1892 Pioneer Building in Seattle: how and when was it built?

This is one of the most famous buildings in Seattle, and rightfully so. The structure is pretty stunning. The history of its construction has a bit of a mystery to it. Of course, this mystery is not exactly on the surface for everyone to see. One would have to actually investigate, to see the abnormalities. Let's start with the narrative.

The Pioneer Building
The Pioneer Building is a Richardsonian Romanesque stone, red brick, terra cotta, and cast iron building located on the northeast corner of First Avenue and James Street, in Seattle's Pioneer Square District. Completed in 1892, the Pioneer Building was designed by architect Elmer Fisher, who designed several of the historic district's new buildings following the Great Seattle Fire of 1889.
I could not find a better contemporary image of the Pioneer Building. There will be older photographs down the article, and those, in my opinion, represent this structure much better.


The Pioneer Building is a 94-foot-tall (29 m) symmetrical block, measuring 115 by 111 ft (35 by 34 m). The exterior walls are constructed of Bellingham Bay gray sandstone at the basement and first floor, with red brick on the upper five floors (with the exception of two stone pilasters which extended to the full height of the tower over the main entrance). Spandrel panels and other ornamental elements are terra cotta from Gladding, McBean in California. There are three projecting bays of cast iron, the curved bays at the corner and on the James Street facade, and the angled bay above the main entrance.
  • The building reflects a mix of Victorian and Romanesque Revival influences. The facades, with vertical pilasters and horizontal belt courses creating a grid, reflect Victorian compositional strategies. Details such as the round arches over groups of windows and the arched main entrance and corner entrance are Romanesque Revival elements.
  • The exterior walls are load-bearing, as is the firewall that extends through the building from the street to the alley. The interior structure is cast iron columns and steel beams supporting timber joists. As was typical practice in the period, the office floors were designed and built with permanent partitions forming 185 office rooms -a tenant would simply rent one or more office rooms. Light is provided to the interior through two atria—one in the center of the south portion of the building, the other in the north portion of the building.
  • Constructed at a cost of $270,000, the Pioneer Building was considered one of Seattle's finest post-fire business blocks. It has always been highly visible, forming a portion of one side of Seattle's Pioneer Place Park.
  • The Pioneer Building originally had a seventh floor tower room (with a pyramidal roof) located directly above the front entrance making the building 110 ft (34 m). It was removed as a result of damage caused by the 1949 earthquake.
1888 Seattle PI Article

I think the photograph below represents our building much better than the one above.
c. 1890

Well, this is basically it, as far as available information goes. Everything we have is virtually useless, for it contains no real history. Here are some of the "history" covering links we have:
The Architect
As was stated above, the building was designed by Elmer Fisher. He was born either c. 1840 in Scotland, or c. 1851 in the US. The gentleman supposedly died in 1905. As far as I understand, there is only one photograph of Mr. Fisher, and you can see it below. SH Blog already has an article dedicated to this specific architect:

Please take a look at some of the projects attributed to this gentleman. Check out a different source emphasizing the issue we have with this guy.


Here is the last thing(s) we know about Elmer Fisher:
  • His official date of death as well as his final resting place is unknown.
  • He died in 1905, an architectural draftsman and carpenter.
Yesler-Leary Building
This building should have an article of its own. Yet, for the purposes of this article, we absolutely have to mention it, because up until 1889 it was the most prominent building in Seattle. This building will allow us to cover the area where the Pioneer Building will later stand.

c. 1887

Here is one additional view of this Yesler-Leary Building:
c. 1885

this is a turntable for the tram cars

SF turntable example

If we were to believe the Seattle Public Library we have the following narrative compliant data for the Yesler-Leary Building:
  • Built: 1883
  • Destroyed: 1889
    • The Yesler-Leary Building burned down in the Great Seattle Fire of 1889
Some Yesler-Leary Building links:
The Great Seattle Fire of 1889
The Great Seattle Fire was a fire that destroyed the entire central business district of Seattle, Washington on June 6, 1889. The conflagration lasted for less than a day, burning through the afternoon and into the night, and during the same summer as the Great Spokane Fire and the Great Ellensburg Fire. Seattle quickly rebuilt using brick buildings that sat 20 feet (6.1 m) above the original street level. Its population swelled during reconstruction, becoming the largest city in the newly admitted state of Washington.
Yesler-Leary Building in 1889







I was struggling to find a better post-fire view North from the Pioneer Square on the 1st Avenue. That's because it used to have a different name in 1889. Apparently it was called Front Street. Anyways, here is the direction we need.
north on 1st ave.jpg

Below we have a photograph covering the direction indicated by the above arrows. I believe the photograph was taken slightly south of 1st Ave and Marion street intersection.

