Housing through the years: From the Denny Party to the Great Depression in King and Snohomish Counties: A Slideshow

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 9/10/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9833

The history of non-Native housing in what would become King and Snohomish counties started with log cabins and tents and has perhaps reached its apotheosis in the mega-mansions of the region's tech billionaires. In the progression from the raw-log, dirt-floored shacks of Alki Point to the lakeside estates of Medina and Mercer Island, the region has seen a number of housing styles come in and go out of fashion, from the simple boxes of the earliest days, through the improbably ornate High Victorian mansions of the late nineteenth century, to the sometimes spare and brutal-looking structures of the Modernist schools. The Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties sponsors this slide show to illustrate the contributions that housing professionals have made to the area's economy and to its people's comfort. It is a large topic, and what is presented here provides a look at regional housing from the earliest settlers to the dawn of the Great Depression, when the hammers and saws largely fell silent, not to resume until the end of World War II. This is by no means an exhaustive review, but rather just a sampling of some of the more common and popular designs, and a few of the more peculiar, that the region saw in its first eight decades.

An Architectural Melting Pot

The Northwest's early-day remoteness ensured that established architectural styles did not arrive intact from the East Coast. Settlers and builders in the Northwest during the last half of the nineteenth century were not fettered by the dictates of scholarly architecture; in fact, although there were many self-styled "professional" architects practicing in Seattle in the 1880s and 1890s, they most often had come from the building trades, and the first academically trained architect did not arrive until the early 1900s. Housing styles that existed in relatively pure form on the East Coast passed through many hands on the way west, some skilled and some less so. The absence of pristine architectural exemplars in the new territories freed early builders from the constraints of established forms. Many of the region's homes in the late nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, humble or fine, incorporated features from different architectural styles and periods, making straightforward classification virtually impossible.

But the impulse to categorize is strong, and the attempts to do so with early regional architecture have led to some strained and confusing nomenclature. Seattle's Department of Neighborhood's historical-building listings include such compound classifications as "Arts & Crafts, Craftsman, Queen Anne, Cottage, Various" -- all this an attempt to describe in architectural terms a very small house built in Wallingford in 1907. And one of the largest single categories used by the department to pigeonhole historic buildings is "Vernacular," which takes in everything that cannot be comfortably forced into one or a combination of the other 78 classifications it uses, which include "None" and "Other." In contrast, most published academic accounts of early Seattle architecture lump several diverse styles, including Italianate and Queen Anne, under the rubric "Victorian," a word that does not even appear in the Department of Neighborhoods' architectural vocabulary. There clearly is a strong element of subjectivity in these attempts to apply architectural terms of precise meaning to the products of builders who did not play by accepted rules, and there may be disagreements with some of the classifications made herein.

This slideshow does not aspire to be a scholarly guide to architectural styles.The homes pictured in the slides are described by their predominant style, where possible, with mention made of obvious influences borrowed from other designs. It is but a small sampling of some of the more common and popular designs of the first 80 years, leavened with a few examples of the more peculiar.

From Logs to Lumber

The building of permanent homes in what were to become King and Snohomish counties can be dated to March 1853, when Henry Yesler (1810-1892) sawed the first logs at his steam-powered mill at the foot of today's Yesler Way. For the first time lumber, as opposed to raw logs, became readily available, and it must have seemed an inexhaustible resource at the time. Almost exactly two months after Yesler opened his mill, Arthur Denny (1822-1899), Carson Boren (1824-1912), and Dr. David S. "Doc" Maynard (1808-1873) filed the first plats for the Town of Seattle, establishing a street grid from Pioneer Square north into today's downtown. The table seemed set for rapid growth, but it was to be slow in coming.

By 1862, 11 years after the pioneering Denny Party landed on Alki Point, Seattle's population stood at only 182, and the countryside around it was inhabited almost exclusively by Native Americans. White men of great ambition and sometimes flexible ethics stood ready to build a great city, but the population necessary to allow their businesses to thrive simply did not exist. There was little money and less commerce, and the dwellings that housed these first few souls were generally of a type --  one- or one-and-one-half-story wood boxes with gabled roofs, entrances centered on either the long or short side, few windows, and no external ornamentation. The only deviation from strict utility could be found along Front Street (today's 1st Avenue), where some buildings used for business, and often for housing as well, had false fronts, giving them a somewhat more imposing appearance, but adding nothing in the way of substance.

The  1860s were dominated by the lead up to, the fighting of, and the recovery from the nation's Civil War, and migration to the Northwest temporarily slowed. By the time of the 1870 federal census, Seattle's population had indeed grown, but only to a little more than 1,100. This was surely a disappointment to the town's founding families, but it was enough to give commerce a little traction. The seeds of what would become great fortunes were planted in this era, but they would not fully mature until the city's population caught up with its potential.

There were no formally trained architects in Seattle during these early years. Houses were built by local or itinerant contractors and builders, often with no plans other than those they carried in their heads. Dwellings were spartan and largely unadorned. If a house was painted at all, it was painted white. One singular exception to these early utilitarian boxes was Washington Territorial University, an optimistic and imposing pile of Classical Revival pomp built at 4th Avenue and University Street in 1861.

Houses in outlying areas were generally even less refined than those clustered around the city's small central core. In many nearby places that are now part of Seattle proper, but were then not even worthy of the name "suburbs," raw-log cabins still prevailed. It was far cheaper to hew and build with what you had on your land than to purchase sawed lumber from Henry Yesler's mill and drag it to where it was needed.

Arthur Doyle, a native of Ireland, opened what he termed an architectural office in Seattle in 1871, but apparently lacked academic training. He designed only commercial buildings and left no mark on housing styles. In 1881, William Boone came to town fresh from a successful contracting business in San Francisco, and he would make his presence known with a number of extravagant buildings, commercial and residential, that demonstrated his fondness for ornate, High Victorian architecture. But even with the finest homes from the last decades of the 1800s, an identified "architect" appears to be the exception, and the first academically trained architects would not arrive until the new century. However, plan books and mail-order plans were widely used by builders, who did not hesitate to mix style elements, sometimes to good effect. The word "eclectic" often appears in later descriptions of buildings from this era, not always as a compliment.

An Explosion of Growth

Seattle started to hit its stride in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Its population boomed during the 1880s, and by 1890 reached nearly 43,000, an astounding increase of approximately 1,100 percent above the 1880 count of barely more than 3,500. The Great Seattle Fire of June 1889 could have crippled the city's progress, but in fact it created a clean palette in the downtown area, and this attracted more architects, more builders, and the introduction of new building methods and materials.

As more and more people arrived, new areas were opened for settlement and some of the first planned housing "developments" began to appear. The financial Panic of 1893 slowed things down, but not for long. The first apartment buildings came along in the 1890s, largely supplanting the traditional boarding houses and residential hotels. Seattle's population continued to grow, nearly doubling by 1900 to more than 80,000, then nearly tripling over the next decade, to more than 237,000 by 1910. All these people had to have places to call home, and over the years the region's builders have given the public what it needed, in a variety of styles and at a range of prices.

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