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CHS Re:Take | The 1892 problems at Harvard and Thomas

When you are at the intersection of Harvard and Thomas and look around, it’s impossible to not be awed and a bit baffled by the utter lack of planning and engineering.

You probably have an intersection that confuses you or an intersection you hate. Leave a comment and we’ll see if we can console you with some sort of reasoning. Meanwhile, here’s one odd truth.

What’s wrong?

Harvard and Thomas… it’s one of a kind. As it heads south Harvard changes from a normal, comfortably cozy Capitol Hill residential street into a confusing mass of concrete with no clear use or direction.

South on Harvard towards Thomas

South on Harvard towards Thomas. Harvard Flats is under construction on the left. Westside, completed in 2015, is up ahead on the left. Across the intersection on the right is a 1905 home at 233 Harvard Ave East. Beverly Rae Apartments from 1949 is on the far right. (Rob Ketcherside)

It’s so huge that the Harvard Flats construction has an entire crane in the roadway and no one cares. The construction crew has hidden parking for themselves in the pedestrian detour. U-Haul trucks can tuck away almost out of site. Cars park perpendicular to the street on city land, but you don’t even see them. It would take five or six cars parked end-to-end to block this street.

What were they thinking?

You have to go back to the very beginnings of our neighborhood to understand this intersection.

In 1851, David Denny scouted Alki Point, which became Seattle’s first settlement. He ended up making his home in 1853 on land including and surrounding the current Seattle Center.

Up the hill east of Denny’s land — and to the east of what we now call Harvard Avenue — was the land claim of John Nagle (sometimes “Nagel”). Like Denny’s, the Nagle claim did not conform to township lines of the federal government’s Township and Range cadastral survey. The claims in between them by J. T. Werbun and J. Williamson did conform though, making for oddly shaped and inconsistent properties.

Map of land claims later platted by Denny and Pointius

Section of Township Plats, Township 52N, Range 4E. David (D. T.) Denny, John (J. H.) Nagle, and W. N. Bell plats stand out. Between Denny and Nagle was Werbun, with Williamson surrounding Nagel. (Seattle Public Library)

By the 1870s, Werbun and Williamson’s lands were in the hands of Margaret Pontius and her sons. In 1874 Nagle was committed to the Washington Hospital for the Insane and Denny took over management and sale of his land.

Denny began platting his own land out in 1872 and Nagle’s land in 1880. The Pontius family in turn laid out lot lines and named and placed streets on their land, but they disregarded Denny’s efforts. Nearby developers later chose to adopt Denny’s paradigm, Pontius’ paradigm, or in some cases something yet again different.

You can see the effect today all across the neighborhood in each strangely bent street or ajar connection across an intersection. Harvard and Thomas, at the far northwest corner of Nagle’s claim and at the junction of three different plats, became the epicenter for the planning conflict and caused a major headache for the city.

Plats of Thomas and Harvard

Plats of Thomas and Harvard, showing the intersection location as well as plat locations and dates. Nagle’s 2nd filed by David Denny. “Pontius Suppl” is the A[lbert] Pontius Supplemental Addition plat. Crawford’s 1882 claim actually went further west, ignoring Boylston Avenue. In 1900 the Harvard Heights plat fixed Boylston for the block south of Thomas.

Where the streets have too many names

Let’s focus on the streets themselves.

Seattle’s street names were ridiculous early on. There was no order and no consistency. In 1895 the street names of Seattle were rationalized and drastically reduced in number. That’s when this intersection became “Harvard and Thomas”.

In Nagle’s additions, Harvard was called Villard Street. When Denny named it in 1880, Seattle still hoped to be the coastal terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Henry Villard was its president. Seattle had a Villard Hotel and it had three different streets named after him, all to try to impress him and beat out Tacoma. In the early 1890s the Northern Pacific chose Tacoma anyway, and as a result Villard was erased from our map.

Thomas was named Chester for unknown reasons by James Crawford in his 1882 plat. Perhaps it was U.S. President Chester A. Arthur. Denny continued this name along Nagle’s plats, ignoring the Pontius family’s numbered east-west streets in the Cascade neighborhood. Oddly, Denny also ignored the names on his own plats that lined up with Nagle’s. Far to the west Denny had Thomas Street right in line with Chester.

