Dexter neighborhood shows vast change

Dexter and Mercer in 1962This fall, PEMCO Insurance's headquarters leaves the only home it’s ever had since 1949.

Our new Seattle location at 1300 Dexter Avenue North lies less than 1 mile northwest of our current office. That’s still within the South Lake Union community, but it’s a new neighborhood to us. Archival photos contrast its “then and now” nature.

When Seattle’s first white settlers arrived in 1851, the Duwamish tribe had long been established at the south end of what they called “little lake.” Young pioneer David Denny claimed South Lake Union (SLU) land in 1853, and in 1884 he bought the city’s largest sawmill near present-day Westlake Avenue and Mercer Street. From 1925 until its 1988 demise the mill operated as Brace Lumber Company, which extended north of Valley Street (atop Denny regrade landfill) onto today’s SLU Park.

mudslide between Galer and Lee, 1933 Galer and Lee, current

In 1890, Seattle Electric Railway began running streetcars between downtown and SLU along today’s Westlake Avenue, the abandoned route of Seattle’s first railroad – the narrow-gauge Seattle Coal & Transportation Company. The tracks later expanded northward alongside Lake Union all the way to Fremont via the wooden Westlake Trestle, but by 1940 electric streetcars had all but faded into oblivion in Seattle.

Lake Union bustled with activity after the Montlake Cut was breached in 1916 and the Ballard locks opened a year later. Timber that surrounded Lake Washington was floated to Lake Union and exported to San Francisco, as well as coal mined in the Newcastle and Black Diamond areas.

Dexter looking north from Aloha, 1944Dexter looking north from Aloha, current

The Aurora Speedway and George Washington Memorial Bridge, now called Aurora Avenue and Aurora Bridge, opened in 1932 and fed SLU with commuters from homes to the north. The Dexter neighborhood became increasingly industrial with businesses like the Seattle Asbestos factory, Washington Refining Company, and National Sign Company taking root. The latter produced iconic Seattle neon like the Dick’s Drive-In, Doghouse, and Guild 45th signs.

Homes dotted the area, too. The Dexter Avenue Apartments, built in 1927, still stand today despite steep terrain that plagued nearby residents for decades. Note the 1933 photo (above) of a mudslide between Lee and Galer streets, shot from Aurora Avenue looking directly toward PEMCO’s home-to-be at 1300 Dexter.

gas station at Dexter and Broad, 1956 Dexter and Broad, now

In 1931, Kurtzer Flying Service opened at 950 Westlake, where floatplanes ferried people to and fro. Lake Union Air bought the property upon Lana Kurtzer’s death in 1988. Kenmore Air, the world’s largest seaplane airline, took over the business and property in 1993.

Four blocks south of PEMCO’s new home, on Aurora Avenue between Aloha and Valley streets, a popular drive-in restaurant thrived for four decades. Dag’s Beefy Boy Burgers opened in 1955, selling 19¢ hamburgers, fries, chocolate malts and other fast-food fare that Seattleites savored until Dag’s closed in 1993.

Before the Harborside restaurant became a seafood staple at 1200 Westlake, another seafood eatery a few blocks north drew patrons by car and by boat. John Franco’s Hidden Harbor opened for business at 1500 Westlake in 1946 and served Seattle until 1985.

Dag's on Aurora between Aloha and Valley, 1950s Aurora between Aloha and Valley, current

More recently, Mediterranean cuisine lovers flocked to the Adriatica restaurant at 1107 Dexter for great food, wine, and sweeping views of Lake Union. It opened in 1980, perched on the hillside in an elegant old house. Adriatica’s business suffered after a new 1100 Dexter office building sprang up, blocking the view, and Adriatica closed for good in August 2001.

Remember when Pictionary was a new, top-selling board game? Created in Seattle in 1985 by Robert Angel, its offices were located in the AGC building at 1200 Westlake.

The building PEMCO soon will occupy was built in 1982. It displaced no prior business or homes – the lot had been undeveloped hillside, largely a ravine.

Aurora, looking south, taken across the street from Dag's, 1961 Aurora between Aloha and Valley looking south, current

"Then and now" photos, top to bottom:

  • Dexter and Mercer in 1962; note signs for World's Fair.
  • Mudslide between Galer and Lee, 1933.
  • Dexter Avenue looking north from Aloha, 1944.
  • Gas station at Dexter and Broad, 1956.
  • Dag's on Aurora between Aloha and Valley, 1950s.
  • Aurora, looking south, taken across the street from Dag's, 1961.

Old photos courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives 

by  Jon Osterberg

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