In 1938, before Seattle installed parking meters, a little office shed shared a First Hill street with apartment houses.

Share story

CALCULATING THE RATE posted on the roof of this “office” shed at 725 University St., any motorist leaving a car in this lot for longer than half a day would pay 30 cents. Seventy-nine years later, this seems comical — and very fair. The subject was recorded on Jan. 24, 1938, not quite a decade after the 1929 economic crash.

This photo was rescued a half-century ago from a tax assessor’s wastebasket. The year 1938 was an especially busy one for the Works Progress Administration photographers. While these researcher-recorders were busy making a photographic inventory of every taxable structure in King County, they discovered that many were not listed. The result was two communities: the supportive one and an untaxed one. The shed? We do not know on which side of that ragged line it sits.

The earliest of the aerial surveys recorded for mapping Seattle dates from 1929. Kept in the city archive, it shows that this block, bordered by Seneca and University streets and Eighth (climbing First Hill behind the shed) and Seventh avenues, was mostly crowded with small structures built to the north and west sides of one large one: the Exeter House, which still fills the quarter-block at the northwest corner of Seneca Street and Eighth Avenue. (In this week’s “Now” photo, the Exeter is just off-frame to the right.) Both the 1936 and 1942 aerials expose the block filled with cars, the Exeter and this shed.

With its last residential listing in The Seattle Times, 725 University St. was still a boardinghouse and not this parking-lot office. The story, printed Oct. 13, 1936, tells how George L. Swanson and A.T. Entwisle, a resident at 725, on hearing the screams of “Miss Collins, walking at Eight Ave. and Seneca Street,” responded by tackling a purse-snatcher named Bisbee. The heroes held him there for the police. Young Bisbee explained that he did it “because he was broke.”

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

At the time, depressed Seattle was also broke, or nearly. In the year of Bisbee’s crime, the Seattle City Council, accompanied over five years by three mayors and dozens of parking-meter salesmen, began its earnest debate on parking meters. With meters, the council hoped to inhibit double-parking, while counting the nickels and dimes pouring into the city’s general fund. One meter-machine salesman offered contributions to Councilman Hugh De Lacy to help erase the debt left by his most recent campaign. An ardent clean-government socialist, De Lacy reported the proposed perk.

On Nov. 8, 1941, The Times announced that the city had set Dec. 15 as a deadline for completion of parking-meter installation. The writer waggishly added, “Having heard much about parking meters in the abstract, we look forward to seeing them in concrete.”