SOME ANCIENT PARCHMENT, as historians know, is scrubbed clean and rewritten upon while leaving behind faint traces of the original text. Such a page is known as a palimpsest.

When exploring the crosshatch of Seattle streets and architecture with this column’s founder, Paul Dorpat, two decades ago, I realized that his X-ray photographic vision of our ephemeral city included similar traces. The residues, like double exposures, appeared in unlikely places and cracked open historical clues and mysteries aplenty.

This week’s primary “Then” photo revisits an early discovery of Paul’s that cemented his vocation as historical detector and photographic repeater. He penned a lengthy account of his efforts in the Dec. 20, 1978, edition of the weekly Seattle Sun. The headline: “Digging Up the Past of the Late and Great Denny Hill.”

Perusing a photo collection, he came upon a portrait of the city unlike any he had seen. While “uncannily familiar,” this image did not seem to match Seattle’s existing topography. Paul concluded that it was a place “that had somehow lost its future, for it appeared to be in no way findable in our here and now.”

Then came a “Eureka!” moment.

With the use of a magnifying glass, the name “Bell” emerged on a street sign. Familiar with Mama’s Mexican Restaurant at the corner of Second and Bell, Paul was thrilled to recognize the triple set of bay windows belonging to the Wayne Apartments, built in 1890.


The original clapboard had been covered with asbestos “war brick” siding, but the pictorial puzzle was solved. Denny Hill’s “back side,” 220 feet above sea level, was revealed in this rare, south-facing view of what today is called Belltown, captured just before an early 1903 regrade.

Among few remaining pre-regrade structures, the bay-windowed Wayne Apartments has shone prominently and repeatedly over four decades — in “Now & Then” in 1984 as well as in lectures and books, including our 2018 tome “Seattle Now & Then: The Historic Hundred.” The edifice has borne witness to change, loss and the thrill of discovery.

But not for long.

In early April, we received word from artist Buster Simpson and Steve Hall, a preservation advocate with Friends of Historic Belltown, that the Wayne and adjacent structures along Second Avenue soon will be destroyed. Though they achieved landmark status in 2015, exemptions to the ruling are allowing a prospective nine-floor retail-residential building to fill the space. Its height will more than match the original summit of Denny Hill.

In the rueful words of historian David B. Williams, modern developers seem to be “merely rebuilding the hill one banal building at a time.”