The hotel at Second and James, which closed in 1933, was once the place to dance, dine and be seen, and host to presidents, entertainers and business moguls.
THERE ARE FEW artifacts from Seattle history so well-fitted with worthy stories as the Hotel Butler. This six-story (counting the James Street level) brick-and-stone block was built on the northwest corner of James and Second Avenue almost immediately after the Great Fire of 1889.
The first of its worthy stories describes rotund developer Guy Phinney (of the Ridge) meeting with slender young English architect John Parkinson in the cooling ashes at the corner property, which Phinney had purchased earlier from pioneers Hiram and Catherine Butler. Phinney challenged Parkinson with a big order: a business block plan to be delivered in 24 hours. The architect managed to answer the call with a rendering for a structure that survives, at least in its first floors, 127 years later.
Construction was finished in 1890. The widespread economic panic of 1893 transformed Phinney’s business block into a hotel with new owners, Dietrich Hamm and Ferdinand Schmitz.
Through the tough times of the depression that followed, the new partners still hired “the highest-priced chef in town,” and sometimes made special arrangements with paying guests of many sorts, such as the grandiose “Christ-like power” of Herrman the Healer. The Seattle Times on June 15, 1896, played along, surely for a fee, with Herrman’s promotions: “Nearly all chronic diseases quickly yield to animal magnetism in the hands of this wonderful magnetist.”
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The Butler’s “private parlors” 19 through 26 were set aside for Herrman’s laying on of hands, but with the warning that, “Those unable to pay must not come to the hotel, but to the theatre, where free tickets, free seats and free treatment on the stage will be given. Consultation, with full diagnosis of your disease, in all cases, is $1.00.”
The Yukon Gold Rush of 1897 gave the Butler and every other hotel in Seattle its own rush. It was with this affluence that the Hotel Butler became the place to be in Seattle. A short list of its famous guests included Buffalo Bill; presidents Grover Cleveland, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt (not together); Gen. John Pershing; singer and actress Lillian Russell; and the Great Northern Railroad’s James Hill.
In an effort to lead good-time-yearning guests through the Jazz Age, bands playing in the hotel’s popular Rose Room included Jackie Souders; the smooth clarinetist Nicholas Oeconomacos; and, during five of the Prohibition years, Vic Meyers and his Brunswick Recording Orchestra, who parodied failed police raids with playings of “How Dry I Am.”
During the depths of the Great Depression, the Hotel Butler closed in 1933, the year Prohibition was reversed. The following year, the Phinney-Parkinson creation was reduced to two stories for parking. Now with added stories, it has parking for 427 vehicles so long (or short) as they are not more than 6 feet, 8 inches tall.
The Seattle Times has done well in cherishing the hotel’s stories, both when they were being “written” and also later as told by the hotel’s staff and guests. Four of The Times’ still-appreciated columnists — John Reddin, Emmett Watson, Byron Fish and Don Duncan — have dedicated a feature or more to the Hotel Butler.
Most recently, in 1971, Duncan described it as, “the most famous hostelry and nightspot in our city’s history … Under its roof were quartered prima donnas and Presidents, gold-rush promoters and railroad magnates, cigar-puffing politicians and the glittering stars of touring vaudeville shows.”