Seattle's City Halls

Seattle's City Halls

City government in Seattle has occupied many different spaces throughout its history. Seattle's city halls have been located above a fire engine house, in a patchwork building dubbed the "Castle," in leased spaces, and, for the last 40 years of the 20th century, in its own nondescript blue and grey municipal building.

Over the years, numerous reports and studies have been issued regarding civic space for Seattle. Suggestions for how to craft City government space have been made by city employees, citizens, and mayors; and the quest for a new city hall was realized when a new uniquely Seattle-style city hall opened for business in 2003.

"A city hall is unique. It is not like a museum or a library. It is a place where busy people work, where busy, often harassed people go to do business. Serving these people is its basic function." - City Councilmember J.D. Braman, 1962

Seattle's First City Hall

Firemen outside Seattle City Hall
Firemen outside first city hall, circa 1888
Courtesy Paul Dorpat

From the City of Seattle's incorporation in 1869 until 1882, municipal government conducted business in rented spaces in different buildings throughout the city.

On June 16, 1882, the Common Council approved Ordinance 285, providing $8,000 for "the erection of a building to be used as a Council Chamber, Fire Engine House, and City Jail."

Architect W. E. Boone was selected to design the multi-purpose building. The construction contract was awarded to E. W. Rea, whose bid was $7,525. The structure was to be completed on or before the first Friday in November 1882.

Etching of the first city hall
Etching of First City Hall
The West Shore, September 1882

The building, located at what is now Second Avenue South between Yesler Way and Washington Street, was a modest brick and wood two-story structure, measuring 40 x 60 feet. Fire Engine Co. No. 1 occupied the first floor and City Hall was upstairs.

The Council was apparently eager to move into its new space. At the Council meeting held on December 8, 1882, in the new building, Councilman John Collins, Chairman of the Committee on Public Buildings, Property and Grounds, entered his protest "against the meeting of the Council in the new City Engine House before the same is delivered by the contractor and accepted by the City." Councilman O.F. Cosper responded that "the occupation of the new City Engine House was done after verbal permission [was] first obtained from the contractor."

The Great Fire

Despite being housed above the fire station, City Hall was destroyed in the disastrous Great Fire of June 6, 1889, along with all the City's tax information for 1885, 1886, and 1887. In the wake of the fire, City offices were moved temporarily to a converted house between Fourth and Fifth Avenues and Yesler Way and Terrace Street.

The site of the burned building was traded to Josiah Collins in 1895 for property between Fourth and Fifth Avenues South and Weller and Lane Streets, to be used for city stables, a blacksmith shop and a storage yard.

Katzenjammer Castle: Seattle's Second City Hall

Seattle's Population Growth
1870 1,107
1880 3,533
1890 42,800
1900 80,671
1910 237,194

Seattle's population increased tenfold during the 1880s. This growth, coupled with the experience of the Great Fire, led the City's leaders to recognize 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.

Mayor Harry White
Mayor Harry White
Image 12268, Seattle Municipal Archives

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," where Yesler Terrace is today.

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."

Katzenjammer Castle 1 of 2
Katzenjammer Castle
Image 1755, Seattle Municipal Archives

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.

The various additions and changes to the building earned the old Courthouse the nickname Katzenjammer Castle, after a popular comic strip. 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."

Katzenjammer Castle 2 of 2
Katzenjammer Castle
University of Washington Special
Collections, Asahel Curtis 278
Letter to City Hall
In an undated letter to the Board of
Aldermen, Robert Fitzhenry, a painter, requested
appointment as "Janitor of the City Hall."
General File 990841, Seattle Municipal Archives

The Castle: A Too Small City Hall

Mayor George Hall
Mayor George Hall
Image 12269, Seattle Municipal Archives

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."
J.C. Helms, Superintendent of Bridges, Buildings, and Wharves, 1892

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."
Mayor Byron Phelps, Annual Message, 1895

Mayor Ballinger
Mayor Richard Ballinger
Image 12275, Seattle Municipal Archives

"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."
R.H. Thomson, City Engineer Annual Report, 1900

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 Richard 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.

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.

Moore Investment Company 1 of 2 Moore Investment Company 2 of 2
Letter from Moore Investment Company
Clerk File 26499, Seattle Municipal Archives

The Third City Hall

Yeslter Flatiron Building Construction
Yesler Building under construction, circa 1905
Image 64777, Seattle Municipal Archives

"The old city hall has for many years been an unsafe place for the public records, is over-crowded and unsanitary, and no expenditure of money can materially improve it... An effort was made during the past summer to devise plans for the grouping of municipal buildings on some scheme that would furnish an administrative center in their construction, but these labors were practically fruitless, inasmuch as there were no funds available to even provide suitable grounds for such purpose." - Mayor Richard Ballinger, Annual Message, 1906

A new building to house the Health and Police Departments was under construction in 1905 and suggestions were forwarded that it also serve as quarters for City Hall. Some proponents believed it was a possible solution to the City's space problems. City Engineer R.H. Thomson was one of many who was not in favor of using a building not originally intended as a city hall for that purpose.

Despite the naysayers, the new building became City Hall in 1909 when it was completed. The building had grown from a two-story building, as originally planned, to a five-story building, and as many City offices as could find space moved in.

Now known as the Yesler Building, it is located on the triangle between Fifth Avenue, Yesler Way, and Terrace Street.

Yeslter Building Completed
Yesler Building, 1915
Image 11934, Seattle Municipal Archives
City Hall Postcard
Postcard of Yesler Building
Postcard collection, Seattle Municipal Archives

The Bogue Plan

Bogue Plan Drawing
Civic Center Project rendering
from Bogue Plan
Document 4843, Seattle Municipal Archives

In the municipal election of 1910, Seattle voters passed an amendment to the City Charter that created a Municipal Plans Commission. The Commission was charged with devising "plans for the arrangement of the city with a view to such expansion as may meet future demands."

Civil Engineer Virgil Bogue was hired to draw up the plans. Bogue had worked with Frederick Law Olmsted in designing Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and he also had lived and worked in Seattle. A core element of Bogue's plan was a grand Civic Center. With the regrading of Denny Hill, Bogue saw there was land available near downtown that was neither too expensive nor yet developed.

Bogue Plan Schematic
Civic Center Group rendering
from Bogue Plan
Document 4843, Seattle Municipal Archives

One of the most controversial parts of Bogue's plan for the citizens of Seattle was the location. The plan grouped all public buildings in a Civic Center in the Denny Hill regrade district, with the center at Fourth and Blanchard. Many citizens felt the location was too far from the City center.

The Civic Center was only a small part of Bogue's plan. His two-volume report included an elaborate and well thought out transportation system, including rapid transit; a plan for the Seattle coastline; and a proposal for an expansion of the parks and boulevards, including a recommendation to set aside Mercer Island as an "island park - a people's playground, worthy of the city of millions which will someday surround Lake Washington."

Map showing Lake Union Waterfront District, Bogue plan
Bogue Plan map showing location
of proposed Civic Center
Map 619, Seattle Municipal Archives

Bogue's plan was heavily influenced by the City Beautiful Movement and the scientific rationalism of the Progressive Era. The concept that disciplined, rational planning could ameliorate city problems and foster cooperation between the public and private sectors as well as between the various levels of government is evident behind Bogue's master plan for Seattle.

The plan was the subject of much political debate within the City, and many citizens simply did not know very much about it. The plan went up for a vote in March 1912 and was defeated almost two to one. On the same ballot was a measure to fund construction of a County Courthouse between Third and Fourth Avenues between James and Jefferson Streets. The Courthouse issue passed two to one.

Amidst the work of the Municipal Plans Commission Mayor Hiram Gill proposed "a building of the sky-scraper type" in 1911, but his proposal was not acted upon.

