Local author David B. Williams invites readers to put on their walking shoes and visit some Seattle treasures in “Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City.”
It’s easy for Seattleites to forget, in our landscape of looming cranes and instant skyscrapers, that our town has a history. You whiz through the streets on a bus or a bicycle or in a car. The buildings become a blur and their very existence seems tentative — you can’t even remember the building that was there last week, the one that was demolished over the weekend.
David B. Williams’ mission is to help you find that history. It’s still there, in the nooks and crannies and corners of the city (though you might have to look up to find it).
Williams, a native Seattleite, has made a career of writing about Seattle, both the built and the natural environment. He’s published books about the regrading of Seattle’s landscape in the 19th and early 20th centuries (“Too High & Too Steep”) and about finding nature in the city (“The Seattle Street-Smart Naturalist”). Now he has a new book, “Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City” (University of Washington Press, 264 pp., $17.95; at booksellers March 1). When it comes to discovering the city’s past, it will remove the scales from your eyes.
David B. Williams
He’ll discuss “Seattle Walks” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 1, at the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle. Free (206-386-4636 or spl.org).
“Seattle Walks” is a guided tour organized into 17 different walks, accompanied by photos and handy maps that cover almost every neighborhood, from downtown to Lake Union to the International District to Green Lake to West Seattle. Each walk is from 1.1 to 7 miles long — you can complete them in a morning, a day, or off and on over several days. Bring your binoculars — some of the sights are several stories up.
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Williams sees what others don’t because he doesn’t have a smartphone. He doesn’t even have a cellphone (he does have a slim 21st-century laptop). He’s the son of two historians — one a UW professor, the other a cookbook writer and food historian. He left Seattle for a few years, returned and has documented the city ever since.
“There’s no better way to connect with a place than walking,” he says. (He should know; he was an early convert to managing without a car.)
On a recent sunny Tuesday, I followed him as we visited some downtown spots that I, who think of myself as a trained observer and a nosy Norah, had no idea existed. Here’s some of what we saw:
• Belltown’s Cristalla Condominium Building (2033 Second Ave.). This gorgeous terra-cotta confection was the site of the early-20th-century Crystal Pool Natatorium, where a fresh supply of water was pumped up every day from Elliott Bay, then heated for city swimmers. Thank the gods that developers preserved this fanciful facade — in line with its former use, it’s a monument to the marine: “mermaids, gaping dolphins, shells and fantastic fish, along with a chimera-like beast sporting wings, a lion’s head and a fish tale,” Williams writes.
I thought it was fantastic that such a delicate creation had survived. Williams said that terra cotta, a clay pressed into a plaster mold, then fired, is quite tough. “It holds up well,” he said. “What ruins terra cotta is leveling the whole damned building.”
• The interior of the Josephinum. This building at the corner of Second Avenue and Stewart Street was once the New Washington, one of Seattle’s premier hotels. In 1963 Seattle’s Catholic Archdiocese bought it, renamed it and made it a residence for senior citizens.
The beautiful secrets of the Josephinum include a spacious marble foyer and a fabulous fireplace with a tiled image of Mount Rainier on top and hand-carved totem poles down the side, probably perfect in the olden days for lounging by the fire with a snifter of brandy. But the piece de resistance is a simple but beautiful chapel on the building’s south side, called Christ Our Hope Catholic Church. Sunlight floods through the arched stained-glass windows. The receptionist let us look in. Given the temper of the times, I said a prayer.
• The 18 eagles, 61 lions and newsgathering-themed friezes on the Times Square Building. This gorgeous, triangle-shaped building at 414 Olive Way was constructed in 1915, “when five daily papers provided the news of the fast-growing metropolis,” Williams writes. Over one entrance a terra-cotta triptych shows noble news workers (men in those days) gathering, printing and distributing the news (newsboys in those days). The Seattle Times occupied the building for only 16 years! What a glorious if brief time it must have been.
I could go on and on — every stop in the book seems to have an embedded mystery. There’s the Broderick Building at 615 Second Ave. This all-sandstone building (sometimes known as the Bailey Building or Harrison Block), completed in 1892, features 78 grotesque faces on the third and fourth floors, including “dragons, Vikings, bull- and pig-face heads, and grimacing, elaborately mustachioed, and astonished faces,” Williams writes, adding that no contemporary history sleuth has unearthed who created this rogue’s gallery in stone, or why.
Many of these places — the Eagles Building (now Kreielsheimer Place), the pocket parks along West Seattle’s Beach Drive — would not be here if it weren’t for determined efforts by the city’s artists, visionaries and preservationists. Worth remembering as the city’s transformation continues at a dizzying pace.
My next project is the 4.4-mile walk in West Seattle and Alki, from the old-growth trees in Schmitz Park to Weather Watch Park, site of an old ferry dock. Then I’ll take on the Delridge and Pigeon Point walk. Chances are good that your neighborhood is in this book. Find and explore your own.