Fire destroys the Times and Denny buildings in Seattle on February 13, 1913.

  • By Daryl McClary
  • Posted 1/23/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20948

Early on Thursday morning, February 13, 1913, fire erupts on the top floor of the Times Building in downtown Seattle, housing the publishing offices and printing plant of the Seattle Daily Times. The flames quickly spread to the adjoining Denny Building, and by the time firefighters have it under control, the upper floors of both buildings are destroyed. While no lives are lost, property damage is estimated at $250,000. The daily newspaper will continue to be published without delay from the presses of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, while its Sunday edition will be printed by the Seattle Star. The damage to the Times Building will be promptly repaired, and the Seattle Daily Times will be back in operation on April 1, 1913.

Massive Response to Blaze

At 3:50 a.m. on Thursday, February 13, 1913, three newsboys, Melville Miller, William Lewis, and Oscar Weaver, waiting for bundles of the Seattle Daily Bulletin morning newspaper in front of the four-story Times Building, on the northeast corner of 2nd Avenue and Union Street, smelled smoke and saw flames in the elevator shaft. While Miller alerted the building's night watchman, John T. A. Bulfinch (1837-1921) to the immediate danger, Lewis and Weaver ran to the fire call box at the corner of 3rd Avenue and Union Street and turned in the first alarm at 3:55 a.m. Two minutes later, Patrol Sergeant John L. Zimmerman noticed fire emanating from the top floor of the building and turned in a second alarm.

A full first-alarm response brought three engine companies, two ladder companies, a squad wagon, and two Battalion Chiefs to the fire. Upon arrival, firefighters discovered the upper portion of the building was fully involved and flames had spread to the adjoining Denny Building. Fearing the fire might spread to other structures nearby and possibly imperil the entire northend business district, the first Battalion Chief to arrive at the scene turned in a general alarm, calling all downtown companies to the conflagration. Ten minutes later, Seattle Fire Chief Frank L. Stetson (1855-1943) arrived from Headquarters/Station No. 10, at 2nd Avenue and Main Street, took command of the general operation, and supervised efforts to protect the surrounding buildings.

The callout brought 23 hose companies, nine engine copanies, three truck companies, and two chemical companies, plus a water tower, to battle the fire. Chief Stetson ordered fire apparatus from outside districts to temporarily staff the now deserted downtown fire stations. A large force of Seattle Police patrol officers, changing shift at 4 a.m., were rushed to the scene to control the crowds of onlookers that grew from hundreds to thousands as the morning wore on.

Times Offices Gutted

At 7 a.m., after three tension-filled hours, the fire was "tapped out." Fearing rekindling, however, firefighters continued to pour water onto the smoldering wreckage and debris inside the buildings for hours afterward. The flames had gutted the upper two floors and part of the second floor of the Times Building, as well as the upper three stories of the Denny Building. In both buildings, the roofs had collapsed and the floors that had escaped fire damage were flooded. The Times Building had accumulated three feet of water in the basement, where four giant printing presses were located. The presses escaped the disaster comparatively undamaged, but four large electric motors, each valued at $2,000, were destroyed by water. The basement of the Denny Building accumulated six feet of water, and $75,000 worth of overstock, belonging to the Bartell Drug Company, was inundated and rendered worthless.

On the fourth floor of the Times Building, where the Seattle Daily Times composing room was located, 18 Morgenthaler Linotype machines, each valued at $3,500, and the newspaper's stereotyping equipment had been damaged beyond repair. In addition, the office of Colonel Alden J. Blethen (1846-1915), President and Editor-in-Chief, containing his reference library, personal files, and mementos, had been totally destroyed. On the third floor, where the offices of Joseph Blethen (1870-1937), business manager; Clarance B. Blethen (1879-1941), managing editor; and the news editors and journalists were located, everything was incinerated, which included the morgue files containing irreplaceable news clippings and photographs dating back to 1891. Three Times employees, printer Rolland G. Davenport, stereotype operator Charles Prince, and night watchman John T. A. Bullfinch, who were in the building when the fire erupted, escaped safely.

In the Denny Building, the offices occupying the top three floors had been gutted and nothing was saved. Two occupants of the building, night janitor Andrew Johnson and commercial photographer Herbert L Toles, asleep in the Rogers Photo Studio on the fifth floor, barely escaped with their lives. No one was injured or lives lost in the disaster.

The firefighters of Engine Company No 2, first to arrive at the scene, were certain that the blaze had started near the elevator shaft on the third or fourth floor of the Times Building. Due to the devastation, the precise location and cause of the fire couldn't be determined. There was speculation that it could have been arson, due to the often controversial nature of the newspaper's editorials, but no evidence was uncovered to support that theory. In addition to the newspaper, the fire wiped out several businesses and a drugstore owned by George H. Bartell Sr. (1868-1956), plus inventory stored in the basement of the Denny Building for all five of his drugstores. Insurance adjusters estimated the total property loss incurred by all tenants at $250,000, excluding damage to the buildings.

