Volunteer Park and Capitol Hill

The Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle is part of a long ridge that overlooks the downtown. In 1872, the pioneers cleared a wagon road through the forest to a cemetery at its peak (later named Lake View Cemetery). It was logged off in the 1880s. James Moore (1861-1929), Capitol Hill's chief developer, gave the hill its name in 1901. Before that it was called Broadway Hill. Capitol Hill is a vibrant community, with a thriving business district along Broadway Avenue and along 15th and 19th avenues. It is home to Volunteer Park and the Seattle Asian Art Museum, St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral as well as other churches, Seattle Central Community College, Cornish College for the Arts, Richard Hugo House (a center for writers), as well as many shops, restaurants, and coffeehouses. Capitol Hill is the site of Seattle’s annual celebration for Gay Pride week.

Beginning with the Water Tower ...

 Tower at Volunteer Park, 1910s

For a view of Capitol Hill and a review of its history one may begin by climbing the 107 steps to the observation deck of the Volunteer Park water tower that since 1907 has stood at the summit of the 444-foot high hill. There to enjoy is a lavish exhibit not only of Volunteer Park history but also of the entire Olmsted Bros. legacy of parks and boulevards that the famous landscaping firm designed for Seattle in the early twentieth century.

An observation tower was one of the desiderata described in the firm’s first proposal, its 1903 plan. And there Volunteer Park is also described as the “jewel” of city parks. The tower, then, would be its crown jewel.

1912 Panorama

We will climb the tower in 1912 when there was no leaf canopy and it was still possible to see the hill ...

In 1912, Volunteer Park was 25 years old, but most of the development that could be seen from the tower was much younger than that. Looking west, we see the Volunteer Park High Reservoir (fenced and filled with Cedar River water in 1901). Looking northwest, we see the palatial English Arts and Crafts mansion of John and Eliza Leary on 10th Avenue E (eight years old in 1912). Directly north, the wagon road that was once the favorite route for funeral processions to reach Lakeview Cemetery directly through the park has been widened and paved (14th Avenue N) to the Olmsted’s instructions.

This year -- 1912 -- the park has been blocked at its north end with the construction of the glass Conservatory that the park department purchased from a catalogue and assembled on the site. To the northeast is a latticed pergola.

Looking east and south from the tower, the viewer sees the rooftops of hundreds of nearly mansion-sized homes crowd the curiously small lots of the several Capitol Hill additions -- including “Milllionaires' Row” on 14th Avenue N -- promoted by James Moore. That very few of these residences are more than 10 years old (in 1912) is testimony to the initiative of Moore, Seattle’s super-developer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The 1912 view to the southwest toward downtown looks at the undeveloped four-block swath of the Furth Addition, located between Moore’s Capitol Hill Addition and the growing business strip on Broadway Avenue south of Roy Street. Directly west of the Furth Addition, in the blocks of the Sara Yesler Addition, are a scattering of homes -- many of them surviving mansions.


More Than 40 Additions

By 1912, there were more than 40 additions on the area we roughly call Capitol Hill, including Furth, Yesler, and Moore’s seven Captiol Hill tracts, and the several Pontius additions. Rezan and Margaret Pontius built their farm at the base of Capitol Hill in the future Cascade Neighborhood (on the southern, downtown end of Lake Union). They acquired much of the western slope of the hill and their additions from the 1880s are among the earliest on the hill.

In the 1960s, the Interstate Freeway (I-5) quickly defined the western border of Capitol Hill. Following Pontius logic, before I-5 was cut along their slope, these neighbors -- Capitol Hill and Cascade -- melded. In 1910, on Republican Street, a grand stairway was constructed between Eastlake Avenue at the bottom and a just east of Melrose Avenue at the top. Most of the Republican Street Hillclimb was removed for the freeway: the two neighborhoods were severed.


Naming Capitol Hill

Capitol Hill got its name in the fall of 1901. Before this it was called Broadway Hill. Most descriptions of how the hill got its name turn on one of two stories. By one description – the sentimental one -- James Moore chose the moniker "Capitol Hill" for the quarter section of land he purchased in 1900 primarily because his wife came from another Western city that had its own Capitol Hill: Denver. By the second story, the name was picked in hopes of enticing the state to move its business from Olympia onto Prospect Street. Some sources say that an early version of this scheming began with “city founder” Arthur Denny in the 1860s.

This is probably wrong. Jacqueline Williams (The Hill with a Future) provides evidence from early newspapers that James Moore named “Capitol Hill,” and that he chose the name probably for reasons of both his wife and politics -- or more precisely, promotions.

