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.

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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.

 

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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.

A Maine Immigrant Scourge

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Congregational Church, Yarmouth Maine courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

The transcontinental railroads brought both of my parents to North America — my father from Denmark to Seattle, and my mother’s parents to Alberta, Canada from Ukraine. North America has always offered new lives to immigrants.

But not always without conflict. Long before they came, by the 1790s, early American churches were losing parishioners. Delancey Place’s January 6, 2017 blog features excerpts from the book, Taming Lust by Doron S. Ben-Atar and Richard D. Brown. Church ministers believed that the loss was due to the influence of Godless  “European immigrants … convicts of the worst kind, guilty of murder and rape.”

The mixture of politics and religion led to explosive rhetoric. Fears of Christian decline blended with partisan warnings about  revolutionary radicalism.

the New England elite feared European radicals might possibly turn the U.S. into New World France. A reporter noted that “Most European immigrants were convicts of the worst kind, guilty of murder, rape, and sodomy.” It was felt that the French Revolution had generated “‘evils’, which without experience, cannot be known.” Immigration had to be checked because ‘the fortune of every community must depend upon the character and conduct of its members.”

Senator Uriah Tracy stated that “these immigrants must never flood into New England because they posed political, cultural, and sexual threats.”

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