The West Seattle Junction was little more than boggy woodland until April 1907, when two streetcar lines were connected at California Avenue SW and SW Alaska Street (then 9th Street). Within a month, a dozen real estate agents had opened offices at what quickly became known as "the Junction," selling newly drained and cleared land to customers literally brought in by the carload. The lots sold at a pace that would become legendary in local real estate circles. By the end of the decade, the upstart Junction had displaced the older Admiral district as the commercial heart of West Seattle. Like other Seattle neighborhood business districts, it has gone through cycles of boom and bust since then, but it has remained, as the West Seattle Enterprise confidently predicted in 1907, "the center of Greater West Seattle" (West Side Story, 45).
The oldest of Seattle’s neighborhoods (site of the first Euro-American settlement, in 1851), West Seattle’s growth was limited for decades by its relative isolation. In the early 1900s, it was connected to downtown Seattle by only a ferry, a railway trestle, and a winding wagon road. The West Seattle Land and Improvement Company, the primary landowner in the area, operated the ferry and, briefly, a cable railway from the ferry dock up the steep incline of Cascade Avenue (now California Way SW). But the company repeatedly broke promises to expand that transportation network and improve other public services.
Frustrated by inadequate transportation and other issues, West Seattle residents voted to incorporate as a fourth-class city in 1902. The new city council promptly granted a street railway franchise to the Seattle Electric Railway Company (a branch of the national Stone & Webster utility cartel), which operated all the streetcar lines in Seattle. The company said it would use the existing railway trestle to provide streetcar service from Seattle to the peninsula. Council members emphatically denied rumors that they had been bribed to approve the franchise.
By 1904, there was still no sign of a streetcar in West Seattle, and the town decided to build its own. In April, voters approved the construction of a one-mile, electric railway, to be financed with $18,000 in municipal bonds. Then it was discovered that as a fourth-class city, the town lacked the legal authority to issue bonds. In a hastily called special election in June, West Seattle re-incorporated as a third-class city. The city’s new streetcar system – the first municipally owned system in the country – went into service on December 28, 1904.
The line retraced part of the route used by the old cable railway: from the ferry dock (near today’s Seacrest Marina) up Cascade Avenue, then south along California Avenue to what were then the city limits (at today’s Admiral Way). Even before it was completed, West Seattle business leaders began campaigning to extend the line the full length of California Avenue, three miles farther south. However, state law prohibited the operation of a municipal enterprise outside city limits; and the neighboring communities of Spring Hill and Riverside firmly refused to be annexed by West Seattle, even in return for the promise of streetcar service.
West Seattle then offered to extend the streetcar west to Alki Point, but that community also refused annexation. Rebuffed by its neighbors and limited by state law, the West Seattle city council agreed in December 1906 to sell the line to the Seattle Electric Railway Company. As a private company, it could build wherever it wanted.
This time, the company promised to provide direct streetcar service between West Seattle and the mainland via a new swing bridge across the Duwamish River at Spokane Street. It also promised to extend the municipal line down California Avenue. The company initiated service to Youngstown over the Spokane Street bridge on January 4, 1907. Before taking on the California Avenue line, however, the company laid tracks out to what was then a virtually uninhabited area called Fauntleroy Park (now known simply as Fauntleroy), a decision heavily influenced by a $50,000 contribution from real-estate speculators.
The Fauntleroy Park line was inaugurated on February 15, 1907. Only then did construction begin on the extension of the old municipal railway. Two months later, the two lines crossed at the site known to some locals as "Spring Hill Pond," to others as simply the swamp, and to an increasing number as "the Junction."
Building a Village
By 1911, the Junction had grown from a ramshackle collection of real-estate offices into a full-fledged business district. At least three grocery stores, two lumber companies, a hardware store, two electrical firms, three physicians, and two fuel outlets were located within a half-mile radius of the streetcar crossing. On the other hand, the streets were unpaved, the only structures were single-story and made of wood, and there were still more Douglas firs than buildings.
The first brick building in the neighborhood was the eight-room, three-story Thomas Jefferson School, which opened in January 1912 on a 1.69-acre site one block southeast of the Junction. Only 135 children, in grades one through five, were enrolled that first year. "We rattled around like peas in a pod because we had so few students," one student recalled. "We had to be quiet to not disturb people" (Jefferson School History). By 1917, Jefferson was bulging with 443 students in grades one through eight. The school board bought an additional acre and a half the next year and added a five-room annex to handle the overflow.
The Junction got its own fire station in 1914. Fire Department Hose Company 32, located at 44th Avenue SW and SW Alaska Street, officially went into service on March 14. The station’s initial "apparatus," recorded in Fire Captain Dan Cook’s journal that day, consisted of one horse-drawn hose wagon and two gray horses, named Joe and Lewis. The station relied on horse power for a full decade. In an unpublished memoir, longtime resident and civic activist Norman A. Beers (1898-1991) said he never forgot the drama of seeing horses rushing to a fire. "It was exciting to see the horses charge around the Junction at California and Alaska and down the muddy streets, fire bells ringing," he wrote.
