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.)


Queen Anne Yesterday & Today

Looking North from Mercer St. in 1902

The historical image of Queen Anne Avenue was taken in 1902, the same year that the Seattle Electric Railway streetcar system began service on the route, replacing the cable car system that had been in place since 1891.  Previously called Temperance Street, the name was changed to Queen Anne Avenue in 1895 after the city passed an ordinance to rename several streets and avenues around town.  As indicated by the handwritten note on the historic photograph, the steep incline became known as the Counterbalance for the underground tunnel-and-counterweight system, installed between Roy and Comstock streets, that assisted the streetcars as they climbed the hill and acted as brakes to slow their descent.  The system was used until 1940, when the city replaced the streetcars with “trackless trolleys,” buses that run on overhead powerlines.

Looking North from Mercer St. in December 2020

The east side of the block between Mercer and Roy streets is now occupied by the MarQueen Hotel, which was built in 1918 as the Seattle Engineering School and converted into apartments by the Vance Lumber Co. in 1926.  It was known as the Vance Apartments until 1930, when the name was changed to the MarQueen Apartments.  It was converted to a hotel in 1998.

In 1902, the block was occupied by at least three separate buildings, including the grocery store in the foreground.  Many small grocers set up shop along the various streetcar routes on the hill.  In the distance, on the west side of the street, the Queen Anne-style George Kinnear mansion is visible with its distinctive onion dome-topped turret.  The mansion graced the hill from 1888 until 1958 when it was torn down for construction of Bayview Manor.

The only things familiar in today’s image are the steep incline of the street itself and the location of utility poles on the west side of the street.  The single-strand overhead wires that powered the streetcar system were not yet in place in the 1902 image.  They would have looked similar to the double-strand cables in today’s image.