Seattle City Halls

  • By Anne Frantilla, Seattle Municipal Archives
  • Posted 8/04/2003
  • Essay 4227
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Since the City of Seattle was incorporated in 1869, city government has occupied various spaces, beginning with rented facilities all over town. Seattle’s first City Hall, built in 1882, was located above a fire engine house in Pioneer Square. It burned down in the Great Seattle Fire (1889). Next (in 1891) the City purchased a patchwork building dubbed Katzenjammer Castle (the old King County courthouse on 3rd Avenue between Yesler Way and Jefferson Street), and used it amidst constant complaints until 1909. From 1909 to 1916, the City did business in the Yesler Building on 5th Avenue and Yesler Way. In 1916, City Hall moved to the County-City building (the present King County Courthouse at 516 3rd Avenue), and conducted business there until 1962. For the past 40 years (1962-2003), the City functioned in its own nondescript blue and gray Municipal Building at 600 4th Avenue. Seattle's new City Hall, located on 5th Avenue between James and Cherry streets, opened in the summer of 2003. The first City Council meeting was held there on August 4, 2003.

Seattle’s First City Hall

From 1869, when the City of Seattle was incorporated, to 1882, municipal government conducted business in various rented spaces throughout the city. From 1870 to 1880, Seattle's population exploded, increasing tenfold, from 1,107 to 237,194 people. The burgeoning population convinced city leaders that a larger government and more city services were needed.

On June 16, 1882, the Common Council provided $8,000 for “the erection of a building to be used as a Council Chamber, Fire Engine House, and City Jail” (Ordinance 285).

Architect William E. Boone (1830-1921) was selected to design the multi-purpose building. The construction contract was awarded to E. W. Rea, whose bid was $7,525. The structure was to be completed on or before the first Friday in November 1882.

The building, located at what is now 2nd Avenue S between Yesler Way and Washington Street, was a modest brick and wood two-story building, measuring 40 x 60 feet. City Hall occupied the second floor of the Engine House.

The City Council was apparently eager to move into its new space. At the December 8, 1882, the council meeting held in the new building, frequently called the Engine House, Councilman John Collins, Chairman of the Committee on Public Buildings, Property and Grounds, entered his protest “against the meeting of the Council in the new City Engine House before the same is delivered by the contractor and accepted by the City.” Councilman O. F. Cosper responded, “The occupation of the new City Engine House was done after verbal permission [was] first obtained from the contractor.”

The Great Fire

Despite being housed above the Fire Engine Co. No. 1, City Hall was destroyed in the disastrous Great Fire of June 6, 1889, along with all the City’s tax information for 1885, 1886, and 1887. In the aftermath of the fire, city offices were moved temporarily to a converted house between 4th and 5th avenues and Yesler Way and Terrace Street.

The site of the burned building was traded to Josiah Collins in 1895 for property between 4th and 5th avenues S and Weller and Lane streets, to be used for city stables, a blacksmith shop, and a storage yard.

Katzenjammer Castle: Seattle’s Second City Hall

The year 1889 brought not only the great fire, but statehood for Washington Territory. Washington became a state on November 11, 1889. The new state constitution required Seattle to produce its first home rule City Charter.

The 1890 Charter greatly expanded city government. The small, largely voluntary government gave way to a comparatively large professional municipal administration. It introduced a bicameral legislative department, significantly enlarging the size of the City Council. To accommodate this larger Council, rooms were rented on the fifth floor of the Butler Block on 2nd Avenue and James Street.

This temporary space proved inadequate. In his March 1891 address, Mayor Harry White recommended purchase of the old County Courthouse, about to be vacated as King County moved its offices to the top of Profanity Hill (the moniker for First Hill, so named for the cursing emitted by persons trudging up the steep incline).

Mayor White stated, “The city is already paying $500 a month rent for offices, and still can not be said to be as well housed as it should be, nor have many of the commissions a place of meeting. I would recommend that the City … purchase the site of the old County Courthouse, if that can be obtained at a reasonable price. A City Hall could be erected there which might include an Engine House on the ground floor fronting on Jefferson Street … a jail in the basement at one end and on upper stories all the offices and Chambers needed for the Municipality.”

Mayor White’s suggestion was deemed a good one and the City purchased the County Courthouse on June 13, 1891. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that “several persons, presumably representing San Francisco firms, were present and took part in the sale, for a time, forcing the bidding … Mayor White also did some bidding, but ceased when the price reached $47,000. The property was finally knocked down to W. W. Eastar, who represented the city, for $61,000.”

