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Courthouse history

Courthouse history

King County's rapidly increasing population since its founding in 1852, has required the construction of four new and larger government buildings. Three of the four served as courthouses. This display outlines the different courthouse buildings throughout King County's history and the people key to their founding.

In December of 1852, King County's boundaries were defined. On Jan. 6, 1853, primarily through the efforts of Seattle pioneer Dr. Maynard, the county seat was located on the Maynard, Boren and Denny Land Claim in the Village of Seattle by the Oregon Legislature.

In 1852, Henry Yesler arrived in Seattle and began to play an important role in local business and local government. Yesler purchased what turned out to be the most valuable part of Dr. Maynard's land claim -- the area that is now known as Pioneer Square. On it he opened Yesler's Mill and became one of the county's largest employers and landowners. A year later, he was King County's first clerk; in 1869, Seattle's first mayor. He served as a county commissioner from 1875 to 1876. He was instrumental in providing meeting places for county business, and later, sites for two of the three King County courthouses.

Through the 1850's, when no official King County government building existed, all government business was transacted in private homes or businesses. By the mid 1850's, Henry Yesler's cook house was the primary meeting place for most events in the Puget Sound area. It served as district court, town hall, jail, a county auditor and judge's office, military headquarters, storehouse, hotel, and church. In 1865, Yesler tore this structure down to make way for a larger building.

As a primary property owner in town, Yesler was able to provide the county with property in 1860 to build its first official building. The property, located on Prefontaine Place, provided offices for the sheriff and the auditor. The stone and brick structure cost only $444.30 to build, as it was completed with partial volunteer labor and because the county did not purchase the site for the building. The land itself was owned by Henry Yesler and King County was unable to obtain the deed to this property. There was considerable controversy over the land deal, because Yesler was a government employee and a conflict of interest arose over the fact that Yesler wanted rent payments for the use of the land, yet no rent was ever paid. Yesler threatened legal action, and it appears he was able to repossess the building some years later when county offices moved to a larger facility. This seems to be true because the title was still in Yesler's name when the building burned in the Seattle fire.

The sheriff and the auditor may have had rent free facilities, but all other county functions were still dependent on rental space. For instance, the district court's lack of adequate facilities illustrates a predicament that county offices were in. From the 1850's through the 1880's the County Territorial District Court occupied a series of inadequate buildings. In the 1850's the district court met in Yesler's cook house. It outgrew the cook house and moved to the Snoqualmie Hall at First and Main from 1859 until the Hall's destruction in 1866. The district court then moved to Yesler's Hall, which it occupied until the completion of the larger Yesler's Pavilion, where it stayed until 1876.

When Territorial District Court Chief Justice Lewis threatened to find meeting space in Kitsap County if suitable quarters were not found, the county finally made an effort to purchase land and build its own facility. The county had no legal authority to build a courthouse because it was merely a territorial government, but the commissioners managed to get around this technicality by naming its first building "The County Building" rather than "The County Courthouse."

In 1876, King County purchased a lot from Henry Yesler for the price of $3,500. On this site was to stand the first King County building on county owned property. The two-story wood, stone and brick structure occupied the corner of Third and Jefferson (the present site of City Hall Park) and cost $17,000 to build. It housed the jail in the basement and the auditor and the clerk on the upper floors. In 1881, the County's first courtroom was added to the property. It provided one courtroom and offices for court officials. This was to be the first of many unsightly additions to the original structure over the course of thirty years.

By 1890, King County's population was estimated at 42,837. As population grew, so, too did the number of people required to run its government. With the County's expanding needs it became apparent that its present building was inadequate.

With its new statehood in 1889, King County was finally legally able to build a courthouse. The county chose a site to construct the new courthouse on First Hill at 7th and Alder, a site which was intended to convey the county's new prestige and power.

First Hill was Seattle's first "good neighborhood." It was filled with stately mansions with commanding views over the city. Most of its inhabitants were people who had made their fortunes on the sale of real estate to the railroad. The terminus of the railroad was an important award to King County, which it had been in competition for with several other counties in the Puget Sound region. The railroad meant a great boon for King County: increased population, employment, and wealth. The First Hill location of the courthouse showed the success of King County beside the success of its citizenry in a commanding position above the downtown area. Combining this significant event with Washington's new statehood, King County government found itself in a prominent position. What better way to convey this importance than in a new courthouse in a conspicuous location.

