February 2003: Preservation on First Hill
By Heather MacIntosh

One of Seattle's first neighborhoods, and home to many of Seattle's early wealthy residents, First Hill has become an institutional center for historic preservation. Historic Seattle and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation now occupy historic houses here. Known mostly for its high concentration of medical facilities, "Pill Hill" today contains great examples of preservation successes while at the same time evidences the loss of most of the elaborate housing stock once characterizing the neighborhood.

An Unlikely Center?

First Hill's hay day as a wealthy enclave near downtown faded as monied Seattle moved to developments like the Highlands and Broadmoor in the early twentieth century. First Hill's present-day scale varies greatly from plat to plat, with its grid of highrise apartments, high and midrise medical office complexes, and small-scale historic residences like Historic Seattle's Dearborn House. The environment is quiet, minus the sounds of ambulance sirens, with many older street trees. Though adjacent to the central downtown business district, topography, in the form of a rather steep hill, and I-5 create a physical and mental separation between the neighborhood and city center.

The character of First Hill is different than that of other Seattle neighborhoods. The overwhelming presence of extensive medical campuses, and the steady influx of people working in, visiting, or serviced by these campuses creates an important but somewhat transient core of day-time street life. The neighborhood's residential base is varied, with very high income and low income residents, though most are somewhere in between.

The Northwest School provides a mix of young people who filter through the streets around lunchtime and help physically maintain the blocks around their landmark school. Strands of preschool children weave through the neighborhood a few times a day, contrasting with the neighborhood's resident dog-walking retirees. With the exception of Madison and Boren, the streets and crossings are pedestrian-friendly.

Home to Preservation

Several significant preservation projects took place on First Hill almost concurrently with demolitions and highrise developments. Some preservation has taken place quietly, in the form of ongoing stewardship and landmark designations. Some preservation successes have been much more dramatic.

Many of Historic Seattle's development projects are near our offices at Minor and Seneca. If Pike Street is considered the northern border of First Hill, seven of our projects are located in the neighborhood. These include: Fire Station Number 25 at 1400 Harvard Avenue, the Ward House at 520 East Denny Way (relocated from First Hill at 1427 Boren), Belmont-Boylston Historic Houses at 1410, 1420 and 1424 Belmont, and 1411, 1417, and 1423 Boylston, Town Hall at Eighth and Seneca, the Stimson Green Mansion at 1204 Minor Avenue and the Dearborn House, our offices at 1117 Minor Avenue.

One of these projects, Town Hall, has now blossomed into a dramatic preservation success. This project is evolving as pieces of its funding fall into place. The adaptive reuse of the Fourth Church of Christ Scientist will aid in the revitalization of the neighborhood as a whole, and brings visitors after 5pm.

Where Sacred Spaces are Still Sacred

First Hill is home to several historic, landmark churches. Town Hall was, of course, originally a church. Trinity Episcopal Parish Church, located at the corner of 9th and James, has been in the neighborhood since the early 20th century, and became a city landmark in 1976 soon after the landmarks ordinance was created. Trinity is now conducting a significant capital campaign to raise funds for its rehabilitation and continued use as one of this city's oldest churches. It is also the home to Northwest Harvest. Paul Collins, rector of Trinity, has been a strong preservation advocate and is helping Historic Seattle develop its Sacred Sites Initiative, designed to aid congregations with historic church properties.

Nearby Saint James Cathedral is a striking landmark visible from the downtown and I-5. The cathedral was landmarked in 1984, and underwent substantial restoration in the 1990s. The building is exceptional, and has historically been associated with preservation leadership in this city.

Seattle First Baptist Church, located at 1121 Harvard Avenue, became a designated landmark in 1981, and also suffered dramatic earthquake damage. One of the church's signature spires fell into the sanctuary as a result of the quake. The congregation moved its remaining spires into its small front green while the building's repair took place. The building is still under repair, but will, when the work is completed, be stronger than ever.

The Wintonia Hotel

The Wintonia Hotel, located at 1431 Minor Avenue at the corner of Minor and Pike, was built in 1909 and was rehabilitated as dormitory style housing for chronic alcoholics. The idea of a "wet" publicly subsidized facility recently drew heat as plans for a similar facility in the Denny Regrade area were under consideration.

Rehabilitating historic hotels into affordable housing is a common practice that has contributed to the preservation of many historic buildings in older neighborhoods like the International District, Pioneer Square, and Capitol Hill. In spite of initial community protest about the proposed use of the Wintonia, its residents have not been a problem. The building is worth studying -- its massive, classically inspired brackets near ground level, and along its cornice, are striking.

Learning Environments

Neighboring to the Wintonia, the Northwest School, and its stewardship have proved to be a great asset to First Hill. The building, located at 1415 Summit Avenue was landmarked in 1990. The school's design reflects a once-common school type that is now somewhat rare. The curriculum of the Northwest School and the school's culture are closely connected with the building's design.

The Stimson Green Mansion, saved by demolition by a benevolent descendent of the Stimson Green family, became a city landmark in 1977. Historic Seattle placed a protective covenant on the spectacular mansion to further protect it from insensitive alteration. The building is now home to the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, which for a very long time was without a home and permanent staff. The building houses a catering operation which helps support its upkeep. For more about the mansion, visit the Stimson Green website. The Washington Trust recently hired a new, dynamic Executive Director, Lisbeth Henning who is spearheading the speedy development of the organization. In its first stage of development, the Trust is focusing on preservation advocacy. For more about the Washington Trust, contact their offices at (206) 624-9449.

Historic Seattle acquired the Dearborn House in 1997, thanks to the generosity of a First Hill resident who has long been a friend to preservation in this area. Over the past several years, this organization has been able to recreate itself. For most of its life, since 1974, Historic Seattle's offices were located in a number of places, often in properties we were developing. Having a permanent, historic home has significantly contributed to our organizational development. We recently received a generous gift from another First Hill resident that will help us transform Dearborn House into a true center for preservation. Plans are currently underway for a preservation library on site.

A First Hill Landmark in Need

One of the less obvious, but more important landmarks on First Hill is located at 613 9th Avenue. Designated a city landmark in 1984, the U. S. Assay House is significant to local and regional history as it is inextricably bound to immigration in Seattle. John Chaney, Historic Seattle's Executive Director, considers it to be one of the ten most significant buildings in the city due to its history. It is currently owned by Seattle's German Society and is home to its offices. It suffered damage during the earthquake, and was a recipient of Historic Seattle's earthquake response grants.

The Society is currently considering the long term plans for this building, which will no doubt include some sort of addition or continued reuse.

There are a number of significant buildings in First Hill that are not official landmarks. The Sorrento Hotel, located on Madison Street is one of the most noteworthy, although there are many more in the neighborhood. Historic Seattle hopes to develop its relationship with the neighborhood as we expand our educational programs and advocacy efforts.

View last month's Neighborhoods article

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