A penny for your history

On the northwest corner of Second and Marion downtown there is an arch made of stone. I passed it the other day while I had my camera with me. It stands near the sidewalk at the front of the upper plaza of the Henry M. Jackson (a.k.a. “Federal”) Building. I’m going to tell you just a little story about that arch. 

It's been here a long time.

Many of them were silly, but we had a lot of traditions. Looking back, I guess they were a way that we teenagers — famously stuck between impotent childhoods we wished to leave behind and the responsibilities of adulthood that we were not yet allowed — could make the world our own. My friends and I excelled at creating these traditions. There was a tradition upon leaving Kip’s house that as I or Jeff was pulling away, Kipper would thump “BUMP BUMP baDUMP BUMP” — the five notes of the old “shave and a haircut” musical phrase — on the trunk of our car (or, if we were backing out, on the hood). We would sound the corresponding two notes of “two bits” lightly on the horn. This just happened once, and then it became a thing we always did, even if we were leaving after midnight and sleeping neighbors might hear. It was no less than a pledge of continued friendship at parting.

Kip and I also had a tradition, whenever we ate at Pizza and Pipes in Bellevue, of asking the organist, Dick Schrumm, to play “Windy”, which he always did. We sat down close to his perch at the front and drank root beer and ate pepperoni pizza and heckled him, and he heckled us back. He once told us with a salacious wink that he was known far and wide as “Big Dick and his swingin’ organ”. 

Not just a work of art.

There was a season when Jeff and I rode the bus from Bellevue to downtown Seattle a lot, and we ended up waiting in front of the Federal Building, which had been built in the early 1970s. It is an amazement to me now that I gave no thought whatsoever to the nature of this arch, to this peculiar portal’s provenance. I think I assumed that it was simply a recent piece of sculpture erected there, since the building’s plaza was also home to some other works of art.

Every time we ended up here waiting for a bus home, we each climbed up one side of the arch as high as we could, and reaching up above our heads we deposited a penny on the little ledge formed by the capital above the pillars. It was just an inch or so wide. We did this every time, hoping to ascertain whether a penny thus saved might be a penny earned next time we reached up there. But the pennies were always gone the next time we checked.

The arch in the last days that it was still part of its original structure. Jan 20, 1971. Photo by Lawton Gowey courtesy of Paul Dorpat.

Destruction precedes construction. Feb 10, 1971. Photo by Lawton Gowey courtesy of Paul Dorpat.

All gone but the arch and the corner doorway (which as far as I know was not saved). Feb 25, 1971. Photo by Lawton Gowey courtesy of Paul Dorpat.

It’s hard for me to remember this mindset, but there was a time when I viewed the built environment as a static thing. I had not lived long enough to see any of it change significantly, and so it didn’t occur to me, I mean consciously, that every modern building I could see had replaced some older building of brick or stone, and that the old stone and brick buildings still extant had in their time replaced grand old Victorian houses — right here on the slopes of downtown Seattle. It seems intuitive and obvious now, but I swear it didn’t occur to me, especially since we still had an “old” section of town called Pioneer Square. That’s where the old buildings were, and they were still there. I didn’t actually say that in my mind, but the assumption informed my perspective. Similarly, we didn’t have Victorian mansions here in Seattle. Those were houses I read about in stories about the East Coast. If you had asked me if I believed that every building I saw had been erected on newly cleared ground I would certainly have chuckled and said no. I had just never really had any occasion to imagine the layering of the city’s history through time.

Had I bothered to read the little plaque bolted to the wall next to the arch, I might have known that it was the preserved front portal of the Burke Building, which had preceded the Federal Building on this site and had been razed to make way for it, as these photos kindly provided by Paul Dorpat show. The Burke was one of the many “Richardsonian Romanesque” buildings that architect Elmer H. Fisher designed for Seattle’s post-fire reconstruction boom. I believe it was built in 1889, just after that fire reduced most of the downtown area to smoldering ash.

Now when I look at the arch I see this. As usual, click for a much larger version. Photo courtesy of Paul Dorpat.

You can walk right up and touch these decorative elements today. A century ago they were fixed to the top of the Burke Building; you can see them in the photo above. Photo by Jmabel licensed through Creative Commons.

The Burke Building in mid-life (1940s) next to the 1929 Exchange Building. Unsure of the date. Photo by Asahel Curtis courtesy of Paul Dorpat.

