Pioneer Building, The (Seattle)

  • By Dotty DeCoster
  • Posted 4/04/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8912

Seattle's Pioneer Building, located at the northeast corner of 1st  Avenue and James Street, was the first of three legacy buildings built by Seattle pioneer Henry Yesler (1810-1892) after the Great Seattle Fire of June 1889. Designed by Elmer H. Fisher (1840-1905), it embodies the transition between Victorian and Romanesque Revival styles that became the hallmark of commercial buildings in Seattle following the fire. The Pioneer Building fronts on Pioneer Square (formerly Pioneer Place) and was the icon of the historic restoration movement of the 1960s that resulted in creation of the Pioneer Square Historic District in 1970.  The Pioneer Building was rehabilitated in the early 1970s by the Theta Corporation and architect Ralph Anderson (d. 2010). Today, the building is a tribute to Seattle entrepreneur Henry Yesler and by extension Seattle's pioneers, and a working structure built by hand in the Victorian fashion but responsive to the building ordinance of 1889 and to national Romanesque Revival architectural styles for commercial buildings.  For sheer exuberance of decoration and design, inside and outside, the Pioneer Building remains one of Seattle's most beloved historic buildings. The building and the Pioneer Square Historic District are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Henry Yesler, Builder and Fire Veteran

In 1889, Henry Leiter Yesler  had been in Seattle for 37 years, working to grow the sawmill on Puget Sound he'd built in 1852-1853, and helping to grow Seattle into a city.  His first sawmill, located where the current Yesler Way joins the current Post Avenue, was at the time at the water’s edge.  Yesler’s wharf extended out into the water there, west of the mill.  The cookhouse for the mill was built of hewn logs in 1852 on Commercial Street (1st Avenue S) between Yesler Way and Washington Street of today.  The first cookhouse burned down in July 1866 and was rebuilt at the southeast corner of Commercial Street and Yesler Way where it came to be known as Yesler Hall.  In 1868 Yesler built a new sawmill to the west of the old one, extending out to deep water on fill from the original mill.  The old mill was torn down and a number of one-story buildings were built on its site to house the post office and a variety of stores.  In 1870, Yesler’s Hall was cut up into rooms for offices, and the half-open pavilion on the southeast corner of Cherry Street and 1st Avenue built in 1865 for a Fourth of July ball, was enclosed to become the new Yesler Hall.

On July 26, 1879, a big fire began in the American House, a hotel on Yesler Way just east of what became Railroad Avenue, now Alaskan Way.  The Seattle Sawmill, Yesler’s second mill, was destroyed along with a number of other businesses.  Yesler had J. M. Colman rebuild the sawmill on tide lands about a half-mile to the south.  In 1882, Yesler built another mill on his wharf where Railroad Avenue came to be built.  He also, in 1882-1883, had William E. Boone (1830-1921) of Boone & Meeker build an elegant Victorian business block (of wood) at the northwest corner of Yesler and 1st Avenue, on land that included the controversial bump between Commercial Street and Front Street (now 1st Avenue) that was choking traffic between the original Maynard and Denny plats.  This was the Yesler-Leary Building.  Then he commissioned Boone, who was the leading Seattle architect of the time, to build him a new residence -- the largest in town at the time -- which opened in 1884 and took the whole block from James to Jefferson, 3rd to 4th streets (and which burned down in 1901).  The Yeslers had lived at the northeast corner of Front and James since the 1850s.  In 1888, Yesler Hall was turned into a photograph gallery, offices, and a store room.

In 1889, Yesler was poised to begin building the Pioneer Building, the crowning achievement of his career in Seattle, and for this building he hired the newly arrived Elmer H. Fisher to design it.  The original design was to be half the site, just on the corner of Front and James streets.  Excavation had begun when on June 6, 1889, what is known as the Great Fire of Seattle burned the entire early commercial district to the ground, from Madison Street south to the water at about Jackson Street, and from Elliott Bay on the west eastward to about today’s 4th Avenue.  Henry Yesler’s house was saved, and a few stone buildings survived, but all that was left at the corner of Front and James and Commercial streets was the excavation for the Pioneer Building.  Remarkably, Elmer Fisher’s drawings also survived -- he had acquired a safe to store them and many of them are now in the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.

