Preservation in Progress

Historic Seattle’s Blog

Archive for the ‘Guest Posts’ Category

See All the People: Mt. Virgin Church Changes with the Times

By Eleanor Boba

The following is the fourth in a series of guest blog posts submitted by members of the Historic Seattle community. The views and opinions expressed in guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Historic Seattle.

If you have an idea for a future post, please send a draft to info@historicseattle.org. You can review the guidelines here.

Here Is the Church

It started with a small wooden church on a hill between the Rainier Valley and Seattle’s Central District named for the patron saint of Germany. St. Boniface was built, probably sometime in the 1890s, by and for German Catholic immigrants to the city who hoped to worship in their own language.

Information on the little German church is scarce. The 1901 and 1902 Seattle Polk Directories list “St. Bonifacius, German Roman Catholic” at 28th Avenue South and Massachusetts, along with the words “no services.” Later additions of the directory make no mention of the church at all. The 1912 Baist map show the church alone on the hillside except for a small house immediately to the north. Anecdotal evidence indicates that a succession of caretaker families lived in the basement of the church, some German-speaking, some Italian.

The Italian Transformation

By 1910, the area surrounding St. Boniface was made up largely of Italian immigrant families – so much so that the area was nicknamed “Garlic Gulch” – and thus the little church was the natural choice for an Italian parish. Seattle Bishop Edward John O’Dea called on the Jesuits to minister to the growing Italian community in the city. On September 10, 1911, Fr. DeRop, S.J. said the first mass in Italian at the church. The diary of the Jesuit order notes that two weeks later Fr. DeRop took “some of our old pews” to the new Italian church. About this time the church’s name was changed to Our Lady of Monte Virgene, after a well-known church in Caserta, Italy. A sketch rendered by University of Washington graduate student Nellie Roe in 1914 depicts the church and school surrounded by a fenced garden. The caption states that “102 Italian children” attend the school.

In 1913 Fr. Lodovico Caramello arrived to take over for the ailing Fr. DeRop and immediately began to fast track plans for a new, grander edifice in the Florentine style of his homeland. The fruition of this project in 1915 is credited largely to Fr. Caramello’s commanding personality and his contacts in his native Italy.

The Italians built their church just to the west of, and back-to-back with, the old German church. The 1916 Sanborn map shows “Mt. Virgin R.C. Church” almost touching the “Old Church.” The small house is labeled “School,” although it was also the parish rectory. With the tower removed, St. Boniface became the parish hall and later served in a number of capacities, including as a gym, kindergarten, and workshop, before ultimately being torn down about 1970. Army surplus buildings, placed on the church property in the 1940s, became the Mount Virgin School where local children received instruction from Irish Dominican nuns and sometimes from the priests themselves.

For several decades, Mount Virgin and Father Caramello were the heart of the Italian community in Seattle. Long-time resident Ralph Vacca recalled:

The church in the Italian community, at least in that generation, was the center. And Father Caramello was God in America. You could take a string or measuring stick and go out whatever distance from Mount Virgin Church and there would be a lot of Italian names and families.

Vincent LaSalle spoke of the Italian culture that defined the church:

I was raised in the Catholic school with the Dominican nuns, Mount Virgin, the little Italian parish. And I became an altar boy when I was only in about the fourth grade and Father Caramello says he’s “gonna make an altar boy out of me.” So I became an altar boy; I was number one! And you never seen anything like it – such beautiful boys! You know the altar boys at the end of the year, they used to have a great big party, you know, all the Italian kids. They were all Italian, all of them.

Vacca-Patricelli wedding, 1927. Courtesy of the Rainier Valley Historical Society

To this day Our Lady of Mount Virgin is designated as a “national parish,” one without traditional geographic boundaries. Specifically it was, and is, an “Italian National Parish,” one of several in the country created to serve a specific immigrant community.

Opening the Doors

In the last decades of the 20th century, the Italian population in Garlic Gulch began to disperse, pushed out by the I-90/Mount Baker tunnel projects and changing demographics. Many Italian-Americans had already moved out to the suburbs by the time the second major freeway expansion began in 1979. Attendance at mass dwindled steadily and there were fears the church might close altogether. However, in that same year the first of several waves of Laotian Catholic refugees arrived in the Rainier Valley. Assisted by an Italian Catholic group working with the tribal people of Laos, these refugees were adopted into the parish, bringing new life to the little church.

Mount Virgin also has a special relationship with Native American Catholics in Seattle. For a number of years the parish offered a special mass for Native Americans. Today it continues to reach out to immigrant communities, particularly Laotian, Chinese, and Vietnamese communities, while still honoring its Italian origin. During the current Covid-19 crisis, no masses are scheduled, although the church is open for quiet contemplation during specified hours. It is located at 1531 Bradner Place South, just off MLK Jr Way, in the shadow of the Mount Baker lid.

Things have changed for Mount Virgin, but there is hope for the future as the church embraces the Catholic tradition of “adopting and adapting” to new circumstances and cultures.

Information for this story is drawn from the archives of the Seattle Archdiocese, Special Collections at the University of Washington, Puget Sound Branch of the Washington State Archives, and oral histories collected by the Rainier Valley Historical Society.

 

Eleanor Boba is a public historian who writes about historic places off the beaten path at Remnants of our Past. A stint at the Rainier Valley Historical Society gave her a deep appreciation of Southeast Seattle.

The Regrade Disasters

By Michael Herschensohn

The following is the third in a series of guest blog posts submitted by members of the Historic Seattle community. The views and opinions expressed in guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Historic Seattle.

If you have an idea for a future post, please send a draft to info@historicseattle.org. You can review the guidelines here.

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.

R.H. Thomson, courtesy of Paul Dorpat

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.

Washing the hill away, courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

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.

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.

The Denny Hotel in 1903, courtesy of Paul Dorpat

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 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.

The Washington Hotel on Denny Hill after the first regrade, courtesy of MOHAI

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, 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.

 

Michael Herschensohn trained in architectural history and preservation planning at Cornell University. He served on the Historic Seattle Council for nearly 30 years. Michael continues volunteer preservation work as president of the Queen Anne Historical Society where he regularly writes about the fabric of his neighborhood’s built environment. This piece originally appeared on the QAHS website.

Color Your Own Showbox Marquee!

Are you looking for something fun to do while staying safe indoors? Robb Hamilton of Simcoe Industries has shared a copy of his original pen and ink drawing of The Showbox for you to print and color yourself. You can even write your own message in the marquee!

We can’t wait to see what you create – tag us in a Facebook or Instagram post, and don’t forget to use the hashtag #savetheshowbox. You can also email your completed marquee to us at info@historicseattle.org! Read on to learn about how Robb got started drawing old signs of Seattle.

The following is the second in a series of guest blog posts submitted by members of the Historic Seattle community. The views and opinions expressed in guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Historic Seattle.

If you have an idea for a future post, please send a draft to info@historicseattle.org. You can review the guidelines here.

By Robb Hamilton

After the Four Seas in the International District closed a few years ago, I made a pen and ink drawing of the sign for my brother as it was the spot where he met his friends before and after Seahawks games. It elicited such a positive reaction that I started to draw more old signs from Seattle, including Art’s Plaza, Ying’s, and Imperial Lanes. Although none of these signs were architecturally or historically significant, they were treasured by people who grew up in the city for the memories they invoked.

When I learned that Historic Seattle was involved in trying to save The Showbox, I got the idea to make a poster of the original Showbox marquee which I could sell to raise funds for the preservation effort. I’ve seen tons of shows at The Showbox and the thought of losing it bothers me greatly. Just as my brother had a strong emotional tie to the Four Seas, lots of folks in Seattle have similar reactions to The Showbox.

Since we all need activities to keep us busy during quarantine, here is a copy of my original pen and ink drawing. Feel free to color in the neon tubes and letters and write your favorite show on the marquee (my fav was Screaming Trees).

Click the image below to download and print the PDF:

Robb Hamilton is an illustrator from Seattle. He likes drawing old signs. Simcoe Industries is named after the Simcoe Mountains in Klickitat County where his grandparents lived.

What Researching my Partner’s Grandfather’s Old Home Taught Me About Seattle’s Homebuilding History

By Kelsey Williams

The following is the first in a series of guest blog posts submitted by members of the Historic Seattle community. The views and opinions expressed in guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Historic Seattle.

If you have an idea for a future post, please send a draft to info@historicseattle.org. Not all submissions will be posted but we appreciate your interest in contributing!

Last spring, I sat attentively in a classroom at the Good Shepherd Center, learning from Historic Seattle’s Advocacy Workshop Series. I was relatively new to Seattle—having lived in this city for only six months—and found myself wanting to join its historic preservation community. After learning how to research properties, I was itching to start a research project of my own and was deeply curious about how Seattle’s neighborhoods came to be.

