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Old-House Online » Old-House Tips, Restoration Stories, & More » Historic Places » Western Historic Sites » Seattle’s Best Historic Neighborhoods

Seattle’s Best Historic Neighborhoods

Historic Seattle’s longtime program director takes us on a tour of five of the city’s well-preserved streetcar suburbs.
Story and photos by Lawrence Kreisman

    The Stimson-Green Mansion introduced large-scale English medieval- style residences to the city; today it’s a venue for special events.

    The Stimson-Green Mansion introduced large-scale English medieval- style residences to the city; today it’s a venue for special events.

    There really is more to Seattle than coffee. Pacific Northwesterners identify themselves with majestic volcanic mountains, dense old-growth forests, and islands and waterways that have become daily commuter routes for many.

    Though residents purposely spread the myth that it rains in Seattle all the time to dissuade would-be newcomers, the city often boasts blue skies, perfect temperatures, and low humidity—it’s a place that lends itself easily to walking.

    Most tourist guides concentrate on downtown and some up-and-coming commercial districts, but I prefer Seattle’s lovely and diverse early 20th-century streetcar suburb neighborhoods. Many of them are linked by the Olmsted Brothers’ park system, one of the largest park and boulevard systems of its kind in the nation.

    Click here to find historic Seattle hotels.

    First Hill

    Directly east of downtown are reminders of the grace and style of turn-of-the-century Seattle. Along with the 1902 Venetian Gothic Hofius residence, remaining First Hill mansions include the 1901 English half-timbered Stimson-Green Mansion and the 1907 Classical Revival Henry H. Dearborn House (headquarters of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation and Historic Seattle, respectively). There are also private clubs, such as the 1889 Queen Anne Stacey residence and its 1906 annex, designed to accommodate the University Club, and the 1915 Georgian Revival Sunset Club. Prominent churches are the Italian Renaissance Revival St. James Cathedral, designed by New York architects Heins and LaFarge, and the English country Gothic Trinity Episcopal and Gothic Revival First Baptist churches.

    Have refreshments at the Italianate Sorrento Hotel, opened in 1909, while admiring the specially commissioned Rookwood tile fireplace surround in its mahogany-paneled lounge. Or have lunch in the café of the Frye Art Museum (still free to all), designed in 1952 by the region’s most important modernist, Paul Thiry, to house the private collections of Charles and Emma Frye. A significant expansion in 1994 by the firm Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen makes for a memorable small museum experience.

    North Capitol Hill

    The Eliza Leary Mansion was Seattle’s largest house in 1907, designed for grand entertaining.

    The Eliza Leary Mansion was Seattle’s largest house in 1907, designed for grand entertaining.

    A neighborhood rich in architecturally distinctive residences (a section has been designated the Harvard-Belmont Historic District), North Capitol Hill is anchored by one of its most widely used public facilities, Volunteer Park. Its centerpiece is the wonderful Seattle Asian Art Museum, housed in a progressive Art Deco building designed by architect Carl Gould in 1932, at a time when most American art museums were still bogged down in Beaux Arts classicism.

    The park is bookended on the south by 14th Avenue East—dubbed “Millionaire’s Row” to reflect the status of its early 20th-century house owners—and on the north by Lakeview Cemetery, where many of the city’s founders lie.

    To get a taste of the neighborhood’s residential grandeur, peek into the English-inspired stone and half-timbered Leary Mansion, built 1904-07 on 10th Avenue East and the city’s largest private residence at the time. It houses the Episcopal Diocese offices and is open on weekdays. Marvel at the baronial great hall, specially commissioned Rookwood tile fireplaces, and the master bathroom’s Rookwood water babies frieze.

    The view from the Mount Baker ridge; the white terra-cotta-clad, 40-story-high Smith Tower (1914) remains one of Seattle’s most treasured landmarks.

    The view from the Mount Baker ridge; the white terra-cotta-clad, 40-story-high Smith Tower (1914) remains one of Seattle’s most treasured landmarks.

    Mount Baker

    Although the Mount Baker Park Addition wasn’t the earliest planned residential district in Seattle, it was the largest in 1907, and the first to be integrated into the city park and boulevard system proposed in 1903 by the Olmsted Brothers. The vision of its developers, and the vigilance of its community activists, shaped a remarkably cohesive residential district.