Yesler had already opened a new sawmill outside of town on Union Bay, and he had long since diversified his financial interests, including serving as Wells Fargo agent, postmaster, and host.  He had served in public offices and invested in water supply and real estate.  This time, in concert with a large number of other people, he was ready to build in stone and brick and to embrace more fireproof construction.  He was also ready to listen to civic boosters who retained Reginald M. Thomson (1856-1949) to replat 1st Avenue, fill and regrade the old commercial district, and even, finally and grudgingly, to sell the corner at Front and James and Commercial streets to the city for a park so that traffic could flow continuously on 1st Avenue.  Negotiations for the park went on for some time and delayed construction of the three new Yesler buildings surrounding it for a year or more, so Yesler himself, who died in 1892, did not see all three buildings and the park completed. 

After the Great Fire, the City adopted a new building ordinance (No. 1147, July 1889), specifying how rebuilding the commercial district should proceed.  Elmer Fisher, the most popular architect in the commercial district, responded by continuing to use the Victorian approaches with which he was familiar, adding Romanesque Revival flourishes.  The Pioneer Building, originally designed before the fire and before the new building ordinance, demonstrates the transition in Fisher’s designs and those of other architects working in the area at the time, from Victorian to Romanesque Revival styles. 

Legacy of Pioneers

Oschner and Anderson suggest that this transition may have had less to do with following a national stylistic trend in commercial building design and more to do with finding “an appropriate architectural solution within these constraints to the design of masonry commercial architecture” (Oschner and Anderson, Seattle, 67).  The Pioneer Building, the Bank of Commerce Building (now Yesler Building) and the first floor of the Mutual Life Building (once the Yesler Block) match not only each other but, taken together,  demonstrate this architectural transition.  The Pioneer Building is primarily Victorian in design. The Mutual Life Building, which was completed last of the three by a series of architects, was a more mature interpretation of a Romanesque Revival commercial building as practiced by John Wellborn Root (1850-1891), the leading Chicago architect of the firm Burnham and Root.

The Pioneer Building from the outside looks today like a symmetrical block.  However, the original concept was for a building only 67 feet wide -- the tower which marked the center of the front on Front Street (1st Avenue) was to have been the northwest corner of the building.  After the fire, the design and the building filled the lot in two parts, with a firewall between.  The  tower over the main entrance on Front Street was damaged in the earthquake in 1949 and removed.  The three bays (in the front, at the corner, and at the James Street entrance) were constructed of cast iron, and are visible today.  The outside walls were Bellingham Bay gray sandstone at the ground floor and red brick on the upper floors.  The street facades were divided into vertical bays, as was conventional in Victorian design. The exterior arched entrances, the stone layered in alternating broad and narrow courses on the first floor, and similar features reflected Romanesque Revival flourishes.  At $250,000, the Pioneer Building was the most expensive of the time. Built on the site of Henry and Sarah Yesler’s home throughout the Pioneer period in Seattle history, the Pioneer Building was meant to be a legacy to the city and to honor its early pioneers. 

Inside, the building was divided in two by the firewall just left of the main Front Street entrance.  Arched openings at each floor connected the two parts.  Elevators and a staircase were available from the main lobby. Each side of the building surrounded a central skylit atrium extending from the second floor to the roof.  The 185 office rooms, as they were called, were lit by the skylights through windows along the corridors, and the glass in these windows and the door windows further reflected around the five-floor open space.  The street level floor was more enclosed on the inside for banks and retail uses.  The basement, where originally the barber shop of Von Dungen & Crahlman was located, had a street entrance.