Essentially, the entire area got annihilated. The below map of the 1889 Great Seattle Fire could have a better resolution, but you get an idea.
  • #3: Yesler-Leary Building
  • #4: Occidental Hotel
  • Full Map

As the story goes, Seattle quickly rebuilt using brick buildings that sat 20 feet above the original street level. Help yourself.
Construction of the Pioneer Building
From the official narrative we know that the Great Seattle Fire happened on 06/06/1889. From the same narrative we get statements similar to the below ones:
  • By the time the fire swept through the city, the foundation for the new Pioneer Building had already been excavated.
  • The ensuing construction boom slowed the completion of the Pioneer Building.
  • When it was completed in 1892, the beautiful building of red brick and terra cotta was arguably the finest "fireproof" Richardsonian-Romanesque designs created by architect Elmer H. Fisher.
  • Source
Construction Photographs
I was real surprised to find photographs resembling the construction. Well, may be they do demonstrate construction processes utilized in 1890's, I do not know for sure.
  • Photographs are zoomable at their source.
  • In the below photographs, we are looking North on 1st Ave aka Front street, and the photographer was more or less on top of the Pioneer Square. Naturally, we are seeing 1st Avenue North from the Pioneer Square.
  • The Pioneer Building is being built in the right.
The images are dated with c. 1890. Remember what the area looked like some time on, or after 06/06/1889.

#1: 1st Ave., looking north from Pioneer Square, ca. 1890.
  • Shows Merchants National Bank and the Starr-Boyd Building to the left, Pioneer Building under construction on the right.
c. 1890
1st Ave., looking north from Pioneer Square, ca. 1890- 1.jpg

#2: 1st Ave., looking north from Pioneer Square, ca. 1890
  • Handwritten on verso: Pioneer Square under construction.
1st Ave., looking north from Pioneer Square, ca. 1890- 2.jpg

Several Zoom-ins





In reference to the above c. 1890 photographs:
  1. There appears to be no issues photographing in motion in 1890.
  2. This entire area was annihilated on 06/06/1889.
    • Surrounding structures do not look brand new to me.
  3. The Pioneer Building being built on the right. Is this what a superfast construction process should look like?
I know that I have repeated this many times already. Per the narrative, this entire area was destroyed by an alleged urban fire on 06/06/1889.


#1: Under what circumstances could we have the below:


#2: How was this 1890 magazine possible?


KD: I think there is something seriously wrong with this entire story line. Prior to 1889, cities in this area chose not to burn. Then year 1889 decided to visit the Washington Territory:
The Pioneer Building:
  • When do you think it was built?
  • Was the above presented construction real, or staged?
Photographs to examine:
Please share your opinion on the above.


which one you think is Stevens?
The man mid ground with the beard facing the artist. The reason being he is the only man face on to the artist so is the main focus of the painting. The man to his left is talking with the mounted indian man. He too has a beard and is smaller than the man wearing the hat facing the artist so it is possible he is Stevens but on balance I feel the 'leader' would be the focus and he would not be depicted with his back to the artist. The horses and their baggage suggest they are about to set off rather than having just arrived. A horse just getting in would be hungry, thirsty and tired as would their riders so it makes sense to suggest they would dismount and feed & water the horses after removing their baggage and saddles.

The discrepancy in the pictures is due to the lower one is a copy of the upper one. The painting style especially of the people is the same in the one I posted with all the others on the site all scans from the same book which leads to them at least all being put together in the same publication from the same source artist.
  • A Avatar

  • They don’t have enough horses in this painting. If they were traveling on foot, which is insane when local distances are considered, how did they move them crates? There would need to be a horse buggy somewhere out there.

    Meanwhile, we are not an inch closer to figuring out this Pioneer Building.


    The Pioneer Building:
    • When do you think it was built?
    • Was the above presented construction real, or staged?
    Seen as I am the one who has taken things too far I'll address these questions to bring it back on track.

    When was it built?
    No date for certain but the construction photographs are dated Circa 1890 so basically someone has guessed the date but seems fair enough until a dated image appears or is discovered. Put another way I see nothing in the photographs that suggests different. It is up to what we call first floor level but only just so it is still early in the construction. Iron and steel framing goes up quick and gives instant strength though in that building it appears the facade is load bearing although it is just as likely cladding if you will around the iron frame which is the bit taking the load not the stone hard to tell one way or the other from the images. So could be 1890 could be 1892/3/4.

