial.

And five months later on December 14, 1923, the jury awarded $5,000 in damages to the Allbins—but the City appealed one last time. The Superior Court found the verdict justified, and ordered the City to pay up, adding in the costs of the suit, and interest at “six per cent per annum from this date.”

The Allbins took the money to construct a new apartment building on the back of the lot at 13th Ave. West.  With a new address of 2053 Gilman it was not as grand as the first boarding house, but it was built well enough that it still stands today.  John, Anna, and their two grown sons resided in Apt. 6, according to the Seattle Polk Directory of 1927.

So what was the man doing out on the edge of the building that day in 1914? A close-up view reveals a second man seated on the sidewalk with a bag of some sort. The two appear to be working with a cable that is held off the building side about six inches. Perhaps they were installing some sort of lightning rod, or maybe an antenna for wireless telegraphy, which was a brand new technology at the time.

Photo Credit: municipal archives.

The Allbins spelled their name with two ‘L’s, as evidenced in the court suits, federal census, and street directories. Oddly enough Anna Allbin, who is buried in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, has her name listed there with one ‘L’.


Bruce Jones is a member and former President of the Queen Anne Historical Society