THE REGRADE DISASTERS

Between 1929 and 1930, a wee bit of Queen Anne (that part east of 5th Ave. N., west of 9th Ave. N. and bound by Denny Way on the south and Broad St. on the north) got washed into Elliott Bay as part of the third Denny Regrade. Our bit formed the northeast corner of the project. The lowering of Denny Park, the city’s first park, was a big part of the work even though purists will say the park isn’t in Queen Anne at all!

I’ve known that for a very long time and ever since I moved back to Seattle in 1985, I’ve wondered why. Stumbling on a paper written some 42 years ago, I discovered the reason. Having returned in my first old age at age 36 to graduate school to study historic preservation planning and architectural history, I took Seattle as the subject of many assignments. After all, I had just spent four years teaching at the UW, so Seattle history became my go to topic.

I prepared that paper (“The Denny Regrade”) for a class in the history of American urban planning with the dean of the field, Professor John C. Reps. My paper traced the history of the regrade projects. The first one took place between 1898 and 1899 when city engineer Reginald Heber Thomson (1856-1949). convinced city officials to remove a portion of the hill on the north end of Seattle’s downtown. Thomson had been the city engineer for nearly a decade when the project began. He was obsessed with fostering the city’s economic growth and sure that expanding the business district out of the pit in which he saw it trapped would help the city grow. Thomson defined the pit as the land between the mud flats south of Yesler Way and Denny Hill.

R. H. Thomson. Courtesy Paul Dorpat

The first regrade washed away First Avenue from Pine Street to Denny Way. The second regrade (1903-1911) took down Denny Hill from Second Avenue to Fifth between Pike and Cedar.  The third one occurred between 1928 and 1930 as a nutty response to the second one after it failed to increase land values or attract the energy of the burgeoning central business district. Some say Thomson was a visionary. I see him in the same class as robber barons, those stubborn autocrats set on getting their way whatever the consequences. I forgive Thomson because his bull-headed behavior was well intended and didn’t make him rich. To be perfectly fair, Thomson had nothing to do with the third regrade. He’d moved on long before it began.

Washing the hill away. spl_dr_017

Hydraulic sluicing Seattle’s soft clay made the regrade projects easy to do. The sluices were, by the way, a common strategy for moving wet earth and were part of Seattle’s culture following the Klondike Gold Rush where stream beds were diverted through sluices to strain them for gold. By the time of the third regrade, the work got easy. Rubber conveyor belts moved the washed-out dirt to Elliott Bay where cleverly designed barges dumped it. Filled with dirt falling from the belt, the double-sided barges were towed out in the bay where they flipped over, dumped their loads and presented an empty bin ready for refilling at the shore.

It seems fair to say that except for dumping tons of dirt into Elliott Bay and leveling a very big hill, the regrades flopped terribly. They did practically nothing to improve the economic vitality of the city until almost a century later when Amazon finally redeveloped that big chunk of the third regrade between 6th and 8th avenues. It is Thomson’s failure to see the possibility of the regrades failing economically that interests me.

The Denny Hotel in 1903. Courtesy Paul Dorpat

The first regrade set the stage for the second. James Moore, owner of the huge Washington Hotel on top of Denny Hill, resisted the regrade concept that Thomson touted. Moore had bought the unfinished Denny Hotel at the tippy top of the hill from Arthur Denny, renamed it the Washington Hotel and completed it at considerable expense.

Washington Hotel on Denny Hill after the first regrade. MOHAI .32002.0.38

 

Moore balked at tearing down his hotel and his substantial portion of the hill, but Thomson charged ahead with the first regrade making Moore’s hotel pretty inaccessible. When Moore caved in, Thomson moved forward with the second regrade. The top of the hill and the hotel began to disappear in 1906. About the same time, Moore built a new hotel, the New Washington, at Second and Stewart (today’s Josephinum) and the Moore Theatre next door. Both were completed in advance of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, the world’s fair held on the UW campus.

Stretching roughly from First Avenue east to Fifth and from Pike north to Cedar, the second regrade leveled about 170 feet of Denny Hill. For comparison purposes, it stood a little bit more than one third as high as Queen Anne Hill (436 feet) today. As Walt Crowley tells it (Historylink File 1123), the failure of the first regrade was driven partially by being butted up to the second half which provided a dismal backdrop to the new flatlands of Belltown. Crowley also points to two other factors that stymied the redevelopment of the regrades. Both can be attributed to poor thinking by Thomson or his arrogance.

