Frederick & Nelson opens its new store at 5th Avenue and Pine Street in Seattle on September 3, 1918.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 12/21/2000
  • Essay 2900
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On September 3, 1918, Frederick & Nelson opens its six-story department store at 5th Avenue and Pine Street, which occupies nearly an entire city block. Eventually growing to 10 floors, "Frederick's" becomes a center of cultural activity in the Northwest. In addition to selling a wide variety of material goods, "Frederick's" showcases artists; hosts meetings, lectures, and classes; and during World War II, serves as the unofficial center of war bond drives.

Georgia native Donald E. Frederick (1860-1937) arrived in Seattle in 1890 from the gold fields of Colorado. He linked up with fellow miners Nels B. Nelson (1854-1907) and James Mecham to sell used furniture amid the turmoil of Seattle's reconstruction after the Great Fire of 1889. Success followed and they moved several times to successively larger quarters. When, in 1897, the Klondike Gold Rush jerked Seattle out of the Panic of 1893, Frederick, Nelson & Mecham did a brisk business in furniture, supplying the hotels that catered to the Alaska trade. Then they occupied part of the Rialto Building at 2nd Avenue and Madison Street. By 1906, they took up the entire block, plus space in other buildings, connected by overhead walkways.

Frederick's Tearoom

The partners watched closely developments in retailing and Nelson in particular was impressed by Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago. In 1903, Eva MacCallum was retained to open a tearoom. The popular attraction featured 40 waitresses, a pageboy, and one woman dressed as a French maid who sold pastries at each table. In 1906, the store began to offer ready-to-wear women's suits and gowns, displayed in a corner window. The new line of merchandise was an instant success. Men's wear, children's clothing, millinery, yardage, lingerie, luggage, notions, and sportswear quickly followed. Frederick & Nelson had become a department store.

One of the company's first transactions in 1890 required that Frederick & Nelson personally carry a heavy chair to the home of the customer. By the early 1900s, Frederick & Nelson operated 28 shiny, horse-drawn delivery wagons. In 1904, the installation of a telephone switchboard allowed the company to go into the mail-order business.

Nels Nelson died on a business trip in 1907 and his partner carried on. In 1914, D.E. Frederick began searching for a single location where all of his merchandise and services could be housed. He moved six blocks north of Seattle's retail core to Pine Street between 5th and 6th avenues where he built a six-story building designed by John Graham, then emerging as Seattle's leading architect.

Gambling on Pine Street

The location was a daring gamble; development of the nearby Metropolitan Tract had only just begun. The new store included a candy shop (which became home for Seattle's famous Frango Mints), a popular tearoom, and an ice cream parlor. A "men-only" entrance on the 5th floor spared gentlemen the embarrassment of having to walk through the women's departments. The store became famous for gracious service and merchandise from around the world.

In 1929, D.E. Frederick sold out to Marshall Field & Co. of Chicago for $6 million. During World War II, Frederick's opened a temporary store on the grounds of Boeing Plant No. 2 to serve legions of "Rosie-the-Riveters" who worked shifts around the clock. The main store featured a "Victory Post" where war bonds and stamps were sold. The store and its staff won awards for record sales of bonds and stamps.

The Age of Designer Fashion Begins

After the war, Frederick's helped feed the explosion in consumer demand. The store adapted to the times and began to feature designer fashions in addition to its own labels. But competition from suburban shopping centers spurred management to undertake a major renovation and the building at 5th Avenue and Pine Street was expanded to 10 floors and 12 shopping levels under the guidance of John Graham Jr., son of the original structure's architect. The new store opened on August 4, 1952.

There followed several decades of upheaval in the retail business and profitablity for Frederick's. Despite several corporate acquisitions beginning in 1977, including refurbishment under the direction of downtown developer David Sabey, the Seattle store was unable to maintain its viability. In 1992, Frederick's closed its doors.

The vacant structure was both a contributor to and symbol of bad times for the downtown retail core in the early 1990s. Seattle Mayor Norm Rice spearheaded a redevelopment plan premised on Nordstrom's acquisition and preservation of the building, but the retailer demanded that traffic on Pine Street (closed in 1990) be reopened through Westlake Park. Seattle voters agreed in 1995 and the building's exterior shell was designated as an official city landmark in 1997. Nordstrom rededicated the building in 1998.


Robert Spector, More Than A Store: Frederick & Nelson, 1890 to 1990 (Bellevue: Documentary Book Publishers Corporation, 1990); "Nordstrom's History in Downtown Seattle," The Seattle Times, August 21, 1998.

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