Architect W.A. Ritchie was selected to design and build the County's new courthouse. He set out to create a beautiful, solid and fireproof building that would convey the respectability, durability and power with which the county wished to be associated. The materials used in construction were chuckanut, sandstone, brick, iron and cement. With the rise in fireproof construction, the use of these materials was common to turn-of-the-century buildings. However, in the Northwest, this building achieved a special status through this type of construction because the new courthouse was the first fireproof building in Washington State. The building was completed in 1890 at the cost of $200,000. At the time of completion the local press lauded it as one of the finest new buildings on the Pacific Coast. The new courthouse was neo-classical Victorian in design. This was the first time all county offices were centralized under one roof. At that time it was considered to be substantial space for county functions for at least fifty years.

In 1890 when King County moved into its new courthouse, the old county building was sold to the City of Seattle and renamed City Hall. Between 1891 and 1901, the city had made a number of additions to City Hall and the building earned the name Katzenjammer Castle for its ramshackle appearance. In 1909, just in time for the influx of tourists for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific exhibition, the city had the Katzenjammer Castle demolished and moved into a new modern-looking city hall at Fourth and Yesler, now known as the Yesler Building.

By 1900 the population in the Seattle area had increased to 80,871. This substantial increase can partially be attributed to the Alaskan Gold Rush in 1897 and partly to the railroad terminus in Seattle which made Seattle more accessible and more appealing for relocation. In 1903, the Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution that a new county facility was necessary. Once again King County found its courthouse too small for the growing needs of the community, and the location was inconvenient for those who had to scale "Profanity Hill" from downtown where their offices were located. Since accessibility to the courthouse had become such a major issue over the years, the county set its sights on land in the downtown area again. Symbolism and prestige had lost out to practicality.

The Yesler Estate, on Third Avenue between James and Yesler, was purchased from the city for $235,000 in 1906 as a future site for the courthouse. This site became available after the Yesler Mansion burned to the ground on New Year's night in 1901. When Yesler died in 1892, the city obtained and had used the mansion on the property for a public library which was completely destroyed in this fire.

The county leased its newly acquired real estate to private investors to raise some of the funds while a plan was formulated to raise tax revenue for the new courthouse. In 1906, a five-year lease was drawn up so that a temporary structure (a skating rink called the Coliseum) could be erected. Later, the site was converted into the Orpheum Theater, another temporary structure.

At the turn of the century, King County's citizens and the press were highly critical of the county for wasting public funds in the investment of this property. There was no evidence of constructive use coming of it, as there had been no mention of fund raising efforts in place to pay for the construction of a new building. (Ironically, the property value of the site when construction was finally begun was up to $1,000,000 and the voters agreed that the county had made a smart investment after all.)

Evidence of revenue raising was not seen until five years after the purchase of the property. On September 5, 1911, a special election was held for the voters of King County to approve $1,500,000 in bonds for the construction of a new courthouse. This proposal failed. Speculation as to why the proposal failed rests on two possibilities: (1) the high proposed cost, and (2) the fact that no plans for a new building had ever been submitted.

After the election, the Civic Center League, headed by city engineer Virgil Bogue, made its issues known to the Board of Commissioners. They wanted to see Seattle take on a "city beautiful" plan -- a city planning concept popularized in the United States by the Olmsteads, the brothers responsible for Seattle's Arboretum and New York's Central Park. This type of city plan involves a system of green spaces and parks throughout an urban area with certain styles of architecture for public buildings interspersed to give a uniform, well planned, yet aesthetic and humanized appearance to city streets. The Civic Center League began a campaign of "education" of the citizens of King County on the benefits of aesthetic and moral elevation from a civic center.

Opponents of this plan feared that it would move the downtown core up to the Denny Regrade area and destroy property value in the southern end of the district. Many of the civic center's potential supporters, the wealthy property owners and businessmen, were swayed by this argument.

