Listen to Eugene Smith’s interview with Steve Scher on KUOW (48 Minutes): HERE
Montlake: One of Seattle’s Treasures
by Eugene Smith
Bounded on three sides by water–Lake Washington on the east, Lake Union on the west, and the Lake Washington Ship Canal to the north–the Montlake community has throughout Northwest history been sought after. Initially, its easily traversable canoe portage between lakes and, therefore, access to nearby campsites made it popular with Native Americans–the hah-chu-AHBSH, as they were called in their native language–who came in search of fish, wapato, and other delectables.Then, rapacious explorers and pioneers eyed its commercial potential, seeing it as a place that might become a city bustling with freight: logs and other timber-related enterprises; coal cars moving from eastern Lake Washington to Seattles Elliott Bay shipping facilities. Indeed, an enterprising but apparently not very competent young man named Harvey Pike called the portage area Union City, in hopes that his early property acquisitions in 1861 would appreciate in value and make him rich.
Harvey left by 1880, not yet rich and probably more than a little disappointed that smarter, more influential men than he had their eyes on ways to exploit the unquestionable potential that Union City/Montlake offered–from abundant timber to very appealing residential sites to eventual busy thoroughfares that could move ships east-west and vehicles both east-west and north-south. This prospect was made all the more likely by the areas incorporation in 1891 by the City of Seattle.
The Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition–an extremely popular but intentionally short-lived event held in 1909 on the University of Washington campus, just north of Montlake–gave a boost to the areas prominence. Things began to heat up nearly everywhere in this enclave that still seemed remote from downtown Seattle but whose attractiveness was lost on no one who understood real estate. Two brothers, Calvin and William Hagan, with an office in Seattles New York Building, seem to have come up with the name Montlake, though it then applied only to the Montlake Park Addition, the former Union City, a two block-wide section between the lakes now defined by E. Shelby and E. Hamlin streets. John Boyer, attorney and agent for the Interlaken Investment Company, who was opening the southern part of Montlake to settlement at the same time, preferred the name Interlaken but later acceded to Montlake as the more inclusive name.
House construction proceeded vigorously during the second and third decades (1910-30) of Montlake/Interlaken–most of them better homes. Restrictive covenants required by Boyer, for example, stated that homes constructed east of 24th Avenue must cost not less than $3,000 and buildings west of 24th not less than $5,000–prices substantially above those for typical Seattle homes at the time. Both Boyer and the Hagan brothers were well aware that other amenities were necessary to attract the right buyers. To that end, Boyer exerted considerable effort to create Interlaken Park, the broad swath of trees and streams set in hilly terrain that defines Montlakes southern border. He collaborated closely with the Seattle City Council and George Cotterill, an engineer who platted much of Seattle and was largely responsible for laying out and installing a 25-mile system of bicycle paths, part of which traversed Interlaken Park to what later became Washington Park Arboretum, Montlakes eastern boundary. (The Arboretum was developed primarily in the 1930s by workers hired by the Works Progress Administration, who also built the Montlake Community Fieldhouse). The Hagans, meanwhile, created East and West Montlake Parks, each taking advantage of lake views.
The U.S. Corps of Engineers completed the Lake Washington Ship Canal in 1917, joining Lakes Washington and Union and lowering the level of Lake Washington by about 9 feet. This impressive Montlake Cut replaced a more modest log-sluice canal dug after Harvey Pike abandoned his futile effort to join the lakes. (The former canal lay just south of the present Museum of History and Industry, approximately where State Route 520 now bisects Montlake, and emptied near the present Fisheries building.) That cut constituted a considerable barrier and traffic obstacle, however. Piers and abutments for a bridge were built in 1914, but a serious proposal for a Montlake Bridge came only in 1916, with completion in 1925. A two-lane bascule bridge with handsome gothic-style towers at each end, it seemed splendid at the time and contributed to 24th Avenues becoming a major north-south arterial. (The Montlake Bridge is now a City of Seattle Designated Landmark and is on both the National Register of Historic Places and the Washington Heritage Register.) Its present acknowledged inadequacy for a daily large volume of traffic and its frequent openings for recreational boat traffic had, by the end of the 20th century, tarnished its reputation, though not its beauty.
The 1920s also marked the establishment of the Seattle Yacht Club in its present location near West Montlake Park on Portage Bay and the beginnings of a business district, essentially a one-block area between E. Lynn and E. McGraw on 24th Avenue E. John Boyer had envisioned businesses on Boyer Avenue, west of 24th, and indeed for a time businesses were there, now supplanted by homes and a mini-park. The main business section included grocery and hardware stores, a cafe, barber and beauty shops, a book-rental store, a dye works, and the Montlake Theater, in its latter years showing foreign films that attracted university students. (Another business area is next to S.R. 520, providing groceries, gasoline, and car repair; before 520 construction, the area also included an apartment building, a pancake house, and a real estate office.) Throughout the century, the buildings have changed but little, though their occupants came and went frequently; a constant favorite has been Seattle Public Librarys Montlake Station, currently housed in what used to be Royal Drug, where ice cream sodas once rivaled prescriptions in popularity.
In the same year the Montlake Bridge opened for traffic, Montlake School appeared in a new manifestation–a two-story brick building designed for eight grades that replaced wooden portables (called Portage School) at the same site on 22nd Avenue E. The Seattle School Board decided on this school upgrade largely in response to a parent group that helped to establish the Montlake communitys reputation for political savvy and insistency.
Following the school opening came the siting of the Montlake Laboratory of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (its initial name) on land claimed by the federal government as canal reserve–the site of the old log canal. A handsome building was dedicated in 1931 and has subsequently been home to significant fisheries research.
Other major enterprises that have graced Montlake during most of the latter half of the twentieth century are the Museum of History and Industry, St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church (in a building designed by architect Paul Thiry), and Boyer Childrens Clinic (formerly Dr. Wyckoff Spastic Pre-School and Clinic), in a striking building designed by Ibsen Nelson and the Fred Bassetti group.
Montlakes political clout had its origins in the Interlaken Improvement Club, a name that echoed names of many other community organizations in Seattle at the time. It evolved into the Montlake Community Club, which has for more than fifty years been doing battle with local, state, and university officials–and even the Seattle Seahawks football team–with the aim of preserving Montlakes best qualities. Perhaps the greatest loss in those battles was the construction in the 1960s of an enlarged S.R. 520 cut through Montlake where the log canal used to be. That four-lane behemoth–plus the Portage Bay ramp, the massive ramps in the Foster Island-Arboretum area, and the floating bridge–allows thousands of cars and trucks to rush through Montlake, generating noise, air pollution, and street congestion. Many Montlake residents have rued the day they lost that battle, but the Montlake Community Club–renewed often by fresh residents, who quickly appreciate Montlakes many charms–maintains its strong political presence, as Montlake itself exerts its powerful appeal on young, highly educated, and well-to-do professionals, who join with older, mostly less affluent residents, to make the community a multi-ethnic treasure.