The Silver Inn, long gone, was a restaurant for less than a decade. Now it’s the site of the Denny Building’s parking garage.
THE ADDRESS “S.E. Cor. 6th & Bell St.,” scrawled on the driveway of our “Then” photo, might alert you that this is yet another King County tax photo, one of the few thousand rescued by Stan Unger from the assessor’s office’s trash nearly a half-century ago.
When Jean Sherrard and I are through scanning and using a selection of them, usually for this column, we put them in an archival box tied with blue ribbons and will guide them to the Washington State Archives, a more-responsible home for the greater Works Progress Administration collection.
The likely date for this steady snapshot is 1937, the year the federally funded WPA began its photo inventory of, it was hoped, all taxable structures in King County. These first tax photos generally showed acuity and, sometimes, as here, great acuity. That sharpness helps us read the Silver Inn’s greasy-spoon credits: chicken, steaks and hamburgers at Depression-time prices that were themselves delicious: “Lunch 35 cents” and “Dinner 50 cents.”
Among the Archive’s tax photos, you could find hundreds of hamburger signs hanging high, on or above, the windows of many of Seattle’s more than 800 restaurants listed in the 1938 Polk City Directory. The Archives is on the Bellevue College campus. Plan for at least a week of afternoons looking through the many thousands of prints. (We continue to hope that some happy day they will all be online.)
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Born in 1938, I was quickly indoctrinated into hamburger hysteria. With the need for cheap food, the “National Hamburger Diet” got off the grill during the Depression, and it kept frying during World War II, when many families used their food coupons almost entirely for hamburger. Standing in the kitchen with our mother, my older brother David and I were a devoted duet pleading for hamburgers, but not for their weak substitute, mere ground beef. We very much wanted the sandwich with the buns.
When the Silver Inn was built and first opened by Joe and Minnie Barmon in the early 1930s, the neighborhood was freshly scraped free of what remained of Denny Hill — 18 years after its regrade stalled, in 1911, at Fifth Avenue. The new digging in 1929 was inadvertently synchronized with the Great Depression. The Barmons’ nifty boxlike cafe was one of the few structures built above the blocks of graded dirt left by the regrade.
Soon after opening, the Silver Inn was shaken by an unclaimed bomb that exploded on Bell Street. Thereafter, the couple endured several overnight robberies, and gave up in the spring of 1939, when a beer and wine violation moved the state liquor board to cancel their license.
During most of World War II, the Silver Inn was rented by dancer Mary Ann Wells, who was for decades Seattle’s most celebrated dance producer. The building was converted for dance classes; Wells described the transformed Silver Inn to the public and her hundreds of pupils as her “beautiful new school.”
Wells was not thrilled when, in 1943, the Army Corps of Engineers surrounded the school with barracks for homeless workers, newly arrived in Seattle from the Midwest. All were looking for work, expecting it, and finding it at Boeing and in the shipyards. My second-oldest brother, Norman, was among them. Ted, the eldest, was far away, aboard a destroyer in the Pacific.