    The construction is real. It is clearly in the building phase evidenced by the long iron girder in the background not connected to anything, the stone being worked on in the foreground. The general mess around the construction the presence of a crane, the lack of any brickwork in the building all point to an early construction.
    Irrespective of the land beneath it being part tidal mudflat infilled and part sea shore there would have to be a solid foundation to hold up the building of this scale without subsidence. Brick stone or concrete or combination of the three would likely be the materials used and given that it doesn't seem to have been troubled by subsidence at all they were sized and built correctly.
    Over here we have a listed building system and such buildings have surveys carried out on them as part of the listing and they go into some detail about the structure and its materials. If the United States has a similar system then it;s likely the survey report would reveal a lot of detail about the bits we do not seem able to view online.

    The Stevens survey had horses and mules a plenty when it set off but they suffered greatly from attrition due to lack of food which hampered efforts. That picture is of men getting ready to leave the survey, specifically Stevens and seeing who he was he would not have travelled alone. All those mounted and Stevens, if that is him are likely the party about to leave.

    The whole point of my investigations was to try and figure out what if anything there was in terms of stone or brick constructions in the Seattle area around Pioneer Square's future location to be specific, if at all possible. Other than establishing the square takes in part tidal mudflat part shoreline there has been little else uncovered. Certainly no drawn or written evidence of any such stone/brick structures either ruined, extant or eroding out of the ground.
    In fact it all points to the area literally being covered in a forest and it seems to me to have been a rain forest. The indian population however and whenever they got there were basically living along the shore line more or less which makes sense on the food front, much more on the edge of systems, transportation much easier on water than trailing through a forest, proximity to fresh water springs as the forest's hydrological cycle would be complete, unlike today. So food, water, mobility, shelter were all available and abundant, the latter point is too often overlooked as reason why people settle where they do.
    The bit that makes little sense is what the settlers did when they turned up. There is a almost five decades between the Denny party arriving and the Pioneer building allegedly going up and in those decades the settlers who first saw the mudflats and the forests replaced both with lumber, brick and iron buildings tram and train tracks and graded parts of the area. That is one helluva lot when measured against the changes here where I've been living all my life.
    All of the places I enjoyed as a child have been destroyed and built over. Many of the buildings, the ornate older buildings of my youth have been demolished and replaced by crap and car parks, Green areas also disappear under construction and factories and shops similarly disappear and are turned into housing.
    All the small holdings producing food have gone all the railway infrastructure that served the town has disappeared save the line in and out.
    Sounds a lot but what the Seattle Settlers achieved in a similar timescale in the 1800's between their arrival and the erection of the Pioneer Building seems to be on a whole different scale.

    Unless other photographs are found or maps showing part finished structures I doubt we can be anywhere near certain of when things were done. As for the fire. It seems like all the others at this time there was a method or process being run where a small number of people were in either a financial or political position to benefit from the destruction of the buildings which led to ruination of the owners and has a 'happenstance' cleared a lot of ground for new development in an instant at next to no risk to those running the process. Yeslers mansion not being burnt shows just how controlled this fire or series of fires was.
    There's a building right here in the town which is brick and stone which burnt down three or four years ago and I posted pictures of it o shorg v.1 and it doesn't look dissimilar to the damage in the fire pictures. The roof is gone indeed all wood on the upper floors is gone. The street trees were scorched but not burnt, a lot of brick fell as did the steel/cast iron girders and lintels and the cast rainwater is all down.
    Bear in mind the interior of this one has cables in it whose casings burn fiercely and the fire was fought by eight modern fire engines with no shortage of water but they still could not save the structure. All they could do was prevent it from spreading to the adjacent buildings and the row of terrace houses behind it which they did quite successfully.

    I don't know what the state of the Seattle fire brigade was nor what the water supply situation was like but if as I suspect this fire or fires was a deliberate act on the part of those who benefited then it would be no surprise to see the fire brigade positioned to prevent the fire(s) from spreading beyond a pre-determined area. It would also come as no surprise to discover the buildings that burnt were stripped of their 'valuables' prior to the fire and even being rigged to burn quickly and intensely. Speculation in the face of any evidence for this beyond the obvious of knowing who gained via the new developments but there it is.
    @jd755, once again, for any building to exist, it had to be built at some point. I keep on repeating this, but that's how it really is, imho. Any building can be built using some stone age technology if we have a lot of time and people to work on the project. Still, how fast can you build? Can you build this fast?



