A circus billboard helps mark the timing of this photo, taken from the top of the then-five-story King County Courthouse.
THIS ROOFTOP PROSPECT taken by a Webster and Stevens Studio photographer is rare. Never have I come upon another First Hill portrait recorded from the King County Courthouse roof. I have seen a few snapshots that look south from the top of the courthouse over Jefferson Street and onto the public building’s adjoining Courthouse Park.
The original roof of the King County Courthouse was a mere five stories, although its footprint filled the block bordered by James and Jefferson streets and Third and Fourth avenues, and still does.
We might treat this as a panorama of First Hill’s midsection, extending from James Street, with its slots for the street’s namesake cable railway on the far right, to the surviving dome of the Methodist-Protestant church at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Marion Street, on the far left.
One missing dome or cupola is St. James. The cathedral’s twin towers at Marion Street and Ninth Avenue are on the far-right horizon. The dome crashed to the floor from the weight of the snow collected on the church’s roof during the Big Snow of 1916.
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Central School, with its own two towers breaking the First Hill horizon above Sixth Avenue and Madison Street, was removed in 1953, before the building of the Interstate-5 freeway in the mid-1960s.
The first five floors of the courthouse took five years to complete. By 1917, there were plenty of high-rise structures in the neighborhood, including the then-still-highest building west of the Mississippi River: the Smith Tower, 42 stories above the northeast corner of Jefferson Street and Yesler Way. Other surviving towers include the Alaska Building at the southeast corner of Second Avenue and Cherry Street and, kitty-corner to it, the 18-story Hoge Building. There are others.
We found a year for the photo in the Ringling Bros. billboard facing James Street. It is second from the right in the broken lineup of Foster and Kleiser signs directly above the crown molding of the courthouse. We found the year, 1917, online, and it fits. The circus was in town in August 1917.
The clutter of clapboard flats on the right is the gift of the relatively cheap lumber sold to the city’s many developers, and the booms in its population and housing in the late 1890s and after. The rough edges cut by assorted street regrades leave some scars around the center of the photo, which is well-lined with parked cars. By 1917, family cars were nearly affordable.