Original Tenants

The 1891-1892 city directory lists the first tenants of the Pioneer Building.  The Puget Sound National Bank of Seattle was at street level with the corner entrance at Front and James streets.  On the second floor  were a series of businesses owned and operated by E. F. Wittler, J. D. Lowman, and W. H. Lowman, including the Union Trunk Line (cable car company).  Mc Mullen-Winsor Lumber Company was also on the second floor and the King County Medical Society met in their office twice a month.  Grays Harbor Land and Improvement Company in room 230-231 also provided space for the King County Fair and Agricultural Association. 

A. D. Cochrane (advertising) and F. A. Wood (accounting) also had second-floor offices. The third floor had offices for the New England Northwestern Investment Company, and for G. A. Pidduck (advertising) and the Seattle Street Car Advertising Co.  On the fourth floor was the Washington Realty Co. and architect Timotheus Josenhans. The fifth floor offices were used by the Sidney Improvement Company; Central West, a weekly publication; and Duncome & Bates.  Artist C. E. Baldwin was on the top floor.

Re-arranging Downtown

It seems astonishing that Seattle could have rebounded from the Great Fire so quickly:  “Thirty days after the fire eighty-eight brick palaces, to cost over $5,000,000 are either under way or projected. . .”  (Austin and Scott, Tacoma, 4)  A large part of the commercial district, rebuilt in stone and masonry, focused on commercial buildings and hotels.  Wharves were rebuilt almost immediately to accommodate the arrival of needed building materials by water.  In fact, the rebuilding went so quickly that the street regrades and utility replacements didn’t happen until after most of the new buildings went up.

Commercial Street, the main street of early Seattle, disappeared under the regrade in the early 1890s, and with it the first floors and adjacent sidewalks of many of the newly constructed post-fire buildings. The City had the street grades in the vicinity of Yesler Way and to the south raised from one to 35 feet -- the latter height at 3rd S and Jackson Street.  They set up structures to hold the fill along the streets and paved over both the fill and the old sidewalks, which became today's "areaways" or "underground Seattle." Sophie Frye Bass describes it:

"Commercial Street, now a forgotten street, had the name of First Avenue wished upon it in 1895.  It stretches far out over made land where sea-gulls once swam and the unwary chee chacko (newcomer) who did not understand the ways of tides would be left in his canoe on a bed or ooze, not daring to walk, waiting for hours in the sun or rain – waiting for the turn of the tide to release him"  (Bass, Portland, 25).

Rebuilding of the old commercial district halted with the financial panic of 1893, which lasted in Seattle until the Portland arrived in July of 1897 with “a ton of gold” from the Klondike.  Then Seattle boomed again, and by the time the height of the Klondike gold rush was over, the rebuilt commercial core was too small.  With new wealth, businesses began building new buildings uptown, and for these, more modern construction (support by steel frames with exterior cladding) and new architectural styles emerged.  Throughout the old commercial area, the post-fire buildings were vacated over time. Some were damaged in the earthquake of 1949, and some were simply not repaired. By 1950, five of the Pioneer Building’s six floors were empty and until 1974 they stayed empty.

Preservation vs. Parking Garage 

Early in the 1960s a group of architects and developers began to rediscover what we now call the Pioneer Square area -- the old post-fire commercial district.  Ralph Anderson and Alan Black, among others,  undertook renovation of several properties.  Victor Steinbrueck, in his Seattle Cityscape sketchbook in 1962, indicated the enthusiasm about this historic preservation effort with several sketches, including one of the Pioneer Building. Steinbrueck commented:

"Rich and flavorsome old buildings associated with the pioneers stand proudly even though they are neglected at present.  A fresh look at the interesting details and fine masonry is rewarding and suggests possibilities for sympathetic restoration" (Steinbrueck, Seattle, 53).

Hundreds of people -- architects, developers, students, and the public -- became fascinated with the potential for restoring and enjoying this neglected legacy of buildings.  In opposition to this, during the early 1960s, when "urban renewal" was a common activity among cities in the U.S., a group called the Central Association proposed that the Pioneer Square area be razed and replaced by parking garages.  A non-profit organization of preservationists, Allied Arts of Seattle, proposed restoration.

