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The One About Seattle's Biggest Brothel, Boeing & Beer

Seattle is known for tree-huggers, Earth-firsters, moss-between-the-toes nature lovers. So, here's a story about how Seattle got this way by leveling hills, filling valleys, and rerouting water - and occasionally burying its history.

Photo: University of Washington

Here's a hint that history wants to erase itself. Take an infamous building. Crash a plane into it. Set it on fire. Then cover it in tons of concrete. That's the story of Seattle's most famous brothel.

If you've driven on I-5 past Beacon Hill, you've driven over the site of a 500-bed bordello. Top that, Fifty Shades of Grey.

If you don't like Seattle's current politics and government, compare them to the city in 1910. The mayor, THE MAYOR, worked to establish the largest bordello in the world. In a fine example of creative marketing, the project was operated by the Hillside Improvement Company, which was less concerned with improving the hillside than it was with improving the coffers of Mayor Hiram Gill and a few other officials. Their plan was to collect $10 per month from every prostitute. That was a lot of money in 1910. (~ $260 today)

If you want to have faith in human nature, congratulate the Seattle citizenry eventually realized that corruption had become so bad that they kicked the shady politicians out of office - at least for a while. The Women's Suffrage Movement's success at getting the vote in 1911 probably helped with the change. Of the 23,000 newly-registered women voters, 20,000 voted. In 1916, though, the mayor became mayor again - partly because he didn't campaign on the side of brothels.

Old buildings, even brothels, are worth something to someone. Instead of standing empty forever, or being torn down, the bordello became apartments. Time and a name change meant most people forgot the history. The renamed Lester Apartments became convenient housing for Boeing employees during World War II.

Composite image by NW Then & Again

Whether it was cosmic karma or just chaos, an authentic tragedy then happened. A Boeing B-50, an upgrade to the B-29 bomber, had trouble on takeoff from Boeing Field, clipped a nearby brewery and crashed into the apartment building. Eleven people died from the crash and the fire. The situation could've been worse, but the brewery employees saved many lives. That building would eventually become known as Rainier Brewery, by the way.

Skip forward a decade or two and the country realized it needed a network of highways. Interstate 5 needed a route through Seattle that wasn't too difficult and didn't disrupt too much of the city. The freeway slides along the side of the valley and basically paved over that side of Beacon Hill.

Some historic buildings are renovated or recreated, but the site ensures that the only thing that will survive will be the story, and that's probably best. But, oh, what a story.
· The Lester Apartments [GradyTripp]
· Fifty Shades of Grey [CS]
· Lester Apartments Fire [HistoryLink]
· The Story of I-5 [CS]
· All History Lesson coverage [CS]
Written by Tom Trimbath