Document 8: Building Seattle

George H. Emerson, The Building of a Modern City (Seattle: Metropolitan Building Company, 1907) [from an address given to the stockholders on 14 October 1907]. Pacific Northwest Collections, University of Washington Libraries University of Washington Libraries.

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To build, to tear down and rebuild, to burn and build again, to grade and regrade, is the order of the building. The relaying of pipes and sewers, the leveling of hills, the widening of streets, the change of pavement from one failure to another, are but a few of the enormous expenses resulting from mistakes and unexpected requirements.

Could the original founders of Seattle have foreseen its future, as we now see its past, they could not have secured the means to properly grade and pave its streets, fill in its tide flats and build of steel, stone and brick. All the costly changes and conflagrations were steps that must be taken along the only path leading to Seattle’s commercial heights.

It is seldom given to any body of city builders to act as a unit in the building of the very center of a large city; seldom that a tract of many acres can be found, unimproved, with the retail district of a city of two hundred thousand people bounding it on two sides, and a better portion of the resident district abutting upon the other two sides; a tract comparatively level with paved and finished streets to the East, West, North and South; streets where the grading and regrading and widening have been done or soon will be; where the paving and repaving passed experimental stages; where sewers and pipes have reached permanent position and all things are ready for that extension ant for permanent buildings for which tenants wait.

Seattle is a city whose past is a sure prophet of its future and whose growth depends upon no one root but draws its sustenance from the forests and mines, the wheat fields and orchards, from the fisheries and the sea, from Alaska and South America, the Islands, Japan and China; a city facing the grandest harbor on earth, leading out to the largest ocean on earth, with earth’s greatest number of inhabitants living along the shores of that ocean; a city to which all railroads build, toward which all travel tends, where coal, iron, transportation by land and sea, and unlimited manufacturing sites can, in the future, be located on fresh water; a city into whose lap flows the wealth of Alaska, the Orient and the eastern capitalist; a city upon such sure foundation that on one person doubts its great future.

In the very heart of such a city, we are called upon to grade and pave our streets and build acres of commercial blocks – to build a city within a city. No grander task has fallen to any body of men, no grander chance to accomplish great results with few mistakes. Symmetry, beauty, adaptability and economy in construction should be easy to attain under these conditions and the city that we build should be a marvel among the cities of the world.

Thirty years ago Seattle was a country village of white houses among the apple orchards. I remember it well: a sawmill on the water front near Yesler Way, and ‘The Seattle,’ two and one-half stories, and painted white with green blinds, the only hotel. Twenty years ago Seattle had attained to a population of thirty thousand or thereabouts and a little alter lay a smoking ruin, its businesses all but wiped out. Ten years ago today she boasted not far from seventy thousand; today two hundred thousand. What ten years hence when two transcontinental roads shall be complete, Lake Washington a part of Seattle Harbor, and the Canal of Panama affording cheaper and abundant transportation? The rate of growth of the past ten years calls for a 1917 population of half a million. Ten years from now we are safe to predict there will be no unoccupied building spot on the grounds of the Metropolitan Building Company, and its tenants will number thousands.”

How little we think of the thousands of years of building and improving that have led up to a modern city block! How little of the part of the building work already done! Mines that have been opened, plants for making and shaping of steel, stone, bricks, cement, lumber and means of transportation; all of which are but parts of the full process of building. How little of the hundreds of thousands of workmen and millions of invested capital we employ when we order the parts of our Modern City.

We say but the word BUILD, a word thrown into space as by the wireless telegraph, to be heard in all directions and repeated by all stations until it passes through architects, contractors, factories, mines, woods and to those who drill, pick, and shovel, axe and saw, gather from Mother Earth the crude material. Armies of men do the bidding of that single word as it radiates and subdivides and repeats to all parts of the world. How seldom it occurs to us that two-thirds of the Modern Building is done before we begin to build, as the word ‘build’ is commonly used. We but assemble the finished parts by finished methods of transportation and place them by men already skilled. The myths of the past are almost truths today. Jules Verne’s ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ casts the shadow of a truth. Tennyson’s ‘Airy Navies Grappling in the Central Blue’ may materialize. Bellamy’s ‘Looking Backward’ is no longer all a pipe dream. Substitute abundant resources for the genii of the lamp and today has its Alladins. We summon the lightning and from all ports of the world come the parts of a modern city. The starting of a world’s exposition by the pressing of a button is no more than the starting of mines, engines, factories and steamers by the click of the telegraph.

When the genii of today calls together the parts of a modern city all countries and people respond. Scarce has the finger left the key when there moves toward the city’s site long trains of cars winding their way over the plains and rivers, among the hills and under the mountains, the breadth of a continent, down to our shores. Steamers, throbbing with life, push through seas and winds, thousands of miles, bearing their burden to our docks. Crews of men assemble to prepare, receive and arrange, and, as by the call of the genii, a city arises. THUS WE MAY BUILD!

Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest