Seattle Neighborhoods: Capitol Hill, Part 1 -- Thumbnail History

  • By Paul Dorpat
  • Posted 5/07/2001
  • Essay 3188
See Additional Media

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 ...

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 Capitol 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.

The Borders of Capitol Hill

Capitol Hill is part of a long ridge that runs north-south behind downtown and eventually splits into two ridges. Running south, the western ridge of Capitol Hill, closest to downtown, continues as First Hill (previously or variously called Pill Hill, Profanity Hill, and Yesler Hill), and continues still farther south as Beacon Hill, and on to Renton. The eastern ridge of Capitol Hill reaches Madison Street where the name changes to Renton Hill or Second Hill. This ridge eventually peters out in Rainier Valley.

Because the eastern border of Capitol Hill has nothing like a freeway to define it, we generally accept a blending of the hill into Madison Valley and the Central Area. At the north end we may embrace for a border the freeway (520) linking I-5 with the Evergreen Point (Albert Rosellini) Floating Bridge. The area north of this freeway (520) is the Denny-Fuhrman Addition. The early Denny–Fuhrman Addition (where the Seward Elementary School is located) looks both to the University District across Portage Bay and to the Eastlake neighborhood along Lake Union more often than back at Capitol Hill.

Reasonable persons may draw the southern border of the hill along different lines. Jacqueline Williams, in her The Hill With A Future: Seattle’s Capitol Hill, 1900-1946 chooses Pine Street. For the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, the southern border reaches well into First Hill where many chamber members have their businesses.

I choose Pike Street for two reasons, both topographic. First, the longer ridge described above rises south of Pike Street enough to be called by another name: First Hill. The second reason is functional as well. From downtown, approaching Capitol Hill via Union Street was not practical, since by 8th Avenue, Union is too steep. Only one block north of Union, Pike Street was the first street in the central business district that could be easily improved to reach Capitol Hill. By 1912, three trolley lines climbed the gentler grade along a Pike Street that along with Broadway was then becoming Seattle’s “Auto Row,” lined with motorcar showrooms, parts stores, and service stations.

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.

One Day's Profit

Williams has tracked the pedigree for the first parcel of land that James Moore called “Capitol Hill” and it typifies real estate exchanges in the Old West. Moore purchased his 160 acres from Hugh C. Wallace on July 10, 1900, for $225,000. Wallace had neither lived on the land nor worked it, and in fact may never have seen it. Rather, Wallace bought it for $35,000 less than he sold it to Moore for later that same day.

The Tacoman Wallace purchased the land from the Selim Woodworth estate. Woodworth received the land from the government as partial payment for fighting in the 1847 war with Mexico. For certain, Woodworth had never seen it.

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.

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.

Lowell School

The hopes and statistics connected with establishing the first grade school is perhaps the best clue of a neighborhood’s early development. In 1890, the Lowell School opened on Mercer Street and Federal Avenue with the name Pontius School. By 1892, the name had changed to Columbia School and the school employed seven teachers to teach 261 pupils. In 1902, 12 teachers were teaching 469 scholars in eight grades. In 1910, to alleviate confusion with the Columbia School in the recently annexed Columbia City neighborhood of Seattle, the name was changed to the Lowell School, after the American poet, essayist, and diplomat James Russell Lowell (1819-1891).

In 1901, pure water arrived. Nearby, running under the center of 12th Avenue, a pipe was set to carry fresh water along the last mile of a 26 mile journey from the Cedar River to the new reservoir in the newly named Volunteer Park. Speedily the homes of Capitol Hill were drinking and washing in bountiful water sent directly from the Cascade Mountains.

A second arrival to Volunteer Park in 1901 that aided mightily the attractiveness of James Moore’s Capitol Hill Addition was the City Park trolley line. Within another eight years, Puget Sound Traction Light and Power Company would extend three more lines north into along the Capitol Hill Ridge. Like the City Park line, the Capitol Hill line approached the ridge along Pike Street to reach the last long leg of its route on 15th Avenue. The 19th Avenue line followed in 1907; the 23rd Avenue line in 1909, laid along the line of the old wagon road as far north as Portage Bay and the entrance to the summer-long Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition on the University of Washington Campus.

A fourth trolley line, the Bellevue-Summit Line, was added in 1913 to serve the neighborhood on the hill that was both closest to town and increasingly built up with apartment houses. Along Broadway, 15th and 19th avenues the regularity of trolley service increased the economic and cultural vitality of the avenues. To this day a variety of neighborhood centers are strung along these three avenues.

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.

Broadway High School

On or just off Broadway between Pike and Roy streets the busiest cultural and commercial life of Capitol Hill were developed. We begin at Pine Street with Broadway High School.

In 1902, Broadway High School opened (as Seattle High School) on the corner of Broadway and E Pine Street. It was Seattle's first building specifically constructed as a high school. The architects were William E. Boone and J. M. Corner. The building was controversial for its large size and location (then remote from downtown), but within a year was filled to capacity. The 1903 class had 103 graduates, the largest graduating class in the history of Seattle. Today a remnant of the building is incorporated into Seattle Central Community College's Broadway Performance Hall.

With no athletic field of its own, the students at Broadway High used the playfield developed just south of what was then still called the Lincoln Park Low Reservoir. Both the reservoir and park were one short block east of the school. Like the high reservoir at Volunteer Park, the low one was built in 1900 for the then new Cedar River gravity water supply. In their 1903 description of the park, the Olmsted Brothers recommended that there be "no provision for the more vigorous forms of play." Their plans for the park were "particularly designed to make baseball impractical." This prescription by the Boston-based landscapers was overturned in less than a month by neighbors, including high school students, in need of vigorous play -- especially baseball.

