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.

Seattle Sparked the Yukon Gold Rush

 

 

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SS Excelsior leaves for the Yukon, 1897 Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

After the 1893 world-wide depression brought commerce to a halt, Seattle took off in 1897 when the steamer Portland struggled into port, her decks filled with prospectors guarding their sacks of gold. Soon headlines and flyers proclaimed the news around the globe that Yukon gold was there for the taking along the Klondike River.  The mad dash to claim the nuggets really  lasted not much more than a year.

The headlong rush to the Yukon came shortly after a depression where many who had found work again felt trapped in office, factory, or low-paying retail jobs. Eager hordes grabbed the chance to set off for the real frontier, the  vast Canadian wilderness that offered the bold an opportunity to earn their fortunes.

My father, Hans Pederson, a risk taking Danish immigrant, joined the exodus. “He was among the first to answer the call of the North when the manhood of the world stampeded toward the arctic and the sparkle of gold,” notes his obituary. He and a partner soon crammed themselves aboard a ship and joined the throng of prospectors who washed up on Alaskan shores like flotsam on the tides.

He didn’t stay long enough to make his fortune. He returned to Seattle, became a builder, and grew along with the city until the next depression in 1929 ended contracting along with everything else.

Seattle’s “Boys in the Boat”

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Unemployed men queued outside a Depression soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone — National Archives and records Administration, College Park, MD

 

The Boys in the Boat, a runaway 2014 bestseller by Daniel James Brown, features the iconic University of Washington crew that bested Hitler’s shell to win the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The story has been said to capture the spirit of an era.

The book describes the Depression years in Washington. Joe Rantz, one of the college “boys,” brings the story to life. After a grueling, rainy, afternoon workout in the shell, one memorable scene describes Joe’s dinner with his girl friend. The only meal they could afford: a soup made by mixing the table ketchup with water.

A frequently quoted  early passage follows:

“On the streets below the (Smith) Tower, men in fraying suit coats, worn-out shoes, and battered fedoras wheeled carts toward the street corners where they would spend the day selling apples, and oranges and packages of gum for a few pennies apiece. Around the corner on the steep incline of Yesler Way, Seattle’s old original Skid Road, more men stood in long lines, heads bent, regarding the wet sidewalk and talking softly among themselves as they waited for the soup kitchens to open.”

Set in 1930s Depression Washington this book captured my spirit too, although it took me seventy years to learn why.

My father, Hans Pederson, one of Seattle’s major early 20th century contractors, died a month after my 1933 birth. My mother, decades-younger,  misled me about their life together. Learning why she did this required research that helped me both understand the Depression, and unravelled the harm done to a family  by a lifetime of lies and secrets.

My quest has resulted in an upcoming memoir, The Mysterious Builder of Seattle Landmarks, the Search for My Father.

Can you always understand the ways that people who came before you influenced your life?

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