1892 Pioneer Building in Seattle: how and when was it built?

This is one of the most famous buildings in Seattle, and rightfully so. The structure is pretty stunning. The history of its construction has a bit of a mystery to it. Of course, this mystery is not exactly on the surface for everyone to see. One would have to actually investigate, to see the abnormalities. Let's start with the narrative.

The Pioneer Building
The Pioneer Building is a Richardsonian Romanesque stone, red brick, terra cotta, and cast iron building located on the northeast corner of First Avenue and James Street, in Seattle's Pioneer Square District. Completed in 1892, the Pioneer Building was designed by architect Elmer Fisher, who designed several of the historic district's new buildings following the Great Seattle Fire of 1889.
I could not find a better contemporary image of the Pioneer Building. There will be older photographs down the article, and those, in my opinion, represent this structure much better.


The Pioneer Building is a 94-foot-tall (29 m) symmetrical block, measuring 115 by 111 ft (35 by 34 m). The exterior walls are constructed of Bellingham Bay gray sandstone at the basement and first floor, with red brick on the upper five floors (with the exception of two stone pilasters which extended to the full height of the tower over the main entrance). Spandrel panels and other ornamental elements are terra cotta from Gladding, McBean in California. There are three projecting bays of cast iron, the curved bays at the corner and on the James Street facade, and the angled bay above the main entrance.
  • The building reflects a mix of Victorian and Romanesque Revival influences. The facades, with vertical pilasters and horizontal belt courses creating a grid, reflect Victorian compositional strategies. Details such as the round arches over groups of windows and the arched main entrance and corner entrance are Romanesque Revival elements.
  • The exterior walls are load-bearing, as is the firewall that extends through the building from the street to the alley. The interior structure is cast iron columns and steel beams supporting timber joists. As was typical practice in the period, the office floors were designed and built with permanent partitions forming 185 office rooms -a tenant would simply rent one or more office rooms. Light is provided to the interior through two atria—one in the center of the south portion of the building, the other in the north portion of the building.
  • Constructed at a cost of $270,000, the Pioneer Building was considered one of Seattle's finest post-fire business blocks. It has always been highly visible, forming a portion of one side of Seattle's Pioneer Place Park.
  • The Pioneer Building originally had a seventh floor tower room (with a pyramidal roof) located directly above the front entrance making the building 110 ft (34 m). It was removed as a result of damage caused by the 1949 earthquake.
1888 Seattle PI Article

I think the photograph below represents our building much better than the one above.
c. 1890

Well, this is basically it, as far as available information goes. Everything we have is virtually useless, for it contains no real history. Here are some of the "history" covering links we have:
The Architect
As was stated above, the building was designed by Elmer Fisher. He was born either c. 1840 in Scotland, or c. 1851 in the US. The gentleman supposedly died in 1905. As far as I understand, there is only one photograph of Mr. Fisher, and you can see it below. SH Blog already has an article dedicated to this specific architect:

Please take a look at some of the projects attributed to this gentleman. Check out a different source emphasizing the issue we have with this guy.


Here is the last thing(s) we know about Elmer Fisher:
  • His official date of death as well as his final resting place is unknown.
  • He died in 1905, an architectural draftsman and carpenter.
Yesler-Leary Building
This building should have an article of its own. Yet, for the purposes of this article, we absolutely have to mention it, because up until 1889 it was the most prominent building in Seattle. This building will allow us to cover the area where the Pioneer Building will later stand.

c. 1887

Here is one additional view of this Yesler-Leary Building:
c. 1885

this is a turntable for the tram cars

SF turntable example

If we were to believe the Seattle Public Library we have the following narrative compliant data for the Yesler-Leary Building:
  • Built: 1883
  • Destroyed: 1889
    • The Yesler-Leary Building burned down in the Great Seattle Fire of 1889
Some Yesler-Leary Building links:
The Great Seattle Fire of 1889
The Great Seattle Fire was a fire that destroyed the entire central business district of Seattle, Washington on June 6, 1889. The conflagration lasted for less than a day, burning through the afternoon and into the night, and during the same summer as the Great Spokane Fire and the Great Ellensburg Fire. Seattle quickly rebuilt using brick buildings that sat 20 feet (6.1 m) above the original street level. Its population swelled during reconstruction, becoming the largest city in the newly admitted state of Washington.
Yesler-Leary Building in 1889







I was struggling to find a better post-fire view North from the Pioneer Square on the 1st Avenue. That's because it used to have a different name in 1889. Apparently it was called Front Street. Anyways, here is the direction we need.
north on 1st ave.jpg

Below we have a photograph covering the direction indicated by the above arrows. I believe the photograph was taken slightly south of 1st Ave and Marion street intersection.