The County-City Building

City Hall Park
City Hall Park and County Courthouse, 1917
Image 38044, Seattle Municipal Archives

The complaints "too small" and "inadequate" continued to be heard regarding civic space in Seattle. Options and ideas expressed by City officials, as well as citizens, were explored for easing the space burdens plaguing City offices.

In 1913, Superintendent of Buildings R.H. Ober reported on the costs of renting space and the feasibility of using the Prefontaine Building near Fourth and Yesler for a city hall. Ober itemized $28,219 paid in rent to house departments that did not fit in the current City Hall. He concluded, however, that the Prefontaine Building would not provide sufficient space for "permanent quarters for the city departments" and recommended against buying the building. He stated "the most advantageous arrangement seems to be the construction of a suitable building of a temporary nature but of a pleasing appearance upon the old city hall site, and sufficient in size to accommodate all of the outside city departments."

The County was proceeding with the construction of its new courthouse which had been approved by voters in 1911 and for which funds were approved in 1912. In November 1914, a bond issue for $350,000 was approved to add two stories to the original building plan so that the City could lease space from the County.

As part of its agreement with the County, the City agreed to develop City Hall Park on the Katzenjammer Castle site. Mayor George Cotterill stated in his 1913 Annual Message that "the tentative, verbal understanding, which has been the basis of our cooperation with the County Commissioners in this matter is that the city shall become a tenant on at least a ten-year lease, of adequate quarters in the county-owned building... As part of the arrangement, it is understood that the City of Seattle shall dedicate its proposed City Hall block, which is of practically equal value with the county block, for permanent park purposes."

The new County-City building was dedicated on May 4, 1916. Five additional floors were added to the building in 1930 and a substantial remodeling took place in 1960.

The Yesler Building, used by the City since 1909, was officially named the Public Safety Building in 1916, and thereafter housed the departments for which it was originally intended: the Health Department, the City Hospital, the Police Department and City Jail.

City County Building
County-City Building with additional
five stories, 1949
Image 9347, Seattle Municipal Archives
Frye Hotel, Smith Tower, and County Courthouse
Frye Hotel, Smith Tower, and
County Courthouse
Postcard collection, Seattle Municipal Archives

Proposed Public Buildings Area

Report on proposed public building area 1 of 2
Report on proposed public buildings area
Document 5998, Seattle Municipal Archives

It was not until after World War II that the City began to consider leaving the County-City Building and looking for its own City Hall. In 1935, City Light moved into its own building, at Third between Madison and Spring Streets, providing some breathing room for the other City offices. Explorations into a government buildings center were made in the mid-1940s.

In 1945 the City Planning Commission hired St. Louis city planner Harland Bartholomew to conceive a plan for a consolidated government center. Bartholomew, known by some as "the dean of U.S. city planners," was also a consultant to the City in 1923 during the development of the City's first zoning code.

The Planning Commission submitted a "Report on Proposed Public Buildings Area" in 1945 which incorporated Bartholomew's work. The report defined the "Public Buildings Area" as "a space set aside in the city's planning program for the location of government offices." The Public Buildings Area was specifically not intended to be a Civic Center, such as San Francisco had, which incorporated cultural institutions. The report identified the two blocks between Third and Fourth Avenues from James Street to Columbia as "the best sites for any public buildings" because of the proximity both to businesses and other governmental offices.

Report on proposed public building area 2 of 2
Report on proposed public buildings area
Document 5998, Seattle Municipal Archives

"The Public Buildings Area should have dignity, beauty, and a suitable approach [and] be established in a region which is capable of architectural and landscape treatment commensurate with the importance of the development and civic pride," the report stated.

The City Planning Commission also reported on the possibility of utilizing Smith Tower for municipal departments. However, the Commission reported that, although Smith Tower was very serviceable for commercial tenants, it was "wholly unsuited to any combination of municipal departments which could be sheltered within it."

The Municipal Building

City Hall rendering
Rendering of proposed Municipal Building
Image 62335, Seattle Municipal Archives

After being a tenant in the County-City Building since 1916, the County asked the City to look for its own space in the late 1950s. The County needed the space and City government needed a building of its own.

