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Five Times the City of Seattle Got 'Renovated'

It's Renovation Week so we might as well dig in to the many times Seattle itself received a bit of a remodel

O.T. Frasch/Wikimedia

renovation-week Renovations don't have to be specific to a house or building. Certainly you could argue that a city itself is capable of being renovated. Hell, a quick look at the skyline in certain neighborhoods would tell you that renovations are constantly going on in a city like Seattle.

It's always been that way for us, whether it's because we had no choice following a disaster or because we decided we needed to level the whole place out a little bit. We've been tinkering with Seattle since the beginning, so let's take a look at the five times in the city's history when a renovation changed the trajectory and gave us the city we know today.

Great Seattle Fire
University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections

The Great Fire of 1889 - Seattle's Studs Out Remodel

The original Seattle settlers did a lot of things right but one thing they shouldn't get a lot of credit for is building everything out of wood. Not just that but putting all of those wood buildings on top of wooden stilts and then using hollowed-out logs for sewers and pipes.

As you probably know, that did not end well. The Great Seattle Fire of 1889 decimated the city as it was known. While this could have meant the end of Seattle, it ended up strengthening the resolve of locals to rebuild. Streets were raised up to 22 feet in order to level the grounds. And, of course, wooden buildings were banned in the places the fire affected. A year later, 465 new buildings had been constructed and Seattle had a much firmer base from which to grow. The fire also led to the creation of Seattle's professional fire department and improved water systems.

olmsted park

The Olmsted Parks  - Seattle's Landscaping

In 1903, the Seattle City Council asked the famed Olmsted Brothers to survey the possibilities of creating parks around Seattle. The city has recently purchased Woodland Park and Washington Park and was interested in seeing how to best make them of use without ruining the land.

J. C. Olmsted's primary goal was to make sure that there was a park or a playground within a half-mile of every Seattle home but the overarching plan was to create  a 20-mile landscaped boulevard that linked all of the city's existing parks and greenbelts. Over the years, the brothers would continue to design or influence the creation of as many as 68 park spaces, including Volunteer Park, Seward Park, Green Lake Park, and Woodland Park.

If there's a green space you enjoy in Seattle, you probably have the Olmsted's to thank for it.

Denny Regrade
O.T. Frasch/Wikimedia

Regrading - Seattle's Redistribution of Materials

The problem with Seattle, at least in terms of expansion and construction, is that it was basically a series of hills when first settled. It was easy at first to build a town around the lower levels but if the city was ever going to expand, it needed a more subtle grade. That's where all the regrading came in.

It started with as many as 58 regrades before 1900 but the major work didn't start until the 20th century. There was the Jackson Regrade, which slashed 85 feet out of Beacon Hill to make it easier for central Seattle to connect with Rainier Valley. Just south of that, the Dearborn Regrade lowered land by 108 feet but also caused plenty of landslides along the way. Many people have heard of the Denny Regrade but the truth is that the former Denny Hill was brought down in separate attempts over decades, the biggest of which measured 27 city blocks long. If you can imagine a giant hill where Belltown and Denny Triangle are currently located, that's where it happened.

The results go far beyond just flattening the geography. Roughly 50,000,000 short tons of earth were moved amongst all of the regrades, helping to create the Seattle waterfront, SoDo, and Harbor Island, which is completely man-made.

Lake Washington Ship Canal
Dennis Bratland
Dennis Bratland

Lake Washington Ship Canal - Seattle's New Plumbing

When settlers first arrived in Seattle, Lake Washington's only connection to any other body of water was the Black River which flowed south to the Duwamish River. With the Puget Sound so close and Lake Union in between the two, it seemed like a logical conclusion to find a way to connect these bodies of water in order to increase usage and flow with a canal.

So, in the early 1890's, the US Army Corps of Engineers started on a plan to construct a canal that brought them all together. For various reasons, things stalled until Corps of Engineers Seattle District Commander Hiram M. Chittenden lobbied for funding from Congress, even in retirement. Congress approved funding for the creation of canal locks in 1910 and the Ballard Locks open in 1917, eventually named for Chittenden. Meanwhile the Fremont Cut connected that to Lake Union while the Montlake Cut connected the two lakes to one another. The entire project was completed in 1934 and today you wouldn't even know that whole river system wasn't always there.

bogue plan Seattle Municipal Archives

The Bogue Plan - The Renovation Not Done

The Bogue Plan might be unique because it's the only renovation on this list that didn't actually happen. But perhaps because it did not actually go through, we're left to wonder whether or not Seattle is better off for it.

Seattle municipal planning director Virgil Bogue had big plans in 1912. He wanted to institute Seattle's first comprehensive plan and add a bevy of improvements to the region, including the creation of a giant train station on Lake Union's south shore, a government civic center in the space left behind by the Denny Regrade, a rail transit line that would have linked Seattle and Kirkland via tunnel underneath Lake Washington, and the acquisition of Mercer Island to be turned into a Seattle city park.

Bogue Map Seattle Municipal Archives

The concern by dissenters is that the audacious plan would change the trajectory of Seattle's downtown growth and move it north, devaluing the downtown buildings and real estate. Every Seattle newspaper was against it as well and the plan was soundly defeated by public vote.

What would a Bogue Plan Seattle look like today? Something tells us traffic in that city center would be bonkers. Perhaps in a way his plan is coming to fruition as South Lake Union and Denny Triangle are growing at breakneck speed and becoming Seattle's new downtown, at least for some industries. And look, we're building a tunnel! Maybe Bogue wasn't wrong, he was just a century early.
· Great Seattle Fire [Wiki]
· Regrading in Seattle [Wiki]
· Park History - Olmsted Parks [SPR]
· Lake Washington Ship Canal [Wiki]
· Seattle defeats Bogue Improvement Plan on March 5, 1912. [HL]