Capitol Hill Historical Society | Stepping on Republican stairs, the most forlorn landmark in Seattle

Republican Steps (Photo Rob Ketcherside)

The stairs on East Republican Street between Melrose and Bellevue may be both the most overlooked stairway and the most forlorn landmark in Seattle.

The stairs were landmarked in 1979, just after Seattle’s preservation ordinance went into effect. The landmark designation report issued at the time didn’t pinpoint its date of construction, vaguely stating that it was “…one of the finest… produced by the City Engineering Design Staff during the first two decades of the twentieth century.”

These days we can figure out the answer pretty quickly. Changes to the street like this were always controlled by City Council ordinances back in this period. Searching through the online database, we find a possible date for the construction of the landmark steps, 1909. Here’s the opening to Ordinance 21194:

An ordinance relating to and providing for the improvement of Melrose Avenue North,… and provided further that Republican Street, from Eastlake Avenue to Bellevue Avenue North may be improved, at the discretion of the City Engineer, by constructing stairways, concrete walks, and parks…

Partial page of October 14, 1984 Pacific Magazine in the Seattle Times

The ordinance was signed by the mayor on June 23, 1909. That was three weeks after the start of Seattle’s first World’s Fair, the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition.

AYPE was one of a series of American fairs that promoted the aesthetics of the City Beautiful movement, an effort by city planners and engineers to look at large scale problems and build for happiness and health. The Republican Street stairs could have been more straight and efficient or more simple and practical. Instead they were built with curves and vistas, engaging every worker or student who commuted them.

Dorpat had it: Not long after it was landmarked, Paul Dorpat wrote the only history so far of the stairway. It appeared in the Seattle Times in October 1984, just three years into his now 37-year run of weekly local history. He included a great photo of it attributed to the UW archives and described its opening day on February 25, 1910.

Based on the nomination, and our lead photo, it is a bit of a surprise to read in Dorpat’s introduction that the stairs are no more. “Included on the local list of lost places should be the Republican Hill Climb… Its grand qualities were meant to be enjoyed for their own sake. And for half-a-century they were.” He goes on to give a succinct description of the full stairway: “The climb’s design included three half-block sections. Each was comprised of two single stairways and one double, or branching staircase that circumvented a curving wall.”

Dorpat included the article in Seattle Now & Then Volume 2 (1986) — you can download the entire book from his website (it’s the pink one) — or you can read a revised version of the article with a smaller image on HistoryLink.

On the map

1912 Baist map snippet (Map courtesy Paul Dorpat)

The 1912 Baist real estate map available on Paul Dorpat’s site includes diagrams for the East Republican Stairs as well as those on neighboring Harrison Street. According to the map the stairs continued for the half block on the west side of Melrose.

The map missed out on a third of the stairs, though. In this 1937 aerial photograph it’s clear that the stairs ran all the way to Eastlake. This photo has Eastlake on the left, Melrose in the center, and Bellevue on the right, with East Republican Street running through horizontally.

1937 aerial photo with A: current top of steps between Bellevue and Melrose; B: Melrose; C: bottom of third staircase at Eastlake (King County Map Vault map 250429)

The lower two flights of stairs were destroyed, of course, for Interstate 5. For fifty years the stairs linked Cascade to Broadway, and now for sixty years the freeway has separated the neighborhoods.

Before the earth movers rolled in Seattle’s wandering photographer Werner Lenggenhager thankfully captured the stairs from several views in 1959 and 1960, now shared by SPL. The photos are jarring. The freeway is not a place to ever be, it is for going. But here are homes, businesses, and an inviting rise of stairs that remind us of what it might be like when Interstate 5’s scar is someday healed.

Werner Leggenhager “Stairway on E Republican as seen from Eastlake”, (Seattle Public Library Special Collections)

Please spread the word about this staircase. Since its post-I-5 form is just shy of 100 steps, it is not included in the national stairway inventory on publicstairs.com. It’s also missing from the website of the authors of Seattle Stairway Walks. The Republican Stairs deserve to be celebrated for what they are, and remembered for how much grander they were prior to Interstate 5.

The criteria met: A landmark must meet one of six criteria. The Republican Stairs were designated due to its association with our cultural heritage (criteria C), it being an outstanding work of a designer or builder (E), and because of its prominence of location (F). Here’s what the designation report had to say about each in 1979:

(C) The East Republican Street staircase is a historical expression of the emphasis municipalities were placing on urban amenities as a result of the “City Beautiful Movement” during the first decade of the twentieth century. Its construction closely follows other manifestations of this attitude in Seattle, particularly the planning of parks and boulevards by the Olmsted Brothers, and the very popular Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909.

(E) The staircase is one of the finest designs of its type produced by the City Engineering Design Staff, during the first two decades of the twentieth century. While solving the problem of vertical pedestrian circulation, equal emphasis was directed to the aesthetic opportunities of the site. The landings and belvederes provided rest stops and vantage points from which to experience vistas to the west while ascending the hillside. The recessed panels and coursing grooves render a sense of scale and refinement going beyond the functional requirements of the staircase.

(F) The staircase and its associated plantings create an important open space amenity for the immediate neighborhood in addition to providing a functional pedestrian linkage. The surrounding landscape elements within the Right-of-Way are essential to the character of the site and are extremely effective in contributing to the quality of the surrounding high-density residential environment. The total site represents a park-like environment strongly identified with the neighborhood and very human in scale.


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8 thoughts on “Capitol Hill Historical Society | Stepping on Republican stairs, the most forlorn landmark in Seattle

  1. I love these stairs. Regularly walk to work along Melrose, and these are my access. I often watch the sunsets from them in good weather. From these steps I used to be able to see: glimpses of Puget Sound, most of the Olympics, the Science Center arches, Key Arena… Now all I see are cranes and South Lake Union monoliths.

    • Thanks for the comment!

      There really should be a sign at Bellevue alerting folks that there is a landmark that way.

      Also the historical society has been working on a plan to put historical markers on the landmarks of our neighborhood, to raise awareness.

      I think both would help.

    • I agree.

      It’s easy to get tricked into thinking that our neighborhood is defined by the current built environment. But there are still patterns left from before the decisions we’ve made and the changes over time. This is another great example.

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