The Hotel Diller, built in 1890, is one of the few survivors on a stretch of First Avenue between University and Seneca.

Share story

THIS WEEK’S feature on First Avenue, like last week’s on Third, looks north from Seneca Street, here a few yards south of Seneca.

Imagine, if you will, in place of Seneca, a ravine. Following the 1852-53 pioneer settlement on the east side of Elliott Bay, a bridge eventually was needed to cross the gully that broke through the waterfront bluff. The Native Americans had favored the eroded cut for burials, and during pioneer days, bodies were exposed during heavy rains. In 1876, the bridge over the ravine was reinforced with a log retaining wall during the regrading of Front Street (First Avenue) from Mill Street (Yesler Way) to Pike Street. It was Seattle’s first oversized public work.

I speculate that this energetic subject was photographed in 1906. One clue is found at the far end of this block of crowded hotels between Seneca and University streets. There, across University Street, parts of the first two floors of structural steel point skyward above the Arcade Annex construction site. In The Seattle Times for Jan. 10, 1907, the building is shown incomplete but well along. (In 1991, the Arcade Annex was replaced with the Seattle Art Museum.)

Let’s imagine the cluster of five brick structures as a sampling of how Seattle might have developed without the interruption (and inspiration) of its Great Fire of 1889. Built in the 1890s just beyond the fire zone, the five are not architecturally current, as were the more commonly larger structures that were built on the ashes. Here is a lingering devotion to the French curve, chimney caps, arching window lintels and rectangular bays.

The Hotel Diller, at the southeast corner of University and First, survives. A heavy cornice, since removed as an earthquake precaution, topped its four floors. The Diller developed into a popular hangout for political and fraternal huddling. Named for its builder’s family — the family home had been on the corner — the Diller was conceived before the Great Fire and built soon after of Japanese bricks. Understandably, bricks were hard to come by.

Jumping now to the south end of the block and the Hotel Ramona, we might hazard a suspicion that some of its 100 rooms were used for unlicensed therapies. Given the boisterous growth of Seattle that began even before its Great Fire, and kept building during the Yukon Gold Rush of the late 1890s, there was a general overbuilding of hotels, including the larger and finer ones two to five blocks up the hill.

Consequently, the seven hotels on this block (counting both west and east sides) offered relatively cheap stays. In 1907, a room could be had at the Hotel Ramona for 50 cents a night or $2.50 per week.

Such prices encouraged the steady transformation of First Avenue into the Flesh Avenue that some might remember from the 1970s. For instance, in a Feb. 12, 1904, Seattle Times classified, May Donally in room No. 9 offered massages and vapor baths, as did Miss Harrison in room 10. Miss Ellsworth, “accomplished masseuse,” offered a “famous Assyrian treatment,” and in room No. 3 of the Ramona, the “experienced masseuse” Miss Las Riu offered new treatments and “real luxury.”