Seattle's Montlake is a quiet urban neighborhood located south of the Montlake Cut/Lake Washington Ship Canal and composed mainly of single-family homes with a small commercial district. Its shoreline is bordered to the west by Portage Bay, to the north by the Lake Washington Ship Canal, and to the east by Union Bay. For the purposes of this essay, on land the Montlake Neighborhood's western boundary is 15th Avenue E, its southern boundary is Interlaken Park, and its eastern boundary is the Washington Park Arboretum. Early real-estate promoters chose the name Montlake to summon up bucolic images of lakes and mountains, the better to sell lots. What had been an important transportation corridor, with several villages in the area, for Lakes Duwamish people became a placid urban neighborhood -- dubbed by one history of the neighborhood an Urban Eden. Montlake's placidity has, however, faced major challenges. Montlake's strategic geographic location has made it historically useful as a place of passage, but rendered it vulnerable to several major construction projects, including the Montlake Cut portion of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, the Montlake Bridge, State Route 520, and the new Sound Transit tunnel currently being built underneath it. The opening of Montlake Cut in 1916 led to radical changes in the neighborhood's shoreline and blocked travel to the north until the Montlake Bridge opened in 1925. Construction of SR 520 in the early 1960s doomed a large swath of the community for right-of-way, and also sliced the neighborhood in two and despoiled parts of the shoreline. Planned widening of SR 520 scheduled to begin in 2012 will bring further changes to the built and natural environments.
People of the Lake
The first people to whom this area was home were the hah-choo-AHBSH, or "people of the lake," usually described as a band of the Lakes Duwamish. A community of at least five longhouses in the area and a fishing weir located on Ravenna Creek had important cultural associations with sti't1tci (Little Island, now called Foster Island) in the future Montlake neighborhood. Prior to the completion of the Montlake Cut, Foster Island was composed of two smaller islands and a submerged low spot between the two islands. When the lake level fell after the completion of the Montlake Cut, the formerly submerged area was exposed, and the two small islands became one larger island. Despite its cultural significance, for a short time in the 1890s Foster Island apparently contained a sawmill.
The narrow span of land that separated Lake Washington from Lake Union served as a portage/transportation corridor, and was called Swa'tsugwlL in T. T. Waterman's orthography, Puget Sound Geography (originally published ca. 1920 and reissued in 2001 edited and with supplemental material by Upper Skagit Lushootseed speakers Vi Hilbert, Jay Miller, and Zalmai Zahir), which is translated as "carry a canoe." Waterman pinpoints the portage point as "just south of where the present canal is cut. I am informed that a little creek drained out of Lake Washington, up which the boats were pushed as far as they could be made to go, and then carried them the remainder of the distance on their shoulders. The name of this place was also given as stE'xugwlL from a stem meaning 'to shove'" (Waterman, 102).
Waterman collected another Lushootseed name for the area now immediately north of Montlake Playfield: this was spaLxad in Waterman's orthography, meaning "marsh" or "wet flats" (Waterman, 102).
A 2006 study by anthropological research firm BOAS Inc. confirmed that the land between Lake Union and Lake Washington "was an important place to the Lake people and their neighbors. A canoe portage, which was controlled by a local group known as the hloo-weelh-AHBSH, was located just south of the present-day Montlake cut ... the southern shoreline was a marsh that contained abundant natural resources, including plants, birds, mammals, and fish. After Lake Washington was lowered in 1916, these marshes became exposed and desiccated" (Cultural Resources Assessment Discipline Report, 5-7-5-8). The marshy area north of Washington Park was filled with material excavated during construction of the Montlake Cut. Between about 1912 and 1936, this area also served as a municipal landfill known as the Miller Street Landfill. Further dredging in this area occurred during the construction of the Arboretum in the mid-1930s and during construction of State Route 520.
These environmental changes made it difficult for Native communities to continue fishing, hunting, and gathering in the Montlake area. Additionally, the Lakes Duwamish were pushed out of their traditional homes by the treaties signed at Medicine Creek (1854) and Point Elliott (1855) and the City of Seattle charter, adopted in 1865, which prohibited Indians from living within the city limits. Just two Indian families, the Zakuse family and Cheshiahud and his wife Madaline, lived on small farms on Portage Bay into the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Platting and Neighborhood Development
Land survey records dating from January 1856 indicate the presence of an Indian Trail between the eastern shore of Union Bay and the western shore of Portage Bay at about the location of modern-day SR 520. This would have been a portage route for watercraft, since it was the narrowest portion of what was (prior to the completion of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in 1916) unbroken land separating Lake Union and Lake Washington.
