On the evening of March 25, 1939, Seattle's first National Housing Exposition of the Pacific Northwest, co-sponsored by the Seattle Master Builders Association and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, opens at Civic Auditorium in what is now Seattle Center.The show, which features more than 100 display booths covering everything from financing to furnishings, runs for eight days and draws huge crowds. It will be staged again in 1940 and 1941, but is interrupted by World War II. In 1946 it will start up again, subsequently changing its name to the Seattle Home Show, and it will celebrate its 65th anniversary in 2009.
A Show to Boost Building
In 1939 Seattle, like all American cities, was still struggling to recover from the severe housing slump caused by the Great Depression, but there were signs of hope. The city's home-building industry had started to rebound in 1937, and within a year more houses had been built than in the previous four. The U.S. Housing Act of 1937 had provided public-housing subsidies and gave some stimulus to the building industry, and on May 13, 1939, just 12 days before the housing exposition began, the Seattle City Council established the Seattle Housing Authority to provide housing for low-income and disadvantaged citizens in the city.
As the building industry began to show signs of life, the Seattle Master Builders and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer saw a door of opportunity opening and were quick to step through. They joined forces with Seattle promoter W. G. "Bill" McDonald, of the McDonald Brothers Company, to put together an exposition they hoped would stimulate both the housing industry and the broader economy. As the Post-Intelligencer noted on the day the show opened:
"After ten years in which home building has languished, the United States as a whole and this region in particular have wakened to the fact that there is a serious housing shortage and steps are being taken to remedy it.
"The revival of construction means not merely better homes for families which build or buy, but a tremendous quickening of general business, particularly for Pacific Northwest lumber, still the No. 1 industry in this region.
"The purpose of Seattle’s great home show is to bring, under a single roof, the best examples of the art of material men, equipment dealers, architects, landscape gardeners, and all of the other designers and tradesmen who can help the individual family in planning and building.
"The result, we fervently hope, will be not merely more homes but better homes for a community that is growing, not merely in population, but in appreciation.
"And at the same time, MORE JOBS AND MORE PROSPERITY FOR SEATTLE!" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 25, 1939, p. 1).
The promoters promised that the show would offer 100 display booths covering topics from the basics of planning, financing, and building to the finest details of painting, furnishing, and landscaping. Its opening was heavily advertised in the days leading up March 25, most prominently (and not surprisingly) in the Seattle-Post Intelligencer.
A Full House Every Day
The exposition's first day ran on a shortened schedule, with the doors of Seattle's Civic Arena due to open at 7:30 p.m. on March 25, 1939. The large opening-night crowd waiting to get in convinced the show's organizers to open the doors an hour early, and between 6:30 p.m. and closing time at 10:30 p.m., the exposition admitted 9,742 men, women, and children. Words of welcome were spoken by several local dignitaries, including Seattle Mayor Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966) and John Boettiger (1900-1950), the publisher of the Post-Intelligencer and son-in-law of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). The P-I enthused that it was "an event that will go down in history as an outstanding milestone of progress" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 26, 1939, p. 1).
After opening night, the exposition's hours ran from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m., and the show packed in the crowds every hour it was open. The most popular feature was a full-sized, low-cost, six-room demonstration home, fully furnished by Frederick & Nelson department store. On April 2, 1939, the exposition's last day, it was revealed that the model home had been purchased by the president of the Seattle Master Builders Association, E. J. Groseclose, "as an investment ..." (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 2, 1939, p. 8).
On April 3, 1939, the day after it closed, it was announced that the exposition had drawn 77,000 visitors over its eight-day run, a total the P-I characterized as "setting a new record for attendance at a public event in the Pacific Northwest ..." (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 2, 1939, p. 1).
The Making of a Seattle Institution
The second housing exposition, in 1940, was graced by an opening-night visit from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962). There was a show in 1941, bur then World War II intervened, and the exposition was suspended until 1946.
Among the many features of the shows that were staged after the war were an early television set (1949), a replica of pioneer David T. Denny's log cabin (1952), and, in a sign of the times, a model nuclear fallout shelter (1960). The first model home to be equipped with a computer made its appearance in 1969, long before the now-ubiquitous devices were well-known.
New Venues, Bigger Shows
Over the years the Home Show has changed locations several times, from the Civic Center, to the National Guard Armory (now Seattle Center House), to the Seattle Coliseum, the Kingdome, and, finally, to the Qwest Field Event Center, its current home (2009). In 1962, when Seattle Center was being prepared for the Seattle World's Fair, the Home Show was held at Pier 91.
Since its start in 1939, the Seattle Home Show has grown with each passing year, from the original 100 display booths at the first show to more than 600 in the shows of the new millennium. Over the years it proved so popular that in 1999 the original sponsors started a "Seattle Home Show 2," which is held in the fall. Some things have changed. The co-sponsor (along with the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties) has shifted from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which moved to an Internet-only presence in March 2009, to The Seattle Times. But the annual Home Show, many decades after its debut, is still under the stewardship of descendants of the McDonald brothers.