First Hill postcard, Courtesy Lawrence Kreisman
First Hill panorama, Columbia Street and Summit Avenue, Seattle, ca. 1903, Asahel Curtis photos stiched by Joe Mabel

First Hill

"Pill Hill" was once a haven for the wealthy

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First Hill is one of Seattle’s most eclectic and historic neighborhoods, characterized by a diversity of building types, architectural styles and periods, and its dense, urban tree canopy. Residents and newcomers to Seattle often dismiss First Hill as that place you go for a doctor’s appointment or hospitalization. Medical centers and high-rise towers have replaced much of the traditional single-family residential neighborhood that developed when First Hill was synonymous with good living, exclusive private clubs, and religious pageantry.

When the first non-Native settlers arrived on the shores of Elliott Bay, the place that would become First Hill was covered with dense, old growth forest. Indigenous communities had been settled along the waters of Puget Sound and Lake Washington for thousands of years. They called what would become Seattle the “Little Crossing Over Place,” with trails traversing the hill, connecting communities on the bay and lake. When Henry Yesler located his sawmill in Pioneer Square, he noted that “Skid Road,” now called Yesler Way, was located along a Native trail that ran up the hill.

By 1883, the crest of the hill having been clear-cut by Yesler and others, First Hill entered a new era as the residential retreat of Seattle’s wealthiest families, including the homes of mayors, judges, industrialists, timber barons, and art collectors. This promontory overlooking downtown and Elliott Bay offered a choice location close to downtown, but far enough from the rowdiness and questionable morals of the waterfront. Over the years, numerous churches, apartment buildings, workers’ housing, hotels, social clubs, and hospitals added to the area’s architecture, creating a visual, cultural, and economic tapestry and a unique sense of place.

Since the 1960s, the hill has been severed from downtown by the I-5 freeway. Its once-commanding views and exclusive residential blocks have been supplanted by a mix of commercial, institutional, and multi-family high rises, hospitals, and clinics. The neighborhood has earned its frequently used nickname “Pill Hill” for the multitude of medical centers.

Tour Stops

1

St. James Cathedral

804 9th Avenue

Begin the tour at the west front of St. James Cathedral. The cathedral, a Seattle Landmark, was commissioned in 1903 by Bishop Edward John O’Dea after he decided to move the diocese from Vancouver, Washington to Seattle. He hired the...

Just up the hill and a short block north of the cathedral is the Chancery, the office of the diocese. Seattle architect Paul Thiry was excited about bringing new, modernist architectural ideas developing in Europe to the Pacific Northwest. In...

3

Sorrento Hotel

900 Madison Street

From the corner of Terry and Madison, you will see the Sorrento, situated dramatically above downtown. Samuel Rosenberg, a Seattle clothing merchant, developed the hotel in preparation for the crowds expected to arrive in the city for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition....

4

Walk up Madison to Boren. This is the last surviving Queen Anne Victorian house on First Hill. The original 1889 residence sits in the center of the lot; a 1906 dining and billiard room annex faces Madison Street, as does...

5

Hofius House

1104 Spring Street

Continue north on Boren one block. W.D. Hofius came to Seattle in the late 1880s from Pennsylvania. He formed a partnership with William Pigott and in 1893 organized the firm W.D. Hofius & Co. which handled railroad equipment and supplies....

6

San Marco Apartments

1205 Spring Street

Continue one block east along Spring Street and note the mature urban tree canopy of the neighborhood. Looking east up Spring, one gets a sense of how apartments constructed through the decades have come to characterize the First Hill neighborhood....

7

1223 Spring Apartments

1223 Spring Street

On January 6, 1929, the Seattle Times chronicled the construction of a $580,000 apartment house at 1223 Spring Street that “will be built with a direct appeal to persons of means who are dissatisfied with maintaining large residences in the...

8

Sutton Place Apartments

1221 Minor Avenue

Walk back to Minor and continue north. The mid-century modern Sutton Place was constructed in 1960 and represents the massive growth happening in post-World War II Seattle. Affectionately known as the “Purple Palace” because of its cladding in variegated lavender...

9

Dearborn House

1127 Minor Avenue

Enterprising Henry Dearborn moved to Seattle in 1880 and was one of the first to become convinced that it was a gateway city. He was a promoter of the Northern Pacific Railway and was one of Seattle’s first real estate...

10

Stimson-Green Mansion

1204 Minor Avenue

This English Tudor style brick, stucco, and half-timber mansion was built for lumber and real estate developer C.D. Stimson over two years, 1899-1901, and was designed by Kirtland Cutter of the Spokane firm, Cutter & Malmgren. The exterior shows off...

From First Hill Park, walk one block east along University Street to Summit Avenue and turn left, heading north to E. Union Street. The former Summit Grade School building illustrates the progressive development of public schools during the first two...

12

Belmont-Boylston Historic Houses

1411 Boylston Avenue

From Summit Avenue, walk east one to two blocks along E. Union Street. From 1893-1902, Henry Burke and Albert Hambach designed six buildings, constructed mid-block on Belmont and Boylston avenues south of Pike Street. They shared similar late Queen Anne...

13

Phillips House

711 E Union Street

Just east of Boylston Avenue on the south side of E Union Street is the Phillips House. Accountant William Phillips developed this framed “double dwelling” in 1902. Designed by Edwin A. Williams & Rufus B. Clark, the building clearly expresses...

14

Knights of Columbus

722 E Union Street

Across the street from the Phillips House is the Knights of Columbus building. This solid four-story clinker brick structure ornamented with arched windows and classical dentils was home to the Seattle Council of this Catholic fraternal organization for over 100...

15

Fire Station No. 25

1400 Harvard Avenue

Just east of the Knights of Columbus building at Harvard Avenue and E Union Street is an early adaptive reuse project. Designed by Somervell & Coté and built 1908-1909, this building is one of the earliest all-brick firehouses and the...

16

Seattle First Baptist Church

1121 Harvard Avenue

From Fire Station No. 25, head south to Seneca Street for a dramatic view of Seattle First Baptist Church. This is the third church building for one of Seattle’s earliest congregations, established in 1869. The church traded its downtown property,...

Continue walking west along Seneca Street to view another historic apartment building at Summit Avenue. The rain and cloud filled skies of the Northwest inspired the well-to-do of Seattle to make extended winter trips to Southern California. By the mid-1920s,...

18

Baroness Apartment Hotel

1005 Spring Street

After crossing Boren Avenue, look across the street to the north to see the 1928 brick and terra cotta Marlborough Apartments, one of the first and finest high-rise apartment buildings in Seattle. Continuing down the hill, John H. Armin and...

19

Mason Clinic (now Virginia Mason Hospital)

Terry Avenue & Spring Street

Virginia Mason Clinic, the fifth hospital on First Hill, opened its doors in 1920 in this Italianate beige brick and terra cotta trimmed building designed by the prominent Seattle firm, Bebb and Gould. It extended from Spring to Seneca Street....

20

John Alden Apartments

1019 Terry Avenue

One prominent architect, Harry E. Hudson, left his signature on many of the First Hill apartments built during the 1920s. They are easily recognized by their names, as Hudson, a transplant from the Northeast, named his buildings after figures of...

What is now a venue for a wide variety of cultural events began its life as one of several large church structures in the city for the Church of Christ, Scientist. Christian Science had become the fastest growing religion in...

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