Essentially, the entire area got annihilated. The below map of the 1889 Great Seattle Fire could have a better resolution, but you get an idea.
  • #3: Yesler-Leary Building
  • #4: Occidental Hotel
  • Full Map

As the story goes, Seattle quickly rebuilt using brick buildings that sat 20 feet above the original street level. Help yourself.
Construction of the Pioneer Building
From the official narrative we know that the Great Seattle Fire happened on 06/06/1889. From the same narrative we get statements similar to the below ones:
  • By the time the fire swept through the city, the foundation for the new Pioneer Building had already been excavated.
  • The ensuing construction boom slowed the completion of the Pioneer Building.
  • When it was completed in 1892, the beautiful building of red brick and terra cotta was arguably the finest "fireproof" Richardsonian-Romanesque designs created by architect Elmer H. Fisher.
  • Source
Construction Photographs
I was real surprised to find photographs resembling the construction. Well, may be they do demonstrate construction processes utilized in 1890's, I do not know for sure.
  • Photographs are zoomable at their source.
  • In the below photographs, we are looking North on 1st Ave aka Front street, and the photographer was more or less on top of the Pioneer Square. Naturally, we are seeing 1st Avenue North from the Pioneer Square.
  • The Pioneer Building is being built in the right.
The images are dated with c. 1890. Remember what the area looked like some time on, or after 06/06/1889.

#1: 1st Ave., looking north from Pioneer Square, ca. 1890.
  • Shows Merchants National Bank and the Starr-Boyd Building to the left, Pioneer Building under construction on the right.
c. 1890
1st Ave., looking north from Pioneer Square, ca. 1890- 1.jpg

#2: 1st Ave., looking north from Pioneer Square, ca. 1890
  • Handwritten on verso: Pioneer Square under construction.
1st Ave., looking north from Pioneer Square, ca. 1890- 2.jpg

Several Zoom-ins





In reference to the above c. 1890 photographs:
  1. There appears to be no issues photographing in motion in 1890.
  2. This entire area was annihilated on 06/06/1889.
    • Surrounding structures do not look brand new to me.
  3. The Pioneer Building being built on the right. Is this what a superfast construction process should look like?
I know that I have repeated this many times already. Per the narrative, this entire area was destroyed by an alleged urban fire on 06/06/1889.


#1: Under what circumstances could we have the below:


#2: How was this 1890 magazine possible?


KD: I think there is something seriously wrong with this entire story line. Prior to 1889, cities in this area chose not to burn. Then year 1889 decided to visit the Washington Territory:
The Pioneer Building:
  • When do you think it was built?
  • Was the above presented construction real, or staged?
Photographs to examine:
Please share your opinion on the above.
I've read through that same article and this one on the same site Henry Yesler they are confections of some sort are they not. Mills on the verge of bankruptcy throughout their existence but fortuitously one was in just the right location for Henry to build the Pioneer Building on. Crap products from the first two yet they were shipped as far as Hawaii. He built a cookhouse for seven or eight 'settlers' and they had the original claims to all the land that was subsequently claimed by Yesler.
Doesn't say how such claims were upheld or who or even what or where they were lodged when made. Can it really be that all they did was chat amongst themselves and lay claim to this and that bit of land?
Seems far fetched but I cannot see what else they could do.
Low settler populations but larger native populations who just loved to work in the mills for reasons that are not discussed or even mentioned.
All very weird but at least Henry's claim was lodged and proved in Oregon so maybe that can be retrieved or is available online.

