Belltown and downtown from Space Needle, 1962, Courtesy Seattle Public Library (spl_gg_76600009)
Belltown district, Seattle, 1882

Belltown

An artsy bohemia and the birthplace of Grunge

by Peter Blecha

Since time immemorial a Duwamish village site known as babáqWab existed along the seashore at the cliffside foot of today’s Bell Street. After Seattle’s settlement by non-Natives in 1851, pioneers including William Bell staked out land claims along Elliott Bay. Bell’s 340-acre homestead extended from the water east to today’s Yale Avenue, and from Pine Street north to Denny Way. His land would become known as Bell’s Town.

In 1852 Bell built a log cabin, and later a frame house with lumber cut by Henry Yesler’s sawmill, but the house was torched in January 1856 by marauding Indians during the “Battle of Seattle.” The Bell family (wife Sarah Ann, son Austin, and daughters Virginia and Olive ) fled to California but left its mark via street names, including Bell, Virginia, Olive, and Stewart (named for Olive’s husband Joseph Stewart).

For years Bell’s Town — stretching north from Stewart Street to Denny Way, and from the waterfront cliffs east to about 3rd Avenue (where it abutted the very steep Denny Hill) — remained a sleepier area than the nearby central business district. The “Denny Regrade” project in the early 1900s transformed Bell’s Town, and the neighborhood was more commonly known as the Regrade. In time Belltown grew to include hotels, apartments, theaters, ballrooms, taverns, union houses, and light industry, and for a spell was the home of Film Row, Seattle’s movie industry. By the dawn of the twenty-first century, wrote HistoryLink founder Walt Crowley, the bustling Belltown neighborhood was offering “a yeasty combination of the bohemian and the trendy, with a significant nightlife.”

Tour Stops

1

New Washington Hotel

1902 2nd Avenue

In 1889, Arthur Denny (1822-1899) and other early Seattle investors began construction on the Denny Hotel on the south summit of Denny Hill near today’s 3rd Avenue and Virginia Street. The financial Panic of 1893 halted their work, but a...

2

The Moore Theatre

1936 2nd Avenue

Seattle’s first World’s Fair – the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition – opened on June 1, 1909, and locals began preparing well in advance. Anticipating throngs of visitors, James A. Moore developed several Belltown properties including the New Washington Hotel and the Moore...

3

Terminal Sales Building

1932 1st Avenue

The Terminal Sales Building is an 11-story historical landmark designed in a terra cotta and brick Gothic-inspired mode by architect Henry Birman. Built in 1923 in an open loft format, it served as a sales and display warehouse that serviced...

4

Wrex and The Vogue

2018 1st Avenue

The Belltown dance-club scene got kick-started in 1977 with the founding of a gay bar called Tugs Belltown at 2207 1st Avenue. It featured a big dance floor, lots of fresh punk and New Wave music, and the occasional live...

5

BabáqWab: the ‘Little Prairie’

Bell Street and Western Avenue

When the first white settlers arrived here in 1851, they found a narrow ravine running down to the water at what is now Bell Street. Archaeologists speculate that it could have provided access to a prairie to the east, known...

6

Austin A. Bell Building

2326 1st Avenue

This Gothic and Italianate-styled building has a colorful past. It was conceived by Seattle native Austin Americus Bell (1854-1889), who was born in his family’s log cabin across the street from here. Bell suffered from poor health and died by...

7

SCUD Building

2412 Western Avenue

In 1984, Hugo Piottin, who had operated all-ages rock club the Metropolis in Pioneer Square, began looking for a rental building where bohemian artists might pool their resources and settle in. Belltown’s cheap rents seemed promising, and Piottin, videographer Steve...

8

Belltown P-Patch and Cottage Park

2520 Elliott Avenue

In 1916 Seattle real estate developer William Hainsworth began advertising for sale six cottages located near the waterfront on Elliott Avenue at Vine Street. The location made the cottages attractive to the area’s maritime, cannery, and dock workers – who...

9

Labor Temple

2800 1st Avenue

Seattle’s labor history is rich with rough-and-tumble characters and episodes. The Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”) helped spark the Seattle General Strike of 1919, and Seattle was home to Teamsters union boss Dave Beck for decades. Several union...

10

Trianon Ballroom

218 Wall Street

Hyped by its co-owner, hotelier John Savage, as the largest dancehall west of Chicago when it opened on May 20, 1927, the Trianon Ballroom had an outsized impact on Seattle during its three decades of musical activity. Designed by Warren...

11

Hotel Lorraine

2327 2nd Avenue

When the movie industry emerged in the early twentieth century, the Belltown neighborhood — thanks to its low density and zoning rules designating it for light industry — became home to myriad film-related businesses. Parts of 2nd and 3rd avenues...

12

Speakeasy Café

2300 2nd Avenue

In 1994, at the dawn of the Internet era, the Speakeasy CafĂ© was founded on this site by Mike and Gretchen Apgar, and Mike’s brother Tyler Apgar. The Speakeasy was a combination cybercafĂ©, bar, art gallery, performance space, and tech...

13

Black Dog Forge

Alley behind 2316 2nd Avenue

As recently as the 1990s, Belltown was still a scruffy neighborhood populated by the down-and-out, the elderly, artists and musicians, and assorted others. There were authentic dive taverns, flophouses, and a handful of nightclubs where the Grunge rock movement was...

14

Jewel Box Theatre

2316 2nd Ave

As new-fangled loudspeaker systems first emerged in the mid-1920s, the silent movie era quickly morphed into the “talkie” era of films with soundtracks — and the theater industry boomed. It was 1926 when B.F. Shearer founded his namesake B.F. Shearer...

15

Franklin Apartments

2302 4th Avenue

In 1917, local architect B. Dudley Stuart published a map titled Seattle’s Coming Retail and Apartment-House District. It centered on the fourth regrade of Denny Hill. Despite the hope that businesses would move into the lowered and leveled land, it...

16

Audio Recording Inc.

2227 5th Avenue

In 1961, Seattle audio engineer Kearney Barton — who had already cut recordings for many of Seattle’s 1950s pop stars, including Bonnie Guitar, Pat Suzuki, The Fleetwoods, and the Brothers Four — moved his Northwest Recorders from downtown to the...

17

Trojan Horse

415 Lenora St

At the site of this vacant lot on November 24, 1967, Louie Carras and his partners opened a 350-patron Greek restaurant/nightclub called the Trojan Horse. That first night featured a lounge quintet called the Trojans, and over time many acts...

18

Bad Animals Studio

2212 4th Avenue

This site holds much Seattle music history. In the 1960s nightclub impresario Dave Levy launched DJ’s, an R&B-oriented nightclub that later morphed into The Showcase. Next came the Kaye-Smith Studios, a joint venture headed by Seattle businessman Lester Smith and...

19

Crocodile Café

2200 2nd Avenue

On the site of the old Athens Café, Seattle attorney Stephanie Dorgan and a few partners launched a three-room restaurant/bar/mosh pit, the Crocodile Cafe & Live Bait Lounge, on April 30, 1991. The timing was perfect: the Seattle rock scene...

20

Crystal Pool Natatorium

2035 2nd Avenue

Among the most distinctive buildings built in Seattle was the Crystal Pool Natatorium. Designed by esteemed theater architect B. Marcus Priteca, it opened as an indoor heated saltwater (pumped up from Elliot Bay) swimming pool in 1915. With a prominent...

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