The idea that a canal would one day link Lake Union with Lake Washington seemed obvious to early settlers. Because of this, the land near that predicted canal was valuable. The earliest land purchase was filed on June 24, 1869, and platted as Pike's 1st Union City. This plat contained the 200-foot-wide strip that would later become part of the Lake Washington Ship Canal. The plat for Pike's 2nd Union City was filed on January 11, 1871 and abutted the earlier plat's southern edge.
By 1872, all of the land that would eventually compose the Montlake neighborhood had been claimed by three men: Philip Ritz (1827-1899), a Walla Walla resident who developed the town of Ritzville; Philip Drew; and John McGilvra (1827-1903). The land including the future Montlake neighborhood was incorporated into the City of Seattle in 1891.
Development of what would become the Montlake neighborhood started in 1905, with most of the housing stock constructed between 1910 and 1940. John E. Boyer (d. 1961) of the Interlaken Land Company platted the future Montlake neighborhood south of the future SR 520 in December 1905. The area east of 24th Avenue was intended to be most exclusive. Seattle real-estate investor H. S. Turner filed a plat for the H. S. Turner Park Addition in 1907. Twin brothers Calvin (1867-1935) and William Hagan (b. 1867) and partner James Corner (1862-1919) developed the Montlake Park Addition to the City of Seattle in July 1909, perhaps counting on the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (held nearby on the University of Washington campus from June 1 to October 16, 1909) to increase traffic and drum up interest.
As property was purchased and divided by those who purchased it, street names assigned to the area multiplied. By 1890, streets in the future Montlake neighborhood listed on Anderson's Map of Seattle included Calhoun, Westmoreland, King, West, Calker, Summit, East, Water, George, and Montgomery streets. Some of these named streets ran only a block or two before changing names. In the late 1910s, the Seattle City Council standardized street names throughout the city, resulting in many streets -- including some in Montlake -- being renamed.
The Seattle Yacht Club was established in 1892 and has been located at its current 1807 E Hamlin Street site just southwest of the Montlake Cut since 1920. It features a clubhouse and moorage for 271 boats.
The Montlake neighborhood has rich associations with beloved Seattle boating events, including Opening Day ceremonies on the first day of boating season each year. The annual Windermere Cup (named to honor its sponsor, a Seattle real-estate company) is a rowing competition held in the Montlake Cut on Opening Day, and draws thousands of spectators, rain or shine.
Lake Washington Ship Canal
Construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal between 1910 and 1916, seemingly inevitable once non-Native settlement had begun, was decades in coming. Harvey Pike, who had taken the land between Lake Washington and Lake Union in payment for painting the Territorial University, began digging a canal there in 1860 but (as recounted by Seattle historian Clarence Bagley) "soon found the task much greater than he originally conceived it and ceased work. He had commenced operations by himself and, with a pick and shovel and wheelbarrow, excavated a ditch of considerable size for an individual's work when he gave up the task" (p. 371).
In 1885, a shallow 16-foot-wide cut regulated by locks known as the Portage Canal was constructed between Union Bay and Portage Bay. Designed to ease the process of transporting logs between timber and sawmill operations, the Portage Canal used the natural difference in water levels between Lakes Union and Washington: the current pushed the logs from the higher Lake Washington to the lower Lake Union.
The area known as the Montlake Cut, completed in 1916, is the one-half-mile-long segment of the Lake Washington Ship Canal where the canal cuts through the former isthmus separating Lake Washington's Union Bay from Lake Union's Portage Bay. The canal is dredged to 30 feet, and is 100 feet in width. Waterside trails abut the canal.
The Montlake Bridge (constructed in 1925) crosses the canal and links the Montlake neighborhood to the University of Washington's lower campus. The Montlake Bridge is designated a City of Seattle landmark, and has been placed on both the state and national registers of historic places.
A small portion of land originally reserved for the Lake Washington Ship Canal but not used -- the canal was located farther north instead -- still remains north of SR 520 behind the houses facing East Hamlin Street. This was the site of the original log canal between Lake Union and Lake Washington.
Dredging and straightening the Montlake Cut produced soft mud and sand that was dumped in nearby shallow water, altering the marshy shoreline. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, fill from dredging and later from construction of SR 520 was deposited in what is now the Montlake Playfield.
