Structure Type: built works - public buildings - courthouses

Designers: Ritchie, Willis, A., Architect (firm); Saunders and Lawton, Architects (firm); George Willis Lawton (architect); Willis Alexander Ritchie (architect); Charles Willard Saunders (architect)

Dates: constructed 1890-1891

3 stories

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7th Avenue and Alder Street
First Hill, Seattle, WA 98104

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Designed c. 1890, the King County Courthouse #2 underscored the increased influence Neoclassicism was exerting by the 1890s on American architects. Gone was the picturesque exuberance of the Queen Anne or Italianate Styles, to be replaced with the formal simplicity, templar symmetry and ornamental vocabulary of the Greeks and Romans. This transition also suggested the increased influence of America's growing number of architectural schools promoting the educational methods of the Parisian École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. The most prominent and influential model of Beaux-Arts design and planning was the wildly popular World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, IL, of 1893.

Building History

This second King County Courthouse superseded the first which was then sold to the City of Seattle for use as its City Hall. (Despite the accretion of several shoddy additions, Seattle City Government occupied that building until 1909.) Erected two years after the destructive fires leveled Seattle, Ellensburg and Spokane, King County's grand courthouse of 1890-1891 was lauded as the first fireproof building erected in the Pacific Northwest, a measure of Seattle's growing wealth and importance. Willis A. Ritchie, who appeared in Seattle in 1889, moved from the State of KS, where he became familiar with the latest architectural fireproofing techniques while he served as the Superintendent of the Federal Courthouse and Post Office in Wichita, KS, (1886-1889). Obtaining a plum commission for the state's largest county, put Ritchie in good position to find subsequent work. He would make the most of this experience, marketing his skills at producing fireproof buildings to build similar county courthouses across WA. (See Jeffrey Karl Ochsner and Dennis Alan Andersen, Distant Corner: Seattle Architects and the Legacy of H.H. Richardson, [Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003], p. 254-260.) While the hilltop siting was meant to inspire citizens, many cursed it, as the way from Pioneer Square was steep, making the walk exhausting. The courthouse's location became known to locals as "Profanity Hill." King County governmental officials moved into the new courthouse on 06/06/1891, the two-year anniversary of the Seattle Fire.

Building Notes

This masonry, three-story courthouse had a central projecting portico, supported by six Ionic columns, the two outer ones positioned more closely together that the interior two. The architect placed a sculpture representing justice at the porch pediment's peak. The portico was flanked by wings that terminated in slightly projecting pediments. The central hall was topped by a tall, somewhat clumsy clock tower supported by eight stubby Ionic columns.


The Seattle Times reported on 03/08/1903: "Saunders & Lawton are drawing the plans for the $25,000 wing to be built to the King County Courthouse. The board of county commissioners ordered the wing built last week." (See "Real Estate and Building Review," Seattle Times, 03/08/1903, p. 4.)


The King County Courthouse #2 was razed in the 1930s.

PCAD id: 12569