Snowy Owl’s Alley Houses

In 2015, Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien introduced legislation to make it easier to construct Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (DADUs) in every Seattle neighborhood.  A DADU is also known as a backyard cottage.  The Queen Anne Community Council, a community advocacy group, through its Land Use Review Committee (LURC) challenged the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) regarding the law because it treated every neighborhood in the same way without considering individual neighborhood differences.  The LURC implied that the vague EIS did not acknowledge the threat to the historic fabric of Queen Anne’s single-family residential areas.

As former LURC Chair Martin Henry Kaplan wrote on March 16, 2019 in an email to the community, “…the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is deficient and inadequate in studying and transparently revealing the true impacts to every Seattle property owner.  As CM O’Brien and his colleagues propose to eliminate all single-family zoning citywide, we deserve a City Hall committed to robust neighborhood outreach, transparent and complete study and considered public input.”

As a historic preservation planner who believes that increased urban density is one way to fight global warming, and just like the city’s Hearing Examiner who on March 19, 2019 rejected the LURC arguments, I did not agree with their position.  In fact, adding backyard cottages or ‘alley houses’ to our purportedly single-family lots is indeed a feature of Queen Anne’s historic fabric.   At least that’s true for the area west of 1st Ave. N., which is characterized by alleys and chockablock with alley houses.  (There are no alleys east of 1st Ave. N.)

Historic Alley House at 2129 1/2 1st Ave. N.

To prove that alley houses are woven into the historic neighborhood fabric, I would need to do a survey of every alley, but the task is daunting.  I’ve been seeking a simpler solution, perhaps a small sample would do the trick.  Now, thanks to my new best friend, Snowy Owl, I found the place to do it.

Snowy Owl on QA rooftop 11/29/20

Snowy Owl, you may remember, has been camping on rooftops since November 14  (2020) off the alley between 1st and 2nd Avenues W.  running from the McClure parking lot north to McGraw St., and I’ve been visiting the bird and the alley every day.  To my delight, I discovered alley houses, new and old, scattered along the way.  I restricted my sample to the shorter alley from the parking lot at McClure Middle School to W. Boston St.

Historic Alley House (2122 1/2 2nd Ave. W.)

Comparing the buildings along the alley to those shown on the 1917 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map would prove that alley houses and their modern DADU cousins have long been part of the historic fabric of the neighborhood.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map v.4 p. 413

As you can tell from this screenshot of page 413 of the 1917 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, this typical block had two alley houses in 1917  (Boston St. is at the top of the screenshot; Crockett St, is below).   Comparing the city’s side sewer map to the Sanborn map sheds a little light on the story, for both of the houses  shown with alley houses were built and connected to the sewer in 1910.  Unfortunately, there is no date given for the connection of the alley houses to the sewer.  We know then that they appeared sometime between 1910 and 1917.

I marked the alley houses on the Sanborn map in yellow.  The one at 2129 ½ 1st Ave. W. sits on a  relatively new foundation, while the other, at 2122 ½ 2nd Ave. W. , is just getting one.  The blue X on the west side of the alley indicates the site of a new alley house over a garage, pictured just below.  The red X on the east side is where a garage has been designed to suggest it too is an alley house.  In 1964, the school district destroyed the three houses along Crockett St. to make room for the new McClure Middle School parking lot.  The residential quality of the block is made clear as all the buildings are labeled with a ‘D.’  It stands for “wood frame dwelling.”   A close look tells you that all the houses except the alley houses and the one at 115 W. Boston St. had basements (B).  The D would have been significant.  That way the fire insurance company, let’s say Sanborn back in Philadelphia, would have known they were being snookered when someone submitted a claim for an expensive brick building  that had burned down on the site.  The prevention of true fraud at any moment in history is probably a good thing.

Modern Alley House at 2110 2nd Ave. W.

This speedy analysis shows us that the City Council’s DADU law allowing the introduction of second homes on lots in our neighborhood of single-family homes actually enhances its historic quality, and as this quick look down at Snowy Owl Alley reveals, early on Queen Anne homeowners loved adding little cottages in their backyards.

Garage masquerades as an Alley House (2115 1st Ave. W.)

