Queen Anne Yesterday & Today

Looking west: W. Olympic Place, May 4, 1903. Seattle Municipal Archives: Item#172604 

This historic view along West Olympic Place at 7th Avenue West was captured on May 4, 1903 during field work for a city-commissioned parks report by John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920) who, with his brother Frederick Jr. (1870-1957), was a partner in the office founded by their father, famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903).  This was the first of several visits by Olmsted, whose recommendations served as a blueprint for Seattle’s parks-and-boulevard system maintenance and expansion in the early 20th century.  Olmsted’s impression of the park was largely positive, recommending minor improvements.  But some vocal Queen Anne women would force the plans for Olympic Place to be scaled back a bit — 18 inches, to be exact.

The split-rail fence on the left of the 1903 image marked the upper edge of 14-acre Kinnear Park, one of Seattle’s earliest public parks.  Across the street from the park, Olympic Place was lined with stately mansions, including the home of Dr. Frederick A. Churchill (1856-1937) and his family, whose 1889 home at 608 W Olympic Place was among the first constructed on Queen Anne.  Dr. Churchill called himself the “Father of Kinnear Park” in a 1936 Seattle Daily Times interview, saying that he urged George Kinnear to donate the land for the park and then pushed the city to fund its development.

In 1906, the Olmsted Brothers were again engaged to design the grounds for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (AYP), and the city was moving quickly to implement their previously recommended boulevard improvements ahead of the exposition, including at Olympic Place.   Meanwhile, developers constructed luxury apartments near streetcar lines through the city to be used as hotels during the AYP.  These apartments  included the Chelsea Apartments at 620 West Olympic Place and The Kinnear at 905 West Olympic Place, both built in 1907.

Per plans drawn up by the Olmsted Brothers, the grade of Olympic Place in front of the park was to be lowered as much as eight feet, necessitating a concrete retaining wall that was proposed to rise four-and one-half feet along the roadway.  The wall proposal proved problematic to the residents of homes in the vicinity of the park, including Dr. and Mrs. Churchill.

Olmsted Brothers Section drawing of proposed boundary wall, dated March 22, 1909. Seattle Municipal Archives. Archives:#2372

On April 28, 1909, The Seattle Daily Times reported that 40 women led by Mrs. Churchill “besieged” the Park Board superintendent when he arrived to oversee construction of the wall, which they felt would destroy the scenic beauty of the entire street. Their protest immediately halted construction while the Board of Park commissioners considered their demands for a gentle sloping of the park property from the street rather than a wall.  On May 4, 1909, six years to the day from when the historic image was taken, The Seattle Daily Times reported that in response to “strenuous objections” the Park Board compromised that the wall will be no more than three feet high.  This concession satisfied the protesters, and the work was completed in time for the June 1st opening of the AYP — but perhaps more importantly for the Churchills, it was done in time for their niece’s wedding, which took place at their home on May 31, 1909.

The construction of the Chelsea and The Kinnear Apartments marked an early shift toward the multi-family housing that continued throughout the 20th century and that characterizes West Olympic Place today.  As for the Churchill’s house, Dr. Churchill lived there until his death in 1937; it was torn down in the 1950s for construction of the Skyline House apartments (1956).

W. Olympic Place. May 2021. Photo: Maureen Elenga

Reference:  Dorpat & Sherrard, The Seattle Times 6/21/2014:  Seattle Now & Then:  Kinnear Park

This Week in Queen Anne History

On April 18, 1917, a shocking attack took the life of Queen Anne resident Florence Wehn (1889-1917), wife of famed Seattle sculptor James Wehn (1882-1973).  The horrific crime remains unsolved to this day.

Florence and James met in the late 1890s and bonded over their love of the arts. They married on July 24, 1915, and shortly after purchased a new bungalow at 2214 12th Avenue West to which James relocated his studio from his parents’ home at 710 29th Avenue South.   Florence was employed as a switchboard operator at the Pantorium Dye Works.

