Seattle Neighborhoods: Capitol Hill, Part 2 -- Thumbnail History

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 6/03/2011
  • Essay 9841
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The Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle is part of a long ridge that overlooks the downtown. In 1872, the pioneers cleared a wagon road through the forest to a cemetery at its peak (later named Lake View Cemetery). It was logged off in the 1880s. James Moore (1861-1929), Capitol Hill's chief developer, gave the hill its name in 1901. Before that it was called Broadway Hill. Capitol Hill is a vibrant community, with a thriving business district along Broadway Avenue and along 15th and 19th avenues. It is home to Volunteer Park and the Seattle Asian Art Museum, St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral as well as other churches, Seattle Central Community College, Cornish College for the Arts, Richard Hugo House (a center for writers), as well as many shops, restaurants, and coffeehouses. Capitol Hill is the site of Seattle’s annual celebration for Gay Pride week. This is Part 2 of a two-part essay.

Art and Business on the Hill   

Although it had its beginnings as an enclave of the rich, Capitol Hill also has attracted many other segments of society. It became an attractive location for  artists, both pictorial and theatrical, traditional and avant-garde, and it was for years the hub of Seattle's interior design and decoration community. In a much less-enlightened time, it became the center of the city's gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, and "questioning" (GLBTQ) communities, and the hill has long had a reputation as a haven for what became known as the counterculture. Particularly in the last decades of the twentieth century, its resident population became more diverse and more activist, and much of Seattle's social history since the 1960s has been made, or at least started, on the streets and in the buildings of Capitol Hill.  

Two businesses in particular became common along Broadway in the first half of the twentieth century. One was automobile dealers, with the first opening near Pine Street as early as 1905. By 1915, virtually all of Seattle's car dealers were clustered on Capitol Hill, most on Broadway, Pike, and Pine streets, together with repair shops and other car-related businesses. Due to this concentration, that portion of Capitol Hill came to be called "Auto Row."  

In 1929, Del Teet Furniture opened on Broadway in a building designed by noted builder Frederick Anhalt. It was to be the first of many purveyors of furniture to set up shop on Capitol Hill, including A.W. Hoss & Son at 1813 Broadway in 1936 and R. J. Skewes, at 211 Broadway in 1940. These and similar businesses were to largely displace the automobile sellers, and the sobriquet "Auto Row" eventually gave way to a new name -- "Furniture Row."    

In the arts, besides Nellie Cornish's school and the original Seattle Art Museum, the Burnley School of Professional Art was founded by Edwin (1896-1981) and Elise Burnley in 1946 in the Booth Building at  905 E Pine Street. It soon offered a full curriculum of what used to be called commercial art, including classes in graphic design and illustration. In 1960, the school was sold to Jess Cauthorn (1923-2005), and later absorbed by the Art Institute of Seattle, now located on Elliott Avenue near Seattle's waterfront. Some of Seattle's first art galleries, including those of David Hall-Coleman and Zoe Dusanne, also found homes on Capitol Hill.   

During the 1950s, some of the furniture stores on the hill started hiring interior designers and decorators to expand the services they could offer to home owners. One notable example was Robert McBreen (1911-1991), who started as a designer with the R. J. Skewes company, then moved on to open his eponymous design studio at 905 E John in the 1950s. Before long, many of Seattle's other top interior designers had showrooms and offices in Capitol Hill's commercial districts, including Armorel Komins, at 1523 Olive Way and William S. McClelland at 225 Broadway N. They were soon joined by shops selling all sorts of  domestic accessories, such as lamps, carpets, and drapes. It was not long before the hill's largest commercial district, once called Auto Row, and then Furniture Row,  was being referred to as  Decorator's Row. 

A Changing Demographic  

Whether by coincidence or not, it was also during the 1950s that Capitol Hill first became known as a tolerant enclave for Seattle's gay community. The Elite Tavern, originally at 622 Broadway E, is generally acknowledged to have been the first gay bar on Broadway, and it gained enough notoriety to actually be bombed by neo-Nazis in 1993. The Wild Rose Tavern at 1021 E Pike may have been the first lesbian bar in Seattle, and is certainly the longest-lived (2011).   

By the 1960s, many of the high-end businesses that had made their mark on the hill and done so much to determine its mid-twentieth-century ambience had moved to Pioneer Square, where buildings that were even older than the oldest on Capitol Hill were being rehabilitated and becoming the chic new locations for selling art, design, and other goods and services that appealed to the moneyed classes. Capitol Hill's primary business districts -- Broadway E , 15th Avenue E, and 19th Avenue E, went into decline.

