Pacific Northwest | February 22, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineFebruary 22, 2004seattletimes.com home
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PLANT LIFE
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ON FITNESS
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NOW & THEN
PREVIOUS ISSUES OF PACIFIC NW


WRITTEN BY PAUL DORPAT

Blanketing Belltown
Photo
COURTESY OF SEATTLE MUNICIPAL ARCHIVE
Eighty-seven Februaries separate these two views of First Avenue looking south from Virginia Street. On the right side of both scenes the Hotel Preston building, it seems, is the only survivor — at least in the foreground blocks.

 
 Photo
DON SELLERS
THE "BIG SNOW" of 1916 was a week-long spectacle that may be the single-most-photographed event in the history of the city. (I'm referring to "unplanned events" here; world fairs and summer festivals don't count in this calculation.) Probably everyone who owned a camera got it out between Sunday, Jan. 30, when the snow began to fall, and the following Sunday, Feb. 6, when the first snow-stalled trains — 19 of them — reached Seattle. On Monday the 7th, city streets were sufficiently cleared so that all the streetcar lines were again operating.

This view — made by James Lee, the official photographer for the city's Department of Public Works — looks south on First Avenue from Virginia Street. In 1916 the street was lined mostly by one- to three-story structures — a mix of frame and brick — that would typically have "rooms" upstairs and businesses at the street level. Between Pine and Bell streets the structures on the west side of First Avenue (like those on the left side of this scene) were generally a few years older than those on the east side of First. The reason was regrades.

Between 1900 and 1903 the east side of First, north of Pine Street, was effectively a cliff until the Second Avenue Regrade of 1903-06 was complete. The buildings, such as the Hotel Preston on the right of this scene, could be quickly built to prosper, it was hoped, in a new and nearly level Belltown. Instead, the commonplace urban legend that many small, old hotels at some point also operated as "harlot hotels" may be true here. Belltown never really recovered from the depression of 1907 until the 1970s, when it began its transformation into a mini-version of Vancouver's West End — a neighborhood of high-rises.

Paul Dorpat specializes in historical photography and has published several books on early Seattle.

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