    The dates we are provided with, are a part of the narrative. If we are being lied about those, how can we be sure about anything else?
    • While the lumber was being cut and contracts for the steel work and terra cotta were still being secured, excavation for the southern half of the building began in mid-February, 1889 with the temporary relocation of several existing structures on the site, followed by their demolition, including the original Yesler home, the following month.
    • Yesler's plan was to construct the southern half of the building first, then finish the northern portion the following building season after payments for recently sold property would be secured.
    • Grading was completed and construction began in May (KD:1889) but was soon halted due to a shortage of rough stone that was plaguing the city; only 144 tons of the 800 tons of stone that were ordered for the building could be delivered.
    • Several months after the Great Seattle Fire leveled 32 blocks of downtown and new grades and street widths had been firmly established, Yesler proceeded with the construction of the Pioneer Building.
    • Pioneer Building (Seattle) - Wikipedia
    At some point in the nearest future, I will visit our Seattle Underground tour with the soul purpose of photographing the brick structure we have directly underneath the Pioneer Building. What that structure is, and where it came from has not yet been determined. As far as I remember, it was made of red fired bricks.
    Considering that the 1891-1892 city directory lists the first tenants of the Pioneer Building, it had to be built by then. And, obviously, our Great Fire happened on 6/6/1889.

    Not a single building we can see in the below OP photograph was there on 6/7/1889. That can mean only one thing - all of these buildings we see on the photograph were completed before our Pioneer Building had its second story completed.
    • Question: Do any of these buildings look brand new?
      • Per the narrative, they have to be brand new.
      • Additionally, how fast can you build using the tech available in 1889-1891?
    From the newspaper published on 1/1/1891 we know that the Pioneer Building was completed prior to 1/1/1891. That means that in 1890 the Pioneer Building was already there in its entirety.

    1st Ave., looking north from Pioneer Square, ca. 1890- 2.jpg

    • Essentially, everything we see above had to be less than 18 months old.
    • Do these other buildings look brand new?
    • How fast could they build the Pioneer Building inside and outside back then with the tech we see?
      • How much time would we need in 2021 to build the same Pioneer Building, using our contemporary technology?
    We are being told that it took citizens of Seattle 18 months to complete 5,625 buildings, with our Pioneer Building being only 1 (one) of those 5,625 buildings. Well, what if it took them 10-15 years to build this amount of structures? What could this time distortion mean for us?

    I do not believe for a second that their horse buggy technology augmented by a strong will power could be producing 10 completed buildings per day in Seattle in 1889 and 1890. And Pioneer Building is one of them...


    So until you tour the underground we can do no more given the digital resources we have to hand.

    I don't believe anything I just look for the balance of probability as I feel that is as good as it gets without getting up close. Everything historical is lied about to some degree or other. Seems either the claims of the fire damage were over egged, the range of the destruction was over egged, equally possible it was under egged. The minute size of the photographic record of the destruction points to the official story or narrative being untrue.
    The photographs seem to me to be featuring a very specific area for example there doesn't seem to be ant from up of Seattle's hills taken whilst the fire was burning or any from the seaward side.
    I examined the construction photo and see nothing in them to suggest anything other than an iron framed brick building at an early stage of construction. Moving to the wider area there is no way I can see that amount of structures being burnt down, cleared, rebuilt, put into use in the time said to be between fire and the photograph being taken.
    So that is why my guess is the fire(s) were actually very specific. Particular buildings were being removed by the fire story of not by real actual burning. Deliberately set and controlled. The photographs we have all bear a strong smell of fakery in them. They are very carefully composed to present a specific area. As are many of the fire destruction photographs of the era.. Sadly from my perspective the digital scans are not high enough in resolution to peer in and see where the fakery may be.
    The lack of wider area photographs of the fire burning lends weight to my guess, nothing more.

    The building behind the Pioneer Building id also under construction or renovation and is much further on. It's not possible to see any further into that side of the street.

    If you get the chance measure the front face of the bricks on the Pioneer Building, from the rear part the 'neglected' part we never get to see as they are less likely to have been messed with and if you can do the same on the bricks on the tour. If nothing else it will give you physical evidence of the parity or disparity of the standard size(s) in use when the building/tunnel was first built.

    Edit to add (battery died)

    Here are a selection of images of the same corner entrance through the ages. Reason for posting them is to show it doesn't seem to have been worked on bar cleaning, or damaged since it first went up. So measuring a brick and comparing it to the tunnel bricks would be of great benefit.
    Also it occurs to me you or someone in your family circle of friends may well know someone who works in the building itself who could get you access to the cellars so you get to see it from inside out.

