SEATTLE — Pioneer Square, the oldest neighborhood in the Northwest’s largest city, is a quirky place, which perhaps is why it’s so suited to the DJ subculture.
Young men and women, who by day may be computer specialists or office assistants, at night are at home behind the turntables in the lounges and nightclubs that thrive in this downtown district.
From Trinity to Contour and over to the Last Supper Club, you can expect to see them any night of the week, half-hidden beneath headphones as they lay down progressive-trance mixes and ambient-house tracks for a mostly twenty-something crowd looking for good electronic dance music.
At all of these clubs, there is a sense of the past despite the newness of the techno melodies playing within. Trinity, for instance, faces Yesler Way, Seattle’s original “Skid Road," and stands next door to the Merchants Cafe, Seattle’s oldest continually operating restaurant, in business since 1890. Indeed, this is a neighborhood where the very new overlays the historic.
The Last Supper Club and Contour are within a few blocks in opposite directions, but both sit atop a labyrinthine network of underground passageways that have played a significant role in Seattle lore almost since the city was founded.
This is not forgotten history. Although Seattle may be best known for such 20th-century entrepreneurships as Boeing aircraft, Microsoft software, Starbucks coffee and Amazon.com — not to mention its iconic Space Needle — the city is keenly cognizant of its sometimes seedy past. What’s more, it is not shy about sharing many of those stories with visitors.
Indeed, the best-known popular history of Seattle, published in 1951 and still in print, was titled “Skid Road." Its author, the late Murray Morgan, said the name came from a road of wooden planks down which businessman Henry Yesler would slide felled timber from acreage atop First Hill to his sawmill beside Seattle’s harbor.
Skid Road became the dividing line between those parts of Seattle where “respectable" families lived and the coarser neighborhood of bars and brothels. The name evolved into “skid row" and came into common use nationally to describe urban districts that are home to men and women who may be down on their luck.
Seattle’s Skid Road today is Yesler Way, named in honor of that pioneer sawmill owner. It cuts right through the heart of the Pioneer Square neighborhood, intersecting James Street and crossing First Avenue just a couple of blocks east of Elliott Bay and the Washington State Ferries terminal.
It was at about this place in April 1852 that a group of settlers, led by Arthur Denny, established a community after having wintered across the bay. Here they met Chief Sealth, leader of the local Suquamish tribe, and a man whose warmth and wisdom they so respected, they named their settlement in his honor.
A bronze likeness of Sealth stands today in the center of Pioneer Place, a triangular, brick-cobbled plaza that is the main focal point of the Pioneer Square neighborhood. Nearby is a Tlingit Indian totem pole, its orca whale fin rising above a thunderbird beak. An ornate Victorian pergola, erected in 1909 as a streetcar stop, restored in 1972 after it was damaged in a traffic accident, provides lavish shelter beneath wrought-iron ornamentation.
The Pioneer Square neighborhood is much larger than Pioneer Place. It covers about 30 square blocks, mainly to the south. It embraces such Seattle landmarks as 35-story Smith Tower, which was the tallest building outside of New York when it was built in 1914; King Street Station, at which trains arrive from all over the country; and CenturyLink Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks football team.
West are the commercial piers along Elliott Bay. North is the city’s financial quarter. East is the International District, Seattle’s Chinatown. South is SoDo, a warehouse district.
On sunny days — granted, these are fewer in Seattle than they are in Bend — pedestrians may congregate in Occidental Square, between Washington and Main streets south of Yesler Way. The ivy-cloaked Grand Central Building (1889), on the west side of the plaza, features a casual indoor mall with shops, galleries and restaurants. On the south side of the plaza, an information kiosk has maps offering directions to Pioneer Square attractions.
At the north end of Occidental Square are four totems carved by Chinook artist Duane Pasco for the 1974 Spokane world’s fair, and subsequently relocated here. “Sun and Raven" and adjacent “Killer Whale" are traditional narrative poles, the former relating a Native American legend of Raven bringing light to the world. Nearby, figure poles of Tsonqua, the “wild woman of the woods," and Bear confront each other from opposite sides of a planting bed.
No doubt the most dramatic piece of public art in Occidental Square is the Fallen Firefighters Memorial, facing Main Street. Created in 1998 by China-born, Seattle-educated sculptor Hai Ying Wu, its life-size bronze figures honor 37 Seattle firefighters who died in the line of duty.
The Seattle Fire Department was founded in 1889. The timing was not coincidental. On June 6 of that year, the city of 31,000 was leveled by a great fire. It started when a cabinet maker knocked over his glue pot, and it roared through 29 city blocks, turning the wooden, frontier-style business district, every railroad depot and all but four wharves to ashes.
But Seattle rebuilt with astonishing speed, following new building codes that required the use of brick, stone and iron rather than wood. Scores of new buildings lent a unity of appearance throughout the district, as more than 50 of them were designed and built by architect Elmer Fisher in the Richardsonian Romanesque style popular in the 1870s and 1880s. The huge number of new construction jobs helped the city’s population grow to more than 40,000 people by 1890.
