The Depression and 1920s Real Estate

One Summer by Bill Bryson, featured in the January 31, 2017 Delancy Place selection, begins, “The 1920s saw an unprecedented real estate boom — far more buildings than needed and almost all financed with bank debt — which led to the Crash of 1929 and the massive bank failures and economic contraction of the Great Depression. In the 1920s America  became a high-rise nation. By 1927 the country boasted some five thousand tall buildings — most of the world’s stock.”

As the westward movement grew, Seattle was no exception. My father, Hans Pederson, had reached the city from Denmark in 1886 when it was still largely a frontier town with an economy based on timber, fishing, wholesale trade, and shipping. The Northern Pacific Railroad, a massive downtown fire, and the Klondike gold rush sparked a population influx that led to major city construction. In 1890, Seattle was the 70th largest city in the nation. By 1920, it was the 20th.

arctic_club_terra_cotta_walrus

Terra Cotta sculpture of a walrus used on the face of the Arctic Club building in Seattle. Hans Pederson, 1916 building contractor, courtesy Wendy Wiley  c2016  

 

In 1916, Pederson  built the Arctic Club, featured in the above photo, as a gathering place for alumni of the Klondike Gold Rush. Sixteen years later, one of the last buildings he constructed was the six-story King County Courthouse. After that,  no other contractor built a major building in downtown Seattle for twenty years.

A rags to riches and back to rags tale, like many another Depression era story.

Destructive Fires Burned Seattle, Chicago and Maine

 

• Seattle In 1889, fire swept through the city and destroyed most of the structures in the business district— 29 square city blocks of wooden and brick buildings. Once the inferno cooled, the city rebuilt from the ashes with amazing speed. New mandates required building construction of brick or steel. Regraded landscapes transformed Seattle as street levels were raised by 22 feet. My father, Hans Pederson, a builder in the right place at the right time, contributed to the rapid growth of Seattle in the first third of the 20th century.

Chicago It is difficult to imagine the scope of the great  fire of 1871 that destroyed 18,000 buildings and left 100,000 people dead. Yet from the ashes the World’s Columbian Exposition Company brought pride back to Seattle as it developed the 1893 World’s Fair.

 

800px-Ruins_of_the_Great_Fire_at_Portland,_ME

Ruins of the Great Fire at Portland, Maine 1866 courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

• Portland, Maine Five years  before the Great Chicago Fire, Portland’s fire was the largest yet seen in an American city. As a Yankee,  I am reminded every Fourth of July of  Portland Maine’s fire of 1866. Josephine Detmer describes the scene in the Greater Portland Landmarks book, Portland.

“On July 4, 1866, as the city was preparing to celebrate Independence Day and the end of the Civil War, disaster again struck and Portland suffered the greatest fire calamity the country had seen up to that time. Parades, fireworks, and a balloon ascension had been planned to enliven the festivities. Tragically, the holiday which had begun so happily, ended in a night of terror and destruction.

“A flicked cigar ash or perhaps a tossed firecracker started a small fire in a boat yard on Commercial Street. From the boat yard the blaze spread to a nearby lumber yard and then to Brown’s Sugarhouse on Maple Street (considered impregnable). It jumped the brick walls surrounding the building and melted the steel shutters on the windows and the roof of galvanized iron and tar. The building became a roaring inferno. A strong south wind whipped the flames to uncontrollable fury. Water was pumped from the city’s reservoirs, wells, and even the harbor. It was a useless effort. Firefighters were powerless in the face of the conflagration which raged all night, sweeping diagonally across the heart of the city from Commercial Street to Back Cove and to Munjoy Hill where it finally burned itself out.”

Fashionable Victorian buildings that replaced the original structures brought a modern face to Portland’s commercial district,  but the colonial homes that had brought history and dignity to the waterfront area were gone forever.

Wisdom from Writer E.B. White

EB_White_and_his_dog_Minnie

E.B. White and his dog Minnie in Maine

 

 

E.B. White, wrote three beloved, classic children’s books: Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan. He co-authored  another classic book for writers, The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. I recall one bit of advice — “Avoid Needless Words.”

I can just see the kindness in his face. He contributed to the New Yorker Magazine —probably the source of many of his quotes, including the following two.

____________________________________________________________________________________

“Prejudice is a great time saver. You can form opinions without having to get the facts.”

“One of the most time-consuming things is to have an enemy.”

%d bloggers like this: