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Pike Place’s Butterworth Building has pretty much been creepy since day one

The Beaux Arts building started its life as a massive mortuary

A series of 1910s hearses line up on a street in front of one-to-three story brick buildings on a foggy day. It’s an old, black-and-white photo.
A funeral procession lines up outside the Butterworth Building in 1917. | Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 31718

If there’s a definitive go-to Irish pub in this town, it’s Kells in the Pike Place Market. Just about any local you ask (who doesn’t live the teetotal life) has spent an after-work happy hour on its Post Alley patio or a drunken St. Patrick’s Day or two in this creaky, spooky, old-fashioned, bottom-floor bar, perhaps partaking in the city’s largest collection of single malt scotch.

But not everyone who hangs out at Kells knows that there’s a great reason why it’s so creepy in there: Kells is in the ground floor of the Butterworth Building, as in E. R. Butterworth, who built Seattle’s first mortuary inside this building, and who basically invented the modern funeral as we know it—and the very words mortuary and mortician, for that matter. Kells occupies the former stables and funeral wagon garage.

Half a block east from Kells, the Greco-Roman sandstone arches at 1921 First Avenue were, as Seattle Met’s editor-in-chief James Ross Gardner wrote in 2012, “a passageway, of sorts, from this life into the next.” Beginning in 1903, when Butterworth & Sons moved into this snappy new building after bouncing around from the old Masonic Temple at Second and Pike to another location on Second and then another on Third, E.R. and company had a monopoly on the death industry in Seattle. For the first few decades that followed, just about everyone who died in Seattle sailed through the this archway.

Many of the dead came through without names or identification. The era in which Seattle was settled saw epidemics of tuberculosis, diphtheria, and Spanish flu, likely among others, and without proper burial services available—the case before Butterworth & Sons—dead bodies would regularly just appear on the streets of downtown Seattle. It got so bad that the city started offering undertakers $50 per body that they could take off the streets as a community clean-up effort. Butterworth saw an opportunity and took it, and it would make him a very wealthy man.

He hired John Graham, the English architect whose firm would later design the Space Needle, to plan out his grand five-story mortuary with a 200-mourner chapel, a crematorium, a columbarium for storing funeral urns, a casket showroom, and an elevator—the very first on the West Coast!—used for transporting bodies up and down this marvelous palace of death. Butterworth had Graham draw up eight different blueprints before he presented one that was to Butterworth’s liking.

An original architectural sketch of the Butterworth Building
National Register of Historic Places

The building was done up in the Beaux Arts style of the era, with four sculpted lion heads on the facade, facing First Avenue from three stories up. The aforementioned space that Kells now sits in held horses and hearses, concealed in the alley to hide the unsightly bodies from public view. The floors above were tricked out in mahogany, bronze and brass fixtures, elaborate stained glass, and general Victorian filigree. The spacious chapel had pews of Flemish oak, a choir loft, and a new-fangled system of light signals that a choir—should the family hire one—could follow to start or stop singing. Some of the services offered for Butterworth & Sons funeral packages were the transport of the body to the mortuary, washing the body, dressing the body, embalming, newspaper death notices, limousine and hearse service, casket (with optional crushed silk interior), fresh flowers, burial permit, air-sealed vault, and musicians.

In an old, black-and-white photo, a carriage drawn by two horses is followed by rows of people dressed in black in front of brick three-story buildings.
An undated photo shows a horse-drawn hearse outside the Butterworth Building.
National Register of Historic Places

“There was nothing like it in the United States,” Gardner said of Butterworth & Sons. “Maybe nothing like it in the world.”

Edgar Ray Butterworth never meant to work as an undertaker to begin with. Born in the Boston suburbs in 1847, he found himself working as a cattleman on the plains of Kansas when he encountered a grieving settler while traveling with his team. The man, whose wife and newborn child had both just died, had no lumber available for coffins on the prairie. Butterworth, it’s said, built a coffin for the guy with wood taken from his own wagon.

A sidewalk mosaic, pictured in the 1970s.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, items No. 33640 and 33641

Everyone in turn-of-the-century Seattle knew E.R., who also served in the state legislature, and his oldest son Gilbert, respectively by E.R.’s signature long goatee, and his son’s high, classic cheekbones and all-around good looks. They trusted the Butterworths with their family members who’d passed on, although it’s unclear whether folks did because they wanted to or because they didn’t really have a choice.

As for its modern-day incarnation as Kells: It has ghosts. Everyone who even vaguely follows that sort of thing will tell you this. The most-sighted one is a young girl of about eight years old, with blonde or red hair. She supposedly shows up most when the traditional Irish music is going, appearing in the main room or on the stairs. Its less-famous ghost is Sammy, who will show up in the mirror on the back wall. People say you’ll see a man’s face in the mirror, looking right at you, but if you turn around to check him out, he vanishes. Turn back around to face the mirror and he’s there again, grinning at you.

There are also ghosts that never show their faces, according to local legend. There’s a small, ornate whiskey bar in a back corner of the restaurant, just a little corner bar that’s easy to miss, but if you keep an eye on it, the candles all around the bar will allegedly light up on their own. Glasses are known to break on their own, silverware will levitate, and disembodied women’s voices are heard. That same stairwell in the back, where the little red-haired girl hangs out, is supposedly home to lots of other spirits, too, who turn up in photographs via orbs—or maybe it’s just dust.

Mercedes Carraba, who once ran the now-defunct (full disclosure, ahem) Market Ghost Tours, told KUOW in 2009 that she spotted a pair of muddy, dirty hands pressed up in the windows of the First Avenue entrance to the building. The area is just kinda inarguably deathy, said Carraba, with a Duwamish burial site nearby and a 19th-century settler’s graveyard a block away.

That said, this building hasn’t been a mortuary or funeral parlor for a really long time. In 1923, E. R. Butterworth moved his business to the western slope of Capitol Hill, at the northeast corner of Melrose Avenue and Pine Street. The “new” building was even more souped up and deluxe, with a crematorium and columbarium, fireproof vaults, an even bigger chapel, and drawing rooms. Hearses equipped with “Cadillac motor equipment with special designed bodies,” pioneer historian Clarence Bagley, wrote of it in 1929, in addition to “funeral furnishings… from the most simple to the magnificent.”

E.R. passed the business on to his sons, who passed it on to theirs, and it remained in the family until New Orleans-based chain Stewart Enterprises bought Butterworth Funeral Home in 1998, making it one of the longest-operating family-owned businesses in Seattle history. The last Butterworth to run it was E.R.’s great-grandson, Bert Butterworth, Jr., who was the one who sold it. Kells moved into the former livery in 1983, and not much of the grandiose Victorian interior of Butterworth & Sons remains there, or even inside the building’s upper floors, for that matter. Other than the bar, the building has been more or less empty as long as anyone can remember. Except for the ghosts, if you count those.

The building’s exterior and front door, pictured in 1969.
National Register of Historic Places

Its deathy superstitions are still being kept alive by the building’s current owners, though. Since 2005, the Butterworth Block has been owned by the McAleese family, which also owns Kells, and the same year it was purchased, Karen McAleese saw something in the pub’s kitchen that she still can’t explain.

“He was a tall man who looked like he was part black, with a suit jacket on,” she reported to the Seattle Times. “He had very thin hands. He walked to the end of the bar and just kind of faded.”

Whether it’s Halloween or Saint Patrick’s Day, if you’re in Seattle and you feel like having an otherwordly experience, you just might want to spend it at an Irish pub and try your luck.