William T. Campbell -- a pioneer banker, realtor, and the first principal of West Seattle High School -- helped set a new, more stylish tone for the Junction in 1918 by replacing his small, wooden real-estate office with a two-story brick building on the northeast corner of California and Alaska. Designed by noted Seattle architect Arthur Loveless (1873-1971), the Campbell Building featured an elaborately gabled parapet and oversized terra cotta cornice. It dwarfed its wood-frame neighbors. Still handsome, if no longer as imposing as it once was, it is the oldest surviving commercial structure in the district today.
Older buildings were demolished and new ones constructed at a rapid rate during the boom times of the 1920s. California Avenue became so crowded between Oregon and Edmunds streets that new merchants routinely were turned away for lack of space. ‘Some fear is expressed by business men interested in the Junction that if more store space is not provided there, it will result in driving business firms to other points on the West Side," the West Seattle Herald reported on March 21, 1924.
The Jefferson School, sitting on 3.16 acres of prime real estate, almost literally lost ground to developers. Pressured to sell a 90-foot strip along Alaska Street to commercial interests, the school board submitted the issue to the community in 1931. Despite strong opposition from the PTA, voters approved the sale. However, the school board promised not to sell the property unless it could find an equivalent amount of land for a playground south of the building. The playground space wasn’t found and the sale didn’t go through.
The school, meanwhile, was experiencing its own problems with crowding. Four one-room portable classrooms were installed to handle a burgeoning enrollment in the mid-1920s. A south wing, with eight classrooms and a luncheon/auditorium -- designed to match the original building -- was added in 1928. The following year, Jefferson’s seventh- and eighth-graders moved into West Seattle’s first junior high school, James Madison Intermediate School. That eased some of the pressure, but the school had also begun serving kindergartners, and classrooms remained crowded.
Several major buildings went up in the Junction in 1928, including one built by L. B. Russell (a leading West Seattle developer) near the site of a former dairy, and a five-store complex built by another developer, Walter A. Sutherland. By the end of the year, as one historian put it, "the rate of growth in the Junction was topped only by the business community’s expectations for the future" (West Side Story, 124).
Mom, Pop, Meet Piggly Wiggly
Dominated by locally owned "mom and pop" businesses in its early years, by the mid-1920s the Junction was attracting the attention of national retail chains. The first to move in was Piggly Wiggly, a Tennessee-based "self-service" grocery store chain. In 1926, Ernst Hardware (a chain established in Seattle in 1889) moved into one of developer L. B. Russell’s buildings, on the east side of California Avenue, midway between Alaska and Oregon streets. The next year, Russell put up an identical building, immediately to the north, for the J. C. Penney Company. In 1929 the F. W. Woolworth Company (a "five-and-dime" variety store, headquartered in New York) opened a store in another new building in the Junction. Woolworth’s primary competitor, the S. H. Kress and Company (like Piggly Wiggly, founded in Tennessee), promptly announced plans to open a branch just south of Woolworth’s.
In addition to national retailers, the Junction gained an important cultural amenity in the 1920s: a movie theater. The Spanish-style Granada, built by the Pacific Theatres Company (later bought out by Seattle theater magnate John Danz [d. 1961]) was the largest commercial building in West Seattle when it opened in 1926, on the southwest corner of California Avenue and Hudson Street. The 1,000-seat theater was equipped with a new Wurlitzer pipe organ, shipped from San Francisco. The lobby featured hand-carved furniture, heavy drapes, beveled mirrors, and thick carpeting. A wrought-iron chandelier hung from a 38-foot ceiling in the vestibule.
The theater also boasted a party room, nursery, and a "room for women with children" on the mezzanine level, a ventilation system that allowed "a change of air every 10 minutes," and an "effect machine" that could simulate falling snow, a waving flag, a starlit sky, or a thunderstorm. The marquee "imitates a skyrocket which comes flaming over the roof and ends in a burst of stars at the entrance, where the word 'Granada' is emblazoned in light." More than 2,500 people attended opening night on July 23, 1926. In a special, sepia-toned edition published to commemorate the event, the West Seattle Herald concluded that the Granada was "a perfect house," with "an atmosphere of luxury that would do credit to the home of a wealthy man."
Built for silent films, just three years later the theater invested $22,000 in Vitaphone and Movietone sound equipment to adjust to the advent of "talking pictures" (raising admission prices by 10 cents, to 35 cents for adults and 25 cents for children). West Seattle’s first talkies -- Close Harmony, with Buddy Rogers and Nancy Carroll, and Eligible Mr. Bangs, with Edward Everett Horton -- were shown at the Granada on May 23, 1929.
The dirt streets and horse-drawn wagons of earlier days were long gone by then. California Avenue -- the "spine of West Seattle," said to be the longest and straightest street in Seattle -- had been graded and paved along its entire length. The intersection at the Junction boasted brick pavers. The streetcars remained in service, but there were signs that their days were numbered. In July 1929, Hart Motor Company opened a Chrysler showroom on the edge of the Junction, at Alaska Street and 40th Avenue, joining several other dealerships along what was fast becoming West Seattle's auto row. The automobile clearly held the keys to the future.
The effects of the stock market crash of October 1929 were not immediately felt in the Junction. Two major retail chains opened outlets in 1930: variety store S. H. Kress at 4546 California Avenue SW, and the Bon Marché department store, next door at 4516. Two years later, Herman Miller, a native of Indiana, bought a small grocery store in the Junction. In 1933, he turned the store into a full-service soda fountain, named "Husky Homemade Ice Cream," now Husky Deli -- a Junction institution.
Miller and his three sons, Bob, Hugh, and John, made the ice cream; his daughter Alyce helped run the shop. They sold hamburgers, sodas, and milkshakes in addition to "husky" -- that is, large -- ice cream cones. A delicatessen was added after World War II. Remodeled and enlarged in 1969 and now managed by a third generation of Millers, Husky Deli still features homemade ice cream, in 24 flavors.
But more businesses closed than opened during the rest of the decade. Among those that were shuttered was the West Seattle State Bank, on the southeast corner of California and Alaska. "I can only say that after 20 years of successful operation, the institution finally fell a victim of the depression," said A. C. Thompson, president of the bank, announcing its closure on July 13, 1933 (West Side Story, 126). Peoples National Bank later moved into the ground floor of the two-story building. In 1938, the second floor was adapted for use as a 20-bed hospital. "The hospital above the bank" -- more formally known as West Seattle General Hospital -- was West Seattle’s primary health center until it moved into larger quarters on Holden Street in 1961. Peoples Bank remodeled the building, removing the second floor, in 1967.
The look, feel, and sound of the Junction changed dramatically with the loss of its signature streetcars in 1940. Seattle began phasing out streetcars that summer, replacing them with buses and electric trolleys (so-called "trackless trolleys"). The last streetcar came through the Junction on November 10, when the Fauntleroy and West Seattle lines were abandoned; service to Alki ended on November 16.
The ringing of streetcar bells gave way to the honking of automobile horns. During the 1940s, West Seattle’s neighborhoods swelled with workers employed in nearby shipyards and airplane factories. They came to the Junction to shop, eat, drink, and relax. The resulting congestion led to the installation of the Junction’s first traffic lights, activated on May 11, 1943.
Junction merchants, in an effort to promote peaceful co-existence between traffic and pedestrians, pushed the city to replace the "stop and go" lights in the Junction with an "All Way Walk" (or "scramble") system in May 1952. The system stops traffic in all directions, allowing pedestrians to cross right, left, or diagonally. Pedestrians must stop on all corners while traffic moves through. The city later installed such lights at 1st Avenue and Pike Street, Beacon Avenue S and 15th Avenue, and S Fremont Way and N 38th Street. (In 2008 two additional systems were pending at 1st Avenue and University Street and 1st Avenue and Cherry Street.)
At the Junction, "walk all ways" received mixed reviews. It was popular with pedestrians but a source of ire for motorists. It was abandoned in 1974. After residents filed petitions demanding that it be brought back, it was restored in 1988. It has been retained since then despite periodic flurries of opposition.
The other side of the traffic coin was the issue of parking. Faced with increasing competition from suburban shopping malls in 1960, local merchants and property owners organized Junction Trusteed Properties to develop off-street parking. By 1962, the corporation had opened three free parking lots. When Fire Department Company 32 moved from the Junction to a new location in 1967, the old fire station was torn down to make way for a fourth Trusteed parking lot.
Like the rest of the Puget Sound region, the Junction lost ground during the "Boeing Bust" of the early 1970s, in which three out of four Boeing employees lost their jobs. Recovery was slow in coming. The Granada Theatre, after years of struggle, finally closed in 1976. The building was demolished and replaced by a Sambo’s restaurant.
The opening of the West Seattle Bridge in 1984 made it easier for people to get to West Seattle, but it also made it easier for people to leave. Shopping malls siphoned business away from vendors in the Junction. Vann Brothers Restaurant, a local fixture since 1928, closed in 1985. Ernst moved out, as did a major supermarket, Tradewell, and a major drugstore, Bartell Drugs.
