Preparations for Undre Arms demolition reveal Chief Seattle sculptor find on Capitol Hill

When you prepare a 100-year-old apartment building in an area rich with Seattle culture and history for demolition, you’re bound to find some interesting things. The company charged with salvaging portions of the Undre Arms apartment building at 11th and Union before its impending demolition to make way for a 6-story mixed-use development this week announced the discovery of a treasure trove of items belonging to a man known as “Seattle’s first sculptor.”


A wire study believed to have been created by sculptor Wehn (Images: Washington Historical Society)

In addition to the city seal and his Chief Seattle sculptures, James Wehn also created many private works in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

The items turned up before the recent rummage sale held at the building in July. The salvage crew from Second Use found two milk crates with reference materials, two wire armatures on bases, one easel mount, four sculpture tables, and one table-top sculpture stand. The rummage sale manager told them the materials belonged to Wehn.

The Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma, verified the find — and were happy to receive the items to add to their extensive James Wehn collection.

“We deeply appreciate the efforts of businesses like Second Use and members of the community in helping us preserve our state’s history,” said Lynette Miller, head of collections in a statement provided by Second use. “The donated materials are a great complement to the Society’s existing Wehn collection.”

With the flurry of building activity going on around the Hill, there’s also an Indiana Jones-worthy amount of archaeology underway. In April, Sound Transit’s light rail tunnel preparations near the Paramount Theater revealed a small collection of artifacts from Seattle’s past.

Why Wehn’s items were inside the Undre Arms remains a mystery. Home to a mix of blue collar workers, artists, etc. over the years, it doesn’t seem likely Wehn kept an apartment at the Undre. By 1905 he had already established his studio in the city:

(Image: Washington State Historical Society)

He was appointed the first Head of the newly created Sculpture Department at the University of Washington in 1919, where he taught for five years.

Wehn is credited with over 200 sculptural pieces, including many lifelike portraits. He focused on portraying historical figures in his work, especially Native American chiefs and other figures from the Pacific NW region (the photo shows him with a study of his Chief Seattle sculpture), Presidents Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, and other historical figures, such as Captain Robert Gray, Captain George Vancouver, and female Northwest pioneer, Hannah Newman. He also created designs for several official seals, commemorations and monuments, including the 50th anniversary commemorative medallion for the State of Washington (1939), the official seal of the City of Seattle (1936), and the Washington Territorial Centennial stamp and medallion (1853-1953).

Chief Seattle — Si’ahl — was a Duwamish chief who lead his people as white settlers began arriving in the Seattle area in greater numbers in the 1800s. A great deal of lore surrounds his relationship with prominent early settlers and his position in Seattle history. He died in 1866. The Chief Seattle statue at 5th and Denny was dedicated in 1912.

Preparations for the demolition of the Undre Arms continue at 11th and Union where Wehn’s items were discovered. The building will be replaced by a 6-story, 105-unit mixed-used development including two levels of underground parking.

9 thoughts on “Preparations for Undre Arms demolition reveal Chief Seattle sculptor find on Capitol Hill

  1. Very cool. Glad this was found–crazy his materials had been there for so long, unknown. Makes you wonder what else is hanging out in buildings right under people’s noses.

  2. Hats off to Second Use too. The place ROCKS, definitely the place to go check out if you’re doing any kind of addition or remodeling of your house. You’ll find some of the coolest things there, both old and not-so-old, at great prices.

  3. This is just marvelous. See my article in historylink.org about the Northern Life Tower. He did the medallion in the lobby (Seattle Tower — the coolest lobby in town).