Underground Tours and Excellent Dining

William (Bill) C. Speidel Jr. (1912-1988) and his wife Shirley discovered Pioneer Square in the 1950s. They were already interested in Seattle’s history and Bill was known for his guidebooks, You Can’t Eat Mt. Rainier and You Still Can’t Eat Mt. Rainier and the Seattle Guide weekly.  They had heard a rumor that under the sidewalks of the old commercial district, there were passageways, perhaps even an underground city.  Bill went exploring, and sure enough, there were underground sidewalks and the first floors of buildings that had been new in the 1890s when the streets were regraded.  The public was fascinated and wanted to take the tour.  Bill was intrigued with the possibilities of having all these interested people sign a petition to rescue the area from becoming parking lots. 

“Then in May, 1965, when the Junior Chamber of Commerce held its ‘Know Your Seattle Day,’ they persuaded us to conduct tours for one day at a buck a head.”  When Bill and Shirley arrived to give the first public tour, Pioneer Place Park, “was packed with people holding dollar bills.  We took 500 people on tours that day.”  The Speidels soon scheduled public tours. The Pioneer Building became home to  Underground Seattle Tours. The Pioneer Building is the starting point for tourists going back in time through the underground sidewalks created when the City regraded the original commercial downtown. 

Soon after the first underground tours, the mayor was presented with 100,000 names on a petition, and in May 1970, the Seattle City Council adopted an ordinance naming 20 square blocks in Pioneer Square an Historic District” (undergroundtour.com).

In 1969, on the first floor of the Pioneer Building, Julia and Francois Kissel redeveloped the Pittsburgh Lunch into the Brasserie Pittsbourg Amadeus, delighting Seattleites and tourists with excellent French cuisine.  “Some consider it the start of the neighborhood’s commercial renaissance”  (Humphrey, Charlotte,  48).  Certainly, the Brasserie initiated a renaissance in excellent restaurant cuisine throughout the city. In 1970, the Pioneer Square -- Skid Road District was listed on the federal National Register of Historic Places (Number 70000086).

Rehabilitating the Pioneer Building

Architect Ralph Anderson (1924-2010) had rehabilitated a number of Pioneer Square-area buildings, including the Union Trust and the Grand Central buildings, before he undertook the work on the Pioneer Building in 1973 for the Theta Corporation.  Larry Kreisman describes the project:

"Although the structure was reasonably sound, roof leaks had seriously damaged the northwest corner of the building, requiring internal bracing and new supporting columns. The roof was completely redone, rotting floors and joists were replaced, the skylights were rebuilt, and the sheet metal cornice was completely reconstructed.  The original hydraulic elevator shaft, turned into vaults for tenant use when the city’s first electric elevators were installed, was used to conceal the building’s new heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems.  The two open-cage elevators were adjusted to accommodate safety glass enclosures to meet fire codes.  Other work on the building to meet fire and seismic code requirements included installation of a sprinkler system, fire stairs, and a safety glass smoke relief panel in the skylights, tying back of parapet walls, reinforcing floors, and using metal tie rods to connect exterior walls to floors.  Façade cleaning, patching, and repainting, terra-cotta repair, window replacement, new storefronts, and stripping and refinishing of doors, wainscoting, and staircase balusters turned the derelict building into the city’s premier example of restoration" (Kreisman, Seattle, 90-91).

This renovation preserved the extraordinary internal design of the office floors open to light from two rooftop skylights through two atria inside a stone and brick edifice. 