    The area has an outstanding mix of architect-designed residences alongside builder-designed speculative homes and bungalows, which make it a classroom for learning about residential styles, ranging from Medieval, Elizabethan, and Italian Renaissance to Spanish Colonial, Colonial Revival, and Prairie School. Its streets follow hillside contours and afford wonderful views of Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains.

    From its beginnings, the Hunter Tract Improvement Company and Mount Baker Park Improvement Club shaped the neighborhood’s polished look. A streetcar line terminated at Hunter Boulevard, giving residents convenient service to downtown. The club was suitably proud that building restrictions prevented “the erection of ‘cheap’ houses, apartment buildings, and undesirable business structures.” The neighborhood center has always been its 1914 Arts & Crafts shingled clubhouse and a handsome 1930 Art Deco commercial building adjoining it, designed by the John Graham Company.

    Queen Anne Hill

    W.R.B. Wilcox incorporated concrete and brick infill to construct the city’s most beautiful retaining wall—topped by a promenade—on the west slope of Queen Anne Hill.

    W.R.B. Wilcox incorporated concrete and brick infill to construct the city’s most beautiful retaining wall—topped by a promenade—on the west slope of Queen Anne Hill.

    Queen Anne Hill is the only Seattle neighborhood named for an architectural style. The round or square towers, arched windows, stained glass, and decorative shingle patterns that flourished during the neighborhood’s early development are largely gone. But you still can experience residential design by some of the city’s best architects, along with the views that make this a popular place to live.

    Walk the length of West Highland Drive to 8th Avenue West—you’ll be mesmerized by the views from Kerry Park and the Betty Bowen viewpoint. Then walk north along the promenade, with its ornamental lighting fixtures, and make a side trip down and up the stairs of the beautiful concrete-and-brick infill retaining wall designed by W.R.B. Wilcox, complete with Gothic arches.

    Ravenna

    Carrying the original name of a wooded ravine park established in the 1880s, Ravenna is one of a number of bungalow neighborhoods that resulted from streetcar lines that carried people away from industrial and commercial areas. Demand for new housing was stimulated by bungalow plan books and catalogs, and these reasonably priced houses were an ideal choice for first-time home buyers.

    This sparkling Japanese bungalow in Ravenna demonstrates the Pacific Rim’s influence on Seattle.

    This sparkling Japanese bungalow in Ravenna demonstrates the Pacific Rim’s influence on Seattle.

    Jud Yoho, Seattle’s self-proclaimed “Bungalow Craftsman,” published The Bungalow Magazine monthly from 1912 to 1918, offering complete working drawings. (To no one’s surprise, these promoted Yoho’s construction firm, the Craftsman Bungalow Co.)

    Ravenna’s residences date from 1909 (the year of the Alaskan-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, held nearby) to the early 1930s. The tree-lined streets are filled with myriad bungalows, including airplane and Japanese forms. Windows display transom lights with leaded, beveled glass in various geometric patterns or motifs. Clad in stone, river rock, shingles, and Douglas fir clapboard, Ravenna’s bungalows evoke the hand-hewn character that we associate with this kind of Arts & Crafts home.

    Lawrence Kreisman is the program director at Historic Seattle and has written nine books, including The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest.

    Online exclusive: Get the author’s recommendations for the best historic hotels in Seattle.

    Published in: Old-House Journal October/November 2011

    { 2 comments }

    Emily February 19, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    Where can I find the Japanese Ravenna? Is there anyway to contact the homeowners?

    Rita Koch October 8, 2014 at 9:01 pm

    Hello, I am a travel agent from the Los Angeles, CA area, and plan to bring 30-35 docents from the Historic Banning House located in Wilmington, CA to Seattle, Victoria and Bellingham next April (7th – 15th, 2015), and would like a listing of historic houses open for group tours in the spring I can contact for tours. We will be flying from Los Angeles to Seattle and then traveling by chartered coach while in the various cities. I await information from you via email: rita@away-to-travel.com, or mail: Rita Koch, 5522 W 134th St., Hawthorne, CA 90250. 310-643-7311. Thank you, Rita



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