400 Yesler Way: Seattle Municipal Building 1909-1916, Seattle Public Safety Building 1917-1951

  • By Dotty DeCoster
  • Posted 5/28/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9336
See Additional Media

The Seattle building located at 400 Yesler Way was constructed as a Municipal Building in 1909 and provided space for Seattle City offices, the City jail, an emergency hospital, the police department, and a health and sanitation department. The architect of the concrete and steel-framed building was Clayton D. Wilson. In about 1912, a penthouse for a nurses' residence was added onto the roof. In 1916, City offices relocated to the new County-City Building (now the King County Courthouse), leaving the 400 Yesler building to the purposes for which it was originally intended: to be the city's first public safety building. And so it remained until 1951, when a new public safety building was built (which has since been demolished). The old public safety building was abandoned, then sold in 1957 to private owners. Toward the end of 1976, the City negotiated with the owners to renovate the building and lease it to the City for offices. The inside of the building was gutted and redeveloped, and some City offices moved there in 1977 and early 1978. King County bought the building in 1991 and in the late 1990s waterproofed and renovated the rotting foundation levels. Today, 400 Yesler Way continues to grace Yesler Hill between 4th and 5th avenues and Yesler Way and Terrace Street, a beaux arts, government building that dates from the early years of the twentieth century.

Meeting the Needs of a Growing City

Seattle’s population nearly doubled in size between 1890 (42,800) and 1900 (80,671), then skyrocketed to 237,194 by 1910. The Municipal Building was built during this extraordinary population surge. Municipal services also were expanding in scope during this period, as City officials grappled with the need for sanitation, a clean water supply, disease prevention, municipal ownership of basic utilities, and the regrading of downtown Seattle and its access points. Mired in mud much of the time, Seattle citizens worried a great deal about cleanliness. Like city dwellers throughout the United States, public health and sanitation became overwhelming  preoccupations, and included opposition to vice, corrupt government, and alcohol, or at least the facilities for distributing alcohol (bars, taverns, bordellos, and the like). When it opened the new Municipal Building was celebrated for its cleanliness and its modern ventilation system.

The City purchased the property on Yesler Way in the 1880s. When originally proposed in 1904, City officials had hoped to create two buildings -- one a city hall and the other a public safety building. In a special election on December 6, 1904, the public said "no" to a new city hall, but approved a bond issue to build a new public safety building to house the jail, an emergency hospital, and a municipal courtroom. During the next two years, the city council added the police department and the health and sanitation department to the mix, and in 1906 all city offices were included.

This increased the size of the projected building to four stories, with a daylight basement and an additional basement and sub-basement below that. A competition to design and supervise construction of the building was held. After architect Clayton D. Wilson was selected, it took more than two years to construct the concrete and steel-frame building. There were many setbacks and changes along the way.

By August 1905 the Yesler Way property was selected as the site of the proposed new Public Safety Building. On November 2, 1905, Reginald Heber (R. H.) Thomson (1856-1949), chairman of the Board of Public Works, wrote to W. N. G. Place, principal assistant building inspector, noting that the design of the “new municipal jail” project had been awarded to architect Clayton D. Wilson, and that Place was to be in charge of approving and administering the plans. Thomson went on to say:

"This building is to be used for composite purposes. a. A stable on the ground floor, which is against our sense of fitness, but made necessary. b. Offices for the Health Department. c. A court room. d. Headquarters for the Police Department. e. A hospital. f. A jail and jail kitchen” (Seattle Municipal Archives 2614-07).

Thomson then outlined a challenge to the architect:

“This motley combination of different things requires a very special study to be made of ventilation ... . Not only every floor, but every room on every floor, should have perfect ventilation of itself upon the most modern methods. We cannot depend upon open windows or open doors. We must have stacks running through to the roof of the building, providing proper ventilation for every room of the building . . .” (Seattle Municipal Archives 2614-07).