I had no firm roots in the city yet, so it was challenging to choose a property that felt personally meaningful. I loved the Space Needle and Smith Tower, but selecting those structures for my initial historical dig was perhaps too ambitious—and overdone! My partner’s family, however, has been established in Seattle for four generations. One property tied to his family history stood out to me instantly: in 1948, his grandfather purchased a Craftsman home on 1st Avenue N.E. in Wallingford (the home was constructed in 1911). The first time I visited my then-long-distance partner in Seattle, he proudly drove me past the house. It was a place that found its way into numerous stories he had shared with me. It was glaringly solidified in his life and memory as a landmark (his dad was raised in the home, and my partner himself spent a few years living there in his early twenties before his family made the tough decision to sell it).

With this home in mind, I dove enthusiastically into a three-month research project to uncover every possible detail of its construction, past tenants, and alterations. What I discovered was far more impactful than I anticipated: I uncovered the otherworldly history of the pioneering days of a city so fresh to me.

Although the house has been altered, the address on the historic photograph (taken in 1937 and provided to me by the Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Regional Branch) has been removed to respect the privacy of the current homeowners.

My most ambitious goal was to complete a timeline of the house’s tenants and trace its history back to the architect and commissioner. I thought this would be relatively simple because of the Seattle Public Library’s Polk’s Seattle City Directory collection. An annual printing of the Polk directory listed Seattle’s citizens in alphabetical order by surname, including an individual’s home address and profession. “Reverse” directories began to be searchable via street address from the year 1937 onward, so things got tricky in terms of finding information about the years prior. For those earlier years, I needed to know the name of a person in order to search for the home’s record. I learned that the Soderlind family owned the house in 1937, so I was able to trace their tenancy backward in time. But when I got to the year they weren’t listed as the tenants (1920), I hit a dead end. I had to miraculously conjure up the name of the person(s) they received the home from, which seemed an impossible task unless I was willing to leaf through 1,000+ page volumes of small text.

I searched arduously for possible dwellers of the home by visiting the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections Microfilm Library, and looked through census reports, newspaper archives, and genealogy sites. The other tenants were slowly unveiled. Finally, the names of the first owner and the man who sold the plot for construction were in my possession. But no architect or builder was listed for the project! What did that mean?

The most alluring piece of history that I was introduced to during this project was the existence of plan books. History Link described this aspect of the Seattle building climate of the 1900s-1920s best: “A housebuilding industry began to take shape—spectators, developers, builders—but architects were rare. Instead, architectural plan and pattern books were popular on the frontier. These evolved into more complex and more prescriptive pattern books commonly used by builders and architects through the mid- and late-nineteenth century.” Home construction by the layman became a common occurrence. A plot owner purchased one of these plan books, ordered a design of their liking, and had the necessary materials and instructions delivered. The plot owner had the option to construct the home themselves or hire a contractor or builder. As a new societal endeavor, plan books offered home builders access to building materials and architect-approved drawings to, as Western Home Builder’s 5th edition stated, “secure a design of an attractive, artistic, well-arranged home at a price within the reach of all.”

Design No. 764 in American Dwellings: Bungalows, Cottages, Residences.

Seattleites were able to choose designs ranging from the practical, single-roomed farmhouse to a massive, ornate, Victorian-style residence—all available from the same publication. A standard plan book house design that you’ll see scattered across Seattle’s topography is Victor Voorhees’ design No. 91, now affectionately known as the “Seattle Box.” The closest plan book design I found to the Wallingford house in question was design No. 764 from Glenn L. Saxton’s plan book American Dwellings: Bungalows, Cottages, Residences. Almost identical, both houses feature three front-facing gables, a roof overhanging the front door’s porch, triangle knee braces, and a side dormer.

Now, after learning about this old-time process of home construction, I have a newfound wonder for the homes in Wallingford and other Seattle neighborhoods. Whenever I drive past or walk by a residence that mimics Home No. 764’s style, I wonder if a family over 100 years ago bought that plan from a book for $1.00*. In the case of my partner’s grandfather’s home, that one dollar sure went a long way—it traveled sentimentally through generations, disguised as a 1.5-story vessel for living.

*The cost of the plan book was $1.00; however, that particular house design had a materials cost of $3,000.

 

Kelsey made her way to Seattle nearly two years ago by way of Los Angeles. She is the Photography Archivist for the Eames Office and a historian for the Eames House. She spends much of her free time researching, stalking, and photographing mid-century modern architecture—both locally and nationally.