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Back From The Fire

May 2024
1min read

Rudyard Kipling is so firmly associated in literary memory with the semitropical countries of the British Empire that it comes as something of a surprise to find that he spent more than four years in America. In a book recounting his stay, From Sea to Sea , Kipling described Seattle as “the town that was burned out a few weeks ago. … In the heart of the business quarters there was a horrible black smudge, as though a Hand had come down and rubbed the place smooth.”

The conflagration that consumed the city center broke out just over a hundred years ago, on June 6, 1889. It started in a cabinetmaker’s shop on First Avenue, close to Pioneer Square, pictured here, and it burned fifty blocks of mostly wooden structures. The city came back quickly, rebuilding in brick and iron largely in the Romanesque Revival style. And in about a year a new business district rose to life over the ashes of the old. Surprisingly, about five blocks of the remaining storefronts and interiors of the old town exist ten feet beneath the streets of Pioneer Square, fortified and tidied up for today’s visitors, who are led on guided tours along the murky route.

At the far right in both photos is a road called Yesler’s Way. This is where the pioneer logger Henry Yesler built a sawmill in the 1850s, sliding his logs down the hill (long since flattened) to Puget Sound. His path was known as Skid Road, a phrase that later entered the language transformed and given new meaning as skid row . By the late 1920s the area had fallen into a decline, its landscape a gamy waterfront litter of flophouses, pawnshops, and beer halls, wandered by sailors down on their luck.

The conflagration that broke out on June 6,1889, consumed about fifty blocks of the city center; within a year most of the area had been rebuilt in steel and brick.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the vision of the preservationist and the hand of the restorer joined to reshape the scene. One of the first places to be salvaged was the substantial Pioneer Building, seen to the left in both pictures. The work of Elmer Fisher, who designed dozens of post-fire structures, it is now the anchor of what has become a sixteen-square-block National Historic District, and with its double atria and internal balconies, it stands for quality, as it did when it opened in 1892.

Another building of the immediate post-fire era was less fortunate. The Seattle Hotel, its flatiron shape a perfect match for the triangular plot of land it stood on between James Street and Yesler Way, was razed in 1961 to strong local protest. Its site is now occupied by a parking garage, whose builders shamelessly maintained that they were fashioning a design suitable to the space and to the rest of Pioneer Square. In preservation there are as many losses as there are triumphs, and it is not for its sensitive plan that the hotel’s replacement is known throughout Seattle as the Sinking Ship.

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