My discovery some years later that this piece of stone art that we had been clambering on was a remnant of Seattle’s elusive past marked the beginning of my awareness of the city as an unfolding thing, a dynamic system, and a corresponding change in my attitude toward it. I had enjoyed Paul Dorpat’s Now & Then column every Sunday in the paper for years, but I somehow hadn’t connected the historical photos he presented with a citywide historical view in my mind — each was simply a unique visual puzzle. Now I was enchanted. What had the rest of the Burke Building looked like? What other treasures lay unheralded around the city in little squares and down forgotten alleys, or right out in front of everyone’s noses? Even ten years ago, when I first discovered what the arch was, it was not as easy as it is now to simply google up the name of a building and find out everything you wish to know about it, with photos. Now, of course, a quick search of the building’s name turns up many photos from different eras. Here, in addition to my own photos, I’ve used several that Paul sent me and one I found online.

In 1971, the great and grand makes way for the merely big. The doomed Burke Building from the rear. Photo by Lawton Gowey courtesy of Paul Dorpat.

At some point we stopped going downtown on the bus. Our lives became about college, and other things. Jeff moved away. I’ve walked past the arch many hundreds of times since those days, but a few weeks ago I actually stepped up onto the base of the right-side pillars and reached a hand up above the capital to see if there was a penny there.  

25 Responses to “A penny for your history”


  1. 1 Janet February 12, 2011 at 15:58

    I’ve been thinking about how you found my father’s house. I too searched google earth but didn’t persevere the way you did. Why was my reaction one of amazement that you had discovered that the house was still standing? My sister in New Hampshire lived for many years until just recently in a farmhouse dating from the late 1700′s. Why couldn’t my father’s house date from the Civil War at least. Like you, I failed to think of the layering – different generations living in houses dating from further back in the past. It seemed so obvious in New Hampshire. And the settling of Ohio wasn’t too far removed from colonial times.

    • 2 jstwndrng February 12, 2011 at 16:27

      Janet, I have an addictive nature, and am known to go without food or visits to the restroom while searching for some bit of trivia, especially if it has to do with history, aerial photos, maps etc. I see that Zillow.com lists your father’s house as having been built in 1870, just a few years after the Civil War. True, Ohio has an older past than Seattle, but I think at aome point you get far enough back that people weren’t replacing structures that often. An awful lot of history was lost in the last century. What has survived exists on thin ice, too. But a hundred years ago I think places like Ohio had plenty of houses a century old. Then too, Seattle has a notorious antipathy toward historic preservation. Old structures in some places have fared much better.

      • 3 Janet February 13, 2011 at 18:49

        I haven’t had as much luck with zillow.com as you. I can’t find the house or the date it was built. I would also be curious to know who owned it when. My sister in New Hampshire had the complete list of the families who had owned her farmhouse since it was built in 1782. That farmhouse is in new hands now – hands that are remodelling the downstairs part but they’ve run afoul of the recession. We had a tour of the house a couple of years ago – that was great fun to see what the new owner was doing.

        • 4 jstwndrng February 13, 2011 at 22:01

          Janet, I’ve just changed my settings here to allow more than two “nested” comments, but I already responded to this by email with instructions for how to get to that house’s info on Zillow. I forgot to include a subject line so look for a blank email. If your spammer catches it let me know and I’ll resend.

          Also, I encourage you on your next motorcycle ride across the country to stop in and knock on the door and ask if they mind if you get a photo of yourself standing in front of the house…unless the inhabitants are cooking meth downstairs (and home prices indicate the area is so depressed that they might be) they will probably ask you to come in and see the house your pa grew up in.

  2. 5 kiwidutch February 12, 2011 at 16:12

    Now I’m dying of curiosity.. did you find any pennies on the ledge when you climbed up?
    Like you I didn’t realise that buildings might not be permanent when I was younger, I just assumed that they “had always been and always would be”.
    Now on return to my home city in New Zealand I am struck by the changes that have occurred in my absence and in a year’s time when we go back again I know I am in for a BIG shock as 70+ historic buildings in the city centre were massively damaged by the earthquake that happened on 04 Sept 2010.
    Many of them have been or will be removed because they are structurally unsound and beyond repair. I will have to reformulate the image of the city that I have in my minds eye and mourn a little the dramatic loss of so many of my favourite buildings when I see the damage in the flesh and it becomes real in my heart as well as in my mind.
    I am in LOVE with those amazing decorative elements that once belonged on the roof of this building… Applause for the people who saved such a beautiful piece of the building and put it into a place where it can rightfully be admired. The arch too is wonderful… a calm entranceway of a ghost place long gone. Teach your kids about the pennies… (If I EVER get to visit here I’m going to put a penny on the ledge LOL)

    • 6 jstwndrng February 12, 2011 at 17:41

      Kiwidutch,
      Sad to hear of such a devastating earthquake. That will be hard to bear on your return. Your story of the necessary demolition of so many old buildings is a good reminder of how important it is to get out on the sidewalk and feel the nearness and solidness of these old beauties while yet we can.

