Capitol Retrospective | Two months of carnage that brought light rail to Capitol Hill

When I first heard about the light rail plan in 2006, I lived right across the street from the proposed station — as I do now. 2016 seemed so far away that I didn’t think I would even be living in Seattle by then.  And when I moved to Eastlake a year later and focused most of my attention on finishing my history degree, I more or less forgot about light rail. But after graduating into the worst recession in decades and entering a quarter-life crisis, Capitol Hill Station unexpectedly became the center of my universe.

While passing through Capitol Hill on March 15, 2009, I saw a bulldozer tearing into the former location of Twice Sold Tales, on John, east of Broadway, like a wafer.

It was tragic and disturbing yet somehow incredibly exhilarating to watch.  And it wasn’t just for the pleasure of idly absorbing the carnage unfolding before me, it was more meaningful than that.  It was an external manifestation of my quarter-life crisis, an effort to deconstruct and outright demolish parts of my past, even ones that were near and dear to me in order to get to a better place. It also offered me a sense of purpose, which I desperately needed.  I had lost my Eastlake apartment, was couchsurfing, and only working 8 hours per week leaving me with a lot of free time.  So starting exactly 7 years ago this week, I spent 26 out of the following 42 days photographing the demolition as much as possible. At the time, I never saw the demolition as anything more than the mechanics of tearing down buildings and my effort to capture that as only an exciting way to keep myself occupied.

Fast forward to the present and I’ve come to view its importance more broadly.

Like me, Capitol Hill had to part with a significant portion of its history before it could reach this point. 16 buildings, some over 100 years old that served as the homes, small businesses, and work places of roughly 200 people, were demolished in the spring of 2009 to make way for the light rail.

These people and places have stories. So last month, I committed myself to telling as many of these stories as possible because I think knowing how unique and thus valuable these stories are helps demonstrate just how important this moment in Seattle history really is. I don’t think we can fully grasp how much we’ve gained unless we know what it cost us — the light rail didn’t emerge in a vacuum and realizing that, I think, will help us appreciate it all the more.  Although I barely scratched the surface and will likely return to them, this is the final chapter to all those stories: demolition photographs and a few of the fading memories I have attached to them.

Twice Sold Tales – 905 E John
By the time I caught wind of the demolition, most of the insides of Jamie Lutton’s pride and joy since July of 1990 had already been pulverized and were pouring out the back side. The air was saturated with the smell of twisted wood and crumbling concrete.

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When it came time to tear down the facade and signage, I was reminded of that moment in Jurassic Park when the T-Rex tears apart the museum atrium.

After three days, nothing remained but a pile of rubble.  Upon closer examination, I saw a stubborn reminder of what once stood here rising out of the rubble much like its former owner who refuses to retire despite her ailing health and the ever mounting competition from online retailers.  So she found a new spot nearby at Harvard and Denny where she operates to this day.  Also, I was lucky enough to get this overhead view thanks to a certain technicality that resulted in me keeping a key to The Capitol Building Apartments across the street after I moved out in 2007.  I kept it as a memento of my first home away from home.

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The Last House on Broadway – 126 Broadway E
Next up is the L-shaped house behind Twice Sold Tales.  At some point between 2005 and 2006, I vaguely remember some strangers randomly inviting me and some friends over here for an impromptu after-party when the bars closed. I don’t remember much other than that, but at least I can say I was in the place once.  Unfortunately, I missed its destruction.

Now if I’m not mistaken, a fellow named Mike (pictured on the left) grew up in this house starting somewhere between the mid 60s to early 70s. He was the first bystander I met and he visited the demolition maybe half as often as I had so we got to know each other a little bit. I also mention him because now that I think about it, I got my first Capitol Hill history lesson from him. He shared his memories of the surrounding area, particularly what used to be at the corner of Broadway and John before Perfect Copy and Print.

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The remains of 126 Broadway E. I was too late.

Perfect Copy and Print – 132 Broadway E
Perfect Copy and Print, founded by Asif Rehan Alvi, had been here for about as long as Twice Sold Tales, since 1990.  Whenever my printer wasn’t up to the task, this was my go to spot to get the job done and it still is because Asif moved across the street and a block south.