The name Harvard originated in the Pontinus family’s A. Pontius Supplemental Addition. It’s likely named after Harvard University, but for unknown reason.

Harvard and Villard streets original alignment

Villard Street was laid out in the box with “V”. Harvard Street with “H”. They hardly connected.

Bureaucracy to the rescue

At the start of 1892, the Board of Public Works and City Engineer went about determining how to level out the street and put in sewers, trees, and lights to make Harvard and Villard attractive places to live. They quickly realized the connection between the streets must be fixed.

The City Council rushed out Ordinance 2015 to enable the BPW to purchase 43 feet off the east side of Villard to allow Harvard to continue straight south to Thomas. It said in part:

… Harvard Street, … at its Southern end, does not correspond in its full width, with the North end of Villard Street, … there being but a narrow passage way from each into the other, not exceeding fourteen (14) feet in width; and … such passage way destroys the continuity of said Streets, and their usefullness [sic] and convenience in a public highway. (Ordinance 2015, March 1892)

In the end, David Denny gifted the 43 foot wide chunk of land to the city as a continuation of Harvard and the plats were united at last.

Broadway area’s first urbanist intervention

Still, the city had a problem. Now they had a triple-wide street. Side streets in this area were and remain today 25 feet curb to curb. They were suddenly faced with 75 feet between curbs over a stretch of about 150 feet of roadway.

Within a month the Park Board was pulled in to help out the street engineers. On April 4, 1892, the board requested Superintendent James Taylor to evaluate adding a park in the intersection of Villard, Harvard, and Chester.

Harvard Thomas view 1904 1937 1960 1988

The intersection of Harvard Avenue and Thomas Street seen in a 1904 plan for adding granite curbs (top left), 1936 aerial photograph with tree in Harvard Place Park (top right), 1960 aerial with island park removed (bottom left), and 1988 plans for traffic circle and curb bulbs (bottom right). (All from SPU Engineering Vault except 1937 aerial from King County Map Vault)

James Taylor was the city’s first park superintendent, indicating how early this story is in the development of Seattle’s parks. This park became the Broadway area’s first park of any kind. Lincoln Reservoir was under development, but the earliest form of Cal Anderson didn’t open until 1901.

In 1909 the Parks Board officially named the island Harvard Place Park, but the name was in use by 1899.

Bureaucracy after all

The parklet served the neighborhood well for many decades. As carriages gave way to automobiles and vehicle speeds increased the original plan was tweaked many times. The curb lines of the park slowly changed.

Engineering diagram of Harvard and Thomas

Eraser scars and layers of ink indicate many alterations to Harvard Place Park’s outline from 1892 onward. (Profiles scroll of Harvard Avenue at SPU Engineering Vault)

The park fell on hard times during the Great Depression. One woman tried her hardest to get the city to fix it.

Nan B. Ellis, manager of the Roycroft Apartments to the north of the park, wrote letters to the city several times throughout the 1930s. Finally she got the attention of the City Council in 1939 and a full review of the situation was undertaken.

One thing uncovered was that the Parks Board could not be forced to take care of the park anymore. A May 20, 1931 memo summarized the issue:

Diligent search of plats, ordinance, resolutions and other public records fails to locate any evidence of official action authorizing the establishment, improvement, or other recognition of HARVARD PLACE, or transferring the same to the jurisdiction and control of the Park Department. (Sherwood Parks History, Harvard Place file)

Somehow there was a serious screw up in 1892. First, the city forgot to actually take ownership of the 43 foot slice on the east side of the street. They realized their mistake in 1910, and filed an ordinance to formally accept the gift of Nagle property. Ordinance 24245, less than seventy words long, must be one of the briefest of our city laws. After officially taking possession of the property, they forgot to assign part of it to the parks department.

