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The History of Belltown

The area of Seattle stretching north of the central business district from Stewart Street to Mercer Street is usually dubbed the Denny Regrade, acknowledging the area’s forcible flattening by city engineers early in the twentieth century. It incorporates the older Belltown district, originally west of 2nd Avenue but today more broadly defined by its various denizens.

The area today combines artist lofts and hangouts with new highrises where condos and apartments are providing close-in housing. Following the new, mostly affluent residents, a number of upscale restaurants and clubs have established a brisk trade in the area. The result, at least for the time being, is a yeasty combination of the bohemian and the trendy, with a significant nightlife.

R.H. Thomson, 1905 Photo: Wikipedia Commons

R.H. Thomson, 1905
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

A City Engineer and His Nemesis
The generally flat terrain of today’s Regrade was originally a steep hill named Denny Hill, but that was changed by a mammoth construction project in the first decades of the twentieth century. A motivating force was Reginald Heber Thomson (1856-1949), who became Seattle’s city engineer in 1892. He designed the town’s first modern sewers and established a water system that a century later remains the region’s largest. But roads and boulevards were Thomson’s first love, especially straight and level roads and boulevards. Thus, Seattle’s topography presented the Scots-Irish engineer with a daunting challenge, and no irregularity of nature affronted him more than Denny Hill.

The hill rose steeply north of Pine Street between 2nd and 5th avenues and then descended gradually to the north across the land claim of William Bell (1817-1887). It was defined on the west with a precipitous bluff that dropped from 2nd Avenue to the edge of Elliott Bay. This confined “Belltown” to 1st and Western avenues and largely isolated it from the downtown precincts to the south. (Bell left Seattle in 1855 and actually had little to do with his namesake land claim.)

Denny Hill stuck in R. H. Thomson’s craw because he believed it blocked the city’s manifest destiny of northward expansion. Having seen the power of hydraulic mining in California, he knew that the hill could easily be sluiced into the bay, but he was frustrated by the stubborn ambition of Arthur Denny (1822-1899) to lure the territorial legislature to his own “Capitol Hill” (not to be confused with the present-day hill northeast of downtown).

Finally persuaded in 1889 that the seat of the new state government was firmly planted in Olympia, Denny began to erect an enormous hotel, which he named for himself. The Panic of 1893 halted work before the interior had been completed, leaving the turreted Victorian shell of the Denny Hotel to hover over Seattle’s landscape for a decade, abandoned at the altar of Denny’s great expectations.

James A. Moore, a flamboyant developer in his own right, bought and completed the 100-room pile as the Washington Hotel. He personally handed the first guest keys to President Teddy Roosevelt (1858-1919) and his entourage on May 23, 1903. Moore built his own tram to transport guests to the top of Denny Hill and started building his own namesake theater and hotel on its western slope.

Seattle's Denny regrade: Nibbling at Denny Hill, topped by the Washington Hotel Courtesy MOHAI

Seattle’s Denny regrade: Nibbling at Denny Hill, topped by the Washington Hotel
Courtesy MOHAI

Regrading Moore’s High Expectations
Thomson started nibbling at Denny Hill’s flanks while working on the perhaps more difficult project of wearing down Moore’s resolve. Economics finally convinced Moore to abandon the high ground in 1906. He erected a modern New Washington Hotel (now the Josephinium) at 2nd Avenue and Stewart Street.

Thomson wasted no time tearing into Denny Hill, but it took five years to vanquish his topographical foe west of 5th Avenue. (The rest of the eastern slope was regraded in 1929 and 1930.) When property owners balked at selling, engineers carved around their lots, sometimes leaving houses stranded a hundred feet in air atop “spite mounds.” These man-made buttes fell by 1911, giving Seattle a vast new tabula rasa upon which to sketch its urban visions.

The first and most famous vision was drawn by Virgil Bogue (1846-1916), a protégé of the Olmsted brothers (whom Seattle had retained in 1903 to plan its park system). The Municipal Plans Commission hired Bogue in 1910, and he delivered a comprehensive plan the following year. Reading like a manifesto of the City Beautiful movement, the Bogue plan proposed to remake Seattle in the image of the “Civic Idea … a consciousness demanding the recognition of organic unity and intelligent system.”

These words were given flesh in his design for a new Civic Center, an ensemble of Beaux-Arts government buildings, not unlike San Francisco’s City Hall complex, radiating outward from the intersection of 4th Avenue and Blanchard Street. The plan basically relocated downtown Seattle to the new Regrade, which horrified property owners south of Pine Street and precipitated a bitter battle between reformers, led by Thomson, and the “landlord trust.”

Voters Nix Bogue Plan
Divided, confused, and wary of the potential bill for Bogue’s dream — which included a rapid transit tunnel from downtown to Kirkland on the far shore of Lake Washington and the purchase of Mercer Island as a city park — voters rejected the plan in 1912 by nearly two to one.
Thomson’s blank slate remained mostly blank for the next half century, thanks to two key factors. First, the automobile, barely mentioned in Bogue’s plan, facilitated the city’s rapid expansion into outlying areas and obviated the Regrade’s original raison d’etreto serve horse-drawn vehicles stalled by Seattle’s steep hills. Second, skyscrapers such as the new Smith Tower, which City Beautiful planners despised, allowed owners to concentrate business development (and raise property values) within the existing downtown.

Serviceable But Seedy
Hotels, apartments, warehouses, and car dealerships slowly filled the Regrade’s vacant lots with functional but largely undistinguished structures. The cheap land attracted marginal businesses to service the downtown. Labor unions raised meeting halls and a Central Labor Temple at 1st Avenue and Broad Street. Film distributors dotted the area with ornate “jewel box” auditoriums in which to preview new releases for theater owners from throughout the Northwest. The older strip of Belltown west of 2nd Avenue fell into disrepair and disrepute as an upland adjunct to the harbor and a berth for visiting sailors.

Seattle’s Soho
The Regrade’s modest success as a working-class neighborhood fell far short of Thomson’s and Bogue’s lofty ambitions, but this did not dissuade succeeding generations of planners and developers from fantasizing “better” futures for the area. The next major step was taken in the mid-1970s when the City approved new zoning to encourage construction of a high-rise residential district. Reality again disappointed the planners, and young artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs took advantage of the area’s low rents to establish a thriving mini-Soho colony of studios, galleries, cafes, and clubs.

In the early 1980s, developer Martin Selig launched a one-man boom of new office construction in the area. The condo craze and superheated real estate market of the Reagan years promoted more construction — and nearly bankrupted a few developers when the tax reform of 1986 popped their financial bubbles. A new round of high-rise construction and rising property values threaten to drive out the Regrade and Belltown’s surviving bohemian element. But, as of the late 1990s at least, the artistic feel continues to mingle with the upscale restaurants and clubs that are serving the many new residents.

Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide Seattle (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998).

Belltown today from Belvedere Viewpoint in West Seattle, June 26, 2004 Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Belltown today from Belvedere Viewpoint in West Seattle, June 26, 2004
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

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