One of the best examples of the new architecture was Fisher’s Pioneer Building, voted the “finest building west of Chicago" by the American Institute of Architects in 1892. And it was here — on the site where the most open-minded of Seattle’s founding fathers, David S. “Doc" Maynard, once had a store and pharmacy — that I began my exploration of the city’s underground.
Seattle in 1890, you see, was built literally on top of the remains of the original downtown. The rooms and hallways, even the early sidewalks, were well-known to Prohibition-era bootleggers and black-market retailers. But they had been largely forgotten by 1964, when Seattle Times columnist Bill Speidel received a letter from a reader asking what he know about the “underground."
Speidel published the letter, promised to research the subject and get back to the reader. Soon thereafter, he invited her to meet him in Pioneer Square to join him on a subterranean tour. Not only did she show up; 500 other readers were there as well. Speidel collected $1 from each, and set out on the first tour of the Seattle Underground.
This came at a time when Pioneer Square was largely in a state of disrepair, its buildings threatened with being demolished and, hopefully, rebuilt. Having discovered a new world underground, Speidel used his influence as a newspaper columnist to mobilize public support for preserving the district’s history.
Dozens of the original buildings have now been restored. And Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour, now offered several times a day year-round, has become one of Seattle’s most popular tourist attractions. Although Speidel died in 1988, his daughter, Julie Spiedel, a noted sculptor, continues to be involved in the tour company as a part-owner.
I have previously enjoyed the 75-minute daytime tour. On my most recent trip to Seattle, I plunged beneath the city streets after dark on what promoters call their Underworld Tour: “Lust! Sin! Sex! Debauchery! A historic guided tour of Seattle’s infamous old red-light district."
A group of about 30 of us gathered in Doc Maynard’s in the Pioneer Building. This was appropriate, as Speidel, in a biography, dubbed Maynard “the man who invented Seattle."
Maynard had arrived in Seattle in 1852, at the age of 44, and — unlike the conservative teetotaler Arthur Denny — understood that the community had a “bachelor problem." As a result, he not only served as the town’s physician and justice of the peace; he helped to establish a proper brothel, believing sexual favors to be essential to the success of a frontier town.
Our evening guide, who went by the name of Rod, was well-versed in the subject, and his descriptive language might have offended gentler sensibilities than those of tour participants. He led us up and down several staircases — beneath the Merchants Cafe, beneath the nearly-as-dated J&M Cardroom and Central Tavern, two other circa-1890 bars — and past the original entrances to erstwhile businesses, such as the Northern Hotel, where he said a charlatan couple once ran a scam to cure mildly poisoned patrons after first making them ill.
“This was an open zone, a place where, truly, anything goes," Rod said. “But one of our most important early citizens was the owner of a parlor house — that is, a high-class brothel."
The madame was named Lou Graham, he said. By the time she arrived in Seattle in 1888, Maynard had passed away, although his widow was a leading local citizen. With public support, Graham established a house at Third Avenue South and Washington Street, “a discreet establishment for the silk top-hat and frock-coat set to indulge in good drink, lively political discussions and, upstairs, ribald pleasures — all free to government representatives," Speidel wrote in his book “Sons of the Profits."
“More city business was transacted at Lou’s than at City Hall," Speidel wrote. The building today is the Washington Court Building at 221 S. Washington St.
Rod described major problems with sewage and rats that beset the Seattle Underground before its cleanup. There was no evidence of either on our walk. But while some areas had been restored for storage or event use, most had fallen rocks, beams of wood and abandoned toilets. Subterranean Seattle is not a place to explore without a flashlight and a guide.
One more major 19th-century event contributed to the growth of downtown Seattle: the Klondike gold rush.
In July 1897, the steamer “Portland" arrived in Seattle carrying 68 miners who had made their fortune in gold — two tons of gold from Canada’s Yukon Territory. For a nation recovering from an economic depression that had begun in 1893, this was exciting news. Seattle became the supply center and jumping-off point for 30,000 miners who traveled by sea from Seattle to Skagway, then by land over steep Chilkoot Pass or White Pass to the gold fields.
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park today recalls that rough-and-ready era with exhibits on two floors of the restored 1890 Cadillac Hotel building, about halfway between Pioneer Place and CenturyLink Field.
The displays made clear the cost and difficulty of the journey. As in most gold rushes, few participants actually succeeded in earning fortunes. But some made out very well.
An example was 26-year-old John Nordstrom, a Swedish immigrant who had settled in Seattle. He invested in a claim, sold it for the substantial sum of $13,000, then returned to Seattle and went into the shoe business with a partner. The original Wallin & Nordstrom shop, opened in 1901, evolved into the Nordstrom retail empire that is now well-known nationwide.
One block north of the Klondike visitor center, Waterfall Garden Park (Second and Main streets) is a surprising oasis in the heart of the busy urban environment. Built on the original 1907 site of the American Messenger Co., which later became United Parcel Service (UPS), its thundering manmade waterfall drowns out the noises of traffic and street shouts
I can imagine that Pioneer Square’s DJs occasionally escape to the resonance of the waterfall when they need a break from the techno beats reverberating through their headsets. For all the history here, there’s nothing like a little nature to bring you back to center.