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Seattle's City Halls
Katzenjammer Castle: Seattle's Second City Hall
Seattle's population increased tenfold during the 1880s and, coupled with the experience of the Great Fire, the City's leaders recognized that a larger government and more City services were needed. In addition, Washington's statehood in 1889 and adoption of the new State Constitution required Seattle to produce its first home rule City Charter.
The 1890 Charter greatly expanded City government. The small, largely voluntary government gave way to a comparatively large professional municipal administration. Among other provisions, it introduced a bicameral legislative department, significantly enlarging the size of the City Council. To accommodate the increased size of the Council, rooms were rented on the fifth floor of the Butler Block on Second and James.
This temporary space proved inadequate, however, and in his March 1891 address, Mayor Harry White recommended purchase of the old County Courthouse, about to be vacated as King County moved its offices to the top of Profanity Hill.
Mayor White stated that "the city is already paying $500 a month rent for offices, and still can not be said to be as well housed as it should be, nor have many of the commissions a place of meeting. I would recommend that the City . . . purchase the site of the old County Courthouse, if that can be obtained at a reasonable price. A City Hall could be erected there which might include an Engine House on the ground floor fronting on Jefferson Street . . . a jail in the basement at one end and on upper stories all the offices and Chambers needed for the Municipality."
Mayor White’s suggestion was deemed a good one and the City purchased the County Courthouse on June 13, 1891. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that "several persons, presumably representing San Francisco firms, were present and took part in the sale, for a time, forcing the bidding…Mayor White also did some bidding, but ceased when the price reached $47,000. The property was finally knocked down to W. W. Eastar, who represented the city, for $61,000."
The Courthouse was on Third Avenue between Yesler Way and Jefferson Street. The City occupied its new building in August 1891, after considerable renovations. Two new larger rooms were added on the south side of the building for the Mayor and the Comptroller. A basement courtroom was excavated and built under one section of the building. The old County jail area was extended 13 feet to the north to accommodate the old City jail, which was moved from Fifth and Yesler.
In an undated letter to the Board of Aldermen, Robert Fitzhenry, a painter, requested appointment as "Janitor of the city Hall."
The various additions and changes to the building earned the old Courthouse the sobriquet, Katzenjammer Castle. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote in 1891 that "the new city offices, it is expected, will be adequate to meet the demands of the city for some time. They are roomy, airy and centrally located. They are the best quarters the city government ever had."
By the following year, however, the City had outgrown the Katzenjammer Castle and was renting additional space. Mayor George Hall, in his message of January 20, 1892, urged the purchase of the old University of Washington campus and buildings, then located in what is now the Central Business District, as a civic center.
"I am strongly impressed with the conviction that the wisest thing the City can do, if there is any prospect of Seattle reaching a population of 200,000 within ten years, or even twenty years, is to purchase the University grounds as the site for a City Hall. They will serve as an adequate site for all time to come, and in the same plan give the future great City an opportunity to make a beautiful park in its center."
Nothing came of Mayor Hall’s proposal. The lack of adequate space in the “Castle” was a cry echoed by many departments. Complaints of overcrowded and unsanitary conditions abounded.
"…the rooms are all entirely inadequate for the city. The Engineer’s offices should be at least double their present size, and in fact every office in the City Hall is too small for the rapid growth of our city and consequent increase of business."
Although Mr. R. F. Stewart, "the efficient City Clerk," who made "an alphabetical index of all ordinances passed by former councils . . . and the records of the office put in better condition than ever before . . . The Clerk calls attention to the overcrowded condition of his vault which is totally inadequate for the large number of records of the city."
"Before any great length of time some considerable expenditure will be required in the erection of new vault facilities unless it is proposed to allow valuable public records to be endangered by lack of proper housing."
In a special election on December 6, 1904, Seattle voters defeated both a $500,000 bond measure to construct a City Hall and a $150,000 issue to purchase a new site. However, at the same election, a $175,000 bond measure for a City jail, municipal court and emergency hospital was approved.
Several suggestions for a new or improved City Hall came from citizens, including one from James Moore, General Manager of Moore Investment Company.
Mayor Ballinger, in his 1905 Annual Message, recommended creation of a nonpartisan commission “to act with the city council in devising plans, ways and means for the early construction of a new City Hall at some suitable location.” No apparent action was taken on Ballinger’s suggestion.
A City Council Resolution introduced in 1906 stated the City’s intention to "proceed forthwith with the construction upon the site of the present City Hall of a modern, steel, fire-proof building for city hall purposes. That the said building shall at the present time be erected to no greater height than the reasonable near necessities of the City require . . ." The Resolution was indefinitely postponed in 1907.