Righteous indignation has a long history in Seattle. More than 100 years ago, the Eleventh Avenue Improvement Club got pissed off at City Engineer R. H. Thomson‘s plan to regrade Capitol Hill. In 1908, he wanted to flatten out 12th Avenue from Jackson to Aloha, providing new access to Capitol Hill from Pioneer Square.
Before we dig into the regrade, how about a quick survey of the landscape here looking north from Madison on 12th.
Captain William T. Patten‘s auto dealership is on the left of the 1920 photograph. The buiding dates to 1913, just after the regrade was completed. Today it’s Ferrari of Seattle, and it was Lee Moran‘s Lincoln dealership in 1957 as featured recently in CHS Re:Take. In an amazing coincidence, Patten’s store manager a few years earlier, Arthur Dawson, was working in 1920 down at Greater Motors in the Utrecht building as featured in CHS Re:Take last time. Of course if you’re convinced that auto row was a tightly linked social network, it doesn’t seem like such a coincidence.
Just next to Patten’s was a Victorian home later displaced for an extension of the Ferrari building. In 1920 it already looked out of place, a memory of the neighborhood before 1910’s 12th Avenue regrade. Further down on the other side of the street is another turreted building. That’s the landmark-aborted 1200 East Pike, still there today.
On the far right was Chanslor & Lyon, one of the many automotive related businesses that supplemented the dealers. Chanslor & Lyon started in San Francisco, entering the Seattle market in 1908 by buying out Platt Automobile Supply in Belltown. They moved to their new building here in early 1920, just a few months before the photograph. Today, of course, this is Trace Lofts with High 5 Pie and other contributions to the 12th Avenue foodie network.
In the foreground, the bricked, level street was a decade old. Back in 1908, the neighborhood, represented by the Eleventh Avenue Improvement Club, was not interested in raising this intersection 12 feet.
So what did they want? A tunnel. Until the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project, everyone loved tunnels in Seattle.
Their counter-proposal was a tunnel under Union Street from Broadway to what’s now Freeway Park over I-5. It would connect Broadway and the backside of First Hill with the growing commercial district around 5th and Union. Obviously they lost. But they almost got both.
The ever-increasing traffic around the north end of First Hill over Pike and Pine Streets clearly points to a time when travel will be seriously congested, and this, with no opportunity for opening up additional streets with as favorable grades, justifies the belief that a tunnel route for teams will become an economic necessity in the comparatively near future. The most favorable route for such a tunnel is from the intersection of Ninth Avenue and Union Street to the intersection of East Spring Street and Eleventh Avenue.
Twelfth from Union and Madison, 1920 (Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives)
It didn’t happen in 1911 and tunnel discussion died for awhile. It came back in the Roaring 20’s, with plans even being drawn up and several attempts to secure funding and support continued until 1930. The Union Street Tunnel was brought up again during World War Two, when the city council amazingly asked the Army to build it as a giant air raid shelter.
12th Avenue is not the sexiest regrade. It didn’t make it to HistoryLink’s profile of Thomson or Wikipedia’s summary of that profile. It got a whole sentence in the 1978 book Public Works in Seattle. Partly there were just too many regrades to list. Also, 12th Avenue ruins the entire regrade image — no hill was knocked down. But it was significant as the last regrade that Thomson executed before leaving city government in 1911. By that point Seattle had more dirt than it knew what to do with. So, he joined the newly-formed Port of Seattle, which was busy building islands.
* I may be alone in thinking R. H. Thomson “suggested” much of the Plan of Seattle to his good friend and out-of-towner Virgil Bogue.
In case you missed them, here are the last few Re:Takes on CHS:
- The social network of Capitol Hill’s Auto Row, 1921 and 2012
- Life at 12th and Union, 1957 and 2011
- Berlin Bakery Beatdown at 9th and James, 1905 and 2011
Local history expert Rob Ketcherside shares his vision of the p
ast and present with his Re:Take series of works on CHS and other Seattle sites.