In April 1906 the City announced it would combine a needed new city hall with the proposed  Public Safety Building, and that the building would include two additional stories to house city offices. Then, in November 1907, 5th Avenue and Terrace Street were regraded, requiring that the foundation of the new building be strengthened. That same month, Thomson noted the proposal by the Oregon & Washington Railroad to build a tunnel directly under the new building, and monitoring and strengthening of the foundation continued. (This tunnel was never built -- the Oregon & Washington Railroad ended up using the Great Northern Railway tunnel, which was completed in 1905 from the site of the  King Street Station, opened in 1906 under 4th Avenue at its southern end, and is still in use today.)

During the first quarter of 1907, James Parke & Company finished the excavation for the “Municipal Court, Jail & Hospital Building” but was asked to suspend concrete work because of the proposed tunnel. By the end of July, the firm of Gerrick & Gerrick had been contracted to brace the walls and reset the steel work in the sub-basement. In November, more bracing of the building was ordered. Finally, in November 1908, R. H. Thomson ordered a ton of coal, and in March 1909 W. D. Allen, contractor, completed installing the building's heating and ventilation systems. 

Clayton D. Wilson,  Architect

In 1905 Clayton D. Wilson (1866-1947) was selected through a competition conducted by the Board of Public Works to design the building and supervise construction at 400 Yesler. Wilson had been in Seattle for about four years, first serving as a draftsman for Bebb & Mendel, Architects, then partnering briefly with William W. de Veaux, and in about 1907, with Arthur L. Loveless.

An active member of the American Institute of Architects throughout his career, Wilson is also known to have designed the Kennedy House in West Seattle (1909), the Alexander Pantages House  in Madison Park (1909), the Bloch House near Volunteer Park (1908) -- the last two in conjunction with Arthur L. Loveless -- and the West Seattle Congregational Church (1912). He continued working as an architect through 1939, and his works included a building at 1st Avenue and Bell for White & Hitchcock, Inc. (1930) and alterations to the Hardeman Hat Company plant at 7th Avenue N and Republican Street (1932).

Wilson and his, wife Trellah B. Wilson (1870-1944), lived in Seattle's University District, and he died in April 1947 at the Masonic Home at Zenith, having been a member of St. John’s Masonic Lodge (No. 9).

The Plans

A set of plans for the building is available in the University of Washington Libraries  Special Collections, but they are unsigned and undated. They appear to have been drawn in 1906, before it was decided to add all City offices to the new building, and before the regrading project lowered the street levels on Terrace and 5th Avenue. These plans show a full-floor daylight basement, with four floors above and two partial floors below. At this time, it was customary to speak of the first floor of a building as being the one above the daylight basement.

The building is trapezoidal in shape, with two slightly offset sides meeting along 5th Avenue -- a long side on Yesler Way and another not-quite-so-long side on Terrace Street. These sides meet at a triangular apex softened into a curve that fronts on 4th Avenue. Originally, the building had a triangular-shaped lightwell from the daylight basement through to the roof, and the rooms were arranged on corridors around the lightwell, the apex of which also faced 4th Avenue.  

The plans show that the top floor (fourth floor) held the jail, with steel bars on the windows. The third floor was the City Emergency Hospital, with the operating room in the triangular front space facing 4th Avenue. The second floor was divided between the police department to the north and the house physicians of the Department of Health and Sanitation to the south. The milk inspector's office and the police matron's offices were there as well, along with the smoking room in the northeast corner. The first-floor plan shows the office of the chief of police in the front, with other police facilities and offices on the west side, including a vault; and the city attorney, municipal court, jury room, and an assembly room to the east with stairs that went outside at 5th Avenue between the witness rooms (one for men and one for women)

There was a private passage along the south side between the city attorney’s office and the judge’s office in the southeast corner. There were two entrances on Yesler Way, the westernmost one leading directly to the police department. The main entrance and lobby for the building were in the middle of the block. One entrance was located on Terrace Street, with a lobby adjacent to the police clerk’s vault. A second vault was located east of the municipal court in the clerk’s office.

In the first basement, which is at ground level on the 4th Avenue side, was the city electrician’s office. Along the 5th Avenue side, which was underground at the time, was the target range. Both sets of elevators (two for passengers and two for freight) traveled from the basement to the top floor. The second basement contained workshops and the battery room and was originally excavated under only about half the building, on the 4th Avenue side. (It is now a full basement.) The sub-basement, under the second basement, provided parking stalls for an ambulance and a patrol vehicle. There were several toilets on every floor excepting the sub-basement.

