FOR THIS Sunday and the next two, Jean Sherrard and I will lean on the substantial record of Frank Shaw, the Boeing retiree who, with his Hasselblad camera, helped document this city from the 1950s into the mid-’80s. Many of his thousands of photographs are of landmarks, like this latter-day portrait of what began in 1890 as the first “permanent” headquarters for Seattle’s first professional fire department. Well, not so permanent. In 1903 a new headquarters was opened at Third Avenue South and Main Street.
In the year after Seattle’s Great Fire of June 5, 1889, the city built five fire stations. Four were built of lumber for economy, all with impressive towers for drying hoses, bell ringing, watching the city and being watched by it. One of the five — this one at the southwest corner of Columbia Street and Seventh Avenue — was faced mostly with brick and stone by its architects, Saunders and Houghton. At a cost of $20,000, it was the Fire Department’s architectural plumb that year.
It may be thought that housing a horse-drawn service on the side of a hill was a bad idea. Not so. This first station needed to reach both the city’s business district below it and Seattle’s first neighborhood of fine (expensive) homes farther up First Hill. When the arched brick bays facing Columbia Street were first opened for firefighting on Nov. 1, 1890, they faced a grade that was manageable. For instance, one block south of the station at Cherry Street, Seventh even slumped to the east.
Although for fighting fires the station was closed for good in July of 1937, it continued to perform a variety of public services thereafter — including the headquarters for Seattle Civil Defense. Scheduled here for the evening of June 6, 1951, for example, was a “special showing of four films on protection against the atomic bomb.” Almost certainly the sensitive Shaw was drawn to this corner 10 years later on March 4, 1961, not for civil defense but for a farewell with some lamentation. Frank Shaw loved this building and made this record of it months before its majestic brick was razed for the freeway.
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