After the Disaster

The Seattle Daily Times rented the entire basement of the College Club of Seattle, located at the southwest corner of 5th Avenue and Seneca Street, and began to assemble a temporary printing plant, a project which would take approximately two weeks to accomplish. In the interim, arrangements were made with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to print the Times' daily newspaper, and the Seattle Star to print its Sunday edition. The typesetting was done on linotype machines of the rival newspapers, since all those of the Times had been destroyed. The business offices and news departments were temporarily housed in the Henry Building (later the White-Henry-Stuart Building, demolished in 1974) at 1324 4th Avenue, across the street from the Post-Intelligencer. The Times Building was quickly repaired, and the Seatle Daily Times was back in operation at its old venue on March 31, 1913.

In March 1912, the Times Printing Company of Seattle, doing business as the Seattle Daily Times, had purchased a triangular block of property situated between 4th and 5th avenues, Olive Way, and Stewart Street, with the intention of erecting a new building in which to publish the newspaper. The 1913 fire motivated Colonel Blethen to forge ahead with the expensive project with renewed vigor. The lease on the Times Building had less than four years to run and there was much to accomplish. On March 18, 1914, the city Building Department granted permits for the excavation of the basement and the construction of the newspaper's new home in what Colonel Blethen named "Times Square."

On July 12, 1915, Colonel Alden Joseph Blethen, age 69, died at his Queen Anne Hill residence, 519 West Highland Drive. He had been ill for several months, battling a malady diagnosed as cryptogenic septicemia. On July 14, a private funeral was held at the Blethen home, officiated by Reverend Dr. William H. G. Temple (1850-1924), with interment in the family plot at Lake View Cemetery in Seattle. Joseph Blethen took over as president and general manager of the Times Printing Company, parent company of the Times, and Clarance B. Blethen as Editor-in Chief of the newspaper.

In September 1916, the newspaper moved its business offices and printing plant from the Times Building to its new five-story, terra-cotta clad building in Times Square. The beaux-arts style Seattle Times Building remained the home of newspaper until 1931. (Also known as the Times Square Building, it was added to the National Park Service, Register of Historic Places, NR No. 83003346, in 1983.) Having outgrown that venue, the newspaper had a large, two-story, Art-Deco style building constructed on Fairview Avenue North between John and Thomas Streets and moved its publishing complex to that location on March 1, 1931. In 2020, the headquarters and printing plant of The Seattle Times is located at 1000 Denny Way, having relocated there in 1996. The vacated Seattle Times Building, at 1120 John Street, was designated a City of Seattle Landmark on August 15, 1995. Only its facade remains. 

In 1968, the original Times Building (renamed the 404 Second Avenue Building) and the adjoining Denny Building were demolished to make way for the construction the Swiftsure Parking Garage (also known as the Second and Union Parkade), a nine-story, 11-floor utilitarian structure with space for 550 automobiles.


Sources:

"Flames Wreck Times Plant; Fire Causes $400,000 Loss," Seattle Daily Times, February 13, 1913, p. 1; "Newsies First to Notice Big Blaze," Ibid., February 13, 1913, p. 2; "Tole's Narrow Escape from Terrible Death," Ibid., February 13, 1913, p. 3; "Fine Organization Enables Times to Defy Difficulties," Ibid., February 14, 1913, p. 11; "The Times to Rush Work on Damaged Home," Ibid., February 16, 1913, p. 1; "Mystery Surrounds Fire Which Burned Home of the Times," Ibid., February 17, 1913, p. 1; "Believes Fire Started in the Times Building," Ibid., February 19, 1913, p. 22; "Ad Men Overflow in Inky Optimism," Ibid., March 7, 1913, p. 1; "Mechanical Plant of the Times Is Moved in 20 Hours," Ibid., March 31, 1913, p. 12; "Work Started on New Home of the Times," Ibid., March 18, 1914, p. 1; "Building to Front on Times Square," Ibid., March 14, 1915, p. 1; "Succumbs to Illness of Months," Ibid., July 13, 1915, p. 1; "Colonel Blethen's Faith Is Justified," Ibid., September 25, 1916, p. 1; "Work Is All done Without One Slip," Ibid., September 25, 1916, p. 1; "Times Night Brilliantly Successful," Ibid., September 26, 1916, p. 1; "Times Begins Publication from New Building Tomorrow," Ibid., March 1, 1931, p. 1; ""Moving of Times to New Home Gigantic Task," Ibid., March 1, 1931, p. 16; "Times Building and Denny Block Burn; Loss May Be $5000,000," Seattle Star, February 13, 1913, p. 1; "Col. Blethen Looses Fight With Death," Ibid., July 13, 1915, p. 2; "Seattle Times Building Damaged by Fire," The Tacoma Times, February 13, 1913, p. 1; "Alden J. Blethen of Seattle Dead," Ibid., July 13, 1915, p. 3; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Blethen, Alden J. (1845-1915)" (by Priscilla Long) http://www.historylink.org (accessed April 18, 2015).


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