A Seattle architect who lives on Queen Anne Hill has mapped the hill's many interesting public stairways.
Their names lend an air of mystery to an otherwise commonplace subject: stairways. The West Boston Haunted Stair, the West Howe Jurassic and the Comstock Grand Dame are three enticing spots among some 120 staircases noted on the “Map of the (oft) Pedestrian Public Stairs of Queen Anne Hill.”
To proud Queen Anne resident, architect and newly minted mapmaker Thomas Horton, there are some stairways in Venice that are “almost” as cool as Queen Anne’s steps.
“One of the jokes on my map is that the stairways are ‘oft’ pedestrian,” Horton says. “Obviously, they’re for feet, but the other meaning of pedestrian is mundane or everyday, and this is not always true with stairways … sometimes they’re really quite exciting.”
Horton likes the “hidden in plain sight” quality of Queen Anne stairways — how the delightful is revealed in one simple backward glance over the shoulder on a well-placed landing; yielding an unexpected view, or framing a historic detail hidden in stone.
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A self-described urban hiker, Horton became curious about the many stairways that lead up and down his “home hill” and began to look for information on the stairs. After discovering that nobody outside of the Seattle Department of Transportation had a public record of the stairways, he decided to devote the summer of 2007 to walking and mapping them — spending at least 120 hours exploring 120 of Seattle’s 550 stairways before publishing his map last May.
One of the cartographer’s favorites is the Wilcox Wall, designed by Walter Wilcox and completed in 1913. Horton likes the Byzantine-looking arches and the showstopping views west over the Sound to the Olympic Mountains.
History and haunting
Horton is also drawn to the history built into several stairways that feature reused trolley-track parts from the early 1900s. The former metal rails were transformed into handrails, and the concrete rail braces cut into step-sized pieces.
Arguably the most hair-raising history belongs to the Boston Street Haunted Stair, No. 54 on the map. According to local legend, the original wooden stairway crumbled down the hill in the early 1900s, killing a woman who was on her way to meet her fiancé. (Is it just me, or is there a preponderance of fiancés in ghost stories?) Decades later, the legend continues, a woman was walking on the concrete steps that had replaced the ill-fated originals when a disembodied voice whispered urgently for her to turn back. The woman heeded the eerie warning and narrowly avoided serious injury when the stairway broke apart, crashing downhill.
Horton’s not-to-miss stairways include No. 79, the Comstock Grand Dame. He notes it as a place “great for kissing” because of its hidden location on a quiet cul-de-sac and greenbelt. Nearby is another notable, No. 472, the Galer Crown (part of the Galer Traverse; see map), which tops out just two short blocks from the highest point on the hill (456 feet) at Warren Avenue North and Galer Street.
Designed to inspire user-participation, one stairway was purposely left off the map.
“I had so much fun becoming a cartographer I want other people to get out and have a similar experience,” he said. “You have to become a cartographer yourself to find Stair No. 51.” Horton wants others to make the map their own, to write in landmarks and other features that make it personally meaningful.
Though there are five other Seattle hills with unmapped stairways, Horton is spending his spare time on a poster version of the Queen Anne map. Though drawn to the stairs of both Capitol Hill and West Seattle, for now he’d be content to lend his efforts to an Adopt-a-Stair program.
“It would be a good way to build community connections by engaging people in their neighborhood environment,” he said.
Meanwhile, you’ll find Horton enjoying the stairs of Queen Anne, rain or shine. As a precocious squirrel drawn into one of the map’s illustrated greenbelts explains, “You don’t need an umbrella, this map is waterproof.”
Kathryn True is a freelance writer who lives on Vashon Island.