The whole background though is not pointing to even a hint of an earlier brick built building anywhere near what is now Seattle.
I've read through that same article and this one on the same site Henry Yesler they are confections of some sort are they not.
The article also doesn't reconcile the disparity between Yesler being so in debt that he tried to liquidate all his assets in the 1870s, eventually suffering a massive loss of property in 1889, but by the time he dies in 1892, he has a million dollars for people to contest.
The article also doesn't reconcile the disparity between Yesler being so in debt that he tried to liquidate all his assets in the 1870s, eventually suffering a massive loss of property in 1889, but by the time he dies in 1892, he has a million dollars for people to contest.
The claim it all comes from land sales and property rentals is dubious to me. It also has the ring of a 'fortuitous fire' in regards to the way these land values increased, at least on paper, after the fire. As is common with the fire tales of the era across the United States at this time it's always 'the business district' that is burnt and its more often than not adjacent to the water frontage of the town. Universally it seems these burnt areas remain in business use after their resurrection with 'fireproof' building materials. There is much about this repeating process that remains a mystery or is hiding in plain site.

Like the fire setting for example. The waterfront makes the perfect entry and exit point for the firestarter(s) as ships would be coming and going all the time and a ship, small boat or such would not be noticed slipping away when the fire started. Also the limited spread that would surely be something that would have to be sorted in advance.
So the land the building sits in was claimed by Henry L Yesler in the mid 1800's
Keep finding other wrinkles here. Yesler did not claim the land, he apparently traded (or something) for it:
David S. "Doc" Maynard was a colorful and influential figure in King County's early history. Historian Bill Speidel anointed him "The Man Who Invented Seattle." On the advice of Chief Seattle, Maynard settled in the tiny village of Duwamps (Seattle’s original name) in the spring of 1852 and served as its first physician, merchant, Indian agent, and justice of the peace.

The pioneers renamed the town to honor Chief Seattle at Maynard's urging, but Maynard often clashed with more conservative (and sober) settlers such as Arthur Denny. Maynard lost confidence in the village after the Indian Wars of 1856 and traded his claim to much of present-day Pioneer Square for farm acreage in West Seattle....

...Doc Maynard hired Indians to help him build a cabin on the "Sag," or lowlands (present-day Pioneer Square, near present day Yesler Way). Maynard built his cabin on what is now the northwest corner of First Avenue South and Main Street, near the water....

...When Henry L. Yesler stepped ashore at Seattle to assay the potential of a steam sawmill, Doc Maynard extended his hand to the bearded visitor and began his real estate sales pitch. Carson Boren and Maynard shifted the corner of their claim stakes to accommodate an area in the "Sag" for Yesler's steam mill, the first on Puget Sound.
It also has the ring of a 'fortuitous fire' in regards to the way these land values increased, at least on paper, after the fire.
Agree 100%.
Also the limited spread that would surely be something that would have to be sorted in advance.
Like to carefully avoid Mr. Yesler's mansion...
It's not like I have much trust in these "Bird's Eye Views", for noone knows when they were really produced, but for what it's worth.

  • 1889 Birds Eye View of Seattle (1946 reprint) - good resolution can be had via the download button there.
    • RED: The lot of the future Pioneer Building
      • Could be our buried structure.
    • BLUE: Yesler-Leary Building

This is allegedly a reprint. I do not know whether this reprint was modified in any shape or form, but the above map has a depiction of our Pioneer Building. The building is drawn just below the actual map.


In the left top corner you can see an electric car in 1889. That appears to match the narrative.
Occidental and Yesler


Transportation. James Street line. First car.
Twelfth Avenue and James Street.


Here's another 1889 survivor building (from the same architect William E. Boone, descendant of Daniel, as Yesler's mansion and the Yesler-Leary building). This one seems to be even luckier when we see where it's located.
Chapin purchased for his Boston backers the northeast and southeast corners of Columbia Street and Second Avenue. On the latter he raised the four-story brick Boston Block and on the former what is seen here: the Colonial Building, aka the Chapin Block.

For Chapin the city’s Great Fire of June 6, 1889, was a good thing. The heat popped the windows of both buildings, but the flames did not cross Second Avenue, making the New Englander’s properties landmarks in Seattle’s rebuilding.


