There’s a wall on the east side of the 1000 block of Seattle’s First Avenue between Madison and Spring. On that wall is a legend, painted in faded white, that no one can see. It’s likely that no human being will ever see this wall again, because of the particular way in which it has been hidden. I’ve seen this wall and the white painted lettering. I was among the relatively few who were lucky enough to see it when it was uncovered for a brief time a few years ago. The legend is not mysterious or important, or even very meaningful anymore. But up until the time I saw it, it had not been seen by anyone for a hundred years. This is the story I’m about to tell you.
It was a sad day in 2004 when they knocked down the Warshal’s buildings. I had just started working downtown again and was walking past the soon-to-be-destroyed Warshall’s Sporting Goods every day. For much of the 20th century, Warshal’s occupied two buildings on the northeast corner of First and Madison. Unless I am mistaken, the one directly on the corner was originally the two-story Hotel Louvre. The other one, nextdoor to the north, was the Wadsworth Building, an edifice of about six stories.* The Wadsworth Building had actually been registered as a historic landmark in 2001, but that didn’t prevent it from being knocked down to make room for the Hotel 1000.
And down it all came very quickly, in a day or so, all except for the northernmost wall of the Wadsworth Building. The Wadsworth Building was built sometime around 1902 and stood brick-by-jowl with the Schoenfeld Building, the next one to the north of it. Workers on scaffolds had to use caution in removing the bricks of the Wadsworth Building lest they damage the Schoenfeld Building. This took a week or more. As the bricks were slowly removed, I began to see a long-covered-up advertisement or legend reappearing on the Schoenfeld Building’s southern wall.
It said, “Standard Furniture Co.”
Not very surprising, since this legend and many others had appeared on multiple walls around town as businesses grew and changed locations. But I was intrigued. The sign had been entombed for more than a century. I wondered if would be possible to see this particular legend on this particular wall in historic photographs from the turn of the 19th to 20th century. The paint was faded now, but I imagined it blazing white among many such exclamations of the contemporary downtown brickscape.
The construction of the Hotel 1000 took place shortly after I bought a ’40s-era 4×5 Graflex Speed Graphic camera. This is the kind of camera you always see in old movies when the press is snapping photos — it’s a huge thing with bellows. This camera might have been the one that captured Jack Ruby doing in Lee H. Oswald, for instance. It’s unwieldy and once you load the film, you can’t see through the lens to line up or focus your shot. Despite this, it was designed for action photography such as sports and on-the-spot news coverage. I lugged my Graflex down to Madison Street during the winter of ought-four and ought-five, while the wall was exposed, and took a shot, because I knew this view was a rarity that would soon disappear again. (When I told my cousin this story, he likened this wall to Halley’s Comet. Touché.)
I’ve always been a big fan of Paul Dorpat‘s “Now and Then” articles, which have run for years in Pacific Northwest Magazine and always include an old historic photograph (“then”), a little history of what the view depicts, and his best attempt to reproduce the shot (“now”). He’s assembled many of these essays into a series of books, and on the introduction page of Seattle Now and Then Volume II, which I had bought and read years ago, I found what I was looking for. It’s a panorama of the cityscape shot from a rooftop on Western Avenue. In the middle panel of it can be seen the south wall of the Schoenfeld Building and the legend “Standard Furniture Co.” No photo credit was given nor any other information except that it was taken “ca. 1901″.
Recently I started thinking I should track Paul down and ask him where I could get permission to reproduce that photo for my blog. After all, he lives in the neighborhood. Last week I emailed him asking about the photo. He not only emailed me an electronic copy of that middle panel, but also emailed later in the day with an even better shot that was taken in May of that same year. When I asked whose they were, he said “mine.”, and he went on to say that I could use them as long as I told my readers that he intends to treat of the subject matter in these photos himself someday, when he gets around to it. (Lou, Kip, Marni…consider yourselves informed.)
Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I won’t go on frothing at the mouth about it, except to say that I consider it an honor and a privilege, to say the least, that Paul would let me publish some of what he calls his “ephemera” before he does.
The last piece of the story is my own photograph. I took my film holders to Panda Lab, the only place in Seattle that will develop black and white 4×5 sheet film anymore. It was among the very first shots I’d taken with the Graflex, and I wasn’t at all sure it would turn out. With the ubiquity of photography these days, it’s likely there were many photos taken during the winter of 2004-2005 that show the exposed wall. But for all I know, this may be the first publishing of a photograph showing daylight on this wall for the first time in a century. I never got around to printing it, but here is a scan of the contact sheet, dust and all:
*There’s an enlargeable photo of both the destroyed buildings that looks to me like it was taken in the ’40s in a Seattle Times article by Steve Warshal, chip off the original block, that was published online in 2007. Note that in that photo the Wadsworth Building advertises itself as the “Geo. V. Heringer Building”.
Update: 30 June 2009
I walked round there today with a digital camera and got a current photo matching the viewpoint of the one immediately above, the final word on this piece, you might say.