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CHS Schemata | Capitol Hill’s urban alleys

Capitol Hill is fortunate to have an extensive system of alleys. They provide a home for utilities, trash and recycling, garage entries, as well as alternative routes through which to get from here to there. Having previously written on Capitol Hill’s eastern, single-family-home dominated alleys, I decided to explore those on the Hill’s denser commercial and apartment building inhabited landscapes.

Although I was surprised — and somewhat disappointed — that the number of alleys were fewer than I had found on the Hill’s Eastern flanks, the west side’s more urban character and frequency of use — combined with a relative dearth of greenery and crisper, built boundaries — captivated me for the better part of a mid-winter morning and early afternoon. Another strikingly different character of these alleys from those to the east were their unobstructed and distant vistas, making them even more inviting than their eastern siblings.


The aforementioned differences aside, our alleys crossing at mid-block and between primary streets offers one a new prospect on otherwise familiar terrain. One such revelation was when I discovered the new location for our much beloved and recently displaced Bauhaus Coffee; perhaps the banner announcing its temporary home had been up for some time prior to my seeing it that chilly morning, but my new alley-route gave me a frontal view of its new digs, enabling me to learn this bit of welcome news. Also grabbing my attention at this particular location was the CAPHILL mural. Inherent to their utilitarian role alleyways are populated with many blank walls making them inviting canvases.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is not only within the immediate confines of the alleyways that one discovers fresh views; a chance break in a building can give one a new perspective on familiar terrain. Making the instance below-pictured quite interesting, of course, was that I was only able to see the ‘top’ of a familiar building and not the street below.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven with these new, distant vistas, the best experience offered by our alleyways remains being immersed within the alley environment itself. It is within their more immediate confines that the sensual qualities of the alleys are best experienced; a sensuality at least in part due to the less ordered, less refined, and less dignified environment exhibited by its counterpart — city streets. Alleys are a kind of Neanderthal street, evoking the same fascination garnered by the proto-model of a more evolved descendant. An evolutionary analogy aside, I find the differences between entrances on the alley side (where one needs chain-link fence and concertina wire) and the street side revealing of the alley-street dichotomy. Even where one finds a slightly more hospitable doorway, it has a patina and for forboding that distinguishes it from a door that one sees on the building’s street side.


Upon assembling the images for this post it became apparent that I was most attracted (again) to garage doors. Upon reflection, I suppose it is a combination of factors, including when they are seen en mass, their staccato appearance leading to aesthetically satisfying moments. Whether or not each entry precisely matches its neighbor, the mesmerizing effect of the repetition is hard to ignore. Admittedly I might be horrified to see such garage entries on our city streets, but I do take great pleasure in seeing them in our alleyways, with the two below examples presenting a compelling affirmation.


The top example of the above two images shows a concrete deck above a series of continuous, open garages, its length emphasized by a delicate projecting concrete shelf and almost a dozen concrete columns. The garage has a rawness that most would find offensive if it were on the street, but in the alley, its gently arcing form elicits admiration (not to mention the additional grace imparted by the quite transparent guardrail on top, unfortunately verboten by today’s building codes). The second image is an interesting counterpoint to the first, with each of the garage doors forming a unique identity for its contents, safely held from view. The gentle stepping of the openings imply a segmented diagonal at the door heads, mirroring the gentle rise of the alley paving, while the scalloping of the concrete at the garage door thresholds is formed as if from the lapping of waves on a beach. It is hard to believe any designer could have consciously arrived at such an elegant composition; affirming the latent beauty to be revealed in the most functional of solutions.

Another noteworthy, similar quality exists where a more regular ordering has been compromised due to the lack of stewardship inherent in the alley environment. As I have previously written, alleys do not elicit the care that our streets do being as they are more private and utilitarian. This shift in our expectations of decorum between public and private realms allows alleys to suffer longer periods of inattentiveness, as pictured below, and often leads to rugged beauty that one would be hard pressed to consciously create.


Even within my romanticized notion of Capitol Hill’s alleys I was taken aback seeing the alley below. Had I not experienced this place myself, I would have thought it was a driveway on a rural road leading to an old farmhouse — not a driveway serving a building in the Northwest’s densest and most populated neighborhood. Given the fevered-pitch of current development in Seattle, I can only hope that such quirky moments in our neighborhood remain to be seen for years to come by my fellow alley enthusiasts.


Despite this enthusiasm for our alley’s predominately unkempt environment, I am just as quick to revel in those alleys where care and craft is unexpectedly on display. From the assertive balconies placed on the rather restrained apartment building pictured below to the lovely stainless steel sheet metal wall, there are examples to be discovered where the alley side of a building is given as much thought as its street side.


Among my favorite of these ‘more proper’ alley facades is this darling, mid-century (behemoth of a) wall pictured below, its more utilitarian location being betrayed by a visually pleasing composition of the otherwise prosaic concrete block.


Propriety extends, on occasion, to where one may even find the back of the building being quite similar to what one would expect to see in the front, as in the below example. With the exception of a rather diminutive door there is little to distinguish the back of this apartment building from what one may expect to see on its front, with a small entry gate and fence, and nicely painted and ordered windows.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlthough they are certainly the norm, front and back distinctions are at time impossible to apply to our streets and alleys. I was pleasantly surprised to find this handsome little home faces no street at all and is wholly contained within an alley; a rare building indeed and one I hope to find more of as I continue to explore Capitol Hill’s alleys — and where I hope to bump into others, camera, sketch book, or simply curiosity deployed.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Previously on CHS Schemata

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6 thoughts on “CHS Schemata | Capitol Hill’s urban alleys

  1. As far as alleys I’ve not noticed too much in the way of alleys on Capitol Hill. The notable one that I know of is behind Neighbours night club. I can’t think of many others.

    But the Eastlake neighborhood on the other hand seems to have lots of alleys. They also have very long city blocks which kind of amazed me when King County Metro got rid of stops that were two blocks apart.

  2. Pingback: CHS Schemata | Capitol Hill’s grand dome | CHS Capitol Hill Seattle

  3. I have appreciated Capitol Hill’s alleys since growing up here as a boy with a paper route. Yes, on hilly streets alleys are the only way to make practical delivery routes work. Still there’s one type a alley on Capitol Hill that is unique, which you have not touched upon. Let me draw your attention to what I call the zigs-alley; this is a N-S alley which enters from the south of a block from the east-west street but enters toward the right of the block (one lot in); it penetrates halfway and takeso a 90* left turn then goes almost to the end of the block except again just before the last lot takes another 90° turn and exits. Across the street from the mouth of the alley you will find the entrance to the other of the pair–an inverted couplet exactly–another zigs-alley which enters going north takes a right then a left and exits. Why build a block this way? Simply because this enables delivery people to contact every residence on a block in half the usual time had there not been an alley. At the same time the design looks like a driveway, maintains privacy and cleanliness and orderliness by not appearing to be an alley and does not pose an attractive nuisance. People on legitimate business will enter a zigs-alley confidently, yet the opposite is also true. Ordinary alleys invite crime and vandalism.