A Virtual Tour of Queen Anne Views

Architectural historians study buildings by walking around them and describing their features.  Occasionally their studies discuss how the building is sited.  In this virtual walk around the neighborhood, I explore how our neighborhood is sited, focusing especially on those marvelous vistas that, while often engineered (Willcox Walls for example), are often the serendipitous strokes of luck coming from living on a hill overlooking mountains, lakes, inland seas and one of the most dynamic downtown cores in the United States.  This tour involves two tools, both obvious and easy to use.  The most important one is your mind’s eye, where you’ve stored all those vistas, sunrises, sunsets and thunderstorms with which everyone living in Queen Anne is familiar.  Having served professionally as the Director of two weather-dependent Queen Anne institutions — the Children’s Museum and the Northwest Folklife Festival, both at Seattle Center — happy and unhappy vista memories populate my mind’s eye.  The second is Google Maps where you can go in your quarantined quarters to refresh your memory.

Let’s start at the most popular view from Kerry Park on Highland Drive.  From here Elliott Bay, the downtown core, Paul Allen’s South Lake Union technological hub, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the swooping green roof of the Fifth Avenue Garage provide a marvelous background against which Seattle’s history splays out before you.  From Kerry Park, Seattle’s iconic memories of the 1962 World’s Fair reward us.  The svelte feminine forms of the Space Needle have survived almost unpardonable alterations, while the parabolic arches of the Coliseum — now temporarily hung in space while private investors dig an even deeper hole for hockey and maybe basketball — draw our attention.  The occasional ferry shuttling folks to and from Bremerton and Bainbridge passes by West Seattle and the center of our city’s Eurocentric founding story.   You can’t see it anymore except in your mind’s eye — but once upon a time Smith Tower, our first skyscraper, was part of the view.   Before our feet, a flat area on Prospect Street hides a reservoir.  Across the street from it, little Franklin Park reminds me of the Kinnears — early Queen Anne developers who sited the reservoir feeding their Queen Anne-style house down the hill here, and have a street and a park  and apartments bearing their name.  Instead of being called Kerry Park, this fantastic viewpoint might very well be called Mount Rainier Park.   From here the view to our mountain is unparalleled.   Even on cloudy days, it draws me to the park just to see if it’s out.

Author and art admiring the view at Bowen Overlook

Going west along Highland Drive, I skip the Stimson-Griffith and Kerry mansions, rush by the McFee and Parsons houses, and cast a glance up the hill to the huge back side of the brick Stuart/Balcom House on Comstock Street.   Passing Parsons Gardens — another of those privately funded public spaces on the hill — I arrive at the confusingly-named Betty Bowen Viewpoint in Marshall Park.   From here my eye is drawn to Interbay with its railroad yard, grain silos, Expedia buildings, Piers 90 and 91, Smith Cove Park, the marina, Magnolia and its wobbly bridge.  Dramatically on a sunny day, I embrace the Olympic Mountains and the shipping lanes of the Puget Sound.  It is a grand view.  Starting out in 1904 as Phelps Place, Marshall Park shrank in size following the 1911-1916 construction of the now-landmarked Willcox Walls and Boulevard which extend the views as they wrap around the west side of the hill.  The park expanded to the south and west when the G. W. Marshall family gave a 32,400-square-foot tract to protect the phenomenal view.

I often see photographers at the Willcox Walls who’ve come for the view of the setting sun over Bainbridge Island and the Olympic Mountains.   Ships and the occasional ferry plying the waters between Seattle and Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island, or Seattle and Bremerton, are often to be seen from there.  For the first time the other day, I actually saw the ferry leaving Vashon for Fauntleroy Cove.

It is not the ferries but the mountains that draw the photographers to the wall.  “The Brothers” is the twin-peaked summit directly across the Sound that resembles an owl’s head.  It is named after the Fauntleroy brothers, early settlers of West Seattle.  In 1857, Lt. George Davidson anchored his brig, The Ellinor, in that very cove just south of today’s Lincoln Park and gave that mountain its name.  Engaged to their sister Ellinor,  he named his ship and Mt. Ellinor for his beloved — who still lingered in New Harmony, Indiana.  Davidson rewarded the entire family.  The cove he named for his future father-in-law, while he rewarded Ellinor’s sisters with Mt. Constance and Mt. Rose.  Looking across the sound from the Willcox Walls, the last bump to the south is Ellinor; Rose is hard to see just in front of Elinor and Mt. Washington; The Brothers are somewhat to the north of them.  The large mass of mountain north of The Brothers is Mt. Constance.  We don’t dare share here our theories explaining her dominance of the long ridge.