The Courthouse was on 3rd Avenue between Yesler Way and Jefferson Street. The City occupied its new building in August 1891, after considerable renovations. Two new larger rooms were added on the south side of the building for the Mayor and the Comptroller. A basement courtroom was excavated and built under one section of the building. The old County jail area was extended 13 feet to the north to accommodate the old City jail, which was moved from 5th and Yesler.

In an undated letter to the Board of Aldermen, Robert Fitzhenry, a painter, requested appointment as “Janitor of the City Hall.”

Your petitioner Robert Fitzhenry, respectfully represents that he is a citizen and tax-payer of your city, having resided here about fifteen years. That he is desirous of receiving the appointment of 'Janitor of the City Hall,' and therefore requests the appointment to the same.
Respectfully submitted, Robert Fitzhenry"

The various additions and changes to the building earned the old Courthouse the sobriquet, Katzenjammer Castle. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote in 1891, “The new city offices, it is expected, will be adequate to meet the demands of the city for some time. They are roomy, airy and centrally located. They are the best quarters the city government ever had.”

The Castle: A Too-Small City Hall

By the following year, however, the City had outgrown Katzenjammer Castle and was renting additional space. Mayor George Hall in his message of January 20, 1892, urged the purchase of the old University of Washington campus and buildings, then located in what is now the Central Business District, as a civic center:

“I am strongly impressed with the conviction that the wisest thing the City can do, if there is any prospect of Seattle reaching a population of 200,000 within ten years, or even twenty years, is to purchase the University grounds as the site for a City Hall. They will serve as an adequate site for all time to come, and in the same plan give the future great City an opportunity to make a beautiful park in its center.”

Nothing came of Mayor Hall’s proposal. The lack of adequate space in the “Castle” was a cry echoed by many departments. Complaints of overcrowded and unsanitary conditions abounded. In 1892, J. C. Helms, Supt. of Bridges, Buildings, and Wharves, complained:

“…the rooms are all entirely inadequate for the city. The Engineer’s offices should be at least double their present size, and in fact every office in the City Hall is too small for the rapid growth of our city and consequent increase of business.”

In 1895, in his annual message, Seattle Mayor Phelps chimed in, speaking of the "efficient City Clerk," R. F. Stewart, who had made an alphabetical index of all ordinances passed by former councils and put the city's records in excellent condition: "The Clerk calls attention to the overcrowded condition of his vault which is totally inadequate for the large number of records of the city.”

Seattle's preeminent City Engineer, R. H. Thomson (1856-1949), had this to say in his Annual Report in 1900:

“Before any great length of time some considerable expenditure will be required in the erection of new vault facilities unless it is proposed to allow valuable public records to be endangered by lack of proper housing.”

In a special election on December 6, 1904, Seattle voters defeated both a $500,000 bond measure to construct a City Hall and a $150,000 issue to purchase a new site. However, at the same election, a $175,000 bond measure for a City jail, municipal court, and emergency hospital was approved.

Several suggestions for a new or improved City Hall came from citizens, including one from Seattle developer James Moore (1861-1929), General Manager of Moore Investment Company. Mayor Ballinger, in his 1905 Annual Message, recommended creation of a nonpartisan commission “to act with the city council in devising plans, ways and means for the early construction of a new City Hall at some suitable location.” Apparently no action was taken on Ballinger’s suggestion.

A City Council Resolution introduced in 1906 stated the City’s intention to “proceed forthwith with the construction upon the site of the present City Hall of a modern, steel, fire-proof building for city hall purposes. That the said building shall at the present time be erected to no greater height than the reasonable near necessities of the City require ….” The following year the resolution was postponed indefinitely.

Seattle's Third City Hall: the Yesler Building

In his 1906 annual message, Mayor Ballinger echoed what was becoming old news:

"The old city hall has for many years been an unsafe place for the public records, is over-crowded and unsanitary, and no expenditure of money can materially improve it …. An effort was made during the past summer to devise plans for the grouping of municipal buildings on some scheme that would furnish an administrative center in their construction, but these labors were practically fruitless, inasmuch as there were no funds available to even provide suitable grounds for such purpose.”

A new building to house the Health and Police Departments was under construction in 1905 and some suggested that it might also serve as quarters for City Hall. Proponents believed it was a solution to the City’s space problems. But City Engineer R. H. Thomson was one of many who opposed using a building not originally intended as a City Hall for that purpose.

Despite the naysayers, this new building became City Hall in 1909 when it was completed. The building had grown from a two-story building, as originally planned, to a five-story building and as many city offices as could find space moved in.

Known as the Yesler Building, it is located on the triangle between 5th Avenue, Yesler Way, and Terrace Street on property originally purchased in 1888 for a City Hall.

Bogue Plan

In the municipal election of 1910, Seattle voters passed an amendment to the City Charter that created a Municipal Plans Commission. The Commission was charged with devising “plans for the arrangement of the city with a view to such expansion as may meet future demands” by September 30, 1911.