The following proposals went before the voters: (1) the Civic Center League's proposal -- a grouping of all public buildings in the Denny Regrade area costing $450,000 for the site and $950,000 for construction; and (2) the county's proposal -- to use the Yesler estate site with the property already owned by the county; the only cost would be construction -- $950,000. This time the county also advertised a building design so that the voters could see what they were getting for their money. After a controversial and hotly debated campaign, the voters approved the county commissioner's plan and the Civic Center League was soundly defeated.

The county appointed MIT-trained architect A. Warren Gould to design and build its new building. Gould came to the project with good credentials. He had worked at his family's architecture firm in Boston before moving to Seattle in 1904. In Seattle he designed the YMCA, New Richmond Hotel, the Arctic Building and Seattle Electric Company Building.

The county commissioners requested a plan for a building that could meet the anticipated growth of the county and possible relocation of offices in the future. Should the county decide that the facility no longer met its needs, the possibility of selling the building for commercial use was desirable. The architect's challenge then, was to provide a plan for a civic/commercial building as well as an elastic structure.

Gould originally proposed a twenty-three-story tower on a thirteen-story H-plan base. The county commissioners agreed to a three-story building with the option to add additional stories as necessary. The city government, however, proposed to share the cost of the building with the county in exchange for a 20-year lease. The $600,000 in funds provided by the city allowed the architect to add an additional two stories to the building with the expectation that the county would inherit this additional space in time.

In 1914, the new courthouse construction was under way. Together with contractors Puget Sound Bridge & Dredging, architect A. Warren Gould constructed a five-story steel frame and reinforced concrete structure which was dedicated May 4, 1916, for a total cost of $1,271,645.83.

The first five stories of the courthouse are a typical example of civic building design in early 20th century America. The style is beaux arts, which was the conservatively acceptable style for any civic building of the period.

The builders proudly employed the use of locally obtained and manufactured materials. For example, the second floor terra cotta architrave was made from materials from the Renton Clay and Coal Company; the granite used on the exterior came from a Snohomish County quarry; the bronze light fixtures, window frames and balustrades were made in Seattle; and the Alaskan marble was cut by a company in Tacoma.

The interior of the building was elegant and modern. The main entrance facing Jefferson Street had a grand staircase of green and white marble leading up to the second floor. The ceiling was vaulted with acorn-shaped pendant lights hanging from each vault. The county boasted four Otis elevators that could travel 450 feet per minute. The interior walls and floors contained two and one half acres of Alaska marble.

City Hall Park, the location of the original county building, was re-landscaped and incorporated as part of the main entrance. This lent a "city beautiful" concept to the design (which, perhaps, is exactly what the Civic Center League had in mind). This green space certainly added to the grandeur of the Jefferson Street entry.

The original tenants of the new building in 1916 included the county assessor, the port commissioner, the county treasurer, the county recorder, the county clerk, the sheriff, and the superior court. City and county offices were on the first two floors for easy public access. The second and third floors housed the courtrooms and the county commissioners while the mayor had a suite on the Third Avenue level overlooking City Hall Park.

In May of 1927, the Seattle Fire Marshall condemned the old county courthouse -- which at that time was functioning as the county jail. The county needed to act quickly in order to find a new place to house its prisoners. However, it wasn't until a year later -- after the prosecuting attorney declared an emergency at the jail because conditions were so dangerous -- that the county took measures to remedy the situation. The American Institute of Architects was called in to help decide the most cost-effective location for a new jail. The AIA's recommendation was to construct a new jail on the upper level of the new courthouse and add new office and courtroom space in the process. Another year later, a bond issue to raise money for the construction was proposed and passed. Henry Bittman was named architect for this new project.

Henry Bittman graduated from the Pratt Institute and furthered his training in Chicago with the Armour Institute of Technology. He moved to Seattle in 1905 and became partners with William Kingsby in 1907. By 1908 he had his own firm as a structural engineer and architect. Some Bittman-designed buildings in Seattle were the Music Box Theater and the Eagles Auditorium.

In 1929, Henry Bittman and his associate, J.L. McCauley, began the second phase of construction with the addition of six stories to be completed by 1931. This construction required changes to the original architecture to accommodate the new addition. Many of the changes made to the original architecture were cost-related. For example, with the addition of more floors and offices, more elevators were needed. It would have been too costly to redesign the original lobby to include more elevators, so the original grand staircase was removed and replaced with four elevators linking Third and Fourth Avenues, for a total of eight elevators. The decorative bronze window frames on the upper stories were removed and replaced with wood to match the frames on the new addition. The original terra cotta architrave around the third story was removed and replaced with gray brick. This cost-effective gray brick was used throughout the upper stories and was chosen for its proximity in color and texture to the gray granite.