Perhaps the biggest psychic blow came in 1987, when J. C. Penney closed its Junction outlet. "Cause of death is corporate emphasis on larger outlets," the West Seattle Herald editorialized. "Burial will take place in the bound volumes of the West Seattle Herald and in the underwear and sock drawers and linen closets of thousands of West Seattle residents. Memorials can be made to the Junction Merchants Association. Survivors include the soon-to-be completed Jefferson Square complex and Southcenter [shopping mall]" (January 28, 1987).
The Jefferson Elementary School closed in 1979, a victim of declining enrollment. Developers had long had their eyes on the site. As early as 1970, the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce had proposed rezoning the site to allow high-rise mixed-use buildings. In the end, the sole bidder for the property was the Seattle firm of R. C. Hedreen, which razed the stately old school in 1985 and replaced it with a six-story (part of it underground) complex of stores, apartments, and parking. The primary anchors of the "mini-mall," called Jefferson Square in honor of the school, were Bartell Drugs and Safeway.
Clay Eals, former editor of the West Side Herald, points to Jefferson Square as an example of the mixed feelings "Junctionites" have about modernization. "They think Jefferson Square is ugly as sin," he said in a 1998 interview. "But they have to admit they shop there" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
Urban Village: No Thanks
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the neighborhood’s residents, property owners, merchants, and politicians seemed locked in endless battles about the future of the Junction. The wrangling centered around four recurring issues: parking, traffic flow, density, and building heights.
In 1981, the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the Junction Merchants Association, and Trusteed Properties organized the Junction Development Committee, which advocated raising height limits along California Avenue between Alaska and Edmunds from 60 feet to 160 feet. At the time, the tallest buildings in the Junction were about 35 feet high. The single exception was the 90-foot-tall Alaska House, a rent-subsidized apartment building for the elderly, constructed in 1979 under a variance granted by the city. Opponents said tall commercial buildings would ruin the small-town character of the Junction. The Seattle City Council took a middle course in March 1986 by voting five to four to adopt an 85-foot limit.
Turning its attention to neighborhood beautification, the Junction Development Committee helped raise the money to pay for 11 historic murals in the neighborhood. The murals, painted on commercial buildings and completed in 1991, depict scenes from the Junction’s past, including the streetcar crossing as it appeared in 1918, a horse-drawn fire wagon, press day at the West Seattle Herald, and the old swing bridge across the Duwamish.
The hot button issue in the mid-1990s was a Seattle City Council Comprehensive Plan that designated the Junction, along with the Admiral district, the Morgan Junction, and Westwood, as "urban villages" in West Seattle. The city’s goal was to concentrate growth in certain neighborhoods, in order to reduce the need to drive to jobs, shopping, and recreation. The reaction in West Seattle was fiercely negative. One group of opponents organized a movement to secede from Seattle and become an independent city again. "We’re getting stuff shoved down our throats and we don’t want it!" an angry resident told a panel of city officials during a hearing on the plan (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1995). In 1995, the Legislature approved a secession bill sponsored by State Senator Mike Heavey, a West Seattle Democrat, but it was vetoed by then-Governor Mike Lowry.
Urban village or no, by the end of the 1990s it was clear that a Junction renaissance was underway. Several new businesses had opened, including Capers, a mini-department store, where customers can buy everything from lattes to lamps; Elliott Bay Brewing, an organic beer brewery and pub; and ArtsWest Playhouse, a theater and arts center. The West Seattle Farmers' Market began operating on Sundays at SW Alaska Street and 44th Avenue SW; it became so popular it’s now open year-round.
In 2007, the closure of the Huling Brothers automobile dealership (after a scandal involving fraud and theft from a mentally ill customer) opened up a half-dozen prime pieces of property near the Junction. By mid-2008, developers were working on projects for those parcels that would add 1,000 new residents to the neighborhood. The Junction was well on its way into a transformation that would make it "a hip urban village," as one reporter put it (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2003).
There were many, however, who worried that the transformation would come at the expense of the small specialty shops that give the Junction its eclectic, neighborly feel. One of the proposed projects would at least temporarily displace half a dozen small businesses in the heart of the Junction, including Ron’s Cobbler Shoppe, Funky Janes Consignment shop, and a used record shop. Ron Glew, owner of the cobbler shop, echoed the concerns of his fellow tenants when he said he probably would not be able to afford the rent in the new, mixed-use building that is slated to replace the existing older one. "I can’t compete with Starbucks," he said. "I can’t compete with Jamba Juice" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2008).
Longtime resident E. Warren Lawless, who moved to the Junction in 1938, remembers a neighborhood that still had streetcars, a fire station, and a school. In a column reflecting on decades of change, he concluded, "the Junction has gone through a metamorphosis not all at once, but gradually, impelled by shifts in the marketplace, and in location, mobility and motivation of customers and patrons." He titled the column "The More Things Change, the More They ... Change."