Reference:  The Seattle Times 1/24/2021:  “A majestic snowy owl perches high enough on Queen Anne Hill to look down on its admirers

Snowy Owl Swoops in to make Queen Anne HISTORY

Snowy Owl seen from the alley between 1st and 2nd W. Photo: MH on my iPhone12
Snowy Owl 11/20/20. Photo: Melinda Baker

Triptychs by Elaine Chuang


[UPDATE 12.8.20 at 3:30 pm.  Owl is flying over the alley north of McClure doing fanciful landings at the top of the tall evergreen tree on the west side of the alley.]

Local news references/images:  KING5, The Seattle Times, Seattle P-I , KING5 Evening

The Seattle Times 1/24/2021:  “A majestic snowy owl perches high enough on Queen Anne Hill to look down on its admirers


The inventory of 351 King County bird types on the wabirder website (2020_macro_checklist for pdfs) disappointed me.   I was sad to see that snowy owls such as the elegant specimen gracing Queen Anne roofs for well over a week are rare in King County.  ‘Rare’ in birder language means that more than five of them have been sighted in the last year in the county.  In my fantasy world, I believed our owl was the first one ever to venture south of its normal range which extends from the Arctic to the Canadian border.  Now, I may just have to settle with the fantasy that this is the first snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) ever to alight on Queen Anne.

Our owl ranks with the wild animals that occasionally venture across the railroad bridge at the Locks to camp in Discovery Park.  Coyotes, bears and cougars have all been reported.  Indeed, I even saw an owl on a limb in the park about ten years ago on a bike ride.  The Cascade Bike Club had set up the ride to cover some 80 inner-city miles.  One of my companions that day bravely towed his daughter on a trailer bike.  As we churned up the steep hill alongside DayBreak Star, the little girl, who didn’t bother pedaling, screamed “OW.”  We screeched to a stop (easy to do going up that hill) and turned to her to see what was wrong.  “What’s the matter?”  “Nothing,” she replied.  “Are you hurt?”  “No.”  “So why did you scream OW?”  “I didn’t,” she replied.  Then, pointing to the beautiful bird in a tree beside the road, she insisted, “I said OWL.”  As you might guess, there was nothing special about Discovery Park’s (barn?) owl when compared to Queen Anne’s recent visitor.

Owls do fire imaginations.  The Discovery Park owl surely excited the girl on the bike and me too, but our owl continually thrills my granddaughter.  I am obliged, actually probably more pleased than obliged, to ride by the owl’s haunts every day to make sure he/she/they is ok.  Indeed, every day last week my granddaughter drew a different sketch of an owl during breaks from her arduous first grade school work at virtual Coe Elementary.

Ever since it arrived, large crowds of birders and just plain folks from around the city and probably the entire county have been spending whole days watching the owl apparently stay cool in the shadows of handy chimneys.  You can always tell the birders from the regular folks, for they watch through massive monocular telescopes and cameras whose huge lenses require tripods just to hold them up.  I took a picture with my cell phone.  As you can see in the top photo above, its poor quality tells you why you need massive gear if you want to photograph birds, even big furry ones like our owl.  My friend Elaine Chuang has been out every day documenting this incredible event and took the triptychs above.  More effusive than I, she recently wrote:  “When it comes to looking back on an extraordinary 2020, this will be the most heavenly of our blessings — memories of how we were graced by this Magnificent One.”

Walking the alleys and streets between 1st and 2nd Ave W and W Crockett and W McGraw on Monday afternoon (12/7/20) where I’ve been told she has been on Queen Anne since November 14, I couldn’t find snowy owl, but later a clutch of birders was observed near McClure.  Maybe the owl’s diurnal feedings exhausted the nearby food supply, and it had to roam farther for dinner.  Those owls eat rodents whole, you know!

In the end, I am going to have to accept the hard truth, that this snowy owl isn’t as special as I want it to be.  Yet in this year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the visitation of the snowy owl between Thanksgiving and Christmas has made me happy.  So happy, it seems, that I wanted to record its passage with you and in the archives of the Queen Anne Historical Society.

An unknown artist is also capturing the owl’s visit on the alley off W. Boston between 1st and 2nd W.

Keep well,

Michael Herschensohn, President



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