Now I never thought this was a particularly attractive building by any means, but there’s something I’ve always found grounding about street corners like this.  The way it wraps around the corner gives it a sense of permanence, a smooth transition amid the divisiveness intrinsic to street grids. Also with its clock and spires, it really held the street corner down. Thus, watching it go was important to me, but fate had other plans.

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When the bulldozer operator reached the last internal cross beam, it refused to budge. After going in for a closer look, he seemed pretty eager to wash his hands of the matter.

Despite what appeared to be his resistance to the idea, they tried to to take it down with two bulldozers and still it refused to budge. So they finally accepted that this stalwart corner would have to stand another day.  In fact, it stood for another 2 weeks and I missed it when it finally came down, so I don’t know how they actually pulled it off.

Eileen Court – 923 E John
During those two weeks though, work started on the Eileen Court Apartments (originally named the St. Albans) due east at the corner of 10th and John.  Standing at a little over three stories tall, it was the largest building to come down.  Other than a former co-worker who lived there, I don’t have any other connection to this building.  However, quite a few others did judging from the amount of onlookers who came out watch.
As the final day drew closer, more and more people gathered and dead center in the upper left photo below, fellow photographer Eric Hodel caught me in the act. In the far right photo, we see that even Seattle Jazz legend Richard Peterson with his own documentary “Big City Dick” paid a visit.  Clearly the Eileen Court had the greatest impact.

Large pieces randomly broke away and crashed to the ground fairly often

The last day…

When it came time to tear down the last corner I distinctly recall one of the onlookers telling me he had once lived in the top of it and I want to say it was this individual on the lower right who took away a souvenir.  I have since forgotten his name.  Whether he lived in that corner or in another part of the building, it’s clear that the time he had spent living there was important enough to him that he had to take a part of it with him.  An instinct to which I related all too well as I soon followed his example at one of the next buildings.

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Vivace – 901 E Denny Way
This lovely old building, once the home of Espresso Vivace, was the one I was saddest to see go.  Vivace was and remains my favorite cafe.  There was hardly a thing more enjoyable than sitting at the mid-century dining tables glancing out at the park through the old and warped multi-paned windows on a crisp fall day over a cup of Earl Grey and a good book. During its final days, I occasionally commented to my friends that with some modifications, this building would make a great subway station itself.

There was something about Vivace’s aesthetic that matched my vision of what the surface level of a subway station should look like and it would just be great to be able to immediately grab a cup of coffee or tea on your way in or out.  Making the following quote Dan Savage recently shared all the more literal: “riders should be able to fall into the [train] from a stool at a coffee shop….”  I couldn’t agree more.

And true to my words above regarding souvenirs, I took away one of its flower-patterned rebar caps that you’ll often see dotting the sides of older buildings like this. The demolition worker pictured here with a chain saw, was nice enough to cut one away for me.

Now the demolition on the west end of this building along Broadway was the most suspenseful and dramatic moment in all the days I spent here.  When they reached the remaining two thirds of the facade, it started leaning slightly forward, meaning it would more than likely fall into the street the moment they touched it.  With traffic passing by, this was an obvious safety hazard.

So after considerable deliberation, they decided a loose I-beam might more evenly distribute the force of the bulldozer across the facade.

DSC_0345aUnfortunately, it was no use.  The facade almost instantly fell forward taking the I-beam with it and the cloud of debris came dangerously close to hitting a passing biker. The crew quickly moved in to sweep the debris out of the road.

Thankfully, this was the only close call, (to my knowledge) and other buildings, such as the one pictured below, came down a lot more cleanly.

There wasn’t a whole lot left to see after this so I moved on to other things and while this period of deconstructing a portion of Seattle’s history was over, my effort to do likewise continued for a few more years, but that’s a whole separate story.

Having since returned to the Capitol Building back in 2010, I have watched light rail’s progress daily and now that I finally get to see the fruit of the initial labor that started seven years ago, I have been thinking  about the progress I’ve made and wondering….

