One of Seattle’s seven hills, First Hill was the young city’s first “neighborhood” to be settled in the 1870s. Rising 366 feet above Elliott Bay, the once-forested slope was close to the heart of the city’s commercial district — an easy downhill walk in the morning and short climb home in the evening. Over the years, it has gone through several stages of development. Rich and poor children went to Central or Summit schools. Roman Catholics lived close to St. James Cathedral, and other congregations took root on the hillside. There were no city parks, so children played ball in whatever open spaces they could find.
In the beginning, it was simply known as “the hill.” By the 1890s, the southern edge gained the nickname “Profanity Hill” (for the presumed cursing it caused among those having to climb it to reach the King County Courthouse at the crest). By 1883, the crest of the hill entered a new era as the retreat of its “first families,” including mayors, judges, industrialists, timber barons and art collectors. But of the 40 or more large homes that once dominated First Hill, only four remain: the Stimson-Green, Dearborn, Stacy and Hofius residences.
Over the years, numerous churches, apartment buildings, workers’ housing, hotels, social clubs and hospitals added to the area’s architecture, creating a visual, cultural and economic tapestry and a unique sense of place.
The edges of city neighborhoods are moving targets, changing with construction, shifting land uses and community discussion, but generally the boundaries of First Hill extend from East Pike Street to Yesler Way, from Broadway to Sixth Avenue. Since the 1960s, the hill has been severed from downtown by Interstate 5. Its once commanding views and exclusive residential blocks have been supplanted by a mix of commercial, institutional and multifamily high rises and monolithic hospitals, clinics and medical offices. The hill earned its frequently used nickname “Pill Hill” for being home to major medical centers: Harborview, Swedish and Virginia Mason.
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The proliferation of hospitals and clinics, retirement homes and parking lots have obscured much of the traditional residential neighborhood that developed in its heyday when First Hill was synonymous with good living, exclusive private clubs and religious pageantry. But it was much more than that. As Steve Shepherd, a planner with the city of Seattle, reminds us, First Hill was “a wonderful, eclectic mix of middle-, upper- and lower-income residents all living together. This eclectic tradition and neighborhood character continue today.”
For nearly the first quarter century of Seattle’s run to municipal greatness, the hill directly above the city’s commercial heart was left in the forest and hardly noticed even by the factory man most likely to cut into it, Henry Yesler. Instead, Yesler continued to take the easy tidewater timber waiting beside Elliott Bay.
Yesler had been lured to join his fate with Seattle’s when Carson Boren and David Maynard separated their claims to give him a blockwide strip of land. Like a ribbon, it led up and over the first hill to the hefty reserves of timber waiting for Henry and his wife, Sarah, to claim as far as the homestead laws allowed.
Boren’s claims on First Hill were the largest. However, he soon traded the greater part of his greatest part of the hill to Charles Terry. It was the First Hill lots in Charles and Mary Jane Terry’s First and Second additions that started attracting mid-1870s buyers for whom city bureaucrats established laws against “disorderly conduct.”
The first Seattle business and residential directory was published in 1876. The directory counted 1,031 buildings in the city and 3,700 inhabitants. Roughly 70 citizens had addresses on the hill. Many of those listed on the hill worked in the useful trades.
The development of the hill as an exclusive neighborhood, as the city’s nabobs had hoped, did not begin until the early 1880s.
IT’S A BEAUTIFUL LIFE
Daniel Kelleher graduated from Harvard in 1885, came to Seattle in March 1890 and set up a law practice. In 1894 he married Elise C. Meem, the only daughter of a Virginia state senator.
The home they lived in was built at the turn of the 20th century across Spring Street from the Seattle Tennis Club courts. The home was featured in the February 1902 issue of House Beautiful magazine.
In 1914, Kelleher left his law practice to devote his time to the Seattle National Bank as chairman of the board. During his tenure, it grew to become the largest bank in the state (later renamed SeaFirst Bank).
In later years, the Kelleher home housed medical offices and then became a rooming house. It fell into disrepair, and by 1978 the tenants were evicted to make way for the construction of the Kelleher House Condominiums.
SEATTLE’S GREENWICH VILLAGE
Noted photographer Imogen Cunningham and her husband, Roi Partridge, lived on First Hill in a boardinghouse on Terry Avenue in the 1910s.
“In Art Circles,” an early 1920s article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Madge Bailey called the area Seattle’s Greenwich Village. She described it as “just a tiny spot at present, shadowed on either side by modern buildings proudly dominating scenic sites on the First Hill. It occupies less than half a block with frontage on Seneca Street and Terry Avenue. Ambrose Patterson’s studio is at the corner … ” Other artists had gone on to work in Paris or to have their work shown around the country. A watercolor by Patterson was shown at the Chicago Art Institute and toured the country.