Crowley politely contends that Thomson could not have anticipated the advent of the automobile which made close in development of the city less necessary and that he had no way to understand the impact of skyscrapers such as the Smith Tower (completed in 1914). Skyscrapers increased the density of offices in the historic core and like the automobile reduced the need to expand over the land.

I’d agree that Thomson’s timing was off, but skyscrapers were already dotting New York and Chicago. Seattle got its first skyscraper, the Alaska Building, in 1904, just about the time of the second regrade, the big one, got underway. Were he the far-thinking urban planner local historians have seen in him, he would have understood the future of very tall buildings. Maybe his rural Ohio roots blinded him to this urban potential. As for the automobile, Crowley may be right. There were only a couple of thousand cars in the state when the second regrade began. The automobile was still very far from its polluting heyday, and no one could have anticipated its impact on urban sprawl. In fact, we still haven’t figured out how to manage it.

The system embraced for financing the regrades may have been the final nail in the coffin. To finance the work, the city adopted a local improvement district, a LID, just like the one recently imposed on downtown businesses to fund improvements along the waterfront. Property owners in the regrades were taxed to pay for the work under the assumption that the improvements, the lowering of the hills, would increase property values and make them rich.

It just didn’t work out that way. The new flat land of the second regrade was unnecessary and ugly. Without the need for fancy stores, homes or hotels in the new neighborhood, flop houses, bars and some tenements moved in. At the very same time Paris and New York were identifying unhealthy neighborhoods for their ultimate removal, Seattle built one.

Thomson tried to remedy the problem with the second regrade by washing the hill he’d left behind into the bay. The outcome was nearly as bad. The flop houses, bars and single room only apartments only spread. Eliminating the eastern portion of hill gave license to the down and out character of the first regrade to spread unchecked. My guess is that Prohibition didn’t hurt either.  

The third regrade completed between 1928 and late 1930 eliminated what remained of the hill. Eventually, the bulk of it was bought up by the Clise family, Seattle’s most well-known real estate developers. As late as 2008, the Clise property was the largest contiguous inner-city tract of land in the United States, larger even than New York City’s 22-acre Rockefeller Center.

Now, long after I wrote that paper for John Reps, I worry about the people in government making unchallenged decisions that are transforming our world. At the end of 19th c., Thomson convinced city officials to undertake a project that transformed Seattle. Until Amazon’s recent purchase of broad swaths of the third Denny Regrade, the northern portions of Seattle’s business district were a disaster, lying fallow for over 100 years. In reviewing my paper, my fear of simply accepting the wisdom of people in power is confirmed. Of course, Thomson did some great things for Seattle, particularly the Cedar River watershed project which still provides our clean drinking water, but he garnered too much power. His biggest ideas went unchallenged, and some, such as the Denny Regrades, bore rotten fruit.

 

Hot dog, a QUEEN ANNE!

Marble/Lindsley House. Photo Mimi Sheridan, 2003. 

 

The profusion of Queen Anne style houses constructed at the end of 19th c. is said to have given our neighborhood its name, yet almost all of them are gone. (I think all the earliest houses were built in the style. Naturally few survive because few were built in the first place. I must test this hypothesis, but all the early photos show the south slope peppered with the occasional house and lots of empty space.).

One of the best surviving Queen Anne style houses lingers at 520 W. Kinnear Pl. on the steep rise a bit east of where Kinnear merges with W. Prospect. Built in 1890 by Galette and Rachel Marble, the house later sold to Edward and Abbie Lindsley. Abbie ties the house to Seattle’s earliest Euro-American settlers and certainly Queen Anne’s. David and Louisa Boren Denny were her parents. She was born in 1858 and was probably one of the earliest Uptown babies. The Marble House appears in the 2003 Historic Resources Survey and like most of the buildings in the survey, it is not a city landmark

Francophones will chortle at Galette Marble’s first name. Galette des Rois or King Cake, is a well-known winter treat often served in France on Epiphany, January 6,. Read about it here