In the spring of 1901, less than a year after he purchased and began improving the Capitol Hill Addition just south of Volunteer Park, Moore persuaded William H. Lewis, a King County politician then serving in the Washington State House of Representatives, to introduce a bill offering both a site for the capital campus on Capitol Hill and funds to build a Capitol Building. This was not a very serious proposal. It did, however, for a brief while allow locals to imagine the reach of Moore’s ambition and to envision his elevated real estate surmounted by the state capitol. After all, there remained then the old problem in Olympia that while it had the seat of state government it did not have the pants; that is a capitol building worthy of the state.

  An advertisement for James A. Moore's Capitol Hill Addition, 1902                                                                         

                                          James Moore (1861-19

Lake View Cemetery and Volunteer Park

Before the years of clear-cut logging on Capitol Hill in the 1880s, it was sometimes necessary to make it through the forest and to the summit with a wagon that often served as hearse. In 1872, the Masons of Seattle, Pioneer Doc Maynard (1808-1873) among them, chose a portion of what since 1890 has been called Lake View Cemetery as a burial ground for members. When Maynard died less than a year later, his fraternal fellows kept the body lying in state for more than a month while they built a branch road to the cemetery off the old wagon road that struck north from Madison Street on the present line of 23rd Avenue.

According to Robert L. Ferguson (The Pioneers of Lake View), the new road left the path of 23rd Avenue near Ward Street heading west to the future line of 14th Avenue. Turning north, it continued through a hog farm and soon reached the cemetery. Maynard was buried only a few feet from the highest point on Capitol Hill.

"Avenue of Mansions," 14th Avenue N, Capitol Hill, Seattle, 1906

Courtesy Lawton Gowey

Volunteer Park

In 1876, the city bought 40 acres contiguous to the south of the Masonic Cemetery. In 1885, they called it Washelli and started moving bodies over from an old burial ground the city was converting into Denny Park. Two years later, while Leigh Hunt, the editor and publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, was trailblazing along the ridge, by his own description he “fell into a deep communion with nature and under the enchanted spell of her visible forms.” Under the influence of this reverie, Hunt next came across the few marked graves at Washelli. Perhaps dreaming of good copy, the editor claimed that a voice came to him demanding “Dispose of the dead elsewhere; this ground is reserved for the enjoyment of the living.”

Promptly the city obeyed the influential publisher. The graves were moved next door to the Lake View Cemetery and the now unoccupied acres were held as a reserve for more “deep communion with nature.” The site was eventually named City Park and in 1901, Volunteer Park, to commemorate the patriotic gang of locals who volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American War of 1898-1899.

A little pruning and planting occurred in the early 1890s under the direction of Edward Otto Schwagerl, the well-thought-of landscape architect hired in 1892. However, the economic panic of 1893 put an end to this work. City Park nested for 10 years more until the Olmsted firm was hired in 1903 to devise a city-wide plan for parks and boulevards.


Millionaires’ Row

The development of community services and public works including water, fire protection, sewerage, and trolleys was the passion of the many community, commercial, and improvement clubs that quickly came forward in neighborhoods that boomed as Capitol Hill did in the early twentieth century.

One curious exception to this “positive thinking” came from the homeowners who settled on James Moore’s primary show street, his “Millionaires' Row.” For many years previous to the developer’s improvements, 14th Avenue was the last leg of a wagon road that led to the Lake View Cemetery. At the southern entrance to the park with its own grand boulevard, 14th Avenue became for Moore and his buyers the most distinguished strip. The procession of mourners that continued to use 14th Avenue was perhaps tolerable to the row’s new nabobs, but not the trolley line proposed by a competitor to the Seattle Electric Company’s consolidated Capitol Hill lines.

An effective (and decorative) response to this threat is revealed in a letter to Moore written by long-time City Engineer R. H. Thomson (1856-1949). Thomson advises the developer to add a planting strip down the center of his show row where trolley tracks would ordinarily be laid. The strip was built, although in the end it was not necessary, for the competing trolley line was not awarded a franchise to enter the neighborhood.


Types of Residences

There is perhaps an ambivalence to all of James Moore’s Capitol Hill promotions. While he advertised them as the next retreat for the city’s more affluent citizens, the lots are generally small for the homes that were constructed on them. The effect, especially in the Stevens Neighborhood (named for the Isaac Stevens Primary School on 17th Avenue and Galer Street ) is a community that feels both grand and intimate. These playland qualities were enhanced by the large Catholic families that soon moved into these homes. They came certainly because the homes were big but also to be near Holy Names Academy (1907) at 22nd Avenue and Aloha Street, St. Joseph’s Church (1907) and School (1908) on 18th Avenue, and Forest Ridge School (1907) on Interlaken Boulevard. The Stevens neighborhood became in effect a concentrated Catholic neighborhood.

In his presentation to Historic Seattle’s Capitol Hill symposium in 2000, Leonard Garfield, director of the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), outlined a typology of Capitol Hill residences. Garfield noted that because the history of residential development on Capitol Hill occurred at such a rapid pace, housing types overlap in both time and place. Grand homes were not necessarily segregated from lesser ones -- or even from apartments. They were connected and yet disconnected. “People saw what they wanted to see.”

Modest homes were built on the ridge in the 1880s and 1890s. Very few if any of these structures survive. These simple homes were followed by a few oversized ones arranged like country estates. The English Tudor style John and Eliza Leary home at 1551 10th Avenue N, now home of the Episcopal Diocesan Offices, is a good and grand example. Close on the heels of these country retreats came the advance guard of working and professional households of a booming Seattle. These owners expected to raise families in the “streetcar suburbs” that were rapidly constructed to the sides of the business and transportation strips of Broadway, 15th, and 19th avenues. Many of these homes were built in the efficient but still attractive Classic Box style.

In between the Henrys and the homemakers are a hybrid class of mostly nouveau riche residents, who may have worked but did not necessarily have to. They often built grander homes than even the biggest boxes and also preferred to site them in their own limited zones. The residences on “Millionaire’s Row” may be included in this set -- at first they put up a gate straddling 14th Avenue at Roy Street. Many of the big houses west of Volunteer Park on Federal Avenue and beside the somewhat serpentine streets north of Aloha Street and west of Broadway fit this more upper-crusty character. A sizeable percentage of the homes of this type were built late -- after World War I.

Finally, Garfield distinguishes the apartment houses of Capitol Hill where family life was often provided for with large units and handsome structures distinguished with architectural ornaments and courtyards. Later, many of these larger apartments were multiplied into smaller units for single occupants.



Broadway is a thoroughly sensible street. It travels most of the length of both First and Capitol Hills and although rarely on the summit its grade is always easy. Indeed Broadway is the best evidence that First and Capitol Hill are one hill for when traveling along Broadway you will find the distinction between them subtle.

Broadway was the obvious path for the electric trolley that in 1891 first linked Capitol Hill to Beacon Hill through First Hill and what in the beginning was a long boulevard of stumps and dreams and at least one swale. (The swale centered at Republican Street where in the evening riders could hear frogs croaking. ) After Broadway was paved in 1903, it became the favorite flyway first for cyclists and soon after motorists ­-- a preferred promenade for flashy wheels.



Jacqueline Block Williams, The Hill With A Future: Seattle's Capitol Hill, 1900-1946, (Seattle: CPK INK, 2001); Paul Dorpat, "Volunteer Park Voices," Story 86 Seattle Now and Then, Vol. 1, 2nd Edition (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1984); Paul Dorpat, "Seattle's Second Hill," Story 80 Seattle Now and Then, Vol. 2, 2nd Edition (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1988); Paul Dorpat, "Millionaire Row and Seattle's Wireless Man," Story 78 Ibid.; Paul Dorpat, "Republican Hill Climb," Story 79 Ibid.; Paul Dorpat, "Broadening of Broadway," Story 77 Ibid.; Paul Dorpat, "The View From Denny Hill to Capitol Hill," Story 50 Ibid.; Paul Dorpat Interview with Leonard Garfield, Director of the Museum of History and Industry, April 9, 2001, Seattle, Washington; Casey Rosenberg, Streetcar Suburb: Architectural Roots of a Seattle Neighborhood (Seattle: Fanlight Press, ca. 1989); Shaping Seattle Architecture: A Historical Guide to the Architects ed. by Jeffrey Karl Ochsner (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994); R. H. Thomson letterbooks, University of Washington Archives, University Manuscripts and Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington.

Photo By Paul Dorpat

Capitol Hill Addition "boxes" advertised in the Seattle Mail and Herald, 1900s

Courtesy UW Special Collections

Broadway High School (William E. Boone and J. M. Corner, 1902), Seattle 1910s


Capitol Hill - Looking South from atop water tower, 1920s


Columbia School on Capitol Hill, later renamed Lowell School, ca. 1900

Courtesy MOHAI

750 Belmont Avenue E (Frederick William Anhalt, 1930), now Belmont Court, Seattle

Courtesy Paul Dorpat

Asian Art Museum with Calder's Eagle, Volunteer Park, April 9, 2001

Photo by Paul Dorpat

14th Avenue N and Aloha Street, Capitol Hill, Seattle, 1910s