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How Capitol Hill’s tile and terra cotta mystery ruins ended up at Harvard and Roy

The projects are commonplace now. One currently underway is creating a route of accessible curb ramps, raised crosswalks, pavement repairs, and a new Rapid Flashing Beacon on the streets between Lowell Elementary and Meany Middle School across Capitol Hill. But an early effort in the mid ’90s to make a Capitol Hill corner safer also created a mystery at Harvard and Roy.

How did ancient downtown Seattle ruins of terra cotta and tile end up at a corner in the middle of Capitol Hill?

A CHS story way back in 2009 dug up the answers. You can thank a City of Seattle safety program called Making Streets that Work, a $64,000 grant, the Cirque Apartments for maintaining the area over the years, and the work of some community members to change the neighborhood.

CHS commenter Glenn explained the project:

At the time I was a student at the U.W. Urban Planning school and lived just down from the corner (still do). The corners were broadly cut at the time, with huge curb radiuses, mirroring the Cirque. (If you want an idea how wide, they bordered the sidewalk that goes by the building). As a result, for pedestrians crossing Harvard while walking east on Roy meant this meant walking across a lot of road with cars making fast right turns on to Harvard. So I thought it would be a good idea to bring the curb out to closer to a 90 degree angle, create some public space and make things safer for pedestrians.

Enter University of Washington professor and architect Kevin Kane. Glenn said Kane had salvaged terra cotta from an old building at 7th and Pine that was being torn down to make way for the Convention Center and put the benches and ornamentation into storage. “The deal, as I understand it, was that he could have them for free if he took it all,” Glenn said.

In 1994, the benches found a new purpose. According to Glenn, Kane designed the corner and also provided an intern “to help with installation.” Another architect, David Strauss, also pitched in. Glenn said that Kane also made the tiles you can see at the corner that illustrate what appear to be the old blueprints for the salvaged Mountaineers Building. Glenn said the original design also featured a  cone-shaped “finial piece” that people kept snapping off.

Across the street, the Daughters of the American Revolution Rainier Chapter House joined the cause in filling out their corner to help make the crossing safer.

By 1996, despite, the Department of Neighborhoods writeup on the project notes, “a complaint to the city by one nearby business owner,” the project was complete and the surprising, how did that get there mix of terra cotta benches and tiles became one of those neighborhood surprises you remember, again, when you walk a different route than normal or have a minute to finally stand around and look at your surroundings.

There is also an increase of activity at the corner with more people walking through and sitting around before and after their business at the Consulate of Mexico in Seattle in the overhauled Harvard Exit building. There is also an increase, one would presume, in people wondering where those ancient terra cotta ruins come from. Now you know.

Besides the consulate overhaul, Harvard and Roy hasn’t changed much over the years:

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6 thoughts on “How Capitol Hill’s tile and terra cotta mystery ruins ended up at Harvard and Roy

  1. I recall a chance encounter with the volunteer team installing the terracotta, including, as I recall, the then chair of the Capitol Hill Community Council.
    Is there still a Capitol Hill Community Council?

  2. I lived at the Roy St Apartments back then, plus worked across the street from the building they were tearing down. It was cool to watch the pieces move from one place to another and get repurposed.

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