In 1939 City Engineer C. L. Wartelle told the City Council, “There is evidence that [Harvard Place Park] is extensively used by children as a play area. It could be made quite a beauty spot.” (May 1939 letter in Harvard Place file)

That was not enough to release funds to improve the park, though. Later in 1939 the Streets & Sewers Department wrote back to Nan to say, “We are compelled to advise you that the limited funds at our disposal do not permit us to perform any work on parking strips or public areas similar to the one in question… [We] are seeking the cooperation of the public at large in this endeavor and suggesting that they modify their demands…” (July 1939 letter in Harvard Place file)

All good things come to an end

The park was barren, and it was about to get smaller and then disappear entirely.

The lot on the west side lay undeveloped for half a century. It was informally adopted into the park, adding to the experience. Then finally in 1949 the Beverly Rae Apartments were constructed there, partly sited on the most northwestern parcel of Nagle’s land claim.

And then at some point the park was paved over. It was definitely still there in 1946, visible in aerial survey photography. It was removed by 1960, replaced with concrete in the next survey. Perhaps the trees were cut down concurrent with the construction of Beverly Rae.

Regardless, removing the park may have removed the headache of park maintenance, but it didn’t fix the intersection. In 1988 SDOT took another approach and made the intersection itself safer with a traffic circle and large curb bulbs. But that has only made the massiveness of the street more obvious.

Bringing a park back to the middle or side of the road would be nice. As long as it’s open to cars, we probably can’t turn this into Pac-Land. Something that can draw in neighbors on their way to the library or train station, though, would be welcome.

Do you have a creative idea for at least temporarily fixing the 125 year old problems with this space?

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34 thoughts on “CHS Re:Take | The 1892 problems at Harvard and Thomas” -- All CHS Comments are held for moderation before publishing

  1. I forgot to add thanks on this — thanks to Jeanie Fisher at the Seattle Municipal Archives for helping me look up material and especially for thinking of and finding the Don Sherwood park history file.

    Also to the staff at the SPU Engineering Vault!

    • Thanks for the great read! I’ve wondered about this intersection ever since I first moved to Seattle.

      If you’re into Seattle history you probably already know, but UW Special Collections is also a great resource, and they have a huge photo library of Seattle’s early days. It’s available online, but SC is open to the public and the librarians there are very helpful.

    • Thank you!

      Is there any record series in particular at UW Special Collections that you’re thinking of?

      There are a bunch of great resources in Seattle, and in particular it’s helpful when they post things online like the UW’s photos. Personally I do almost all of my research and writing at night.

  2. That is fascinating. I had no idea. Can we tear up the pavement and plant some trees?

    As a Boston area transplant, Seattle seems extremely well organized to me. Boston streets all have arbitrary names and never, ever, line up with compass points. I noted that Seattle traffic is extra hazardous around the times of the spring and fall equinox, because of the glare when traveling on the east/west axis.

  3. Great article, so much detail. I have always wondered about this! Thanks, Robert and Jeanie.

    (Purely on a wild-conjecture side note after reading your link to poor John Nagle’s biography: I wonder if he was committed to the insane asylum because he was suspected of being gay. “Confirmed bachelor” and all that.)

  4. Thank you, for all your hard work and research! I’m always curious, about the history, in the area which I live. Well done!

  5. Great article.

    Two things to add: as another boston transplant, I’ve always found the street names in that part of seattle to be pretty funny — harvard, boylston, belmont, melrose and bellevue are all names you’ll find in pretty close proximity in the boston area – at least enough to question the coincidence.

    second: I’ve always loved that intersection — I think it’s an interesting urban space, and one that could be so much more activated than it is — why is there so much space dedicated to car traffic, and why can’t there be sidewalk cafes and restaurants? Take advantage of it!

    • This spot is also where in 2010 a 91 year old woman on the E sidewalk was killed by the driver of a pickup backing into an off-street parking space. That apartment building no longer exists and is being redeveloped. But I think an extra wide roadway may lead to accidents as car drivers make fast unusual maneuvers, U-turns being another example I have seen personally.

    • @Jonathan… would be interesting to know the accident/collision history at that area. I have lived nearby for years and am not aware of it being especially problematic.