Beginning on May 30, 1909, the Montlake neighborhood enjoyed streetcar service. The so-called 23rd Avenue Line -- constructed to deliver fairgoers to the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition -- ran from the corner of Yesler Way and Occidental Avenue in downtown Seattle, via Occidental Avenue, Jackson Street, and 23rd Avenue through Montlake, and on to the A-Y-P's south entrance. After the A-Y-P ended, the 23rd Avenue Line ran from Jackson Street and 23rd Avenue, serving as a cross-town shuttle. In 1919 the line's downtown terminus was shifted to the downtown Seattle post office at 3rd Avenue and Union Street.
On September 8, 1922, the name of the line was changed to Montlake. At that time the route (as enumerated in Leslie Blanchard's 1968 streetcar history) was as follows:
"Post Office Loop at Third and Union; 3rd to Pike, East Pike, 14th, East Madison, 23rd Avenue; N. on 23rd and 24th to Montlake. With the opening of the new Montlake Bridge in 1925, the line was extended over the canal and around the Stadium Loop; [from 1925 the route continued along] 43rd Street, W. to Brooklyn Avenue, N. to 45th, S. to University Way: an arrangement which lasted until September 24, 1932, when it was cut back to the Stadium Loop" (p. 116).
The line was abandoned on February 10, 1940. Thereafter Montlake was served by trackless trolleys and later by King County Metro buses. Metro bus service, although much more extensive than the old streetcar service, still travels over some of the same route. As of 2012, Metro Routes 43 and 48 duplicate the streetcar route as they travel through central Montlake.
The few children who lived in Montlake during the neighborhood's early years attended Stevens School on Capitol Hill, accessing the school by hiking uphill through Interlaken Park. Montlake residents petitioned the Seattle School Board for their own school, and in 1913, the school board purchased the city block bounded by 20th and 22nd avenues N and E Calhoun and McGraw Streets. In 1915, Montlake children began attending classes at Portage School, a temporary portable building on that site. A second portable was added in 1918. By 1923, the site held four portables, a play shed, and a group privy/outhouse.
Seattle voters approved a tax levy that same year to erect a permanent Portage School building, among several other schools. The renamed Montlake School replaced Portage School in 1924, serving first through seventh grade the first year and through eighth grade thereafter. Kindergarten students were welcomed beginning in 1937. In 1941, seventh and eighth grades were relocated to Meany Middle School on Capitol Hill. Since 1978, the school has offered Kindergarten through fifth grade. As of 2012, 250 children attend Montlake Elementary.
Montlake Playfield, Shelter House, and Community Club
The Montlake Playfield and Shelter House were constructed partially on fill in former marshlands on the shores of Portage Bay between 1933 and 1936. In the 1910s and 1920s, houseboats moored there, and Dahlialand, a local garden store, utilized nearby acreage to grow dahlia bulbs for commercial use. Montlake mothers, desiring to ward off boredom that might propel their teenagers into juvenile delinquency, pushed for the creation of the playfield, which -- with the field house structure that initially housed the community center -- were built by WPA (Works Progress/Works Projects Administration) workers. The playfield was expanded in the early 1960s when material dredged for construction of the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge was dumped along its edge. The Montlake playfield and its facilities were improved and enhanced in the mid-1970s, including reconfiguration to accommodate football and track, and the construction of a gymnasium/community center facility.
The Montlake Community Club, founded in the early twentieth century as the Interlaken Improvement Club, is a cohesive group of neighbors and volunteer community activists who have worked together over many years to protect their neighborhood. The club's purpose (as stated in preamble to the bylaws) is to maintain and improve the Montlake neighborhood.
Parks and Boulevards
In the early 1900s, the City of Seattle acquired land along Lake Washington's shore from its former owner, the Puget Sound Mill Company, to create Washington Park. The bulk of the property was deeded to the city as a gift, and further parcels were bought until 1917, when the purchase of Foster Island completed the park. The park was part of the Olmsted Plan for Seattle Parks, Boulevards, and Playgrounds, created in 1903.
In 1924, the Seattle Board of Park Commissioners set Washington Park aside as a botanical garden and arboretum. In 1934, the University of Washington Board of Regents and the Seattle city council approved an agreement creating the Washington Park Arboretum. Under the agreement, the university designed, constructed, planted, and managed the arboretum and botanical garden in Washington Park.
The Olmsted Brothers firm drew up a formal plan for the arboretum in March 1936. More than 500 workers employed by the WPA carried out construction of the arboretum between 1936 and 1941. The arboretum and its waterways include Marsh and Foster islands. Washington Park Arboretum's woody plant collection is recognized internationally for its scope and excellence.
