JAMES OSBORNE MIGHT have attended late-19th-century touring opera performances at Yesler’s Hall at First and Cherry, only blocks away from his profitable Gem Saloon in Pioneer Square.
And while tapping his foot to the music of Donizetti, Bellini or Verdi, the confirmed bachelor might have conjured an act of civic generosity that ended up supporting arias in centuries to come.
Affectionately referred to by friends as “a great infidel” due to his freethinker’s rejection of religion, Osborne (1834-81) bequeathed a whopping $20,000 to Seattle with one condition: The donation could be used only to build “a public hall” with city matching funds.
Nearly five decades passed before Osborne’s bequest was fulfilled. The site chosen was a fertile stretch of glacier-carved swale between Queen Anne Hill and regraded Denny Hill.
Dotted by willows and edged with wetlands, this was a traditional gathering place for the Duwamish, who called it Baba’kwob, or “the prairies.” The skillful netting of ducks scared up from Lake Union provided ample protein for potlatches and other tribal festivities.
The land also proved ideal for growing fruit, vegetables and imported roses. Settlers David and Louisa Boren Denny moved there in 1854 with their young family, building a log farmhouse and planting gardens that supplied much of Seattle’s fresh produce for the next quarter century.
In 1886, the Dennys — by then one of the region’s richest families — had donated much of the site to the city, prescribing, with an echo of Osborne, that it be reserved for “public use forever.”
By 1927, Osborne’s invested legacy had grown to $110,000, but repeated efforts to erect a public facility had languished or been thwarted despite popular acclaim.
That year, The Seattle Times lobbied for a civic structure to reflect a reinvigorated “Seattle Spirit.” Added the Post-Intelligencer: Seattle was “the only great Pacific Coast city without … a large municipal auditorium.”
City council members and Seattle’s first woman mayor, Bertha Landes, offered vigorous support, proposing a $900,000 bond to fund construction.
However, passage required a turnout of at least 50% of eligible voters, and the March 8, 1927, election became a nail-biter. A Times banner warned on the afternoon of Election Day: “Light Vote Endangers Auditorium.” But Seattleites heeded the call, passing the proposition.
The 7,700-seat Civic Auditorium was completed by June 1928 and hosted its inaugural event, a national Kiwanis convention.
In 1962, the auditorium was refashioned for the Seattle World’s Fair as the Seattle Opera House. In 2003, with donations and public funding, the structure was largely rebuilt, with improved acoustics and seating, as Marion Oliver McCaw Hall.