October 2002: Historic Preservation in the Central Area's Squire Park Neighborhood
By Heather MacIntosh

Seattle's Central Area (alternately known as the Central District) is so large, it comprises several smaller neighborhoods and neighborhood councils. Squire Park is one of these, and contains some of Seattle's oldest houses. Many houses in this area date to the 19th century. Larger landmarks include the Providence Hospital and the Immaculate Conception Church. The neighborhood is bordered on the north by Union Street, to the east and west by 23rd and 12th Avenues respectively, and on the south by Alder Street, though many dispute the precise borders.

One of Seattle's Earliest Neighborhoods

Unlike other Seattle neighborhoods such as Fremont, Ballard, and Georgetown, none of the Central Area was ever an autonomous town, or developed as a real estate scheme with comprehensive planning and citizen support, as was the case in Mount Baker. Squire Park, and the Central Area as a whole, demonstrate the gradual transformation of an expansive neighborhood over time. Thanks to early logging efforts that cleared the land between Yesler's Mill (Yesler and First Avenue) and Lake Washington, the area was primed for residential development very early in the city's history.

In 1888, Seattle's first cable car bridged downtown, Jackson Street, and the wharves with Lake Washington. As a result, the Central Area saw its first schools, fire stations, libraries and houses of worship soon thereafter. The Central Area was home to some of Seattle's first and most distinguished black families, who were joined by Jewish and Asian immigrants early in the neighborhood's development. In 1891, the City of Seattle acquired the Squire Park Addition, which included lots bordered by 20th to 12th Avenues and Cherry and Alder Streets.

Walk Through Time

In the late 1970s, Victor Steinbrueck and Folke Nyberg surveyed the area with the help of trained neighborhood volunteers and discovered that the area held substantial amounts of Victorian-period homes, many of which maintained their original distinguishing features.

The survey suggests that a walk through Squire Park and the Central Area serves as a crash course on Seattle's architectural history. The oldest homes, called "Pioneer Style" in the survey, date from 1855-1900, and are typical of the first houses built in Seattle. Old photographs and bird's eye views of the city made in the 19th century illustrate the prevalence of this style: simple, with a front-gabled roof; little or no ornament; and a simple rectangular plan with a small front porch.

Other 19th-century house types identified in the survey include: a "decorated" version of the Pioneer House (1860-1900), which includes scrolled saw or milled architectural ornamentation; the "Classic Box" (1870-1918) which includes a hipped roof and a rectangular plan wider than the Pioneer House; Victorian Style homes whose facades are often asymmetrical in composition, with turned and sawn decorative elements, and frequently include bay windows; and the "Company Cottages" (1885-1910) which were small houses with little architectural detail, generally built for mill workers' families.

Urban Renewal

The population of Squire Park and the Central Area was a mix of middle and working-class families from many ethnic groups until the mid-20th century. Around World War II, many of the area's middle-class residents moved out of the neighborhood, which meant the remaining residents were, more often than not, low-income, elderly, or both. From 1950 until 1970, the Central Area's population dropped from 19,900 to 13,000. These resident's financial circumstances did not foster much historic preservation activity.

In the 1950s, city planning and community efforts began to address the problem of deteriorating housing stock within parts of the Central Area. In 1956, a group of local citizens began looking to fund local improvements that might buoy the health of the area. Aid did not arrive until 1964, when an Urban Renewal Project commenced around Yesler Way. Substantial amounts of deteriorated housing were removed throughout the late 1960s until 1969, when the federal government retracted the housing subsidies that would have provided high-rise low-income housing developments on the many empty lots where old houses once stood.

Even today, some of these lots cleared in the 1960s remain empty.

In the 1970s, Victor Steinbrueck and Folke Nyberg noted that although many of the area's century-old homes had received unsympathetic treatment over the years, such as aluminum siding and windows, or had been stripped of ornament, many of the historic houses in the areas were either in mint condition, or fairly intact but in need of sensitive rehabilitation.

Future of the Place

The area has seen a lot of changes since the 1970s. Today, many first time home owners looking for a historic and affordable place to buy a first home are quickly discovering what the area has to offer. Many preservation-minded Seattlites are buying older homes in the neighborhood, and are working hard to restore them. There are few parts of Seattle where less than $300,000 still buys a historic house with multiple bedrooms and a yard.

Until the late 1990s, development pressures have been relatively light in the Central Area. Today, however, a substantial amount of new development, particularly multifamily housing, is cropping up in long-vacant lots, or on the site of a older home. Even so, a great deal of preservation activity is going on in Squire Park, in the form of small-scale restorations and large-scale rehabilitation projects involving prominent neighborhood landmarks.

One of the more significant projects, the Providence Hospital Building, now named the 1910 Building, will soon receive a seismic retrofit thanks to Sabey Corporation who, as of August 2002, contracted to buy the property and looks to invest $40 million on the campus, most of which would be spent on the retrofit.

The Yesler Houses, at the intersection of Yesler and 23rd, do not technically fall into the borders of the Squire Park neighborhood, but should be mentioned because of their significance to the Area as a whole. These prominent Victorian houses are being preserved and will be affordable housing. The process has been slow over the past few years, but progress picked up as funding was secured. Historic Seattle purchased the houses in 1997, after decades of decay and disuse. Ownership passed to Covenant Housing Association soon after. This group continues to move ahead.

Renewed interest in Squire Park trickles down into other elements of the built and social infrastructure, including the development of new parks, the expansion and enhancement of old ones, sidewalk enhancements and increased community participation. Preservation is significant, but only one part of the story. For more information on new developments and community action, contact Michael Cruz with the Squire Park Community Council at 353-5392.

For more on the history of the Central Area, check out Quintard Taylor's Forging of a Black Community: Seattle's Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era (University of Washington Press, 1994) or purchase a copy of the Steinbrueck-Nyberg survey ($4.00) at Historic Seattle's 1117 Minor Avenue office.

View last month's Neighborhoods article

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