 The following text is borrowed with minor edits from the survey which was led by Mimi Sheridan:

Significance:

The Marble/Lindsley House was constructed about 1890. Because of the Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889, masons were in high demand to reconstruct the burned down city. Brick contractor Galette Marble (1844-ca 1917) could choose from dozens of job opportunities when he arrived in Seattle during the first half of 1890. Born in New York, by 1865 Marble was living in Minnesota where he married Rachel (b. 1842), who had recently moved from Canada. In June 1890, Galette and Rachel purchased some Queen Anne Hill property from land developer George Kinnear and mortgaged the property to finance the construction of a house. Marble knew most aspects of the building trades including carpentry, and he likely constructed the house. Within weeks after work on the residence started, the Marbles were living in a partially constructed house. The household included Galette, Rachael, daughters Marion (b. 1870), Adalbott (b. 1858), and Florence (b. 1884). By the end of 1890, the house was likely completed, although Marble might have continued working on it into early 1891. During most of the 1890s, Galette Marble worked as a mason and brick contractor. Marble’s commute to various job sites involved a one block walk from his house to catch the Kinnear Park streetcar line that ran along Olympic Place to downtown Seattle. During the Alaska and Klondike gold frenzy, Marble mined for gold and later operated a cigar store. In December 1891, the Marbles sold the house to Edward and Abbie Lindsley who moved in with their five children: Laurence (age 13), Mabel (age 12), Irena (age 11), Winnie (age 10), and Norman (age 8). Edward Lindsley (b. ca 1853) worked for the south Lake Union Western Mill as a foremen and engineer. After leaving the sawmill, he became a teamster. Lindsley, born and raised in Wisconsin, later moved west and in 1877 married Abbie Denny (1858-1915). Washington born Abbie Denny, was the daughter of David and Louisa Denny. David and Louisa Denny were among Seattle’s first Euro-American settlers and homesteaded the lower Queen Anne and south Lake Union districts. Abbie Lindsley became a well-known local painter and wrote numerous articles for local and regional magazines and newspapers. The Lindsleys lived in the house until August 1895 and remained in Seattle until 1907.

In color. concealed by vegetation.

Some later owners and occupants include Otto Nelson, Muriel E.Leche, and Charles L. Martin. Nelson purchased the house in the early 1920s and owned it until the late 1940s. He worked as a mailer for the Seattle Times. Muriel E. Leche lived in the duplex from World War II until the 1960s. She worked as a clerk for American Mail Line, as a nurse, and an office secretary. In 1971, Charles L. Martin purchased the house. The house has had a variety of  addresses. From 1891 through 1895, it was 120 Elliott. The 1905 and 1917 Sanborn Map lists the house at 600 Kinnear. The 1950 Sanborn map shows the residence at 500 and 522 Kinnear Place. The 1975 Historic Seattle Survey of the Queen Anne neighborhood lists the house as Significant to the City. The 1979 Seattle Historic Resources Survey inventoried the house. Few residences exist from Seattle’s first major building boom (1887-1891). The Queen Anne style residence appears to meet City of Seattle Landmark criteria due to the age of the structure (over 110 years old) with alterations that are sympathetic with original design. Sources (see Reference below for complete citations): Crowley p. 176 (Rachel Mable House 1890) Woodbridge. Guide to Architecture in Washington. p. 197. “Mrs. Mary Maria Lindsley” Meany, Living Pioneers … p. 205. “Seattle-Born Woman and Pioneer Passes.” (Abbie Deny Lindsley) Seattle Post-Intelligencer October 8, 1915. Clipping file. Special Collections, University of Washington Library. “Abbie Denny Lindsley Dies at Chelan Home” Seattle Times October 7, 1915. Clipping file. Special Collections, University of Washington Library Sanborn-Perris Map Co., Seattle, Washington. 1893. volume 2 sheet 78.

 

Showing added dormer on east side of house.

Appearance

The Queen Anne style 1890 Marble/Lindsley House with a conical roof tower and curved glass windows. In the 1920s owner Otto Nelson added a rear porch (Permit # 216723), portion of roof altered, and an attic window was added (Permit # 218379), and rebuilt porch (in rear?) (Permit # 262310). Some additions added in the 1970s included a shed roof dormer to east side roof, balcony to third floor with door replacing original window, fretwork added to gable end and other architectural details added.