In 1959 City Councilman Dorm Braman promoted a "lease-purchase" method for acquiring a new city hall and five proposals were accepted, including one by the Beut Corporation from Dallas, Texas. Local builders and architects objected to a lease-purchase arrangement in lieu of the normal design and bid process. Architect Victor Steinbrueck was among those who protested, saying, "A proper architectural competition would have allowed much more talent to have participated, and resulted in the best possible building." Although all five proposals were thrown out, the City contracted independently with Beut architect James MacCammon. The contract was awarded in 1960 and construction completed in 1962.

City Hall Excavation
Excavation in preparation for construction
of the Municipal Building, June 1961
Image 68537, Seattle Municipal Archives

The Municipal Building was completed for a sum of $7 million which was paid in cash. Daum, Daum and Associates of Seattle worked jointly with MacCammon on the project. Features of the 12-story building included a rooftop garden and a modern "Centrex" telephone system.

In 1970, $150,000 was spent to refurbish the building, including a remodeling of the Mayor's 12th floor quarters. City architect William Dimmich estimated the improvements should "hold us another four or five years."

The building had its share of critics. Some said it looked more like a motel than a city hall. In later years Mayor Charles Royer was reported to have said, "The best thing about working in City Hall is that you don't have to look at it."

Muni Building
Municipal Building, April 1970
Image 184147, Seattle Municipal Archives
Municipal Building
Municipal Building, May 1993
Image 184149, Seattle Municipal Archives

A Welcoming Civic Space

City Hall groundbreaking ceremony, April 4, 2001
Image 46045, Seattle Municipal Archives

By the 1970s, the City was again looking for more office space. In 1973, a five-story wing on the east side of the Municipal Building was contemplated, with an estimated cost of $3.5 million. A space study done in 1975 to find a way to consolidate the 100,000 square feet of leased office space concluded that the City should lease the old Public Safety Building at Fourth and Yesler for a five-year period while initiating the construction of a new City building. Another plan suggested the City consolidate its rented space but this plan was rejected by City Council.

Another study done in 1986 also concluded that construction of a new city hall was needed. The estimated cost by this time was $129 million. Although nine locations were suggested for the new civic complex, including the Washington State Convention Center and the Metro Transit building at Ninth and Pine, two of the most popular were King Street Station and the existing City Hall site.

Despite hearings and resolutions on the municipal complex, nothing was built. In the 1990s, the idea for a new Civic Center arose again. With the purchase of Key Tower in 1996 came the debate over whether or not the City could put City Hall in a skyscraper.

City hall
City Hall, 2005
Image 162028, Seattle Municipal Archives

In 1997, the City Council adopted a conceptual vision of a smaller city hall, that of "an important public place for Seattle's citizens while creating an appropriate, efficient, and nurturing environment for our city government." The new City Hall, designed by architect Peter Bohlin of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and Bassetti Architects, was approved by City Council on January 22, 2001. Construction of the building was completed in 2003. The City Hall Plaza was completed in 2005 with landscape design by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol and Barbara Swift of Swift and Company.

The smaller City Hall houses the Mayor's Office, City Council chambers, the Legislative Department, and other City departments. City Hall, the new Justice Center, and Key Tower, form a triangle in the new civic complex.

The building celebrates the civic and participatory nature of Seattle's community through a design that focuses on public spaces and experiences. It is meant to last for 100 years. City Hall opening ceremonies were held May 14, 2005, with presentations, speeches by the Mayor and City Councilmembers, and performances by the Washington Middle School Jazz Band and the Morning Star Korean Dancers. A Literary Stage was held in Council Chambers with readings by authors and students. See highlights from the celebration here.

Municipal Archives, City Clerk

Anne Frantilla, City Archivist
Address: 600 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 94728, Seattle, WA, 98124-4728
Phone: (206) 684-8353

The Office of the City Clerk maintains the City's official records, provides support for the City Council, and manages the City's historical records through the Seattle Municipal Archives. The Clerk's Office provides information services to the public and to City staff.