Civil Engineer Virgil Bogue (1846-1916) was hired to draw up the plans. Bogue had worked with Frederick Law Olmsted in designing Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and he also had lived and worked in Seattle. A core element of Bogue’s plan was a grand Civic Center. With the regrading of Denny Hill, Bogue saw there was land available near downtown that was neither too expensive nor yet developed.

One of the most controversial parts of Bogue’s plan for the citizens of Seattle was the location. The plan grouped all public buildings in a Civic Center in the Denny Hill regrade district, with the center at 4th and Blanchard (now Belltown). Many citizens felt the location was too far from the City center.

The Civic Center was only a small part of Bogue’s plan. His two-volume report included an elaborate and well thought out transportation system, including rapid transit; a plan for the Seattle coastline; and for an expansion of parks and boulevards, including a recommendation to set aside Mercer Island as an “island park -- a people’s playground, worthy of the city of millions which will someday surround Lake Washington.”

Bogue’s plan was heavily influenced by the City Beautiful Movement and the scientific rationalism of the Progressive Era. The concept that disciplined, rational planning could ameliorate city problems and foster cooperation between the public and private sectors as well as between the various levels of government is evident behind Bogue’s master plan for Seattle.

The plan was the subject of much political debate within the City. And many citizens simply did not know very much about the plan. The plan went up for a vote in March 1912 and was defeated almost two to one. On the same ballot was a measure to fund construction of a County Courthouse between 3rd and 4th avenues between James and Jefferson streets. The Courthouse issue passed two to one.

Amidst the work of the Municipal Plans Commission Mayor Hiram C. Gill (1866-1919) proposed “a building of the sky-scraper type” in 1911, but his proposal was not acted upon.

The County-City Building

The plaint, “Too Small” and “Inadequate,” continued to be heard regarding civic space in Seattle. Options and ideas expressed by City officials, as well as citizens, were explored for easing the space burdens plaguing city offices.

In 1913, R. H. Ober, Superintendent of Buildings, reported on the costs of renting space and the feasibility of using the Prefontaine Building (at the triangle formed by Prefontaine Place, 4th Avenue S and Yesler Way) for a City Hall. Ober itemized $28,219 paid in rent to house departments that did not fit in the City Hall. He concluded, however, that the Prefontaine Building would not provide sufficient space for “permanent quarters for the city departments” and recommended against buying the building. He stated “the most advantageous arrangement seems to be the construction of a suitable building of a temporary nature but of a pleasing appearance upon the old city hall site, and sufficient in size to accommodate all of the outside city departments.”

The County was proceeding with the construction of its new Courthouse which had been approved by voters in 1911 and for which funds were approved in 1912. In November 1914, a bond issue for $350,000 was approved to add two stories to the original building plan so that the City could lease space from the County.

As part of its agreement with the County, the City agreed to develop City Hall Park. Mayor Cotterill stated in his 1913 Annual Message:

“The tentative, verbal understanding, which has been the basis of our cooperation with the County Commissioners in this matter is that the city shall become a tenant on at least a ten-year lease, of adequate quarters in the county-owned building …. As part of the arrangement, it is understood that the City of Seattle shall dedicate its proposed City Hall block, which is of practically equal value with the county block, for permanent park purposes.”

The new County-City building was dedicated on May 4, 1916. Five additional floors were added to the building in 1930 and a substantial remodeling took place in 1960. The site was that of the old Yesler mansion, which had been used as a library building and which had burned to the ground along with 25,000 books on January 1, 1901. The building is now (2003) the King County Courthouse.

The old Municipal Building (the Yesler Building), used by the City since 1909, was officially named the Public Safety Building in 1916, and thereafter, housed the departments for which it was originally intended: the Health Department, the City Hospital, the Police Department and City Jail.

Proposed Public Buildings Area

It was not until after World War II that the City began to consider leaving the County-City Building and looking for its own City Hall. In 1935, City Light moved into its own building, at 3rd Avenue between Madison and Spring streets, providing some breathing room for the other City offices. Explorations into a government buildings center were made in the mid-1940s. But in the late 1950s King County asked its tenant, the City of Seattle, a tenant in the County-City building since 1916, to look for its own space. The County needed the space and city government needed a building of its own.

In 1945, the City Planning Commission hired St. Louis city planner Harland Bartholomew to conceive a plan for a consolidated government center. Bartholomew, known by some as “the dean of U.S. city planners,” had served briefly as consultant to the City during development of Seattle’s first zoning code in the early 1920s.

