Seattle's First Hill: King County Courthouse and Harborview Hospital -- A Slideshow

  • By Curated by Priscilla Long
  • Posted 3/22/2001
  • Essay 7038

The King County Courthouse was the first of the two monumental public structures that have lorded over the southern summit of First Hill. For reasons of municipal pride that were later regretted, County officials hauled their offices, courtrooms, and jail in 1890 up to architect Willis A. Ritchie's pile that looked commandingly down on the business district from the prospect of 8th Avenue between Alder and Terrace streets. Below the roofline, the classical structure was restrained, ­ even elegant. Above the roofline, it was excessive. The spector of its top-heavy tower was attacked by wits as the County's "Gray Pile," its "Cruel Castle," its "Tower of Despair."

The paneled courtrooms in the still relatively young structure on slippery Profanity Hill were remodeled for prisoners to accommodate the community's growing detention population. In 1926, The Seattle Times reported that "beneath its 200-foot tower of tons of crumbling brick ... are more than two hundred human beings ­-- prisoners ­locked behind bars and their jailers." The afternoon paper quoted Fire Marshal Robert Laing's claim that "the King County jail is a fire trap. The old court house must be discontinued as a place of detention." William Gaines, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, added, "The jail itself is a relic of barbarism." The brick piers that supported the central tower were rotting. The foundation was twisting. Glass was slipping from the shrinking window frames. The prisoners were restrained in this firetrap for four more years, still a fate better than that met by the two prisoners whom the County executed in the attic.

Soon after the prisoners were moved down the hill to their new "penthouse" addition above the County Courthouse on 4th Avenue, the old pile on Profanity Hill was imploded in five seconds by 200 sticks of dynamite. Revealed directly behind it was the nearly completed Harborview Hospital, the second­ and still-standing King County First Hill landmark.

The front entrance to the new hospital faced east on 9th Avenue, but it was the gleaming crème-white shine of its brick west façade that dazzled anyone looking up from Elliott Bay or from Seattle's Central Business District. It was as if the new hospital's mission came from heaven. It nearly did. The new King County hospital was a teaching institution with physicians donating their services. When the 12-story Moderne pile was dedicated in the winter of 1931, it got great reviews. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that it was "the nucleus of a medical center, a forum where medical men will gather with the easy comaraderies of their calling to discuss their problems; its surgery will constitute class rooms in which young doctors will learn the tricks of the trade from the oldsters in the profession."

Harborview Hospital was conceived of, planned for, and managed by doctors. The $2.5 million structure was designed by partners Harlan Thomas and Clyde Grainger. At the time, Thomas was chair of the University of Washington's architectural school. Not only was the shape, skin, and detailing of the building Moderne, the inside was, according to a P-I reviewer, "modern in its every appointment, breath-taking in its uncanny utilization of space and inspiring in its total lack of institutional atmosphere." There was a floor dedicated to pediatrics and another to psychiatry. The hospital staff was especially proud of its out-patient department for persons who could not otherwise afford a trip to the doctor's office.

Through the Great Depression this part of the Harborview mission was ultimately overwhelmed. In a 1940 review of the hospital's problems, the Post-Intelligencer reported, "The most striking example of the crowded conditions at Harborview lies in the out-patient department -- the division maintained for those of the county's indigents who must return periodically for treatment. Built to treat from 50 to 100 cases per day, it now tries bravely to accommodate 700 or 800 visits per day." At the time 350 doctors donated their services to Harborview, rotating three months in the out-patient department and three months in the in-patient division.

In the twenty-first century, Harborview Hospital continues to be a teaching institution, now managed by the University of Washington. In the late 1990s, the hospital's size was greatly and harmoniously expanded with a new building to the west that in part covers the site of the old "Cruel Castle," the King County Courthouse.

This slideshow is a scrapbook of photos on the development of First Hill -- from the steep Profanity Hill of the old King County Courthouse days (1890-1930) to the building of Harborview Hospital in 1931. Curated by Priscilla Long. Commentary by historian and photographer Paul Dorpat.

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