A New Building for the City

During the weekend of April 3-4, 1909, Seattle City offices, the City jail, and an emergency hospital moved into the new Municipal Building at 400 Yesler Way. The building opened to the public on Monday, April 5, and the city council met there that evening.

When the building opened in 1909, the mayor’s office was on the second floor at the apex of the triangle, adjacent to the offices of the superintendent of public utilities. The city engineer’s office was on the third floor, along with the police department's booking office. Laboratories for both the engineering department and the health and sanitation department were in the basement. These locations we know from contemporary sources. The city council, which convened in the evening, likely met on the first floor in the assembly room. With all this activity, the building was crowded from the first day. 

The Exterior

The exterior of the building today remains similar to when it was built. The first two levels from the sidewalk (the daylight basement and the first floor) are clad in rusticated sandstone and have post and lintel openings. The next three stories (floors two through four) are clad in light-colored brick, with bays created by projecting piers in rusticated cast-stone. At the top of the fourth floor is a metal belt course with repeated bracket pairs and ornamental brackets in series. This level has smaller window openings and is topped with a low mansard roof. On the roof sits a penthouse (now offices) and projecting above this course is the mechanical shed, which now houses equipment that fills the former skylight and lightwell.

This is quite a large building: 182 feet along the Terrace Street side, 29 feet across the apex of the triangle, 180.6 feet along the Yesler Way side, and 132 feet across the 5th Avenue side. 

City Emergency Hospital

Providing a municipal emergency hospital in the new building was an innovation for Seattle. Since 1899 the City and County had been supporting Wayside Emergency Hospital, founded by the Seattle Benevolent Society, which provided emergency health care in the old paddle-wheel steamer Idaho moored at the foot of Jackson Street. For some years both the City and County referred patients there and helped pay for their care, and the City provided free water. There were 41 beds, a small surgery, and an outpatient dispensary, along with a kitchen and nurses' residence. In 1905, Wayside was seeing about 100 patients a month, and complaints began to circulate that the need was greater than the available facilities. Wayside moved in 1907 to the Yesler home at Republican and 2nd Avenue N, where it continued as the New Wayside Emergency Hospital until 1913. The move, caused by condemnation of the Idaho, left downtown without emergency medical services.

In 1908, city voters changed the way the City provided health care services by abolishing the Board of Health and providing for a new health commissioner who would oversee the expanded Department of Health & Sanitation. In March 1908, Dr. James E. Crichton (1863?-1933) was appointed commissioner of health. Dr. Crichton, who had been a city councilman from the 8th ward (Queen Anne) for 16 years, was a practicing physician and an advocate for better sanitation and health services. Crichton reorganized the department and began operating in the 400 Yesler Building in 1909 with a staff divided into four divisions, led by a chief sanitary engineer (M. F. Stevens), a chief medical inspector (F. S. Bourns, M.D.), a hospital matron (Mary E. Shiach), and a chief clerk and secretary (A. A. Braymer). The department also housed the city chemist and city bacteriologist, along with a range of inspectors, and oversaw the contagious disease hospital on Beacon Hill. As described by a contemporary historian:

“At the start the hospital contained twenty-five patients. It had accommodations for fifty and upon forced conditions could accommodate eighty. There were rooms for operation, surgery, men, women and other branches of hospital service. One doctor remained at the hospital night and day” (Bagley).

Separate elevators were provided for hospital and jail services. The City Emergency Hospital served 1,607 patients in 1910. In 1912, the small penthouse addition was added to the roof of the building to serve as a residence for the hospital nurses. The City Emergency Hospital remained in the 400 Yesler Building until 1951, when the City and County health departments were amalgamated.

Police Department and Jail

The police department headquarters had been housed in an old frame building, part of the city hall complex. Irving Ward was chief of police when the new building opened, appointed by Mayor John F. Miller. Between 1909 and 1951, the period that police headquarters were in the 400 Yesler Building, there were 23 police chiefs, all appointed by the mayor. All served the point of view of their appointing mayor in terms of managing an “open” city, one where “vice” was zoned below the "deadline" (Yesler Way), or one where vice was not tolerated at all. Prohibition (of alcohol) between 1916 and 1933 contributed significantly to the burdens of the police department during its tenure in the 400 Yesler building.