  But it was at this time, too, that the counterculture, in both its good and bad aspects, started to take hold in Seattle. While much of the action for young people centered on the University District, Capitol Hill, and in particular Broadway, were not far behind. The hill's reputation for tolerance did not go unnoticed, and it was then more affordable than the U District, which was glutted with students attending the university.   

Capitol Hill had much to offer new residents. Apartment that were originally configured to accommodate families had been divided up into smaller living spaces, suitable for individuals, couples, and those of modest means. There were colleges nearby, and the commercial areas around Broadway and farther up the hill on 15th E and 19th E offered both employment opportunities and a thriving nightlife. (Even President Barack Obama (b. 1961) spent a short span of his infancy on the hill; the 1961 Polk Directory indicates that he and his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham (1942-1995), listed as Mrs. Anna Obama, resided at 516 13th Avenue E, Apt. 2).  

Capitol Hill's business life was also changing during this era. Large commercial spaces that once housed car dealerships, repair shops, and other businesses needing lots of room, were broken up into smaller shops and studios, providing space for artists, artisans, and traditional and non-traditional businesses of all stripes. Small ethnic restaurants opened in profusion, together with head shops, clothing stores, and other businesses catering to primarily to the young. Seattle Central Community College, which had evolved from Edison Technical School, opened in 1966 in what had been the Broadway High School building, which dated from 1902. It was the first community college in the city, and over the years since it has steadily expanded and improved both its facilities and its academic and trade curricula. And Group Health Cooperative, which had moved into the old Saint Luke's Hospital on 15th Avenue E in 1947, continued to expand, opening a new hospital on the site in 1960 and anchoring another thriving commercial district on the hill's summit.   

In 1962, the Deluxe Bar and Grill took over an existing tavern space at 625 Broadway E and soon became an institution. Right next door, in 1969, the Woman's Century Club, built at 807 E Roy in 1925, was converted into one of the city's first "art" theaters, the Harvard Exit, featuring mostly independent and foreign-language films. At the other end of the Broadway strip, at 922 E Pike, the Comet Tavern, which, under other names had existed since shortly after Prohibition, covered its windows with plywood, installed black lights, and became known as one of Seattle's most popular hippie hangouts. Other businesses opened and closed, flourished and failed, and a vibrant street scene started to take hold all along Broadway, from E Roy to Pike streets. The area became home to several other popular night spots, many featuring local and national bands, including the Fresh Air on Broadway and the small and funky Medicine Show (formerly the Wintonia) on Pine Street. Higher-end "fern bars" also opened on Broadway, with overwrought names like Boondocker's, Sundecker's, & Greenthumb's and Lion O'Reilly's & BJ Monkeyshines.  

Tolerance, Diversity, Community   

The relative tolerance that Capitol Hill had shown towards the GLBTQ community continued and deepened in the last four decades of the twentieth century. On July 7, 1969, the Dorian House opened at 320  E Malden Street, near 15th Avenue E, to provide counseling and employment help to the gay community. It was the first of its kind in the United States. In 1991 the Association of Gay and Lesbian Youth Advocates opened Lambert House at 1818 15th Avenue, where it continues (2011) as a support center for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth.  

In June 1974, the opening of the Gay Community Center at 1726 16th Avenue E coincided with the first recognition in Seattle of a Gay Pride Week, celebrated around the anniversary of the famous 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York. Three years later, Seattle's first officially recognized Gay Pride march took place in downtown in 1977, the same year Mayor Charles Royer declared an official "Gay Pride Week" in Seattle. Held annually ever since, the parade moved to Broadway in 1982 and marched there for 25 years before moving back downtown in 2006. But the Seattle LGBT Community Center then launched a separate event called QueerFest that included a Saturday-evening Pride March on Broadway during the Pride weekend, typically celebrated in late June.

As the counterculture continued to flourish on Capitol Hill, additional support services soon followed. In 1971, the Country Doctor Community Clinic opened at "Earth Station 7,"  a decommissioned firehouse at 15th Avenue E and E Harrison. The clinic provided low- and no-cost medical care to area residents, and after moving to 500 19th Avenue E. is still in operation today (2011). In that same year, the Capitol Hill Co-Op was organized, and in February 1971 rented a small space on the corner of 12th Avenue and E Denny and opened a market, selling bulk items, including beans, cheese, flours, and grains. The Capitol Hill Co-Op dissolved in 1978, to be replaced by the Central Co-op, which today operates the Madison Market, just outside Capitol Hill's boundaries at 16th Avenue E and E Madison.  

