Ask a Seattleite where the Seven Seas Building is, and you’ll probably hear crickets. But we all know this 126-year-old icon, right down to its specific location on the block—that little antique doorstop crammed between the 25-story northeast tower of the Harbor Steps Apartments and the grandiose, sky-scraping Four Seasons Hotel Seattle.
We just know it by its street name: the Lusty Lady building.
Thanks to the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, this is one of the oldest buildings in the core of downtown Seattle, constructed in 1890—the same year the nearby Diller Hotel, along with iconic Pioneer Square spots like the J&M. (The Doc Maynard house off Alki, built in 1860, is thought to be the oldest in the whole city.) First called the Post–Edwards Block, the building was designed by architect William E. Boone, perhaps the city’s most prolific pre-Great Fire architect. His buildings have been considerably unlucky, though. Of the 40 or so he built in the city, only about 10 survive today, but they’re good ones, including the Sanderson Block/Merchants Café and the Globe Building, which was the original home of Elliott Bay Book company.
Born in 1830 and descended, he claimed, from American pioneer Daniel Boone, William E. Boone was from Pennsylvania and studied in Chicago. For a few years after graduating, he bopped around the country, practicing in New York, California, Nebraska, and Minneapolis and St. Paul. In 1881, he settled down in the Puget Sound area and worked between Seattle and Tacoma. Two years later, he partnered with George Meeker, who lived in Oakland and San Jose, California, but stuck around in Seattle. The pair did long-distance architecture as Boone & Meeker.
Meeker supervised the firm’s California projects, but the bread was in Seattle and Tacoma. By 1887, the firm was the Seattle’s leading architectural business, focusing on building hotels in then-nascent Pioneer Square. Their offices were set up in the ostentatious Italianate, turret-laden Yesler-Leary Building at 1st and Yesler—which they designed—but it was destroyed, like just about everything else in time, by the Great Fire. They moved into the Boston Block up the street at 2nd and Columbia, and set out to rebuild basically the whole city, cranking out six massive buildings in the second half of 1889 alone.
The year following the fire, 1890, is when the three-story Post–Edwards Block—what would become the Lusty Lady—went up at 1315 1st Avenue near University Street, and at the time, most of it was the Hotel Vendôme. Another Richardsonian Romanesque joint, it’s pretty typical of the buildings that popped up in the boom after the fire, especially in that it features brick corbelling. The brick façade bears a resemblance to the Sanderson Block, home of the Merchants Café, built the same year and designed by Boone.
Because it’s built on the very steep slope from First Avenue down to Post Alley, the building has a peculiar structural feature: It’s got three basement levels. This is to account for the sharp drop in elevation between the building’s main entrance on First and its foundation down in the alley, with the eastern half of the triple-basement buried into the slope and the western half facing Elliott Bay. Distinguished by fine detailed masonry, the brick-clad First Avenue façade is characterized by a high storefront level that’s been modernized since its construction.
The Hotel Vendôme was one of a string of residential hotels on 1st Avenue that included the aforementioned Diller Hotel, the Weed Hotel at First and Union, the Colonial Hotel at First and Seneca, and its next-door neighbor the Grand Pacific Hotel. These hotels’ target demo were single men—blue-collar workers, particularly miners passing through Seattle en route to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush—and they also attracted plenty of hucksters and ne’er-do-wells in town to help fortune-seekers spend their money. The Vendôme, however, marketed to a snazzier, more sophisticated guest, according to the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.
It also catered to believers in psychic powers, apparently, as a notably high number of spiritual healers were advertising their services in the Seattle Times around the turn of the 19th century. For example, in 1900, one C.W. Logan placed an ad as a “magnetic healer, [who] treats with remarkable success all cases of rheumatism and neuralgia; also diseases of women.”
By 1919, when it’d been restyled as the New Vendôme Hotel, it was aiming for a cozier crowd, as it was listed in the Polk’s Seattle Directory that year with a note: “Commercial and Family Patronage Specially Solicited.” A substantial remodel on the hotel’s interior took place sometime in the 1920s, with an undated drawing signed by architect Henry Bittman showcasing a larger floor plan. Additional remodels went down in 1944 or so, with the New Vendôme Hotel taking up the second and third floors of the southern half of the building.
