Harborview Hospital in Seattle is dedicated on February 27, 1931.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 1/11/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3125
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On February 27, 1931, Seattle's Harborview Hospital is dedicated. The new hospital, located at 325 9th Avenue on Seattle's First Hill, is a leap forward in care for the indigent in King County. Nearly a century later, the structure is a part of the far larger Harborview Medical Center. The center continues the hospital's original mission of providing quality health care for the indigent, and is the largest provider of charity care in Washington state.

Early county hospitals

In 1855, two years after the formation of Washington Territory, the territorial legislature mandated that each county in the new territory would be responsible for caring for its indigent population. At first, counties paid individuals to care for the poor, and in King County this was initially handled by Dr. David (Doc) Maynard (1808-1873), Seattle's first physician. He opened the county's first hospital in Pioneer Square on December 15, 1863. It had two rooms: one for childbirth, and another that served as a pharmacy and "notions counter" (Becker). Maynard, assisted by his second wife, Catherine (1816-1906), tended to the sick and poor until his death in 1873. Other doctors filled in afterward, but it was soon apparent that a better solution was needed.

In May 1877 the county opened a small hospital in a remodeled farmhouse near the Duwamish River south of Seattle (in what is now Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood) on property that it was using as the county poor farm. This is considered the birth of the King County Hospital. The county contracted with the Sisters of Providence to manage the hospital, but the sisters found the building inadequate. The following year they moved into another house that had been converted into a hospital at 5th Avenue and Madison Street in Seattle and cared for the poor there until 1887, when all county cases were transferred back to the poor farm. A new, 125-bed brick building for the King County Hospital opened at the site in 1894, and its capacity nearly doubled when a new wing was added in 1908.

By the 1920s, even this hospital was no longer sufficient. In 1925, the Washington Legislature passed legislation authorizing first-class counties to issue bonds to finance the construction and maintenance of hospitals for the indigent. This was followed in 1928 by approval from King County voters for a $2.75 million bond measure (equivalent to $45 million in 2022) to finance a new county hospital. It would be located on First Hill, just behind the old county courthouse (which was torn down shortly before the hospital opened). A contest was held the next year to select a new name for the hospital, and Mrs. Elva Patterson of Seattle's Ballard neighborhood submitted the winning entry: Harborview.

The building was designed by Thomas, Granger and Thomas, a Seattle architecture firm. The prime contractor was Western Construction Company of Seattle. Construction began in early 1930 and proceeded quickly. By the end of May, several stories of the building had been built; by the end of the year, the outside of the 10-story structure, including its additional two-story center tower (which is closer to five stories in height), had been largely completed. A 10-story building, built to serve as a residence for the hospital's nursing students and nurses and called Harborview Hall, was also nearing completion directly across the street from the hospital.         

Harborview Hospital

More than 3,000 people attended the dedication of Harborview Hospital, which took place on the afternoon of February 27, 1931, on the grounds of the 9th Avenue (east) side of the building near the hospital's entrance. There was a ceremony and speeches from various dignitaries which lasted nearly an hour. Afterward, Harlan Thomas, chief architect for the project, ceremonially presented the building's key to Don Evans, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners. Evans responded with his own speech, and the key was turned over to the hospital's superintendent, W. H. Corson. Guided tours of the building followed, though some were disappointed when the doors closed at 8 p.m., before everyone had a chance to have a look. Harborview began admitting patients several days later.

The 246,800-square-foot hospital had room for 400 to 500 patients (accounts vary), and some of its floors were dedicated to a particular specialty. For example, the 5th floor was devoted entirely to "psychopathic" cases ("Harborview to be ..."). This was a big step forward in the treatment of the mentally disabled in the 1930s, as The Seattle Times obliquely pointed out: "Hereafter no insane person under observation or treatment will be lodged in the county jail" (Harborview to be ..."). The hospital's 9th floor served as the maternity ward, and the 10th floor was the pediatric ward. These two floors both had an added touch -- solariums on each end. 

The building is an example of Moderne architecture, a style of Art Deco architecture that was all the rage in the 1930s. The structure is built of reinforced concrete faced with varying colors of buff brick, and has setbacks on its 9th and 10th floors, giving a stairstep appearance to the top two floors of the building. Its interior colors were described at its dedication as "soft and warm throughout ... greens and yellows and pinks and browns. No bleak white walls ..." ("Report on Designation ..."). The entryway led into an elegant lobby that had tan marble wainscotting and light fixtures housed in square, opaque lanterns. The Art Deco style was meant to command attention, and the new hospital, perched atop the southwestern corner of First Hill in plain view of downtown Seattle, did just that.

Harborview opened to rave reviews. One physician, inspecting the hospital the week before its opening, enthused: "It doesn't look like a county hospital. It has none of that humble, sorry aspect that attaches to most public hospitals ... [It is] built as a doctor would have done it" ("Doctors Like ..."). Another physician, inspecting the hospital for its professional certification, added that "... [It is] the most complete hospital ever built in the country. This designation does not refer to mere size or to capital investment, but to the completeness of its departments, its equipment and modern arrangement" ("Report on Designation ...").

Since 1931 Harborview has grown in leaps and bounds until the original building, now called the Center Tower, is only a part of a much larger health center known as Harborview Medical Center. The Harborview campus has grown to encompass more than two square blocks. Because of seismic concerns in the original building, most of the hospital's patients are now treated in other structures on the campus, and the Center Tower primarily houses the hospital's faculty and staff offices, as well as its support and supply services. 


Washington State Hospital Association, A Century of Service 1858-1958 (Seattle: Washington State Hospital Association, 1957), 3, 68-69; "3,000 Attend Dedication of New Hospital," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 28, 1931, p. 3; "Building Credit to Johnson Firm," Ibid., February 28, 1931, p. 9; "Impressive Ceremonies Mark Event," Ibid., February 28, 1931, p. 9; "Thomas, Grainger and Thomas Aid in Enterprise," Ibid., February 28, 1931, p. 10; "Harborview to be One of Finest in United States," The Seattle Times, February 22, 1931, Achievement Section, p. 9; "Doctors Like New Hospital," Ibid., February 25, 1931, p. 1; "Years of Effort Culminated With Hospital Opening," Ibid., February 28, 1931, p. 13; "Hospital Winner," Ibid., March 1, 1931, p. 3; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Maynard, Catherine Broshears (1816-1906)" (by Paula Becker), "Maynard, Dr. David Swinson (1808-1873)" (by Junius Rochester), "King County Hospital begins operation in Georgetown in May 1877" (by David Wilma), https://www.historylink.org (accessed December 29, 2021); Bureau of Labor Statistics, "CPI inflation calculator," website accessed December 30, 2021 (https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm); City of Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board, "Report on Designation:  Harborview Medical Center (Center Wing of the East Hospital)," website accessed December 30, 2021 (https://www.seattle.gov/documents/Departments/Neighborhoods/ HistoricPreservation/Landmarks/RelatedDocuments/harborview-designation.pdf).

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