      Yes, I need to go look at those decorative elements more closely. That photo is not one I took. I need to go and touch them with my hands. Then I’ll feel that connection with the old photos to an even greater degree. I only discovered very recently that those things were from the old building. I had barely noticed them off to the side of the plaza all these years. They are similar to the castings of the Savoy’s capital carvings at sidewalk level on the WaMu tower here. You can walk right by them and not realize what a treasure they are.

  3. 8 leatherhead109 February 12, 2011 at 16:26

    Great post, brother! As a teacher of building construction for the fire service, I’m enthralled with the photo’s and history lesson. I’m torn between admiring the incredible buildings of that time period and the danger they present to life in a fire. Fighting fire in such buildings is where most firefighters would give a fortune to be, simply because of the classic “American”ness of it. “yeah, I was at the Burke fire” Oh the stories to tell in the firehouse kitchen. Unfortunately, these particular fires demand a high toll on life and limb. Thus the challenge.

  4. 9 leatherhead109 February 12, 2011 at 17:02

    Also brother, on further study of the Burke photo (black and white vintage) I can’t help but wonder what the chap in the window (second floor, directly above the fifth 1st floor window on the left) is looking out for. Is he watching out for the seemingly idle man in front of the bank?

    Interestingly, the tall front on the first floor, the the right of the bank is made of cast iron. They did this to create large window show space, without sacrificing stability. Often when these buildings are renovated, you can see the iron front standing up without a wall above it, supported in place by struts and rakers until the rest of its wall is rebuilt. I believe I have seen many cast iron fronts in old parts of Seattle. But you would never think about it otherwise. With todays building materials there is no need for this type of construction feature.

    • 10 jstwndrng February 12, 2011 at 17:56

      Ben, I suppose you mean the “floot-to-ceiling” open spaces on either side of the arch in question. I see old buildings around that have high, open first floors like that but I haven’t ever noticed about the cast iron. Thanks for that bit of construction history, bro. Now I’m going to be on the lookout for this element as I walk around.

      Yes, I noticed the fellow leaning out the window. He’s probably raising the alarm that there are ghosts crossing the street (actually just people who were in motion when the shutter was released in a long exposure typical of that time period).

      This was one of those 1890s buildings whose heavy, stone exterior was probably meant to reassure a citizenry still jumpy after the big fire. But as you have noted looking at the demolition shots, inside they were still the same old tinderwood chimneys waiting to light up, eh?

      • 11 leatherhead109 February 12, 2011 at 18:07

        Absolutely, I was excited (in a geeky sort of way) to see that the interior structure was clearly wood floor, supported in large spans by cast iron columns (the last photo). This is in its purist form what I would refer to as an “Ordinary” structure, meaning brick or masonry walls, supporting wood floors and wood roof. There was a hotel in Boston called the “Vendome” which during the 1970′s was undergoing renovation and caught fire. During the “overhaul” stage, when the fire appears to be licked, 9 firemen were lost as one of those iron columns you see in the last picture gave way due to too much support having been removed in the renovation process. This stuff fascinates me because it combines fire history with technical bits.

        P.S. I think the man in the window is noting the man watching the bank entrance, as if to say, “Hello, that’s torn it! The man in the gray suit from the street market!”

  5. 12 Kip February 13, 2011 at 11:00

    It must be a function of age….when I was younger I thought removing the old for new was something to be expected. A modern design was better than something old. Now, I would much prefer that the old remain in place, and new things be, well, build in new places. Yes, progress is needed, and unsound structures should be removed. At least some folks saw fit to keep the arch. I have driven past that spot countless times and never thought to think on it. I most likely went past that spot during demolition, as traveling up Marion was the preferred route home from the Colman Docks after returning from Bainbridge Island.

    Man, did I like Pizza & Pipes!

    • 13 jstwndrng February 13, 2011 at 17:17

      Kip, that’s what kills about this. I don’t remember the Burke building but like you I probably saw it more than once. When we are very young we don’t have any sense that things will change, so we don’t know to really look at and see and value things until it is too late. We look back and say, wow, that building was a pearl of old Seattle architecture and it was still standing in my lifetime!

  6. 14 Jana February 17, 2011 at 08:38

    Love this! I’m sure it would have been so much simpler to just demolish the entire structure but someone took care to save a few elements. Kudos to them!
    Speaking of layering, have you ever seen the children’s picture book “The Story of an English Village” by John S. Goodall? I used to check it out often from the library under the guise of getting it for my daughter. There is no text but illustrations of a couple of different scenes as they might like through the centuries (starting with the 14th). I finally had to buy my own copy.
    Thanks for another great post!

