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Pioneer Square Historical District
History

In 1852 the area that is known today as Pioneer Square was chosen by the first permanent white settlers as the location of their new city because it was the only flat area along the deep, protected harbor on Elliott Bay. The following year Henry Yesler began operating a steam sawmill near where Yesler Way and First Avenue South intersect today. Logs from the wooded hillsides were skidded down to Yesler's sawmill and wharf. Business activity grew up near the mill, primarily along Commercial Street (now First Avenue South).

On June 6, 1889, fire destroyed 25 blocks of mostly wood buildings in the City's central core. Fortunately, the great fire occurred at a time when the local economy was strong, therefore rebuilding began almost immediately. Determined not to be vulnerable to another blaze, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance that required buildings to be constructed of fire-resistant brick and stone. Because much of the city had been built on boggy, marshy ground, the area was filled, street levels were raised, and the area now known as Seattle's underground was created.

The architectural styles for the rebuilt district were modeled after the then popular Richardsonian Romanesque buildings in Chicago and on the East Coast. Characteristics of this style include a heavy masonry base, use of the Roman arch, and varied architectural details on each floor. The brief reconstruction period (almost the entire are was rebuilt within two years), and the fact that only a handful of architects designed most of the buildings resulted in a remarkably harmonious architectural character.

Pioneer Square hit its heyday during the Alaska Gold Rush, which started in July, 1897. Unfortunately, this period of prosperity was short lived as the district began a rapid and steady decline soon after the turn of the century when the business district began to move northward along Second Avenue. Pioneer Square became a honky-tonk district of taverns, entertainment houses and bawdy hotels. This relatively seedy atmosphere characterized Pioneer Square up until the 1970s. Faced with virtually no pressure for redevelopment, the district's remarkable stand of turn-of-the-century buildings remained.

By the 1960s a City plan called for the construction of a ring road around the downtown that would have required razing many of the district's historic buildings. At about this time, visionary architect Ralph Anderson moved his office to Pioneer Square and began to restore buildings in the neighborhood. Esteemed architect and professor of architecture and historic preservation Victor Steinbrueck conducted an inventory of the area's buildings, which documented a collection of architecturally significant structures from the Richardsonian Romansque period unparalleled across the nation. Due to this important work, citizens, preservationists, and City officials came to recognize the historic significance and commercial potential of the district.

In 1970, through the efforts of a solid grass-roots movement, Pioneer Square was designated a national historic district, and in May of that same year, established as Seattle's first preservation district. A special review board, the Pioneer Square Preservation Board, was created and guidelines were developed to preserve the area's architectural and historic character and to assure sensitive restoration of buildings for economically viable purposes.

In 1973, a larger area was set aside to protect Pioneer Square from traffic and development pressures associated with the Kingdome (now demolished and being replaced with a new football/soccer stadium). In 1987 the district boundaries were increased again, so that the district currently encompasses approximately 88 acres.


Historic Districts

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