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Denny Hotel construction lasted one long decade

So far in Summiting Mount Jennings we’ve learned about the Denny Hotel’s design phase under architect A. B. Jennings, and about its supervising architect Albert Wickersham. In part three we’ll cover the torture Denny Hotel construction endured due to contractor Fabian Potvin.

Construction begins!

Construction commenced in March 1889 after James Parks was hired as contractor. He agreed to an aggressive schedule, planning to complete the massive hotel by the end of May 1890.

But in June 1889 Pioneer Square and Seattle’s waterfront burned to the ground in Seattle’s Great Fire. Denny Hotel construction then competed for workers and supplies with complete reconstruction of the city center. By July, Parks was sure he could not do the job in time. He backed out of his contract and Fabian S. Potvin was instead hired.


This is part 3 of a 7-part series Summiting Mount Jennings. You could start at part one.


Potvin’s race against time

Potvin overcame early challenges. He had 10 months left to build the hotel, but he could not even land the ships carrying stone for the hotel because Seattle did not have enough wharves. He offered to build a wharf himself at Madison Street that the city could buy from him later.

By mid-May 1890 bids were being taken for interior finish as they raced towards completion, but they missed the original deadline. The roof was finally completed in July. The hotel company board was told at the end of August that there were still three or four months of construction remaining.

Their concern focused on all of the interior plastering and woodwork that had not even yet begun. But the exterior was still in flux as well. Cornice work and the grounds’ brick veranda and bridge were finished in September after a brief labor strike.

Potvin ends Denny Hotel construction

The hotel loomed so large in Seattle’s psyche that the Denny Hotel construction itself became a spectacle. Seattleites and tourists flocked to visit Monday through Saturday to watch the work underway.

A disagreement between Potvin and the Denny Hotel Company arose in perhaps November 1890. Construction halted and Potvin refused to resume work until he was paid. Lawsuits and liens against the Denny Hotel Company by contractors, suppliers, and lenders began in December 1890. The June 28, 1891 Seattle P-I reported nine different lawsuits on the docket.

Denny Hotel as shown in 1893 Sanborn fire insurance map of Seattle.
Denny Hotel as shown in the 1893 Sanborn fire insurance map of Seattle. Between Stewart, Virginia, 2nd and 4th. (Library of Congress)

In 1893 the United States was hit by a major depression, which lasted in Seattle until gold was found in the Yukon in 1897. This was a secondary matter to the hotel, though, as claims for hundreds of thousands of dollars and then execution of the Sheriff sale dragged out in court beyond 1897 and left ownership in doubt.

At last the title was settled in 1898, with the Dexter Horton Bank owning a majority, and minority owners Arthur Denny, Huttig Brothers Manufacturing of Iowa, and the estate of the late William Ladd, who had a majority stake in Dexter Horton Bank. The owners agreed to resume work in mid-1898, now led by the Denny-Blaine Land Company. Albert Wickersham was brought back to oversee construction.

Potvin blocks Denny Hotel construction

The ownership group announced in July 1898 tentative plans to open the hotel as family-friendly residential apartments, and shared that the exterior repairs were underway with a force of thirty laborers on the roof and skylights. August brought possible leasing agencies from “the East” who would pay to run the building as a commercial hotel, but none panned out. In December there were “at least fifty carpenters, plumbers, and painters” finishing the interior.

Even as work continued, the hotel was complete enough in November to host a major Seattle event.

On November 6th a gala was held for the soldiers of the First Washington Volunteer Infantry Regiment who had just returned from war in the Philippines. After Spain yielded, Washington’s soldiers instead fought against Filipinos themselves as the U.S. replaced Spain’s Pacific empire. Several years after First Washington returned, the Philippines became a U.S. territory.

Soldiers in the First Washington Volunteer Regiment return to Seattle on the steamer Queen from the Philippine-American War on November 5, 1899. Washington State Historical Society.

Work continued into 1899, with redwood and white pine finish added to the guest rooms and upstairs shared spacees.

Balls continued in the first floor through 1900. Major civic events flocked to the Denny Hotel. There were annual parties for the city Assembly, their version of the City Council. End-of-season sport galas. Young women hosting young men for dances.

Despite this, Dexter Horton Bank and the Huttig Brothers could not come to agreement on how to proceed with the hotel rooms themselves. Throughout 1899, 1900, 1901, and 1902 there was constant optimism that an investor from New York or Chicago would take over management of the hotel, or perhaps the owners would do it themselves.

Nothing panned out, and each time the final completion of Denny Hotel construction was most promising, Potvin emerged with a new lawsuit and a six-figure judgement in his favor.

Denny Hotel when US President Teddy Roosevelt visited in 1903. It was called the Hotel Washington in 1903.
Denny Hotel in 1903, renamed Hotel Washington. Hosting US President Teddy Roosevelt. MOHAI 1983.10.6708

To destroy something, you must first build it

Finally, at long last, in February 1903 real estate developer James A. Moore stepped forward to buy the hotel. He completed it and renamed it the Washington Hotel later that same year as a residential or family hotel.

Unfortunately in 1906 it was then promptly demolished to make way for the Denny Regrade as Denny Hill was erased from the Earth.

Further reading

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