Google says its Columbia Bank now:
The building gets less ornate by the year... even from 2011 to the current 2021 streetview

Which places it here on our burn map (red dot):


So, not sure why the article mentioned the fire not crossing 2nd avenue. That's irrelevant for where this building is located.
Bloody hell there is lots of good stuff in that 1884 image. Number one is that is one hell of a tree clearance project for a tiny 'unprofitable' sawmill and its not so big successor to have undertaken. My god I am in awe of Henry and his crews endeavour.

Now to the screenshots.
These are Russian ships. As far as I know only the Russians berth their ships stern first. Behind them are stacks of board lumber either waiting to be loaded onto the ships or having been unloaded from the ships.

2021-03-03 21.33.48 tile.loc.gov 99e5dc4cdf83.jpg

Here is a 'dock' in the process of being filled in I would say not dug out. Seems they put in wooden jetties on piles and then backfilled using the jetties as convenient 'fences' to hold the fill while it is consolidated. Here it is easy to understand what 'regrading' meant. Land reclamation it would be called today. I wonder how claims for land that was previously water were made and where then were proved at?
I wonder also what is the status of buildings built over water as opposed to buildings built upon the land. I assume they would be different and one subject to a taxation that doesn't apply to the other but don't know. One for the American contingent to solve.

2021-03-03 21.35.10 tile.loc.gov c79f4d8d0042.jpg

This one is really interesting. There is a boat on the stocks clearly visible mid ground seemingly way above the water line yet all around it are wooden piles suggesting that on high tie the boat could be floated out. The building to the right clearly on piles now has what appears to be a street in front of it. Once the land it is stood on is raised up by back filling it is then sitting on flat land and the area has been regraded, voila!
But what is the thing in the street immediately to the right of the building. I have enhanced it as best I can and it appears to be something on a set of tracks that seem to come from and go nowhere!

2021-03-03 21.39.06 tile.loc.gov 0eb705f91707.jpg

This last grab shows the method I described above of jetty at the lower water line, backfilled to create dry land and then upwards and outwards Seattle expands.

2021-03-03 21.41.22 tile.loc.gov dbe58d98b565.jpg

If I may be permitted a little speculation here I am wondering IF and its a big IF as you will have noticed, if the area under the Pioneer building actually began as land once reached by the tide and the stories of it being built upon another building came about as the original was built on piles like the ones shown above. Also this increase in land by backfilling within jetties would create a lot of land that was never actually claimed by anyone, perhaps they couldn't as the land was 'new' not preexisting so the fire was used as a cover for some reason such as a land grab by a legal process yet unknown. Or finally I hear you say a storm or earthquake, or even a tidal wave took out the original structures and the land they were stood before Henry and Co turned up with their claim staking antics.
Yesler Way west from Occidental Avenue, Seattle, June 2, 1880
  • Apparently they could make color photographs in 1880?
  • Building on the right is Occidental Hotel
  • Source

That's the observation point, I guess.

That last old photo looks hand tinted to me. Didn't click through to check as still enthralled with the 1884 image.
Here is evidence of the need for regrading which is suggestive to me that the structure or the one it replaced began life as a building on piles. Right by the number 20 the street is on grade the steps where the building ends go down from that level ergo the grade is running away from right to left.


Also going across the square the same steps up to the front doors are evident.


In truth when I pan out and go up hill from that location most of the streets are lower than the buildings that abut them. I reckon its because with the trees gone there is nothing to hold the soils o the hill and it washes away until a subsoil which is harder wearing than the topsoil is revealed and this then serves as the street grade. Which of course begs the question of when were these buildings put up. Certainly after the trees were cut down from the evidence in this 1884 image but prior to the soil being washed away. The window of time in the narrative is tight, very tight and I don't know what the current rainfall pattern is like in Seattle but I'll wager it is very different to the one prevailing when Seattle was covered in trees and young Henry was looking for a site to place his sawmill. How to bring the climate of an area into a dating and building thread though. How far back would rainfall records go for this part of America?
Judging from the proximity of the lakes behind Seattle I would venture to suggest the area was pretty well hydrated before Henry began clearing it. Further evidenced by his log pipe system to take water from a spring to the jetties and the name salmon run appears on the map. Salmon are picky fish when it comes to water quality so the water before Henry would have been pretty damned good if salmon were breeding there. Are there still salmon running today and where does Seattle get its drinking water from these days?
How far back would rainfall records go for this part of America?
Not far enough.
Some weather data was collected starting in the 1870s, but it seems to be pretty patchy until the 1890s. The document also seems to indicate there wouldn't be any precise rainfall information until that time.

