HERE, FOR the third week running, we thank Frank Shaw for another cityscape he recorded with his Hasselblad camera on one of his winter walks in 1961. Standing off the curb of First Avenue South on the evidently idle Sunday of Feb. 26, Shaw aimed north from Main Street through the two blocks that were, for Seattle’s first half-century, the principal commercial strip for this ambitious town. Commercial Street, not First Avenue South, was its name until the city’s Great Fire of June 6, 1889. After that, some of the avenues in the burned district were widened. Here, the descriptive name Commercial was abandoned for the commonplace First Avenue.
Back then, Shaw could safely step from the curb during his sightseeing. For his repeat, Jean Sherrard prudently chose to stand on the planted median strip. This landscaping was one of the charming improvements made later during the restoration of about 20 blocks in Seattle’s Pioneer Square historic district.
Standing at the center of First Avenue South also allowed Sherrard to show us the sandblasted vitality of those enduring landmarks on both sides of the historic street. What Shaw saw in 1961 were brick walls slathered with carbon grime and cosmetic colors, and the often neon names of the street’s many taverns, hotels, hardware stores, loan/pawn shops, cheap-suit shops and a few missions.
Having studied his many photographs, I’m confident that Shaw delighted in this subject’s primary tension — that between this historic street of worn landmarks and the nearly new Norton Building (1959), which fills the center of this cityscape. Here, with its glass curtain walls, is Seattle’s first oversized demonstration of austere modernity looming above this old neighborhood like a judge with clean fingernails looking down from his high bench at the morning lineup of the destitute and troubled.
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Now, a half-century later, we know that First Avenue South and many of its neighbors were saved. A mix of heroic forces for historic preservation won out over the cadre of Seattle politicians and developers who proposed razing both our Pioneer Square neighborhood and community market at Pike Place in the name of “urban renewal.” They envisioned mostly more Nortons and convenient parking lots.
Check out Paul Dorpat and Jean Sherrard’s blog at www.pauldorpat.com.