    The building is an iron framed building which the official blurb leaves out. The Yesler Leary building also appears to have been an iron framed building if the fire photographs are any guide so if nothing else both the Yesler Leary and the Pioneer were built using the same methods. I cannot see the location of where the pioneer building would be in any of the fire photographs. They confuse the hell out of me to be honest. The double tram track down the street reveals the location to likely be Front Street but beyond that I struggle.
    Incidentally it might be if use from an official dating angle to find out when the single track was pulled up and the double track laid. Clearly the laying would predate the fire so it might shed light on the veracity of the fire date.

    To the photographs.

    But first. In this crop of a building in the background of the Pioneer construction what he hell is it. It looks huge and seems to be built at an elevation much higher than Front Street. Can you identify it?
    Reason being it is clearly undamaged by the fire therefore beyond the reach of the fire and an ideal location to take a burning photograph from.

    2021-03-23 09.25.39 stolenhistory.org 75762d0cd05d.jpg

    Now the photographs

    2021-03-23 09.33.45 stolenhistory.org 9ff805cb0cfb.jpg

    2021-03-23 09.34.24 stolenhistory.org afbcb6334ea4.jpg

    2021-03-23 09.40.36 eu-browse.startpage.com 6d570c6012cf.jpg

    2021-03-23 09.41.44 images1.loopnet.com 39de1948b98e.jpg

    Finally here's one of the build much further on seemingly shot from the same location as the earlier construction photograph.

    download (1).jpeg

    Second Edit to add this'
    I was digging around trying and failing, to get a handle on this fire and its actual spread using the photographic record and the search at the Mohai site threw up this very interesting blueprint.


    Seattle in the late nineteenth century was a rapidly growing city, aided in no small part by the 1883 connection to the rest of the country by the Northern Pacific Railway Company (NPRR). Additionally, the city's population doubled in 1890 from the previous year to 40,000, boosted by the influx of people who saw opportunity in rebuilding after Seattle's Great Fire. Expansion led to conflicts over the legal definitions of property and in what ways and by whom real estate could be utilized. NPRR was part of many lawsuits in Seattle during the period between 1895 and 1925, many of which were to establish rights-of-way and valuation of properties. The plat map pictured here, roughly of Seattle's Alki, Harbor Island, and Pioneer Square neighborhoods, was used as evidence in 1896-1897 litigation between NPRR and a member of the Denny family, probably over usage of tide lands. The map is an index map to a series of maps called "Volume 2 of Seattle Tide Lands," and includes plats 26-56 of the City of Seattle. The map was created by members of the Board of Appraisers of Tide and Shore Lands for King County, Washington: Fredrick W. Sparling, Appraiser; Thomas W. Prosch, Appraiser; D. A. McKenzie, Appraiser; Edward Wheeler, Secretary; and M. Stixrud, C. E., Engineer. As part of the litigation E. H. Evenson, King County Auditor, certified this map as a copy of the original on April 7, 1897
    Which rather nicely is yet more evidence Pioneer Square was at least in part tidal mudflats. The area even have a tidal name of The Tidelands.
    The fact there was litigation going on is very suggestive the area is all infill over mudflats.

    I suspect this will automerge but there it is.

    Here is some good evidence the foundations of the Pioneer Building was built after the fire not before. I cannot figure out if we are looking at the future back side of the Pioneer or the front. I suspect we are looking from the back.

    Another Ron Edge special. In this panoramic view, Front Street (1st Avenue) is being rebuilt. The Pioneer Building foundation is being lain on the left. The corner of the same building appears on the left in our ‘Now’ photo above.
    Edit to add this stunning pdf book. Chapters one and two I one of the very few things I recommend folks read in their entirety especially in regards to Pioneer Square and the fire.

    I also reckon I have a handle on why some things burnt very quickly and completely and other didn't. The majority of the buildings were on trestles or stills and planking both for trestle tops, roads, track ways and pavement were all over the place. The trestles provided an air space under the buildings where the fire once started would have a plentiful and replenishing supply o oxygen to enable good combustion, rapid combustion, hot combustion. I also reckon it stopped once the trestles gave way to solid infill land.
    From the photographs in that book it is obvious most of the tidal flats were still tidal flats just trestled over in a large part.
    Here is some good evidence the foundations of the Pioneer Building was built after the fire not before. I cannot figure out if we are looking at the future back side of the Pioneer or the front. I suspect we are looking from the back.
    Well, if that's the 1st Avenue up in front of us, we should have ruins of the Yesler-Leary building directly on the other side. If that's the case, the future pioneer building is to our left, and we are looking at its rear, or rather its future mid portion.

    So... what buildings did they bury to have the so-called Underground Seattle?

    The below is from the opposite direction, with the location of the future Pioneer Building squared.



    Similar articles