Monday, February 22, 2010

The Rivoli at 100!

Part 1: In the beginning...

On January 1st of this year, my building, the Rivoli Apartments, quietly turned 100. Buildings are like racehorses, their birthdays are always January 1st. But I challenge you to find me a 100-year-old racehorse. The Rivoli's century of survival has been as unlikely as it is unusual, but despite all that, it continues to keep watch over the southwest corner of 2nd & Blanchard for now and into the foreseeable future.

Way back 101 years ago, 2nd Avenue looked like this:

This shot was taken from around Bell Street; the Moore and Josephinium are those big buildings in the distance on the left side of 2nd. Notice anything different? Yeah, there's a big ol' hill across the street! That's pretty much how things appeared at the time the Rivoli was built the following year.

The building's architect, A.H. Albertson, came to Seattle working for the prestigious New York firm Howells & Stokes. His original task was to develop the University of Washington's downtown properties, but he stayed on and designed the Northern Life Tower, St. Joseph's Church, the Seattle YMCA and numerous other buildings. How he ended up designing the Rivoli is a bit of a mystery, as he was obviously more interested in projects much grander than building an apartment building for dock workers. Whatever the reason, I'm glad he did it. I really love this old wreck of a building.

As you can see, the Rivoli's front is pretty ornate, considering its utilitarian purpose. Here you can find marble, wrought iron and terracotta all accenting the functional brick design. This is quite a contrast from its next-door neighbor, the El Rey Apartments (also built in 1910), which has almost zero ornamentation and far less charm. What you see in the picture above is only about 25% of the Rivoli, because it's an L-shaped building that wraps around a functional two-story structure that contains Cafe Zoe. The rest of the building is much more plain. But the ornate entrance counts for a lot.

The Rivoli's apartments are small. They were originally intended to house dock and other low-wage workers for cheap. Cheap places are small. But the building's saving grace is its high ceilings. Most of its units are studios. Combine a studio with a high ceiling and you can feel a bit like you're living in a box, but try living with a low ceiling - it's downright claustrophobic. I have one of the few one-bedroom apartments that the Rivoli offers. It's tiny - just a bit over 400 sq. feet. Yeah, it's small, but its location can't be beat and rent is still relatively cheap.

I had always believed that it was built as a walk-up. After all, it's only three stories tall. I was wrong. There was an actual working elevator for at least 60 years. When the building fell into disrepair in the sixties and seventies, it broke down and the then-owner decided to build over all traces that there had ever been an elevator.

The Rivoli was built halfway through a population explosion that increased Seattle's size threefold. It and other buildings in Belltown offered small apartments to both manual laborers and office workers. Over time, many of these places have disappeared and been replaced by condo towers, but the Rivoli has managed to avoid the wrecking ball. Next week, I'll explore why it's survived for so long.

Tune in next Monday for Part 2: Bad Days, Ghost Stories and Our Crazy Modern World.


Kevin said...

Very interesting, love to see the hill, and wish it was still there...

Anonymous said...

Pls see my comment on Part 2 of The Rivoli above.

CRYSTAL R said...

I love Belltown and I love the Rivoli, what an amazing building. Would love to see pictures from the inside (i.e., hallways, apartment, stairs, etc.) I don't remember that much, I was 18 years old when I lived there in 1978, have super great memories. Please share if you have inside photos of the place. I live in Oakland now and don't get up to Seattle that much, but would love to refresh my memories with seeing the inside of this amazing building. (email: Thank you, refreshing that someone loves this building as much as I do. Crystal

Anonymous said...

I lived there in 83. It was full of cockroaches and was the worst place I ever lived.