Churches and a Market

Among the Capitol Hill churches on Broadway we will note three -- first the First Christian Church. It faced Seattle High School across Broadway and opened in 1902, the same year as the high school. The church’s second and surviving sanctuary at the site was dedicated in 1923. (It and the nearby Westminster Presbyterian Church at Harvard Avenue and Howell Street also completed in 1923, were the two notable contributions to Seattle architecture by the Los Angeles architect Robert H. Orr.)

Six blocks north of First Christian Church, Pilgrim Congregation Church was organized in 1899 as a parish of Plymouth Congregational. The sanctuary was designed by architect Julian F. Everett, who later designed the Pioneer Square Pergola. The new church opened its doors to a wide front lawn in 1906. Twenty-four years later the lawn was considerably narrowed when Broadway Avenue was widened and straightened north of Harrison Street. The cuts were made on the east side of the street,­ the Pilgrim side. Many structures, the church not included, were moved back with the power and telephone poles. In 1949, Pilgrim church was diminished again, but this time by an act of God when the earthquake of that year toppled the top of its tower.

Broadway Market

The gleaming, block-long Broadway Market opened in 1928. For 30 years this market served as a collection of independently owned small shops. At one time these included a creamery, a florist, two delis, a fish market, a drug store, a beauty salon, two meat markets, a health food store, two fruit stands, a candy shop, two bakeries, a ten-cent store, and Norm's Café, a favorite neighborhood hang-out.

In 1958 Norm and most of the others moved out and Safeway and Marketime moved in. The windows were stuccoed over and the charm of shopping given a green glow under fluorescent lights. More recently, the market has been enlarged and reopened as an arcade featuring again a variety of small businesses. The new and enlarged windows are open again.

St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral

North of Roy Street, on the border between one of the several Pontius additions to the south and both the Sara Yesler and Jacob Furth Additions to the north, the arterial turns slightly east to become 10th Avenue N. To four long blocks north of Roy Street the St. Marks Episcopal congregation moved from its First Hill parish into what its second bishop, Stephen Fielding Bayne Jr., later called "This Holy Box." Dedicated in 1931, the concrete church was but the skeleton of the congregation's dream cathedral.

Ten years later the bad debts of the Great Depression with the help of an unsympathetic St. Louis banker who held the mortgage closed the cathedral doors. They did not open again for services until 1944. For a brief time in the interim the sanctuary was used as an anti-aircraft training center. The congregation spent part of their exodus worshiping in the Woman's Century Club at the southeast corner of Roy Street and Harvard Avenue.

Clubs, Cornish, an English Cottage, and Anhalt's Angles

The Woman’s Century Club, formed in 1891, for a while made its home in the clubhouse of the Seattle Federation of Women's Clubs at the southeast corner of Harvard Avenue and Thomas Street. In 1925, the club moved four blocks north directly across Roy Street from the Rainier Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The DAR’s Mount Vernon facsimile also opened in 1925. Together with the Cornish School of the Arts, which had moved to the northwest corner of the same intersection only four years earlier, the trio created at the intersection of Roy and Harvard the principal cultural center of the increasingly cosmopolitan Capitol Hill.

The 1931 addition of architect Arthur Loveless’s North Broadway Shopping Center, the "English cottage" next door to the DAR, made this two-block stretch of unique architecture a Seattle landmark of great distinction. Adding the many great homes to the north of Roy Street and to the west of Broadway Avenue amounts to what for many is the most charmed part of Capitol Hill. Included there (at 750 Belmont Avenue) is the first luxury apartment house designed by Frederick William Anhalt (1896-1996).

Sam Hill and SAM

In 1909, Sam and Mary Hill built their Classic Revival home on Highland Drive just west of Broadway Street. The couple was married in 1888 and since Mary was the daughter of James J. Hill, the "empire builder" of the Great Northern Railroad, she did not have to change her name. Sam Hill was the principal booster for the Northwest chapter of the Good Roads movement of the early twentieth century.

After Sam Hill's death in 1931, his home on Highland stood vacant until Theodore and Guendolen Plestcheeff purchased it in 1937. Born nearby on First Hill in the mid-1890s as Guendolen Carkeek, Guendolen Plestcheef lived in the Hill home until her death in 1994. As the daughter of Emily Carkeek (1852-1926), the founder of the Seattle Historical Society and during Seattle's late Victorian years the English-born Grande Dame of local culture, Guendolen Plestcheef was herself one of the city’s great advocates for arts and crafts.

Perhaps the greatest boost to local arts occurred on Capitol Hill a few months after Sam Hill’s passing and about five short blocks east of his home on Highland. In the 1930s, the city decided to allow Richard E. Fuller (1897-1976), president of the Art Institute of Seattle, and his mother Margaret (MacTavish) Fuller (1860-1953) locate their Art Institute of Seattle in the park. John Olmsted opposed this and the Olmsted relationship with Seattle ended.

The museum opened in 1933. It became the Seattle Art Museum, and was rededicated as the Seattle Asian Art Museum in 1994.

To go to Part 2, click "Next Feature" 


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.
Note: The name of Stephen Fielding Bayne Jr. was corrected on May 12, 2008.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You