From 18 stories up, you can follow Westlake Avenue for miles, and Seattle’s growth for decades.
FROM HIS CLIMB to the cornice of the 18-story Medical Dental Building, Jean Sherrard has thoughtfully returned with some frosting: one of the building’s crowning terra-cotta ornaments. Peeking at the bottom-right corner of the “Now” photo, resembling a lampshade, it is one small part of the building’s elegant skin.
First imagined by its mix of professional (physicians and dentists) developers as a “real medical center in Seattle,” the polished and ornate Medical Dental Building was dedicated in 1925. With its ceramic tile cladding and more, the tower would be interpreted as an example of the late Gothic Revival, which, as it turned out, was a style about to lose its popularity.
Looking north from its tower, Westlake Avenue can be followed to Denny Way, where it elbows slightly to the northeast to complete its arterial duty to Westlake and eventually Eastlake at the south shore of Lake Union. Westlake was sided by the triangular blocks and buildings fashioned in 1906-07, when it was cut through from Pike Street to Denny Way. Its landlords briefly named this new and direct approach to the north “The Big Funnel.”
The decorative ornament encourages us to extend our short review of the architectural history of this retail neighborhood at the north end of Seattle’s central business district. It began in earnest in the early 1880s, with a few retailers scattered about the slopes of the then-clear-cut Denny Hill.
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The businesses were mixed with modest residences — some in rows — and tenements, all made from lumber milled on the shores of Elliott Bay and Lake Union. Aside from the built-for-show blocks around Pioneer Square and on Front Street (First Avenue North), the fancier construction of this metropolis began only after its cinder-scrubbing by the Great Fire of 1889. Seattle began then to earnestly boom and build, often with bricks and the encouragement of better insurance rates for those who embraced the new ordinances, and bricks.
As for grace and style, terra-cotta tiles became nearly a necessity for any proud developer in the new 20th century, until the expense became forbidding in the 1930s with the Great Depression, and/or too fussy for the more-functional modernist tastes.
One sizable resister to modernity, “the Old Quarter,” appears here on the left of Westlake and to this side of Denny Park’s greenbelt, also on the left. This is the last of the Denny Hill neighborhood. In 1911, it was left to molder when the Denny Hill Regrade reached Fifth Avenue and stopped. It remained dormant until 1929, when everything in this triangle was razed, including the low rents, just in time for the Great Depression.