The northern wing of the building was destroyed in 1966 to make room for a now-gone parking garage. But the evidence of that missing wing remains in the northernmost bay, noticeably larger than the other two—similar to the side bays that are now obscured by the Four Seasons Hotel to the north—and makes the façade appear quite asymmetrical. Today’s northern bay, of course, was originally the center bay.
Around the same time as the mid-1940s remodel, the New Hotel Vendôme became the Seven Seas Hotel, the name of which seems to finally embrace the shore-leave crowd. Anna and Lucius Avery bought it around this time, and were ostensibly responsible for the name change, opening the Seven Seas Tavern on the street level. In the early 1950s, the second basement floor was a union hall and a gun club, which included a shooting range.
The Averys ran the hotel and tavern for the next 25 years, until Anna’s death in 1969. Chris Tolias bought the building soon after, and the Sultan Cinema moved into the tavern space in 1972, showing adult films for gay male audiences. The First Avenue Service Center, a homeless aid center, set up shop next to the Sultan until the 1990s, when it moved to Third Avenue between Virginia and Lenora in Belltown—where it continues to serve the community today. In 1980, Plymouth Housing Group renovated the upstairs hotel portion into low-income housing.
The Lusty Lady, Seattle’s storied adult film and peepshow club, moved into the main floor in 1985, where it stayed for the next two and a half decades. The company, then called the Amusement Center Arcade, was established in the early 1970s and initially operated out of the storefront space in the Showbox building a block north, now occupied by the Blarney Stone Pub. One of a dozen or so adult theaters and strip clubs along the western edge of downtown Seattle, the Lady stood out in the crowd thanks to the fact that it was totally women-run and staffed by radical feminists, often displaying art exhibitions in the lobby. It was perhaps even better known to Seattleites for its punny, sexy marquee messages, like “always open/never clothed,” or its goodbye message, “thanx for the mammories.”
When asked about the condition of the building by the early 2000s, former dancer Lauren Kehl said they were pretty much confined to the main floor by that point. “The Lady had the main floor and two floors underneath, I believe,” said Kehl. “So we knew about the triple basement floors, but they were totally unused and were even flooded with sewage sometimes. I did tour the building all the way down to Post Alley once, but it was, like, a special event.”
The Lusty Lady was the Seven Seas Building’s sole and final tenant to date, closing its doors in 2010, citing rising rents and free Internet porn as the cause of death. The building’s been empty since then, save for a pop-up art gallery or two. The Lady’s famous pink marquee sign, widely considered a Seattle landmark, now lives at the Museum of History and Industry, that hallowed graveyard of bygone Seattle signage.
As for poor old William E. Boone, he’d kind of peaked by the time he built this thing. By 1892, the long-term LDR of Boone and Meeker had fallen apart and they went their separate ways. Boone moved into the New York Block at 2nd and Cherry, which he’d designed with Meeker, and struck out as a solo artist. Occasionally, he partnered with William Wilcox during the Panic of 1893, when work was scarce.
Boone did manage to get some skin back in the game after teaming up with Wilcox, when they designed the second incarnation of the Plymouth Congregational Church. (Not the marvelously expressionist mid-century one that stands at 6th and University today, though—that one’s the fourth.) Coincidentally, Plymouth Housing Group was borne of this church—and transforming the Seven Seas into low-income housing was its very first renovation project of many. Plymouth Congregational Church 2.0 had unique pyramidal spire and was considered an icon of Seattle architecture—until it was demolished in 1911 to make way for the second Pantages Theatre, which has also since been demolished.
It seems like everything Boone touched was cursed to be demolished—except the Seven Seas, that is. In 2016, the building was purchased from the Tolias family by Seattle-based Revolve Development and is slated to be redeveloped into a 43-room boutique hotel, replete with a tavern, a “speakeasy bar” (that is, in one of the secret basement floors), and a rooftop deck. Unfortunately, according principal architect John Schack, “there’s no preservation aspect” for the interior, although Revolve’s website says the renovation will “focus on retaining the building’s historic turn-of-the-century character.”
As of right now, though, the shell of the building with its fireproof corbelling will stay intact at 1315 First Avenue, narrowly escaping the Boone Curse yet again. For a building that’s survived a partial demolition, three floors of flooding, and a total gutting following almost a decade of vacancy, it’s a pretty lucky break.