The Planning Commission submitted a “Report on Proposed Public Buildings Area” in 1945, which incorporated Bartholomew’s work. The report defined the “Public Buildings Area” as “a space set aside in the city’s planning program for the location of government offices.” The Public Buildings Area was specifically not intended to be a Civic Center, such as San Francisco had, that incorporated cultural institutions. The report identified the two blocks between 3rd and 4th avenues from James Street to Columbia as “the best sites for any public buildings” because of the proximity both to businesses and to other governmental offices.

“The Public Buildings Area should have dignity, beauty, and a suitable approach [and] be established in a region which is capable of architectural and landscape treatment commensurate with the importance of the development and civic pride,” the report stated.

The City Planning Commission also reported on the possibility of utilizing Smith Tower for municipal departments. However, the Commission reported that, although Smith Tower was very serviceable for commercial tenants, it was “wholly unsuited to any combination of municipal departments which could be sheltered within it.”

The Municipal Building

By 1959 the City needed to move out of the County-City Building, in part because the County required the space. The City decided to construct a new building.

In 1959 City Councilman James Braman promoted a “lease-purchase” method for acquiring a new City Hall and five proposals were accepted, including one by the Beut Corporation from Dallas Texas. Local builders and architects objected to a lease-purchase arrangement in lieu of the normal design and bid process. Although all five proposals were thrown out, the City contracted independently with the Beut architect James MacCammon. The contract was let in 1960 and construction completed in 1962.

Bramen stated, “A city hall is unique. It is not like a museum or a library. It is a place where busy people work, where busy, often harassed people go to do business. Serving these people is its basic function.”

The Municipal Building was completed for a sum of $7 million which was paid in cash. Joint architects were Damm, Daum and Associates of Seattle and J. N. MacCammon of Dallas, Texas. Features of the 12-story building included a roof top garden and a modern telephone system, “Centrex.”

In 1970, $150,000 was spent to refurbish the building, including a remodeling of the Mayor’s 12th floor quarters. City architect William Dimmich estimated the improvements should “hold us another four or five years.”

The new building had its share of critics. Some said it looked more like a motel than a City Hall. In later years Mayor Charles Royer was reported to have said “The best thing about working in City Hall is that you don’t have to look at it.”

The Quest for a New City Hall

By the 1970s, the City was again looking for more office space. In 1973, a five-story wing on the east side of the Municipal Building was contemplated, with an estimated cost of $3.5 million. A space study done in 1975 to find a way to consolidate the 100,000 square feet of leased office space throughout the City concluded that the City should lease the old Public Safety Building at 4th Avenue and Yesler Way for a five-year period while initiating the construction of a new City building. Another plan suggested the City consolidate rented space into either the Old Public Safety Building or the Alaska Building. The City Council rejected this plan.

Another study done in 1986 also concluded that construction of a new City Hall was needed. The estimated cost by this time was $129 million. Although nine locations were suggested for the new civic complex, including the Washington State Convention Center and the Metro Transit building at 9th Avenue and Pine Street, the two most popular suggestions were the King Street and Union Street stations and the existing City Hall site.

Despite hearings and resolutions on the municipal complex or campus, nothing was built. In the 1990s, the idea for a new Civic Center arose again. With the purchase of Key Tower in 1996, came the debate over whether or not the city could put City Hall in a skyscraper.

In 1997, the City Council adopted a vision of a smaller City Hall, that of “an important public place for Seattle’s citizens while creating an appropriate, efficient, and nurturing environment for our city government.” The new City Hall, designed by architect Peter Bohlin, was approved by City Council on January 22, 2001, with plans to have construction completed by March 2003.

The smaller City Hall will house the Mayor’s Office, the City Council offices and Chamber, the Legislative Department, the Civil Law division of the City Law Department, and key customer services.

The City Hall, the new Justice Center, and Key Tower, will form a triangle in the new civil complex. The new Justice Center to be completed on 5th Avenue will leave a green space where the Public Safety Building now stands. The building will celebrate the civic and participatory nature of Seattle’s community through a design that focuses on public spaces and experiences. It is meant to last for 100 years.


From the Seattle Municipal Archives: Seattle City Council Minutes, City of Seattle Clerk Files CF 26499, 236968, 52432; City of Seattle General Files 1802-04, GF990841; City of Seattle Mayor's Messages 1802-C2; Engineering Department Annual Reports 1802-G2; Plan of Seattle (Bogue Plan)-Municipal Plans Commission 9359-01; "Report on Proposed Public Buildings Area" Harland Bartholomew, 1945, Seattle Municipal Archives Photograph Collection; From Seattle Public Library: "Seattle's City Halls" and other articles, both published and unpublished, from Seattle Public Library Vertical File and Northwest Index Postcard Collection.
Note: This article was revised slightly on June 6, 2018.

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