With CHS’s recent report on the VERY EARLY planning for the development that will eventually require the demolition of the longtime home of City Market, CHS is dusting off an oldie but a goodie from our History category. This auto row tale of the Market’s building and the birth of E Olive Way first ran on CHS in 2014. Enjoy!
By Robert Ketcherside, Capitol Hill Historical Society co-founder
Back in the 1900s, Pike and Pine were opened up to give unblocked entry from downtown to Capitol Hill. Cars became so popular that the city engineer went looking for another way, finally conceiving a new bent route up the hill from Olive Street’s dead end at Bellevue to the intersection of John and Boylston. After a few years of gestation and fighting it out in courts, construction finished in June 1923. Olive Way was born.
Auto Row, Mowed over by Autos
Of course a whole bunch of buildings stood in the way, including a dozen homes. One of the others we know today as City Market.
The building was completed in 1919 for Ajax Rubber Company of Delaware. They gave it a couple of display windows for retail and a garage door to pull the cars in for new tires. Cantilevered windows provided ventilation as well as plenty of sunlight to work on the cars.
Despite being located several blocks from the car-oriented businesses on auto row, Ajax must have had good sales. The area was still a streetcar neighborhood, served by the Summit Line loop that continued into the 21s century as a Metro bus route. But auto traffic grew year by year, and Ajax was on a prime spot on a back door route that dodged Pike and Pine. Olive Street came up and dead-ended right into Ajax’s windows of pneumatic tires. Drivers turned onto Bellevue and then John to get up to Broadway, the new Capitol Hill neighborhood and Volunteer Park.
When the regrade cut through, Ajax closed and the corner of the formerly rectangular building was cut off. Architects like to take advantage of trapezoid buildings by putting the entrance facing out into the intersection. But Ajax’s door was centered between the display windows and it was left there after the cut, creating the very unbalanced arrangement that remains today.
A month after it opened, Olive Way had its first official visit. President Warren Harding alighted in Seattle briefly as part of a 40-day tour of Alaska and the western states. After looping through downtown his procession headed up Olive Way from 2nd all the way to 15th, and then out to Volunteer Park. At Volunteer Park he and his wife were met by thousands of girls who had been waiting for more than five hours to greet them. His car stopped right in front of where the Seattle Asian Art Museum is today.
“Just opposite the center of the pergola the President’s car halted and Mr. and Mrs. Harding were showered with gifts from the girls of Seattle. Ten little flower girls in their dainty white dresses presented a boutonniere to the President and a blue flower parasol and boa to Mrs. Harding, and at the same time a group of Camp Fire Girls presented their gifts — wood-blocked handkerchiefs for the chief executive and his wife, made by the girls themselves.
“At Seward’s statue the car stopped for a second time. Here the President got out and took part in a brief ceremony for the unveiling of a new bronze tablet at the base of the statue. The ceremony was conducted under the auspices of the China Club. President Harding was very much interested in the statue of the man who made Alaska part of America and walked around to view it from all angles.” (Seattle Times, July 28, 1923)
After just a few hours in Seattle, President Harding boarded his Navy transport and steamed away. Five days later he was dead of a heart attack.
Back in Seattle the city council tried to rename Olive Way to Harding Way in his honor, but the heirs of the pioneer Bell family protested. The road was named after Olive Bell who was just a young girl when she landed at Alki in 1851 with the Denny party. Besieged with letters, the city council rescinded their renaming.
In the early 1930s another effort was made to rename Olive Way — this time to Capitol Way. Once again the pioneer descendants fought off the advances.
The Markets Before City Market
In 1924 insurance salesman Howard McRae decided to get into a different business: groceries. His family’s Eastlake home was not far from the space vacated by Ajax. He opened there as McRae’s Public Market.
Three years later Earl Eba purchased McRae’s and several other stores to add to his Pike Place Market store. This was the beginning of his chain, Eba’s Grocery and Markets. Other nearby stores included 14th and Madison and 23rd and Union. The chain weathered the early years of the Great Depression but in 1931 merged with another chain, Mutual Markets, to form Eba’s Mutual Markets for efficiencies and consolidated assets. Mutual had already closed many stores and the new chain continued shrinking. The store at Bellevue and Olive held tough.
By 1939, Eba’s Mutual was deeply in debt and behind payments on utilities and rent, and so it fell into the possession of its biggest debtor, distributor Pacific Gamble Robinson. With the rest of the chain the Olive Way store was rebranded Tradewell. Tradewell became an incredibly successful chain, rivaling Safeway for the next few decades. In 1945 the store in the old Ajax building closed in favor of a building at Summit and Olive Way.
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