Street Critic | Navigating E Olive Way’s terrain

Olive Way’s Flatiron

A charm of living in a hilly city like Seattle is witnessing how the street grid and the buildings they define adapt to challenging topography. A typical adaptation is to have streets break from the prevailing orthogonal grid by introducing a diagonal street that makes a hill easier to ascend. In the early 20th Century, Manhattan’s Fuller Building became – and most likely remains – the most celebrated example of a building’s form adapted to an adjacent diagonal street (albeit in dead-flat Manhattan). Today it is known as the Flatiron Building, a reference to its resembling an early type of clothes iron. Capitol Hill has its share of buildings which have adapted to challenging street grinds and terrain. An inspiring pair are found on Olive Way as it cuts a diagonal between Denny and Howell.


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Unlike the Flatiron Building, Capitol Hill’s diagonal adaptations also involve navigating changes in slope and lead to some thoughtful adaptations. Diminutive compared to the Flatiron building, 1522 Olive begins modestly as a two story ‘flatiron’ at Dino’s Tomato Pie. Then, through a magical transformation, a third floor is snuck in between the ground floor and (formerly) second floor. This sleight-of-hand is accomplished by keeping the ground floor storefronts the same size (note the regular height of the canopies) while increasing the size of the transom lights (the windows above the canopies). Eventually the transoms become as large as a floor and morph into apartment windows. Voila, a floor is born even as the third floor maintains its steady trajectory above, unwitting of the interloper’s presence.

Walking the High-life along Olive

At street level other modifications to accommodate Olive Way’s drop in elevation are noticeable . The pony walls (the partial walls beneath the storefronts) change in height. To make amends for the compromised view into the proprietor’s space the pony walls are clad in that fanciest of building materials, marble, as seen beneath Torta Condesa’s storefront. This design adjustment provides a graceful transition from high to low while affording pedestrians a taste of the high-life (note the adjacent curved wall making for a second flatiron corner).

The Mock-Cantilever along Olive

Dino’s Eroded Corner at Olive and Denny

Another nifty design move occurs about the building’s main entry. It too has a fancy embellishment like the curved corners, this time it is an arch with terracotta highlights. The size and solidity of the arch creates the illusion of a fulcrum supporting the eroded, round corner at Dino’s. The illusion of this mock-cantilever is heightened by the exclusion of the canopy that is present at the other storefronts.

Two of Three Entrances at Olive and Howell

The Embracing Tree Canopy at Bellevue and Howell

At the intersections of Olive, Bellevue, and Howell is one of the most dignified buildings on Capitol Hill and home to one of our best eateries Crumble and Flake Patisserie. Whether it is the embracing street trees, the way the building deftly manages slopes on several sides, or the fact that it has three separate but harmonious entries (Olive, Bellevue and Howell), the building has a singular ambiance. Like its uphill neighbor the pony walls get special treatment – this time ceramic tile – and there is a similar flair in slipping in an extra floor as the terrain drops. This half-floor along Bellevue distinguishes itself from its brethren with more robustly-detailed windows that have glazed ceramic surrounds. The window frames, sashes, and mullions are thicker and more figured, appearing as if the burden of carrying the extra floor required reinforcement.

Squeezed Right In

Snugged tightly between the aforementioned pair of brick buildings is a third, metal-clad building that is almost unnoticeable unless viewed head-on. The diagonal interruption of the grid results in a shallow and triangular-shaped block – allowing only a sliver of the third building that fronts Bellevue Avenue and occupies almost half the block. The juxtaposition of materials and forms, as well as the wall and gate at the building’s Olive entry, evoke mystery and prompt exploration.

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2 thoughts on “Street Critic | Navigating E Olive Way’s terrain

  1. You have a tough job making 2019 Capitol Hill seem interesting. I wish I could have read your thoughts on earlier times in Capitol Hill before so much was torn down.

    • Yes, Max…..but John is also calling attention to the fact that we still have quite a few interesting and even classy buildings (Anhalts, anyone?), and we must have a renewed commitment to seeing that they are not destroyed.

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