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Capitol Retrospective | Dodge’s Triangle: Seattle’s smallest known piece of private property

1949-08-23 Sea Muni Archivces - Madison at Union and 12th (triangle)

Looking Northeast where 12th Ave E and E Union St intersect with E Madison St. Approximate dimensions of Dodge’s triangle highlighted in yellow. Image courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives

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?

1905 Sanborn Map - (detail)

1905 Sanborn Map section. Image: Seattle Public Library.

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.

1905 UW Spec Coll - Curtis Photo of Madison, 12th

1118 E Madison marked by the red arrow. Photo looks east with Madison running from the lower right to the upper left. And Union running from center to upper right. These are 2 of Asahel Curtis’ photos spliced together. Circa 1905 Image: UW Special Collections

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?

Overlay Map 1

2015 Aerial Photo with 1905 Sanborn Map Overlay. Images: King County and Seattle Public Library respectively.

1920-12-15 Sea Muni Archives - Madison, Union at 12th

Looking west at the James building with Madison extending to the left and Union to the right. 1920. Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives

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.

Early design review

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.***

2015 Google Images - Viva Apartments 1111 E Union St

2015 Google Street View of the Viva Apartments. Note well the overhanging upper floor.

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13 thoughts on “Capitol Retrospective | Dodge’s Triangle: Seattle’s smallest known piece of private property

  1. I like these stories. I would like to request an explanation of why E John and E Thomas are so awkward at 15th ave. Also if you stand in the center of the cross walk outside Trader Joes crossing Madison on a clear day you can see that Madison points directly towards Glacier Peak in the distance, I have always wondered if this is a coincidence or on purpose?

    • Thank you and good questions! I don’t know for certain about either, but my guess would be that that awkward point on 15th is a place where two plats border one another. Originally, each plat had a different owner who often didn’t bother to layout their roads to match those of surrounding plats. A good example of this is Harvard and Thomas, Rob Ketcherside actually wrote about it last month:

    • I can answer the question about Glacier Peak…it’s coincidence. The downtown grid was laid out to follow the general lay of the shoreline…famously leading to the various different grid orientations. The fact that Madison appears to point to Glacier Peak is simply because it is the one downtown street that was extended along the same orientation east of Broadway. If any other downtown streets extended that far they would also appear to point directly at Glacier Peak. You can demonstrate this effect yourself in Google Earth by drawing lines starting from Glacier Peak and ending at the Seattle waterfront…because of the great distance they will all appear to be essentially parallel with whichever street you choose to end the line on.

  2. I originally wanted to expand on the whole issue of the triangle’s dimensions and square footage, but didn’t have time to figure out how to incorporate it into the story, but here’s a quick data dump.

    The 1915 county tax ledger says the triangle was 0.007 acres or about 304.92 Square feet while the 1920 ledger says it was 0.01 acres or about 435.6. All records hereafter have listed the triangle’s area as 438 Square feet.

    However, if you look at it in parcel viewer and on city engineering maps that actually mark the size of its shorter base line at 5.68 feet, it is very obviously not 300 or 400 odd square feet.

    I called the County Assessor to find out why and after passing off the question to 3 people in the mapping department they couldn’t give me an answer. But they did measure it themselves and their best guess, outside of an official on-site survey, is that Dodge’s triangle is closer to 26 Square feet. Parcel viewer will be updated accordingly. I guess I’ll take it.

    Can anyone explain a reason why county records listed it as so much larger?

    • Hello, great article! I’m a civil engineer with a love of Seattle history, and a further love of all things urban, so this article really piqued my interest. I can offer a brief guess as to why the official area of the property has varied over the decades. As a civil engineer in Seattle, I’ve had to deal with property definitions for a very long time in this area. This article was so interesting to me that I ended up going back and researching most of the old plats in this area that defined the core properties, as well as several pertinent City ordinances that defined some of the public rights-of-way as well. The short version of a very complex story is that this particular area of Seattle is very unique in that it is not defined by an underlying plat…this is extremely unusual in the middle of an old city like Seattle. It is also bounded by four or five different plats all meeting in one spot, PLUS it is further affected by streets that were defined by city ordinance rather than by platting. A further complication is that the property actually straddles one corner of AA Denny’s original donation claim (pre-platting). When there is no plat to define blocks, lots, and streets, every individual property is defined by a property definition technique called “metes and bounds”…a common technique for large rural lots where high precision is not a requirement–but a terrible way to define small properties in a dense city. I read through the property definition for this property and the adjoining triangular property. The short line labeled as 5.68 feet on the Assessor’s map actually comes from the legal definition of the adjoining property, not the small property in question. Without having room here to go into much detail, suffice it to say that the area discrepancies probably come from a variety of factors related to the definitions of this property and the adjoining properties, including streets defined by ordinance, compounded by the inaccuracies inherent in survey work performed in the late 19th Century. Regrading streets and resetting survey monuments wouldn’t have helped either. There have been two major survey datum updates since the time this property was laid out: one in 1927 and one in 1983 (further refined in 1991). As higher accuracies are achieved with more modern equipment, many of these old properties must be re-calculated to all fit together properly. This is especially true for metes and bounds-defined properties like this one. For a tiny triangular-shaped property these adjustments can have huge spatial effects, so it’s not really surprising that the recorded area has changed so significantly over time.

      Great article, keep up the good work!

  3. OH Look! That’s my old apartment on 13th and Union (owned by CHHIP housing.) The laundry/cleaners right in front of it, was a flower shop, now a bar. SO Cool!

    • I most certainly agree. Especially with the corrugated metal, it clashes so much with the surrounding buildings. It’s no wonder the main retail space remains vacant.