    • 15 jstwndrng February 17, 2011 at 09:20

      Yes, Jana, I believe I have actually seen that book, maybe some years ago. Didn’t it show the tradesmen working on a cathedral early on, stuff like that? Yes, I love books like that. I’m currently reading “The Wheelright’s Shop” which records a lot of arcane knowledge about one aspect of English village life. I might post about it though, so that’s all I’ll say except that I’m really enjoying it.

      • 16 Jana February 18, 2011 at 07:55

        (Sorry about my typo – “like” should have been “look” as in “might look through the centuries”
        In the street scene, you can see a fortress/castle on a hill in the back ground. By the 17th century, it has decayed but the village street is bustling. Throughout the book there are illustrations of various trades and costumes.

        Another book that comes to mind in thinking of layers is Sarum – family stories that span stone age to modern day in Stonehenge “neighborhood”. I need to pick it back up. I am also awaiting your post of “The Wheelright’s Shop”

  7. 17 Librarian Girl February 17, 2011 at 09:43

    I love your photos and thoughts about downtown. It makes me look at them differently as I see them every day.

    • 18 jstwndrng February 17, 2011 at 11:33

      LG, thanks. Gosh, what a compliment. I’d say sparking reflection on the environment we thrash around in every day is something I’d be happy to have succeeded in.

  8. 19 Rachael February 20, 2011 at 09:38

    Thanks for illuminating that bit of history that I walk by routinely. I had wondered about it . . . but lacked the obsessive nature of a sleuth to track down (let alone fully appreciate) this remnant of the past. Thank you for your posting!

    • 20 Matt February 20, 2011 at 09:51

      Hi Rachael,
      But, ah, you did wonder, didn’t you. And that to me is the nut of what makes all this so much fun. If there’s no wondering, then the discoveries don’t make much of an impression. Thanks for the comment. Glad you came back.

  9. 21 Invisible Mikey February 22, 2011 at 10:41

    I always enjoy your ability to provide memorable historical photos to illustrate your own long-term perspective. These kind are my favorites of your posts, though I also like the light touch you have with yarns like the unexpected one after this.

    • 22 Matt February 22, 2011 at 11:27

      Thanks Mikey! I’m glad you appreciate the bizarre mix of “homespun” tales of family and the chronicles of my urban quest not to become a Kafka character, especially since I know there is no love lost between you and monolithic architecture :)

  10. 23 Louis March 13, 2011 at 09:56

    Sorry I’m late, everybody, I…say..where did everybody go?…Wow, I positively loved this posting for so many reasons. I remember that frigid day in Seattle last November, when we passed this arch and you told me the story of it and the story of you and Kip placing pennies there. I think for a moment we thought of climbing up on to check it for pennies, but as the city streets were of snow and ice that day, and we were no longer in our teens, we thought better of it.

    And to see images of where the arch once belonged is quite moving. At the same time, it’s heartening to see that it and other parts of the building were preserved for us to enjoy.

    But I think the best part of this post, Matt, is the mention of the legendary Dick Schrum! As I grew up a hockey nut and a fan of the old Seattle Totems, I was positively delighted to read about you and Kip heckling Dick Schrum and him heckling back! You see, Dick was the official organist for both the Totems and the Supersonics. His breezy rendition of Perry Como’s “Seattle” when the Totems skated onto the ice was this fan’s favorite!

    It’s also interesting that I selected this posting to be the first to read as I catch up, because I just recently uploaded a website dedicated to the Totems. (I posted the link) On it you will find some sound clips of a Totems game featuring the organ stylings of probably the hardest working organist in Seattle from the 1960′s to the 1980s…I mean, he had to be!

    Thanks, Journeyman.

    • 24 Matt March 13, 2011 at 21:04

      Hey Lou,
      Great to see you back in da house. I didn’t realize Dick Schrum was such a celebrity. I googled him and it turns out he had records out and everything! Kip and I never had any idea he was a legend. Thanks for filling that in for us. I also checked out your Totems link (NOTE: Louis didn’t mention this, but you click his name above to get to the website). Nice site, dude! I’ll have to check it out in more detail when it’s not past my bedtime. And I think that since your comment a) adds so much to the story and b) is so far back in the stack that not may people will see it now, I may repaste your comment in a little update post I’m considering doing, because I found some more interesting stuff relating to the Burke Building a few weeks ago. So I could add that and your comment — and cool photos of Mr. Schrum at the organ — at the same time. It would be a little self-referential and post-modern, but what the hey, right?


  1. 1 My Grandfather’s House « Janet’s thread Trackback on February 15, 2011 at 13:57

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