    • Like many places in the western US, we take a lot of our street and neighborhood names from places back east. The Fremont neighborhood was named for Fremont, Nebraska, whence the folks who platted it. Capitol Hill is likely named in part for the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver (which in turn was surely named with a nod to DC). And speaking of Boston, our Beacon Hill is named after their Beacon Hill.

      And as far as streets named for universities, Harvard might be more aptly located over in Laurelhurst, where one will find University Circle NE, which is surrounded by streets named Ann Arbor, Stanford, Princeton, Oberlin, Purdue, Pullman, Tulane, Vassar, and Wellesley. Unlike Harvard & Thomas, however, University Circle NE still has its little roundabout park.

    • Um no, Capitol Hill was NOT named after a neighborhood in Denver. Shortly after statehood, Seattle was in the running to become the new state capitol…the complex was going to be on, wait for it, Capitol Hill. Olympia won out, but the new neighborhood name stuck and voila, we have Capitol Hill.

    • Max, actually the Denver story is the widely accepted answer for the origin of the name. Moore left no conclusive answer for us.

      The state capitol story doesn’t fit into our neighborhood’s timeline. Capitol Hill tract properties began being advertised in 1901. Washington became a state in 1889.

      There was debate about moving the capitol from Olympia, which had been the Washington Territory capitol. But the other contenders were all east of the Cascades. And the question was resolved in 1890. Check out this HistoryLink article,

      So the idea that the Moores named it after Eugenia’s hometown neighborhood in Denver is much more convincing.

      Here is the HistoryLink article on the topic.

      By the way, let’s hear it for Eugenia Moore! Everyone is so consumed by James A. Moore that she is always referred to as “his wife”. Thanks for our neighborhood name Eugenia!

  6. Long time lurker, I also want to add kudos to you for the in-depth research. Very well done, I’m always so curious about these sorts of things, and any bit of history we can dig up about our beautiful neighborhood.

  7. If you put a park in there, the on-street parking depended on by residents of the Roycroft and other buildings in the area. We seem to be fine with that today.

  8. Why are all the east/west running streets misaligned across 15th Ave E? I assumed it was because they misaligned construction on either side of the hill, but there might be a more interesting reason :)

    • Here’s a quick take on an answer.

      I jumped into the King County Parcel Viewer2, opened up pages for properties in the area and on the right column far bottom followed the link to view parcels.

      14th (Mitchell) and 15th (Jones) were part of the 1889 Highlands Addition. It continued the alignment and names of the Pontius additions.

      Just beyond 16th (Duwamish) was the Laws Addition, which has a super early date of 1870. The street names look fine, but the plat must have been just a bit out of alignment.

      That early date and the inconsistent oddness of 15th make it ripe for deep digging and its own article.

  9. This is research on community history at its best with thorough investigation resulting in an article full of rich details that chronicle how a neighborhood changes over time. I found the Design Proposal of the project currently under construction. The proposal shows improvement work to the SW corner. I can’t help thinking whether the streetscape would have improved further if this article was published earlier. I am eager to see how the project will turn out.

    • Thank you for the compliment, and even more for the link.

      I bumped into the existence of this plan at the SPU Engineering Vault, but the database only had a table of contents and no details.

      The extension of the curb bulb and “parking” of it are a great first step. The next step would be a reciprocal swale on the west side of the street, forming an undulating connection north.

      (By the way, if you look carefully at the 1960 aerial photo you can see the oil tracks of all of the cars following about that route. We can squish it together a bit. Thank goodness the EPA came around in 1970 and we stopped dumping oil on our streets that run off into the Sound, right?)

  10. Thank you for your effort. I love learning more about the history of my adoptive city and neighborhood.

    I knew that at some point street names had been conformed. Now I will be spending untold hours looking at pre- and post- 1895 maps looking for the changes.

  11. This intersection almost caused what could have been a really bad bike accident. I was riding South on Harvard at night and did not see the curb sticking out into what i thought was still the bike lane. there was no car parked at the end or there was a smart car parked up in there, also it was not well lit. I went over the curb braking my wheel and badly spraining my wrist.
    I believe perhaps moving the Island just north and putting the parking in the middle of the street connecting the island and parking spots. There will be no parking on the sides and yes there will be less parking but not by much.