David B. Williams’ book ‘Too High & Too Steep’ focuses on Seattle’s waterfront and tidelands reclamations, the building of the Ship Canal and the remarkable topographic upheaval of our many regrades.

Share story

IN THIS WEEK’S “Now” photo, Jean Sherrard and I wait for the very fit-at-50 David B. Williams as he crosses Blanchard Street at Fourth Avenue in Belltown, AKA the Denny Regrade. We followed Williams across Fourth Avenue to what was once the highest point on Denny Hill, now the site of a 25-story building, the black glass wedge referred to as the Darth Vader Building when it was completed in 1979.

While crossing Fourth, Williams pointed about 100 feet up to the 10th floor of the high-rise, which is known as the Fourth and Blanchard Building, or the Sedgwick James Building.

Williams wishes the site were marked as the summit of Denny Hill — but it is not.

Still, you can take Williams’ word for it that the level of the 10th floor was once the top of Seattle’s favorite lost hill.

The Seattle Times humorist John Hinterberger recommended, 30 years ago, that Denny Hill be reconstructed with its own dirt — which had been sluiced to the waterfront and into Elliott Bay. Hinterberger cared for neither the regrade nor the Alaskan Way Viaduct. He noted that his reverse reclamation is a “win-win situation if we ever had one. We suck up Alaskan Way and pile it up on top of the Denny Regrade.”

After reading Williams’ new book, “Too High & Too Steep,” I am persuaded that he is the master of our historical topography. His book focuses on three primary Seattle subjects: the city’s waterfront and tidelands reclamations; the building of the Lake Washington Ship Canal; and the remarkable topographic upheaval of our many regrades, with the grandest of those in Belltown.

Shown in the “Then” photo are the two elegant homes the industrious Burwell brothers, Anson and Austin, built for their families at the corner of Fourth and Blanchard, kitty-corner from the hill’s summit and now its black skyscraper. The photo appears on page 165 of Williams’ 240-page book. Plenty of historical photos were taken on Denny Hill, but with rare exceptions they point south into the Central Business District. This is one of the few that looks within the lost neighborhood.