THE LOMBARDY poplars that once lined much of Madison Street from Fourth Avenue to Broadway made First Hill’s favorite arterial “the most attractive place in town.” That is on the pioneer authority of Sophie Frye Bass, found in her delightful book of reminiscences, “Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle.”
Here the photographer, Asahel Curtis, looks west-southwest, through the intersection of Madison Street and Seventh Avenue to Central School, on the left, and the Knickerbocker Hotel, on the right. Central School opened in 1889 with Seattle’s first high school installed on its third floor. Sixty years later the school’s landmark towers were prudently removed after Seattle’s 1949 earthquake.
This ordinarily busy intersection is oddly vacant here, crossed by neither motorcar nor team. However, the pavement bricks are layered with clues. A combined mess of auto oil, horse droppings and — what else? — marks them.
The Knickerbocker was built in time for Seattle’s first world’s fair, the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, held on the UW campus. Advertised as “strictly modern,” the hotel’s 90 rooms were for the most part taken as apartments. In 1911, weekly rents were $3 and up. Included among its more sensationally newsworthy residents in the half-century before the hotel was razed for the Seattle Freeway were a forger, a 3½-year-old boy deserted by his parents, and more than one robber.
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On the brighter side, in a letter to The SeattleTimes’ editor, Knickerbocker resident Carol Cornish expressed her thanks that living at 616 Madison put her “close-in” to downtown opera and concerts. In her letter from Oct. 28, 1940, Cornish also included a culture-conscious complaint about concert-audience behavior. “I hate to be stuffy, but the shallow, careless frivolities of the so-called smart set often fill us unaspiring social plebeians with a definite distaste.”
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, The Times honored the Knickerbocker Hotel by including it in its “Business and Professional Ledger.” After World War II, some hotel rooms were outfitted with dark rooms for rent to amateur photographers. And through much of the 1950s, the Knickerbocker was home to the Seattle Chess Club.
Writing her little classic “Pig-Tail Days” in 1937, Sophie Frye Bass, granddaughter of Arthur and Mary Denny, mourned the loss of both the poplars and the First Hill neighborhood of her childhood. “The fine residences and stately poplars have given way protestingly to business.”
Check out Paul Dorpat and Jean Sherrard’s blog at www.pauldorpat.com.