Detail for 520 W Kinnear PL W / Parcel ID 3879901530 /

Cladding(s):        Shingle, Vertical – Boards, Wood – Drop siding    Foundation(s):  Concrete – Poured

Roof Type(s):     Gable    Roof Material(s):             Asphalt/Composition

Building Type:   Domestic – Single Family              Plan:      Irregular

Structural System:          Balloon Frame/Platform Frame No. of Stories:   two

Development Pressure and Historic Preservation

Our neighborhood is under pressure as it copes with population growth, increased land values and apparent up zoning. Historic preservation has suddenly become a front-page topic, for it presents obstacles that may slow or even deter developers as they rush to cash in on the building boom.

The building to be demolished at 2220 Queen Anne Ave N

Projects such as the one at 2220 Queen Anne Avenue North provide good examples of what we can and cannot do with Seattle’s existing historic preservation tools. The property is the site of a single family American Foursquare home built in 1905. It has been adapted to commercial use for some time and is now a restaurant. The developers are proposing a 45-unit six story apartment building on the lot. It is located within the boundaries of the Upper Queen Anne Urban Village. Indeed, it is on the northern fringe of the village which terminates at McGraw Street.  A cursory look at the house shows a building in disrepair covered with asbestos siding whose original design and use is still readable.

Massing of the new building

Across the street from the building, the west side of the block is totally commercial. All the houses that were once there are gone. The east side of the street where the subject building sits is a mix of historic commercial buildings that blends to a row of houses starting just north of what used to be Reed-Wright’s offices (they are still upstairs) and which is the oldest building (1901) on that side of the street. The former homes were long ago converted to commercial purposes.  Their historic integrity has been jeopardized by additions and the loss of their original fenestration although the occasional historic window survives.

Reed Wright Building

If someone had been prescient in 1975 when the city’s landmark ordinance was new and designating a building easier than today, they might have succeeded in protecting this house. At the time though, so many buildings on Queen Anne Avenue dated from the first decade of the 20th c. and so many of them looked the same that it seems unlikely that the Landmarks Preservation Board would have found this building exceptional and worth designation.

I haven’t done the research, but I doubt that this house was associated with any important event in the city’s history. Even today, American Foursquare houses are found all over Seattle and, in my opinion, this building simply doesn’t meet landmark criteria. Obviously, it is old and suggests the historic flavor of the neighborhood, but it is not a landmark. If we had a historic district on Queen Anne (a problematic idea in itself), this house would be considered ‘contributing’ to the historic quality of the district, but not defining it.   

It has been suggested that developers be required to move historic buildings if they want to build anew on a site. A big problem lies in defining what’s historic. If we had such a law, we’d probably have to choose a date, call any building constructed prior to the date historic and movable. The feasibility of moving a building, not to speak of finding a lot for it, is probably a greater burden than defining what’s old. Even if we had a site for it, just think how prohibitive it would be to take down the trolley wires in front of 2220 Queen Anne to make room for a move.

Eventually moving old houses to new sites may be required no matter what the cost. If it happens, it won’t be because of some intrinsic historic interest. It will be because global warming will place such a high value on existing structures and the energy already spent in their construction that governments will require saving them. Historic preservation planners, no matter how worried about global warming, will probably oppose such a solution. That’s because we tend to place an extremely high value on protecting historic buildings in situ. I think the planners then will simply have to yield to the compelling logic of saving the planet. I would.

I strive to make good choices when it comes to preserving the historic fabric of Queen Anne. These days any refusal to cudgel city staff or elected officials who decide in favor of new development over historic preservation is seen as a sellout. As the house at 2220 Queen Anne Avenue shows, landmarking, historic district protection or more stringent rules for obtaining demolition permits are not easy, necessarily good nor correct solutions. Old doesn’t necessarily mean historic; urban density instead of sprawl mitigates climate change; bicycles, walking and mass transit are far better choices than enabling continued dependence on single occupancy vehicles. There is no going back to the ‘golden age’ of trolley cars, single family houses on every block or a butcher shop on every corner. Preserving the historic fabric of our neighborhood will require hard battles and the wise investment of our time and energy. I’m ready; I hope you’ll join me.