The nice thing about a virtual tour is the ease which with I travel great distances.  I’ve walked around the entire boulevard and ducked down First Ave. North — just where Smith Street squiggles onto Queen Anne Drive.  About three-quarters of the way down First North, you’ll see a big evergreen tree whose branches appear to have been cut away to frame a great view of Mt. Baker.  It is a real treat on a sunny Spring day.

A better camera would capture Mt. Baker in the tree.

The view of Mt. Baker is a little better on Queen Anne Ave. just before those forbidding ‘Do Not Enter’ signs before it careens precipitously to Florentia St.

Snow-capped Mt. Baker. Queen Anne Ave

I am always moved when I see Mt. Baker from Seattle.  It reminds me of that day some 47 years ago when I waited in the obstetrics floor of University Hospital for the arrival of my first child.  The room was on the north side of the building.  Mt. Baker glistened in all her snow-covered glory announcing Zach’s arrival.

Here’s a 1907 view looking east across Lake Union.

Jump with me as my mind moves around the hill to the eastern end of Lynn Street just beyond the stop signs at Boston and 5th North, where the city has created a modest overlook.  Before me a big bit of greenbelt stretches out to Aurora Avenue and its traffic noises.  Lifting my head up a bit, Lake Union — named by Thomas Mercer whose house was down by the shore — spreads out as a seaplane lifts off the water on its way to points north.  I pick out St. Mark’s Cathedral on Capitol Hill and pretend I can see Egan House tucked into the hill below it.  I recall the day Historic Seattle got that sweet cottage  for free from the Parks Department, and think about its near twin, the recently saved the Robert Reichert House at 3rd Ave W and Smith Street.  I choose to disregard the roar of I-5 and wish it would go away.  I can’t miss the Cascades from here or the memories of 4th of July fireworks.

One of my favorite views never ceases to surprise me as I head north along Nob Hill.  If I time it right, looking south the Space Needle looms, becoming more of spaceship than a needle.  From my special vantage point, the Needle’s legs and waist disappear, and she simply floats on the city ready to go to Mars.

Oh, in that same part of the neighborhood, I mustn’t forget Bhy Kracke Park.  Almost donated to the city as another of those citizen-donated parks.   Bhy Kracke died on his way home to Seattle to give the land to the City.   Seattle bought it just the same in 1970.  Hidden off Comstock Street a bit east of Bigelow, the park offers spectacular views over South Lake Union.  The Space Needle pops up to the southwest, and the spreading lawn is a wondrous site for an outdoor wedding.  That same son born with a view of Mt. Baker got married there.  Taking the narrow, treacherous path through the park down to 5th Ave N., the views gradually disappear in landscape that’s gone wild.

Seaplane view of Lake Union with Queen Anne on right

There really is no end to the number of terrific views from our neighborhood, and we add new ones all the time.  I’ve fallen in love with the belvedere on the west end of the John Coney Bridge, that sweet viaduct that carries bicycles and pedestrians from Harrison Street over Elliott and the railroad tracks to Myrtle Edwards Park.  I was disappointed the other day when social distancing and a cluster of people enjoying the view deprived me of it.  From the belvedere, I often see giant container ships entering the harbor, freighters filling up with grain and, once upon a time long ago, the myriad cruise ships heading to Alaska after depositing some hefty sums in the lodging tax kitty that helps fund many arts and heritage organizations like the Queen Anne Historical Society.  The belvedere is halfway between the two fantastic works of public art that the bridge links.

You can see Michael Heizer’s  Adjacent, Against, Upon (1972) the on the water side, while Snoqual/Moon the Transformer(2012) by Roger Fernandes is a marvelous  gateway to the bridge and reminder of the people who lived here before us.   Hewitt Architects designed the bridge as a gift to the city.

Fernando’s Snoqual/Moon the Transformer

I wouldn’t want to end this tour without telling you about the views from Seattle Center.  For the most of this century’s first decade, I directed the Northwest Folklife Festival.  During that time, I’d start my festival day at the corner of Second Ave. N and John St. in front of the entrance to the Pacific Science Center, taking in the great view west to the water.  From there, I could assess the always-eastward-moving weather, and predict — for better and often for worse — the size of that day’s crowd and donations.  Weekends at the Children’s Museum in Center House in the early 1990’s, I only had to look up to see if the sun was out.  If it were, I’d slump back to desk knowing all those kids we needed to attract to balance our budget were at the zoo.

Ending, I should thank Michael Kimmelman, who has been doing virtual tours of Manhattan every week in the The New York Times.  I borrowed the idea of virtual tours during our confinement from him.  I’ll do another one next week.