A three-story "attic" was added to provide a location for the King County Jail. Facilities at the jail included a bakery and an infirmary. The jail stories included twenty decorative arched window openings to imply a finished cap to the structure and signify to the public that this would be the final phase of the courthouse additions. The roof cap was decorated with a copper cornice embellished with eagles and medallions. In the interior, the upper floors were decorated with the same marble as the lower floors. Two of the new floors were exclusively for courtrooms. This brought the total up to sixteen courtrooms in the building.

In 1967, a large remodeling project was undertaken by the architectural firm of Paul Delaney and Associates. The goals of this project were to "modernize" the structure. With modern skyscrapers rising throughout downtown Seattle the courthouse seemed outmoded, old-fashioned, shabby. The solution to this perceived problem was a modernizing facelift. As a result, the 1960's modern aesthetic was imposed on the courthouse. Yet at the same time, many greatly needed modernizing mechanical upgrades were implemented. Because they were outmoded, the heating, electrical, plumbing, and ventilation systems all needed upgrades.

The Jefferson Street entrance was to be used as a loading dock instead of the main entry. When the entrance was demolished, it was necessary to redesignate the Third Avenue entrance as the main entrance to the courthouse. This reduced the significance of the City Hall Park, which now fell into disuse. Inside the Jefferson Entrance the marble wainscoting was removed and the vaulted ceilings were demolished. The Third Avenue lobby's marble floor was covered with terrazzo and the marble wainscoting removed and replaced with pre-cast concrete panels to create a lighter, more modern looking interior lobby.

On the rest of the floors, the plaster ceilings were hidden beneath new ceilings of acoustical tile which, in turn, necessitated the removal of the hanging lights in the elevator lobbies. The lights were replaced with energy-saving fluorescent fixtures to reduce the county's building and maintenance costs. The modernization project also included the installation of an air ventilation and heating system. There had been no air cooling or circulation system in existence prior to the remodel.

An aluminum curtain wall was added to the east and west street facades as a cost-effective way of giving a modern look to the building and accommodating superior court judges' wishes to reduce noise and eliminate excess light (the sunlight streaming into their courtrooms caused severe climate control problems in the courts). Architecturally, it interrupted the light and dark rhythms in the design of the exterior and covered a large quantity of window space in the upper courtrooms and offices.

Finally, this new remodel added more courtrooms, made available more office space and expanded jury facilities.

In 1976, the Pioneer Square National Historic District was extended to include the courthouse. In 1987, the King County Courthouse was registered as a King County landmark. This not only placed importance on the structure as a historical marker, but it also encouraged restoration of the building. As a historic landmark, courthouse restoration had to comply with the requirements of the Landmark Commission, which includes restoring many public domains in the building (as well as courtrooms) to their 1923 appearance.

As funds are made available, many of the areas in the courthouse are being restored. For example, the elevator lobbies on many of the upper floors have been redecorated to resemble their original state: the decorative plaster ceilings have been uncovered and restored and new pendant lights resembling the originals have been installed. Other plans in the works are the restoration of the Third Avenue lobby and the Third and Fourth Avenue entrances. There has also been a study done on removal of the aluminum curtain wall. One line of panels has been removed at the northwest corner of the building and it is possible to see the original beauty of the building beneath.

Some areas have been virtually untouched through the remodeling and modernization processes -- for example the original sixteen courtrooms from 1923. These courtrooms still retain the wood and architectural detailing on the judges benches, witness stands and jury boxes. The preservation of these courtrooms has been stipulated by the historic register.

The courthouse's City Hall Park also was recognized as being integral in the historic preservation of this district. In 1993 City Hall Park was restored to the citizens of King County as a beautiful, usable open space.

This information was compiled by the Administrative Services Section, Public Information Branch of the Department of Construction and Facility Management.

A special thank you to the King County Historic Preservation, Public Safety Photo Lab and the Museum of History and Industry's Photo Librarians for their assistance in this project.

King County Courthouse today

King County Courthouse, 1900