Check this out though:



That's diagonal from the Pioneer Building location. @KorbenDallas, if I'm not disoriented now, shouldn't that be the location of the then recently destroyed Yesler-Leary building?
Yeah, I'm definitely starting to go cross-eyed trying to place all these buildings. So, I believe it would have also been diagonal from the former Yesler-Leary building, the Olympic Block:

Included among the thousands of views that Werner Lenggenhager recorded in his sensitive walks about town is this early 1950s photo of the old Olympic Block, at the southeast corner of First Avenue South and Yesler Way. The Olympic was constructed soon after the city’s Great Fire of 1889 from the classical designs of the short-lived but still very busy post-fire architectural partnership of Charles W. Saunders and Edwin Houghton.
Torn down in the 1970s but then a replacement building bearing the same name was put up. Not finding much information on the old building... but I guess when you're constructing thousands of buildings in 18 months, you can't be bothered to detail them all.

Edit: I believe the location of the Olympic Block building would be here on the 1884 overview:


Kinda looks like the building in the 1950s, eh?
Last edited:
Found these today. And that building is exactly the same Banta.

A floating crane or steam driven pile driver. My money on the latter given the sheer amount of jetties requiring piling.


A horse drawn rail car. I traced this line along the map and it runs on contour across the hill for the most part which lends credence to the idea that the horses were not capable of coping with the gradients of going at ninety degrees to contour up and down the hill. It is the only tram car line I could identify. All the other tracks are railway tracks on which steam locomotives provide the power.

rail car.jpg

And this one is the junction of Occidental & Yesler in the 1884 photograph of the grey horses attached to the rail car. This connects two pieces of different evidence together in the same year 1884. Perhaps there are more map and photo connections or anomalies to be identified for other years. Preferably going backwards from 1884 of course.


That railway goes West on Yesler and turns North the 2nd Avenue.


That's technically uphill, at least today.


After Occidental Hotel got destroyed by "fire" in 1889, they built this Hotel Seattle in the same sport. As you can see, now we have a multilevel parking lot there.


This here is just a cool picture allegedly demonstrating, or produced in 1897.



Posted this to assist with bearings.
Great stuff KD. Enjoying the theory that all of the Great Fires of 1889 were related to an undocumented war that led to Washington's statehood induction on 11/11/1889. The official narrative that an "overturned glue pot in a carpentry shop" by a 24 year old caused the Seattle fire is a coverup IMO.

RE: the 1892 Pioneer building, it looks like our construction ability as a society has increased zero since that time. I can see the best of the best building improving, but the bulk of the buildings aren't fundamentally "better". What's going on here? Did we use more resources as a society because of the gold rush/"fires"? I still can't see how the best of the best of 1892 could trump anything we do today.
Did we use more resources as a society because of the gold rush
Pretty good anticipation if so, considering:
On July 17th, 1897, the steamship Portland docked in Seattle from St Michael, Alaska, carrying 68 prospectors and what newspapers said was "a ton of gold." Two days earlier a similarly laden ship had arrived in San Francisco from Alaska. What had been a just a few hundred prospectors sailing from Seattle each week, soon turned into a stampede of thousands. Newspapers spread word that a great quantity of gold had been found along a remote river in what is today the Yukon Territory of Canada
You'll never guess what buildings illustrate that article!
I still can't see how the best of the best of 1892 could trump anything we do today.
Haha, that's a funny turn of phrase, because if you've ever been in a building built by Trump... they kinda suck! Especially his casinos. They try to approximate "old world" architecture but they feel like very cheap imitations.

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