Construction of State Route 520 and the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge during the early 1960s substantially altered the northern portion of the park, destroying much of that portion's natural beauty. The Highway Department (now Washington State Department of Transportation) condemned more than 40 acres of Washington Park for the SR 520 right-of-way, and dredged the wetlands around Marsh and Foster islands extensively. (Marsh Island is the considerably smaller island located west of Foster Island.) Before construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Hiram Chittenden Locks in 1916 lowered the water level on Lake Washington, the north and south portions of Foster Island were separated by water. The SR 520 cleaves Foster Island at about the place where Lake Washington waters once covered the land connecting the island's two halves.
Lake Washington Boulevard winds through the Washington Park Arboretum between the Montlake neighborhood and the northern edge of the Madison Park neighborhood. Part of the Olmsted Brother's Parks and Parkways plan, Lake Washington Boulevard was the first boulevard constructed as part of that plan, and served as a prototype for those that followed. University Boulevard (now called Montlake Boulevard) -- also part of the Olmsted Plan -- connected Washington Park Boulevard (now a portion of Lake Washington Boulevard) with the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific (A-Y-P) Exposition, crossing the Montlake Portage and ending at the A-Y-P's south gate. The boulevard enabled visitors to travel to the fair via a scenic route, and carried a new streetcar line that provided access to the fair from downtown.
The 1909 plat of the Montlake neighborhood deeded acreage to the city for a park amenity. Now known as East Montlake/McCurdy Park, the area contains trailheads for the Arboretum Waterfront Trail and the Ship Canal Waterfront Trail, trail connections to the Montlake neighborhood and the Washington Park Arboretum, and a wetlands area.
Other Montlake parks include Fairview Avenue Mini-Park and West Montlake Park. Nestled along Portage Bay near the Seattle Yacht Club, peaceful West Montlake offers a vantage point for dramatic views of the Montlake Bridge, Lake Washington Ship Canal Bridge, and the University of Washington's lower campus across the slender Montlake Cut.
In 1967, a waterfront trail was constructed on floating piers through Marsh and Foster Islands, physically connecting the islands with the Arboretum. The trail's western head is in East Montlake Park (just past Horace McCurdy Park), and the trail meets the Ship Canal Waterside Trail near the east end of the Montlake Cut.
Another heavily used public amenity of the Montlake neighborhood is the Bill Dawson Trail. The trail extends under SR 520 from the southeast corner of the Montlake Playfield to the southern edge of the NOAA fisheries center multi-building research facility at 2723 Montlake Boulevard NE.
In 1937, a small private lending library opened at 2303 23rd Avenue N (now E). In 1944, the Montlake Library Committee (a volunteer offshoot of the Montlake Community Club) rented a former grocery store at 2304 23rd Avenue N (now E) to house the Montlake Station library -- one of several temporary stations opened during World War II. The Seattle Public Library provided the books and staff. In 1947, The Seattle Public Library took over the lease on the station. This station branch moved into the former soda fountain next door at 2300 23rd Avenue N (now E) in 1979.
On August 12, 2006, the Montlake Branch opened in a new facility at 2401 23rd Avenue E. The new brick and cedar-clad structure was designed by Weinstein Architects + Urban Designers. With 5,652 square feet -- more than three times the size of the old facility -- the $5.24 million branch was designed to accommodate more than 18,000 books and other items. Seattle artist Rebecca Cummins created the colored glass sundial/skylight.
Montlake's small business district, located along 24th Avenue E between E Lynn and E McGraw Streets, developed mainly in the 1920s. Over time it has contained a movie theater, grocery store, hardware store, café, barber and beauty shops, a dye-works, and other services businesses. Early twenty-first century businesses include a coffee shop, mini-market, antique shop, and several restaurants.
Other important businesses that are part of the Montlake community include St. Demetrious Greek Orthodox Church (Paul Thiry, 1962), the Museum of History & Industry (until in 2012 it moved to South Lake Union), and the Boyer Children's Clinic. The Boyer clinic opened in 1948 as Dr. Wyckoff Spastic Pre-school and Clinic. The facility served children with cerebral palsy and other neuromuscular disorders. The current two-story, 13,444-square-foot building at 1850 Boyer Avenue was designed by Ibsen Nelsen and the Fred Bassetti group, and opened in 1992.