People, Politics, and Press 

Things were changing in other ways and in other parts of Capitol Hill as well. By the 1970s and 1980s, much of the old money had died off or moved to the suburbs, to be replaced by a younger and generally less wealthy demographic. Many of the stately old homes on and around James Moore's Millionaires' Row had fallen into disrepair and could be bought for a relative pittance.   

One of these, located at 747 16th Ave E, was purchased in 1972 by a collective of University of Washington graduate students and sociology professors. They named it PRAG House, which, in a sign of the turbulent times, stood for the Provisional Revolutionary Action Group. Nearly 40 years later (2011) it is still going strong, and is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, housing cooperatives in the city.  Among its original residents was Seattle City Council member Nick Licata, who lived there for over 25 years, and in spite of that, has been elected and re-elected, usually by wide margins, since 1998. 

Also on the political front, in 1987 Cal Anderson became the state's first openly gay legislator when he was appointed to a vacant seat in the Washington State House of Representatives representing the 43rd District, which encompassed both the University District and Capitol Hill. In 1994 he was elected to the state Senate, but died of AIDS-related illness the following year. On April 19, 2003, Cal Anderson Park, located on the hill at 1635 11th Avenue, was named and dedicated in his honor and remains a popular spring and summer gathering place. 

In September 1991 the first issue of an alternative, free-circulation weekly newspaper, The Stranger, rolled off the presses. While it got off to a slow start, its circulation boomed when it started covering Capitol Hill's cultural scene in depth, and by 2011 it could boast a print circulation of over 80,000 and a popular website and blog. Each year since 1997 the newspaper has sponsored the Capitol Hill Block party, which is now a three-day festival celebrating music, food, and community.

And the twentieth century approached its end in dramatic fashion on Capitol Hill when, on November 30, 1999, large crowds protesting the World Trade Organization conference being held in Seattle were driven from the downtown area by police and marched to Broadway, where for the next two nights there were confrontations between police and citizens. The riots, which became famous around the world, led to the resignation of Seattle's chief of police and ensured that then-mayor Paul Schell (1937-2014) would serve only one term.   

A New Century  

Despite its reputation for diversity, 78 percent of Capitol Hill's residents described themselves as "white" in the 2000 census. Both the African American population, at  6.7  percent, and the Asian, at 7.5 percent living on Capitol Hill were somewhat lower than the citywide percentages. But the hill's population remained predominately young, with more than 62 percent being between the ages of 22 and 39. Males outnumbered females by a fairly wide margin, 56 percent to 44 percent. Two telling statistic from 2000 showed that 86.6 percent of all housing units on Capitol Hill were occupied by renters, rather than owners, and the median annual household income was just over $31,000, considerably less than the $48,500 reported statewide.   

But as seems inevitable with older communities that are rescued from oblivion by an influx of young people and minorities, Capitol Hill in the first decade of the twenty-first century has seen increased gentrification. With this, of course, has come a dramatic jump in housing costs, and parts of the hill have gone from being some of the least expensive residential real estate in Seattle to some  of the most expensive. But in a reversal of the 1960s business migration from Capitol Hill to Pioneer Square, in April 2010 the famed Elliott Bay Book Company went the other way, giving up its longtime downtown location and setting up shop in an old warehouse at 1521 10th Avenue, just a block east of Broadway.  

There are more dramatic changes on the ground, as well. A full block, between Broadway and 10th Avenue and E John Street and E Denny is currently (2011) just a huge hole in the ground surrounded by a tall fence. This hole will become the Link Light Rail Capitol Hill station, part of a system that will eventually knit together Puget Sound communities, from Everett in the north to Tacoma in the south.  

Today and Tomorrow  

Despite these changes, Capitol Hill still has perhaps more than its share of aging hippies, students, starving artists, hip-hoppers, punk rockers, skateboarders, and other members of  what fall under the wide rubric of the "counterculture," and it remains a bastion of Seattle's LGBTQ community. It is this cultural diversity, more than racial diversity, that has given the hill its eclectic ambience.

  Just as streetcars made Capitol Hill accessible for early Seattleites, the completion of the light rail station should open it up even more, providing rapid links to both downtown and the University District and other points north and south. Although gentrification is definitely underway, many developers are exercising restraint and making efforts to retain much of the hill's historic architectural character. Even so, many are displeased by these developments, but it is likely that, as in the past, Capitol Hill will accommodate change, rather than falling victim to it.  

To see Part 1, click "Previous Feature"


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