In 1977, Polk’s Seattle Street Directory lists occupants of the rooms and the building is tenanted on most floors. Metro (Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle) occupied the entire fifth floor.  (To help revive historic downtown buildings, many government agencies leased space in them.)  The first floor was occupied by several restaurant offices and the information office for Metro along with the Brasserie Pittsbourg.  William Speidel, his Seattle Guide Inc., and Nettle Creek Publishing were on the third floor. Metro’s water quality planners were  also on the third floor, and Metro’s long-term engineering consultants, Brown & Caldwell, were on the second floor. A variety of professionals occupied most of the other offices, but the fourth and sixth floors seem to have been vacant, perhaps still being renovated. The Pioneer Building, Pergola, and Totem Pole were listed as a National Historic Landmark (77001340). 

Today you will find the Underground Tour offices in the Pioneer Building next to Doc Maynard’s, just east of the Pioneer Square totem pole and pergola on 1st Avenue.  Pioneer Square Antiques & Collectables occupy the former Brasserie Pittsbourg space.   Law offices are in the old bank site on the corner of 1st Avenue and Yesler Way.  Around the corner there’s a travel agency, Viajes Azteca, and Mercela’s for New Orleans-style lunch and dinner. Offices in the atria on the top floor provide space for lawyers, therapists, an economist, and an alternative health practitioner.


Sources: Jeffrey Karl Ochsner and Dennis Alan Andersen, Distant Corner: Seattle Architects and the Legacy of H.H. Richardson (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 2003); Lawrence Kreisman, Made to Last: Historic Preservation in Seattle and King County (Seattle: Historic Seattle Preservation Foundation and University of Washington Press, 1999), 85, 90-92; Thomas W. Prosch, A Chronological History of Seattle From 1850 to 1897, typescript dated 1900 and 1901, Seattle Room (10th floor, downtown), The Seattle Public Library, Seattle; Lisa Mighetto and Marcia Montgomery, Hard Drive to the Klondike; Promoting Seattle During the Gold Rush (Seattle: University of Washington Press and Northwest Interpretive Association, 2002), 2-4; Sophie Frye Bass, Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle (Portland: Binfords & Mort, 1937), 25; Victor Steinbrueck, Seattle Cityscape (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962), 52-53; Maureen R. Elenga, Seattle Architecture: A Walking Guide to Downtown (Seattle:  Seattle Architecture Foundation, 2007), 21-23; Walt Crowley with Paul Dorpat, National Trust Guide Seattle; America’s Guide for Architecture and History Travelers (New York: John Wiley &  Sons, Inc., 1998), 36-41; C. W. Austin and H. S. Scott, The Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889, (Tacoma, Puget Sound Printing [1889] 1965); Clark Humphrey, Vanishing Seattle (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Pub., 2006), 48; Corbett’s 1891-92 Seattle City Directory, (Seattle: Corbett & Co., 1892); Polk’s Seattle City Directory, (Seattle: 1974-1977); "History," Seattle Underground Tours website accessed January 15, 2009 (http://www.undergroundtour.com/about/history.html); "Pioneer Building," City of Seattle, Department of Neighborhoods, Historic Preservation, Historical Sites website accessed December 19, 2008 (http://web1.seattle.gov/dpd/historicalsite/QueryResult.aspx?ID=-1119623451); Pioneer Building website accessed December 19, 2008 (http://www.pioneer-building.com); "History of Pioneer Square," City of Seattle, Department of Neighborhoods, Historic Preservation website accessed January 14, 2009 (http://www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/preservation/pioneersquare_history.htm);  Craig S. Bower, "Ralph Anderson," Seattle Homes and Lifestyles website accessed January 15, 2009 (http://www.seattlehomesmag.com/Seattle-Homes-and-Lifestyles/February-2008/Ralph-Anderson/); Dean Stahl, “Taking the Long View,” Pacific Northwest Magazine, The Seattle Times, July 29, 2007 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/); Friends of Francois website accessed January 24, 2009 (http://www.friendsoffrancois.com); HistoryLink.org online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Underground Tours of Pioneer Square begin in August 1964” (by Walt Crowley), and “Fisher, Elmer H. (ca. 1840-1905)” (by Heather Macintosh), and Mutual Life Building Seattle (by Dotty DeCoster)  http://www.historylink.org (accessed January 21, 2009).

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