Perhaps no one was more excited about the new city jail in 1909 than Mrs. M. C. De Han, matron of the jail. “You will not be able to appreciate it fully until you see the old city jail. It was a horror" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 4, 1909). There had been many complaints over time and on October 7, 1907,

“A committee stated to represent the Socialistic Party, the Tailors Union, and Machinists Union, consisting of Dr. Titus, Mr. Williamson, and Prof. Curtis appeared before the Board [Board of Health Commissioners] formally requesting the Board to make a personal inspection of [the City Jail]” (Seattle Municipal Archives 3200-01).

The board did inspect the next day, and a report was filed, one of many. Not only was the new city jail clean, it had been thoughtfully planned so that facilities and equipment were easily kept clean. Mrs. De Han did say that she would use stilts to look out the window of her tiny room in the new jail.

Unfortunately, the pressures of a burgeoning population meant that in a few short years, complaints began to be made again about the condition of the jail as it became overcrowded. Designed to house a maximum of 80 prisoners, by the time it moved to the new Public Safety Building in 1951, the jail held 552. In 1909 the city population was 219,263; by 1950 it had grown to 462,981.

Public Safety Building

In 1916, City offices moved out of the 400 Yesler building, leaving behind the jail, police department, health & sanitation department, and the City Emergency Hospital. The city architect, Daniel R. Huntington, altered the building in 1917. It must have been a relief for all occupants. The building formally became known as the Public Safety Building, which it remained until 1951 when the City built a new Public Safety Building on the site of pioneer Charles C. Terry’s family home, between 3rd and 4th avenues and  James and Cherry streets.

In 1951, when the City abandoned the 400 Yesler building, urban renewal was sweeping the country. The building was sold to private owners in 1957. By 1976 the building was substantially vacant, save for an auto repair facility and up to 68 private parking spaces. Although the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on June 19, 1973, no renovations were undertaken, perhaps in anticipation of urban renewal in the area. The city council, however, had become interested in historic restoration by 1976, and pressure was applied to the landlord, eventually resulting in an agreement for the City to lease office space in the building if it was renovated. The owner was Charles M. Sprincin and his wife, doing business as the Yesler Corporation. During 1977 the 400 Yesler building was essentially gutted on the inside and office space redeveloped. In this renovation it is thought that the following changes were made:

  • electrical and mechanical equipment installed in the lightwell and the lightwell enclosed
  • entrances redeveloped
  • old elevators removed and replaced by two modern elevators in the back, off the Terrace Avenue entrance
  • a third elevator added between the basement and sub-basement.

City offices moved into the building at the end of 1977 or early in 1978.

Yesler Building Today

In 1991, King County purchased the 400 Yesler Building. The County undertook to rehabilitate and waterproof the basement and sub-basements, rescuing the rotting structure and returning the building to good health.

Today the building houses King County offices including Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), Public Health/Prevention, Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD), Risk Management, Hearing Examiner, Disability Services, Benefits, Business Relations and Economic Development (BRED), Office of Civil Rights (OCR), and in the penthouse, Department of Transportation (DOT)/Transit.

Sources: Thomas Veith, "Clayton D. Wilson," in Shaping Seattle Architecture, ed. by Jeffrey Karl Ochsner, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994), 150-151, 354; Thomas Veith, "Daniel R. Huntington," in Shaping Seattle Architecture, ed. by Jeffrey Karl Ochsner (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994), 115. Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916), 336-337;  "Municipal Building 1: Correspondence and Invoices," ledger, SMA 2614-07 (contains correspondence by R. H. Thomson 1905-1909), Seattle Engineering Department, Seattle Municipal Archives; "Board of Health Minutes, 1890-1911,"  SMA 3200-01, Box 1, Seattle Board of Health, Seattle Municipal Archives; Seattle-King County Department of Public Health Centennial Report: Public Health Then and Now: 1889-1989, SEADOC H4.9, Seattle Public Library Seattle Room; Katharine Major, "Nursing Seattle’s Unfortunate Sick," The American Journal of Nursing, Vol. 6, No. 1 (October 1905), pp. 32-34; Clayton D. Wilson, Architectural Drawings, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections; "New Jail Ready for its Inmates; Quarters in Steel Municipal Building to be Opened this Morning; Police are Moving In; Have Cleaner, Better Facilities for Their Work -- Prison Is on the Top Floor," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 4, 1909, p. 10; "Contracts Awarded," The Seattle Daily Times, March 14, 1932, p. 4; "Architects Urge Use of Washington Products," Ibid., November 10, 1908, p. 3; "Bloch House, 1908," Ibid. November 24, 1963; Larry Rumley, "Old Public Safety Building," Ibid. December 6, 1964, p. 85; "Clayton D. Wilson," Ibid. April 11, 1947, p. 21; "J. E. Crichton, Noted Health Expert is Dead", Ibid., March 21, 1933; untitled announcement, White & Hitchcock building, Ibid. September 28, 1930, p. 32; "Crichton Gets New Office," Oregonian, March 24, 1908; "Regular Meeting of the City Council," Seattle Daily Bulletin, Vol 15, No. 52, March 2, 1909, p. 1;  "Regular Meeting of the City Council," Ibid., April 6, 1909; Pacific Building and Engineering Record, 1906 (bound volume),  March 17, p. 5; May 19, p. 5; June 2, p. 5; June 16, p. 6; June 23, p. 5; July 21, p. 6, Seattle Public Library Seattle Room; "Public Safety Building 1909-1951,"  M4.9, City of Seattle, Seattle Public Library Seattle Room; Paul Dorpat, "By the Wayside," The Seattle Times Pacific Northwest Magazine, September 30, 2001; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Great Northern Tunnel -- Seattle" (by Daryl C. McClary), and "Seattle City Halls" (by Anne Frantilla), and "Thomson, Reginald Heber (1856-1949)" (by Alan J. Stein), and "Wapperstein, Charles W. (1853-931)" (by Junius Rochester), and "Typhoid erupts among prisoners in filthy Seattle Jail on January 5, 1901" (by Greg Lange), and "Health officials report outbreak of typhoid in Seattle on September 12, 1909" (by Cassandra Tate), and "Warren, Joel Franklin (1858-1934)" (by Phil Hannum), and "Pioneer Building, The (Seattle)" (by Dotty DeCoster), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 5, 2010); "City Hall/Public Safety Building," Historical Sites, City of Seattle, Department of Neighborhoods website, accessed January 10, 2010 (http://web1.seattle.gov/dpd/historicalsite/QueryResult.aspx?ID=1104914466); "Katzenjammer Castle: Seattle’s Second City Hall," Seattle Municipal Archives website, accessed January 10, 2010 (http://www.seattle.gov/CityArchives/Exhibits/cityHalls/panel2.htm); "Chief of Police," Seattle Municipal Archives website, accessed February 12, 2010 (http://www.cityofseattle.net/cityarchives/Facts/police.htm); "Yesler Building Basement Repair," Kryton website accessed February 12, 2010, (http://www.kryton.com/_webapp_64943/Yesler_Building_Basement_Repair#top; "Yesler Building History," King County Department of Executive Services, Risk Management Services website accessed January 10, 2010 (http://www.kingcounty.gov/property/Risk/About/History.aspx); Ordinances 11937, 11376, 12300, 12277, 12734, 14227, digested on the City of Seattle Legislative Information Service website (http://clerk.ci.seattle.wa.us); Seattle City Directories, several years; "400 Yesler," microfilm, permits and letters, City of Seattle Department of Planning & Development, Room 2000, Municipal Tower; Seattle Municipal Ordinance No. 106652, 105934, 86331, 11937, 12300, 12277, 12734, 14227, City of Seattle Legislative Information Service website accessed January 12, 2010 (http://clerk.ci.seattle.wa.us/~public/CBOR1.htm); Building tour by the author on February 24, 2010, conducted by King County staff.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You