But the little community evaporated, and later, the boardinghouse residents were evicted and the property was razed for the Virginia Mason clinic.
KNIGHTS TO THE RESCUE
The Seattle Council of the Knights of Columbus, one of the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organizations, was established in 1902. But it wasn’t until 1912 that the association established a formal presence on First Hill. That year, Mrs. Elizabeth Foss donated to the Knights a lot on the corner of East Union Street and Harvard Avenue. A four-story clubhouse was built and opened there in April 1913 with a band-led procession from St. James Cathedral.
The building housed, among other things, a bowling alley and ballroom, a men’s smoking room and ladies parlor, as well as a swimming pool and gym in the basement.
Through the years, the clubhouse hosted dances, weddings, funerals and banquets, as well as night-school and free evening classes in practical skills such as auto repair.
In 1968, plans to replace the building with a high-rise were thwarted, and the clubhouse was saved. Today, much of it is available for rental, and Seattleites continue to gather there.
FROM SLUM TO SUCCESS STORY
The 43-acre site on the south end of First Hill was first developed in the late 19th century as a suburban refuge for affluent Seattle residents to gain distance from the city’s growing downtown. Originally called Yesler Hill, the area became more working class in the early 20th century as the affluent moved into other, more fashionable neighborhoods.
With its mansions falling into disrepair, and an unusual patchwork of small businesses and wood-frame homes cropping up between them, the neighborhood increasingly accommodated a diverse collection of low-income residents and ethnic businesses.
A federal survey of city buildings in 1934 labeled the area one of Seattle’s worst slums. This survey, combined with a Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) survey in late 1937, put the area at the top of the city’s list when local leaders sought federal funds for public-housing and slum-clearance projects.
To make way for the Yesler Terrace public housing project, 1,021 people were displaced and 158 buildings were demolished.
SHA required that applicants who lived in Yesler Terrace be families with U.S. citizenship, which effectively ruled out a number of immigrant families, single-parent families and unmarried poor. It didn’t explicitly serve low-income people until after World War II.
Yesler Terrace was the first public-housing project in the state. Its construction cost was one of the lowest in the nation. Most important, it was the first racially integrated public-housing project in the nation. And its unique design of grouped town houses with open spaces was considered a model.
ON A MISSION FOR HEALTH
Hospital care was a missionary service of all the religions during the 19th century. Public-health measures were the major civic focus at the turn of the 20th century, along with an ongoing campaign to “clean up downtown.” Downtown was considered the hotbed of disease and vice.
Grace Hospital was First Hill’s first hospital, a progressive initiative by the Episcopalian congregation of Trinity Parish. Unfortunately, the parish did not have any experience in professional nursing or hospital administration. The doctors who tried to manage the place were already busy downtown, both in private practice and as volunteer medical advisers in the public-health movement. They did, however, come to practice at Seattle General Hospital once it was rebuilt between Fourth and Fifth avenues on Marion Street in 1900.
The first private hospital organized and built by physicians was T.T. Minor Hospital, built in 1906 and named for the prominent early Seattle physician.
AN EDUCATION FOR ALL
Perched near the crest of First Hill, Summit Grade School earned its name from its prominent location. The city purchased the former site of the old Grace Hospital in 1904, at a time when the population was growing.
The school opened in 1905 with 420 elementary students and 455 students in a Seattle High School annex. The annex moved by 1906, and was replaced by seventh- and eighth-grade classes. An addition in 1914 accommodated two more classrooms.
In the early days, Summit served both wealthy families and less affluent laborers living within blocks of one another. In the 1920s, it also focused on children with special needs.
KEEPING THE FAITH
Organized in 1869, the Baptist congregation had its first permanent home on Fourth Avenue, between James and Cherry streets. This structure was replaced by a larger building dedicated in 1899. The regrading of Fourth Avenue marooned the church entrance more than 25 feet above street level, and the search for a more accessible property drove members uphill. Ultimately they opted for a site at Seneca Street and Harvard Avenue.
The story goes that Pastor Hootland, who orchestrated construction, became ill and was sent to Swedish Hospital. There was some controversy about whether to put the spire on the building. From his hospital bed, where he could see the church being built, he insisted on the spire because it would be the highest spot on First Hill — and it was.
During the ministry of the Rev. Dr. Rodney Romney (1980-2000), First Baptist became a center of social activism and openness to all people.