Montlake's History Museum
In 1952, the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) opened on land that had been owned by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, a remnant of the Lake Washington Ship Canal project, and was acquired by Seattle Parks and Recreation Department, which gave MOHAI a low-cost lease. The airy, modern building was designed by noted northwest architect Paul Thiry (1904-1993), and housed the collection of the Seattle Historical Society (founded in 1911) and later the Seattle Maritime Historical Society.
As built, Thiry's structure faced south. A circular drive led to a covered walkway, through which visitors could access the building. The setting was a park-like mix of formal plantings and open space. Construction on SR 520 in the early 1960s created a roadway that ran so close to MOHAI's southern side that it almost grazed the building, destroying the approach and necessitating the relocation of the entrance to the building's north side. Although workable from the exterior, this change greatly altered flow within the building. MOHAI made do, adding an auditorium facility, and the museum remained a feature of the neighborhood.
As the Washington State Department of Transportation began exploring route plans for a greatly expanded SR 520 in the mid-2000s, MOHAI's leadership foresaw that the museum's Montlake tenancy was destined to end: the building, so close to the existing route, could not withstand a route expansion. By this time, MOHAI's collection comprised over four million vintage photographs, artifacts, and archival items. In 2007, MOHAI announced plans to relocate to the Naval Reserve Building on the shores of Lake Union in the new Lake Union Park. This location takes MOHAI -- and its 70,000 annual visitors -- from a largely residential neighborhood to the densely urban neighborhood of South Lake Union. MOHAI patrons said goodbye to the old museum on June 6, 2012.
The construction of SR 520 in 1963 cleaved the Montlake neighborhood in two. The smaller area north of SR 520 is often referred to as the Shelby-Hamlin neighborhood, encompassing the Seattle Yacht Club and West Montlake Park. The larger area south of SR 520 includes East Montlake Park, the Montlake branch of The Seattle Public Library, the Montlake Playfield and Community Center, Montlake Elementary School, St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, and the Washington Park Arboretum.
In addition to cutting the neighborhood in two, SR 520 construction also physically cut away at the land comprising the Montlake, North Capitol Hill, and Roanoke neighborhoods. Construction of ramps and wider roadways connecting SR 520 to Interstate 5 were particularly devastating to both the natural and the built environment in these neighborhoods, requiring a large freeway right-of-way footprint. Cutting earth out resulted in fill material, which was dumped into former lagoon areas near the Arboretum, around Foster Island (where dredging and pile driving for bridge footings wrought their own destruction), and elsewhere near the shoreline, once again scarring the formerly rich natural environment.
Two large buildings were moved and a smaller building was demolished for the original SR 520 right-of-way through the Montlake neighborhood. Montlake residents protest the location of the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, whose approaches and exits mangled portions of the Arboretum (including Foster Island), Montlake Boulevard, and Portage Bay. A viaduct on concrete pillars carrying the freeway from the bridge through wetlands and the Montlake neighborhood, then on to east Capitol Hill where SR 520 meets I-5 created both a visual blight and a physical imposition on wetlands and neighborhood. Despite the protests of the Seattle City Council and numerous citizens' organizations, the project proceeded -- with accompanying noise and disruption. After completion, Montlake residents whose homes were near the roadway lived with the steady thrum of freeway traffic.
From the 1950s there were plans by the state to build two freeways through the neighborhood. In the context of increased environmental awareness and concern for neighborhood preservation, in 1972 Seattle voters endorsed cancellation of the R. H. Thomson Expressway, which would have impinged on the Washington Park Arboretum, and aborted the proposed Bay Freeway linking SR 520, Interstate 5, and SR 99 along the south shore of Lake Union. Citizens Against R. H. Thomson (CARHT), a coalition of citizen activists living in the neighborhoods most threatened by the project, organized and led the fight against these projects. If built, the projects would have further marred the Montlake neighborhood, destroying a large north-south section of the neighborhood where the planned route would have connected to SR 520. Early construction on the cancelled project left the so-called ramps to nowhere -- half-completed ramps that would have led from SR 520 to the Thomson Expressway.
Long an established place of portage, the neighborhood seems destined to remain devoted to the portage of vehicular traffic. The SR 520 bridge replacement project will expand the footprint of the freeway in the neighborhood and affect local traffic patterns. However, the Montlake neighborhood retains a strong supportive community, is centrally located, and possesses architectural charm. Montlake's easy access to parks, shoreline, water, and abundant natural beauty will likely continue to draw residents eager to take advantage of these amenities.