A Look Back in Time
In the period from 1905 through the 1930s, Seattle embarked on what some have called the most ambitious re-sculpting of an urban landscape ever previously undertaken. The most famous examples are the destruction of Denny Hill in north downtown, and a slice through the ridge connecting First Hill and Beacon Hill to create the Jackson streetcar corridor. Sometimes however, such leveling required a “filling in” rather than a “taking down”, as was the case on this block. Sometime between 1905 and 1915, the original buildings from the late 1800s were demolished and the debris left in the bottom of the ravine, on top of which the next generation of entrepreneurs constructed the neighborhood’s “auto row” buildings. While this may seem shocking, it’s important to note that much of north downtown, including many very substantial buildings - hotels, churches, schools, apartment buildings - were willingly demolished by their owners because of the increase in value they anticipated upon flattening the land and serving it with wider more gently sloping streets.
Even before construction started on the Chophouse Row project in 2013, evidence of this previous layer of settlement had surfaced. In 2006, during construction of the Agnes Lofts at 12th & Pike, a mostly rotted pile of wood was found 25 feet below the sidewalk at the bottom of the excavation. The developer of the Union Art Coop at the corner of 11th and Union, has reported an intermittent natural water source running diagonally through the south end of the block. Significant water was encountered when sub-basement helical piles were installed for the seismic upgrade of the Piston & Ring building. To bridge the gap between native soils and established sidewalk grade, the buildings along 12th Avenue have basements which are 20 feet tall or more.
From these pieces of natural and architectural evidence, as well as the very first topographical maps of Seattle, we can surmise that Chophouse sits on what was once a wet wooded ravine separating the summit of Capitol Hill (then Broadway Hill) from that of First Hill. An 1885 Kroll map shows the street grid petering out north of Madison and east of Broadway into a handful of scattered buildings in the woods that we can surmise were reached only by dirt track. Two blocks away, consistent with the reported existence of a ‘swale’ that ran parallel to Broadway, the site of current day Cal Anderson Park was chosen in 1905 as the site of the Lincoln Reservoir. Seattle was (and is) a city fond of re-sculpting its landscape in many regards: during this same era it engineered the Montlake Cut, the Ship Canal and the Locks, changed the direction of the drainage of Lake Washington, filled in the tidelands of the Duwamish estuary and built the downtown seawall.
Of course, the early pioneers, and the industrious city engineers who followed, represent relatively recent chapters in the ancient story of this place. For Native Americans, Capitol Hill and First Hill were dense hilly forests that separated two ancient branches of the Duwamish tribe (part of the larger Coast Salish population) — the “People of the Inside” (the environs of Elliott Bay) and the “People of the Large Lake” (Lake Washington) — where they had been living since the end of the last glacial period (c. 8000 BCE, 10,000 years ago) until white settlers arrived in the mid 1800s. Their two closest villages to this site were at today’s Leschi Park and King Street Station. (The latter site was then at the edge of the enormous estuary of the Duwamish River). Before the forests of Capitol Hill were denuded by the pioneers, they would have been the primary source of the cedar planks from which these tribes built the longhouses for their permanent winter settlements. These cedar planks emerge again in Ghost Cabin.
Seattle is a place that looks forward far more than it looks backward; it is a city always grasping for progress. It is requiring a concerted effort to preserve the early 20th century auto row buildings that replaced the pioneer layer before them, and to keep them visible in a rapidly changing city. The incremental repurposing of this block helps expose the development history of Seattle. The buildings that are visible today date from 1908, 1916, several from the 1920s, 1955, 2008 and 2015. Perhaps by exposing the layers of our past and juxtaposing them with our present and future, we will be encouraged to ponder what it means to make a city with a soul.