I want to say this Capitol Hill triangle spun me around in circles all week, but it’s a triangle, not a circle, so that won’t do. However, I can say that much like ships and planes are rumored to have disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle, historians and cartographers are rumored to have done the same trying to figure out what the hell the deal is with this triangle. What is it, how and why does it even exist? Well, you’re in luck, because after spending a harrowing week confined within its absurdly narrow boundaries, I’ve emerged to tell the tale.
It all started as a joke.
On April 16, 1916 Seattle Times broke the humorous story. They described it as a small triangular strip with about 6 feet on E Madison and about 5 and a half feet on E Union with a depth at the widest of approximately 4 feet. It baffled expert appraisers and architects alike who would dare attempt to price it or design a structure suitable to its size. Real estate mogul Henry Broderick claimed it was probably worth less than it would cost for him to properly appraise it and it would be hard to sell because a for sale sign would entirely obscure it from view. Someone suggested you could maybe install a gas pump, but the attendant would be obliged to rent the sidewalk from the city just so he could operate it. Jokes aside, things start to break down when you take a closer look at the matter.
First, the measurements don’t even make sense. How can the base (Madison) be longer than the hypotenuse (Union)? Let’s just assume for simplicity that Seattle Times goofed and flip-flopped the two. This means this parcel of land is roughly 11 square feet. For reference, the ubiquitous Toyota Prius occupies about 86 Square feet. So there isn’t a whole lot you can do with this triangle, except maybe install a pump to fill that Prius. Measurement issues aside, the more important question is, how did it get here?
To answer that, I looked at the 1905 Sanborn map and discovered that Union didn’t always extend through this intersection. It was just a narrow, 30-foot wide dirt road east of Broadway until abruptly turning 90 degrees to the south and merging with 11th. Union then resumed its normal path east of 12th as a wider arterial road.
Around about 1908 city engineer R.H. Thompson and his most vocal and antagonistic supporter C.C. Closson, a realtor, wanted to change that. As part of their larger 12th Ave regrade project, they wanted to widen and extend Union all the way through and fill in the nearby land known today as Division’s Damp Depression thanks to Rob Ketcherside. The only problem was that several properties stood in their way, primarily 1118 E Madison, a commercial building owned by local realtor Charles Dodge.
Dodge purchased the property from V Hugo Smith on August 18th, 1903 and the building was probably already there when he purchased it because about two years later he applied for a $1000 permit to convert it into a commercial space. After investing so much into the building, it is no surprise that he, and many others who stood to lose like him, fought tooth and nail to block the regrade only a few years later.
Obviously, they didn’t win. The city condemned Dodge’s building and by 1912 it was gone. The result is more or less what you see in the 2015 King County Aerial photograph below overlayed by the 1905 Sanborn map. Dodge’s building is filled in with red. The tiny triangle filled in with yellow is what remains of Dodge’s property after the condemnation proceedings. The only question now is why? Why couldn’t they just make Union 5 to 10 feet wider to the south and have it match closer with its width on the east side of 12th and Madison? Or why couldn’t they merge Dodge’s triangle with the adjacent property?
A practical joke
Although there’s no proof, perhaps they designed Union this way just so they could troll Dodge for putting up such a stink about the regrade.
Think about it. The Seattle Times wrote “In some manner, the condemnation proceedings of East Union Street omitted to embrace a small triangular strip where these streets intersect.” “In some manner” is the operative phrase here, vaguely implying that something was amiss. In all honesty it was probably just a mistake, but you have to admit, the possibility of it being a joke is far more entertaining.
Joke or no joke, Dodge ultimately refused to surrender the property. Instead, his neighbors, the James brothers, would have to walk over his triangle every damn day just to enter the new building they constructed after the regrade. A constant reminder of how they profited at Dodge’s expense.
What else of Dodge’s Triangle over the years?
Dodge held onto his triangle until his death in 1943 and passed it, along with his entire estate, to his daughter Florence Philbrick. The triangle’s aassessed value at that time was $50. It remained in the family until Florence sold it for $1,000 to neighborhood interior designer Efaw Lamar in 1994. Lamar then sold it in 2008 to Union & Madison LLC along with the larger property adjacent to it for a grand total of $2,000,000. The assessed value of Dodge’s Triangle alone that year was $56,900.
Union and Madison LLC finally bridged the gap between the two properties in 2012 after completing the construction of the Viva Apartments at 1111 E Union. However, the architect’s original design actually… “omitted to embrace” Dodge’s triangle curiously enough. It was only after the EDG board insisted on a “stronger urban edge” that Viva absorbed the triangle, much to the architect’s chagrin, apparently.
But wait, look closely. The upper floors hang over the first floor by several feet, might the triangle’s location be directly below it? Could that mean a descendant of Dodge’s hypothetical pranksters slipped this and their “stronger urban edge” into the board recommendation and finally got the last laugh? Or is this all just a coincidence? We may never know… and maybe that’s because Dodge’s Triangle is ultimately worth less than the cost of answering that question.
***Hey! if you want to learn more cool neighborhood history like this or want to be a part of finding and sharing it, be sure to check out Capitol Hill Historical Society. Our next meeting will be later this month.***