AS WE ENVISION a post-virus time when the heart of the city can feel colorful again, this red-bricked beauty with its kaleidoscopic signage serves as a talisman.
The scene, the southwest corner of Sixth and Pike, is specific to the day — Sept. 21, 1969, an overcast Sunday afternoon with no one on the streets. But the stillness masks a season that was anything but quiet.
Richard Nixon was president, Woodstock had drawn 350,000 rock fans, Sen. Edward Kennedy had driven off the Chappaquiddick bridge, Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon and the anti-war “Chicago Eight” trial was nigh. Locally, the first Boeing 747 had taken flight, the Seafirst Tower (peeking at top left) had opened and the Seattle Pilots were finishing their lone baseball season.
Anchoring this modest corner with sparkling neon and a perpetually opening and closing ring box was Burt’s Credit Jewelers, “the Northwest’s only diamond cutters.” Latvian immigrant Max Bender started the store in 1926, operating it until its closure in 1975, after the family launched a Ballard outpost.
Next to Burt’s was the equally enduring Home of the Green Apple Pie. Opening on Union Street across from the post office in 1918 and arriving at Sixth and Pike in 1932, this restaurant and bar, founded by Myrtle and Floyd Smith, swelled with cheeky hype. For example, a Nov. 4, 1960, Seattle Post-Intelligencer ad claimed “15 Million Persons (They Could Swing This Election) Have Eaten the Pies Baked on the Premises.” In 1971, the eatery bragged of having served up (urp!) more than 4 million pies. By decade’s end, it had closed.
On the second floor percolated an early outlet for Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), before the outdoors giant expanded to Capitol Hill and later to its flagship along Interstate 5.
Minnesotan Dick Swenson recalls carrying a folding camp tool he had just invented, called the Sven-Saw, as he bounded up the long flight of stairs to REI while visiting the World’s Fair in 1962. Greeting him was REI’s first full-time employee, Jim Whittaker, one year from becoming the first American to scale Mount Everest. Whittaker eyed the saw and said, “Why don’t you send me six?” When Swenson got home, Whittaker had ordered another six. REI remains Sven-Saw’s best retailer.
No surprise: This building eventually gave way to a high-rise, half-block business complex, City Centre. From 1995 to 2004, the corner’s newly rounded facade housed a flashy branch of FAO Schwarz toys, accented by a 15-foot-tall waving bronzed teddy bear outside.
With its legacy of commercial ingenuity, this charmed corner stands ready for post-virus life.