Inside the Queen Anne Boulevard Triangles

Subject area
Subject area

You’d think reconstructing the history of Queen Anne Boulevard would be simple. Oh, if only it were so! It is after all a city landmark whose 1979 nomination required significant scholarship even in those early days of the city’s landmark ordinance. Even in the brief time since this article was first published new information about the northern triangle requires correcting it. The revision is not based on written evidence. A single photograph in the National Parks Service’s Olmsted files (also on-line at Seattle Municipal Archives) proves the triangle existed at 24 years before we originally gave for its date of construction.

One of the first problems with the route’s history is that folks attribute it to the work that John Charles Olmsted (John Charles) did in 1903 for his report to the Parks Board. In fact, Seattle Parks historian Donald Sherwood wrote in 1973, it “was not part of the new “Olmsted Plan” (underlining and quotation marks are Sherwood’s). According to the city’s Landmark Designation of the boulevard, John Charles omitted Queen Anne’s marvelous crown and vistas in spite of the Queen Anne Club’s discussion of a possible boulevard as early as 1902. Only by pounding on desks, attending Park Board meetings and lots of polite pushing and shoving, did some of the club’s politically powerful people (read men) convince the board to build the boulevard. While it is not an Olmsted Boulevard, it would be simply contrarian to say that our narrow boulevard – John Charles required 150’ wide swaths for his — is not in the Olmsted spirit. Oddly, of all the boulevards in Seattle designed by John Charles or not, ours is the only designated city landmark. Makes one want to scream, “Go Figure!”

Highland Drive looking east across Highland Place triangle and First Avenue N. Photo by D.F. Dawson for the Olmsted Brothers May 1903.
Highland Dr. looking east across Highland Pl. triangle, May 1903.

According to historical documents another curious feature of our boulevard is that legal hassling over the right of way caused it to be constructed in six segments between 1911 and 1916. As a result, it has some unique twists and turns. In fact, it is the ten triangles and our boulevard’s trees and vistas that makes it so distinctive. A look at two of those triangles shows why the loop’s history remains murky.

The two triangles lie at the intersections of Prospect Street, Highland Drive and First Avenue North, just below the point where First runs into a wall at Highland. When the streets were originally platted, these intersecting streets were almost orthogonal. It’s hard to imagine what is meant by ‘almost orthogonal,’ but along First North from Prospect to at least McGraw the grid shifts with a bit of each east/west street slightly off kilter. Most everyone is familiar with this effect a block east of Queen Anne Avenue where Boston Street does a bit of a dangerous jig. Elsewhere east-west streets tend to tee at First North. It is almost as if the developers laying out the grid were at war with one another or simply not paying attention.

The northernmost triangle, Highland Place, is located where Highland Drive crosses First Ave. N. The southern or lower triangle was carved out of a conventionally rectangular block bound by Highland Dr. Warren Ave. N., Prospect St. and First Ave. N.  Even though he says elsewhere that Queen Anne Boulevard was completed in 1916, Don Sherwood (History of Seattle Parks History: Queen Anne Boulevard 7/12/73) implies that the two triangles were completed after 1927. In fact, the upper triangle appears in a photograph taken by the Olmsted Brothers in August of 1903, so it was there from the beginning. On the other hand, the diagonal street does not appear on the 1917 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, a totally reliable source.

The story of the two triangles is a bit more confusing because of the same legal tangles that caused the many delays in boulevard construction. The entire street right of way all the way around the 4.4 miles of the boulevard is controlled by the Department of Transportation (SDOT).  Except for the portion of the boulevard in question here (Highland Drive and Prospect St. from Betty Bowen Overlook to Bigelow Avenue), the Department of Parks controls five feet to either side of the street right of way. Where Parks doesn’t control the five feet to either side, everything from the inner edge of each sidewalk follows standard city protocol and is controlled by SDOT.

As might be expected, the two triangles at First North don’t fit the mold., the city’s Engineering Department (later SDOT) designed and planted the upper triangle known as Highland Place before 1903. The lower triangle belongs to the Department of Parks.

Creating that triangle required condemning the southwest corner of the block and demolishing the Frederick S. Stimson house. That house had been built by Stimson, a real estate developer and lumberman like his brother Charles who built the Stimson Green Mansion on Capitol Hill. Stimson eventually sold the house to former Governor John H. McGraw whose 1910 funeral showed the lawn stretching up to the Polson House through which the diagonal Prospect St. flows. The Parks Department retained the stone walls on the west and south sides of the triangle. They are still there and provide proof of this story in the built fabric of the neighborhood today.

Flowers on lawn in 1910 funeral for Gov. John McGraw mark where diagonal is added in 1927.
Flowers mark diagonal added in 1927, 1910

The completion of the diagonal bit of Prospect St. finally eliminated Queen Anne’s missing link a decade after the completion of the rest of the boulevard. Today, the joint administration of the 3.7 miles (31.3 acres) of boulevard measured clockwise from Betty Bowen Overlook to the end of Bigelow at 3rd Ave. N. strikes some people as a cumbersome system that may be tangled more by the historic landmark overlay that gives the Landmarks Preservation Board control over changes to the boulevard. Ironically, the entire 4.4-mile loop is a designated city landmark potentially giving the Landmarks Preservation Board more control over it than either Parks or SDOT.

As for the triangles at First Ave. N., they reveal all the issues, with one managed by SDOT, the other by Parks and both them overseen along with the street joining them by the Department of Neighborhoods Landmarks Preservation Board.