What milestone have I reached?

For me, I’d say having the opportunity to do something I love in the field I chose, studying and writing about history, that’s a milestone. And not only have I gotten to do this for over a year, I also get to be a part of that history now and I couldn’t be happier about that.

View my entire collection of demolition photos here. Capitol Hill Station opens for service with a day of celebration on Saturday, March 19th.

*special thanks to all who shared their stories with me; Mike, Harold, Eric, Richard, all other onlookers and the demolition crew for being so open and welcoming; Rich, Stephen and the whole Sound Bites team for being so great to work with; and to all the friends who lent me their spare couches and beds during this time.

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18 thoughts on “Capitol Retrospective | Two months of carnage that brought light rail to Capitol Hill

  1. This did bring back a lot of memories! In someways it feels like yesterday, in other ways it feels its been a lifetime.

    Thank you CHS team for the excellent coverage of what has been, and will be, a remarkable transformation and period of time for this area of Capitol Hill.

  2. It’s very unfortunate that the beautiful Vivace building was demolished in order to build a light rail entrance which is totally unnecessary……the north entrance is only one block away from there, and of course there is a west entrance across the street.

    Imagine if the Vivace building had been saved…..it would add a touch of class to what is to come.

    • That was a beautiful space, but it would have needed to be torn down just to get the drill into place for the tunneling. Even if they hadn’t put in the extra entrance. And a block is nothing for an able bodied person, but for someone in a wheelchair or on crutches it might as well be a mile.

  3. Thank you for this photo essay! I remember all these old buildings although, with the exception of the old Vivace, I don’t really miss them. I can’t wait for light rail to start up just 2 days from now!

  4. Now we just need to lift the zoning codes around the new station to allow more people to live in a transit oriented neighborhood!

  5. Those are not bulldozers. They are excavators. A bulldozer has a vertical blade in the front, and sometimes a ripper in the back. A bulldozer can either be tracked or rubber tired.

  6. Put me down as one who has fond memories of Vivace and that building. It’s a shame it had to go, but I can’t wait to start riding the light rail to work come Monday!

  7. Dang, thank you so much for this. Seeing those buildings brought back so many memories and feelings. That Vivace location meant a lot to me during my college years. Sadly, I haven’t been able to form an attachment to the new location. Luckily we still have the stand :)

  8. So much memories from the corner of John and Broadway. I used to work around there. I miss the books/cats, copies, piroshky, and coffee I could get on that block. So much charm, all gone and displaced.

  9. I live in Vancouver, Canada, but spent a number of summers on Capital Hill back in the early 90’s on Capital Hill staying with a friend on John Street. What wonderful memories your post and photos stirred up. I haven’t been back for number of years now, and will most likely be disappointed at the changes, but as an avid fan of rapid transit I want to check out the new system. Many thanks for the care you took in preserving what gave the Hill its charm!

  10. You fail to mention the loss of Jack In The Box, or did I miss something? The was the last true fast food restaurant on Capitol Hill. It was always a staple of late night munchies and weekend post-bar food consumption (sobering up).

    We will probably never get back anything close to this, but in the closing of many of the stores you mentioned, PLENTY of the same types of businesses have opened or already existed in the near location.

    • Honestly, and this may seem harsh, I’ve never really seen the departure of Jack In The Box as much of a loss. I.E. I’m not a fan of big fast food chains and I’m glad we’ll probably never get back something close to it. Even though I actually think Dick’s comes plenty close enough; it has always been an obvious staple for post-bar fast food on the way home.

      However, this is not at all to argue that Jack In The Box shouldn’t be acknowledged or that its story shouldn’t be told. I am not a revisionist historian. It’s just that covering all 16 buildings would have been far too long for this format and this being a more personal piece, I chose to focus on the buildings and businesses that had the most impact on me and Jack In The Box just didn’t happen to be one them. I also didn’t get a chance to photograph it. So if anything I am a biased historian, as all are, in my opinion.

      Now at some point I would like to satisfy everyone by revisiting all the buildings, including Jack In The Box, in greater depth and in another format. So be sure to look out for that.