While James worked on a project at the University of Washington, Florence had spent April 17th at her parent’s home across town celebrating her nephew’s birthday.  Not wanting James to worry and lacking a home phone, she decided to return home by streetcar around ten o’clock that night rather than staying over as she often did when the hour got late.  When she didn’t come home, James assumed she had stayed over.  Police arrived at his door on the morning of April 18th to inform him that her body was discovered in a ravine near 12th Avenue West and West Wheeler Street, just a stone’s throw from their home.

Florence exited the streetcar at West Wheeler Street and 10th Avenue West.  At some point during the short walk between the stop and her home, she met with her attacker.  After putting up what appeared to be a considerable struggle, she succumbed to blunt force trauma to her head.  The attacker did not rob or rape her, but arranged the items she had been carrying carefully around her, including a piece of birthday cake she had brought home for James.

Devastated by the loss of his wife, James sold their house and moved his studio back to his family home, where it remained for the rest of his life.  He did not remarry until 1949, at age 67.  Wehn was the founding chairman of the University of Washington’s sculpture department.  His most well-known work is the bronze sculpture of Chief Seattle, located at Tilikum Park.  Dedicated in 1912, it was the first sculpture commissioned by the city as public art.  He created the first official design for the seal of the City of Seattle, a profile of Chief Seattle, in 1936.

The home that James and Florence shared still stands, but it is dwarfed by surrounding apartment buildings and will likely be razed for multi-family housing before long.

This Week in Queen Anne History

In this March 3, 1934 photo, workers are undertaking a reconstruction of the Queen Anne Avenue counterbalance, the underground track-and-counterweight system that assisted electric streetcars in ascending the steep grade and supplemented their brakes on the descent.  But this same week, just three years later, an event took place on the avenue that was the culmination of intense debate about the future of Seattle’s electric streetcar system which made its last run in April 1941.

Built in 1901, the counterbalance streetcar replaced a cable car route that was part of the original Front Street Cable Railway, launched in 1889; the route to Queen Anne, which went as far as Highland Drive, was added in 1891.  The Seattle Electric Company purchased the lines in 1900 and ripped out the cable system to be replaced with electric streetcars.  They designed the novel underground counterweight system, which ran between Roy and Comstock streets, and added a parallel line on the west side of the avenue in 1902.

By the 1930s the Seattle Municipal Railway, then owned by the city, was buried in debt and losing ridership to automobiles.  In 1936, just two years after the reconstruction of the counterbalance, a city-commissioned report recommended tearing out the rail system and replacing it with gasoline-powered buses and “trackless trolleys” — trolleys that are powered by overhead electric lines but operate on tires, independent of tracks.  The political debate was intense, with Mayor John Dore (1881-1938) adamantly opposed and city councilman Arthur Langlie (1900-1966) in favor.  The plan to replace the old system would be put before voters on March 9, 1937.

In anticipation of the vote, proponents of the trackless trolley staged a demonstration on March 5, 1937 to prove the system’s superiority in the ultimate challenge:  a race between a trackless trolley and a streetcar up the Queen Anne Avenue counterbalance.  Citizens gathered along the route to cheer on their favored vehicle, but streetcar fans were disappointed.  The trackless trolley won handily, even when the streetcar was given a head start halfway up the hill.  Despite this impressive showing, the plan to replace the old system failed at the ballot box.

Mayor Dore died in 1938 and was succeeded by Langlie, who secured a New Deal loan to pay off the streetcar system’s debt and immediately implemented the plan to convert to gasoline buses and trackless trolleys.  The streetcars made their final run along the counterbalance on August 11, 1940.  The streetcars are long gone, but the tunnels and tracks of the counterbalance system remain below the surface to this day, and the trackless trolleys still roll overhead.  In this image from the early 1940s, two trackless trolleys pass on Queen Anne Avenue.

(photos courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives, image 8660; and National Archives)