AKA: Frye's Opera House, Downtown, Seattle, WA

Structure Type: built works - performing arts structures - opera houses

Designers: Nestor, John, Architect (firm); John Nestor (architect)

Dates: constructed 1883-1884, demolished 1889

4 stories

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900 1st Avenue
Downtown, Seattle, WA 98104

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The Frye Opera House stood on the northeast corner of Front Street (later renamed 1st Avenue) and Marion Street. (See Seattle, Washington, City Directory, 1887, p. 254.). It contained shops with the street addresses of 900, 902, 904, 906 and 908 Front Street in 1888.


Built in 1883-1884, the short-lived Frye Opera House occupied an early place in Seattle's cultural development, providing a venue for high culture in a rough-and-tumble lumber town. John Nestor, its architect, designed the performing arts space in the then fashionable Second Empire Style.

Building History

German-born George Frederick Frye (1833-1912), migrated to Seattle, WA in 1853, two years after the Yesler Party brought the first cluster of white settlers to Puget Sound. Like most of the pioneers, he stayed vocationally flexible, performing several jobs to make money. Frye collaborated with Henry Yesler (1810-1892) and Arthur Denny (1822-1899) to build the first sawmill to produce lumber for local use and export and also partnered on an early grist mill. Frye captained a steamboat--the J.B. Libby--and carried the mail locally. He also operated the Seattle Pharmacy.

By 1884, he had saved enough money to open a first-class theatre, commissioning Irish-born architect John Nestor (1836-1912) to design the Frye Opera House on the northeast corner of Front Street (later renamed 1st Avenue) and Marion Street. The Frye Opera House--completed in the Second Empire Style--opened in late November or early December 1884, but according to Ochsner and Andersen, in their book, Distant Corner, "the building was not fully completed until the next year." They described it as follows: "Measuring 120 feet square, the building included stores facing Front Street, with three floors of offices above. The theater, which seat more than one thousand, occupied half the site, with its entrance facing Marion. Built of brick faced with stucco, the facades were detailed in an typical Victorian grid pattern, while the fourth floor featured an elaborate mansard roof--a design the Post-Intelligencer described as 'French street architecture.' At a cost of about $125,000, this was the most expensive building constructed in the city at the time." (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. 35.) In 1884, George K. Beede was Frye's lessee, booking entertainment for the opera house. (See Seattle, Washington, City Directory, 1884, p. 104.) Beede would later be active managing other theatres in Seattle, such as Beede's Madison Park Theatre, and the Orpheum Theatre in Denver, CO (1899).

Frye's choice of French Second Empire styling, considered some of the most fashionable and sophisticated of the time, underscored the opera house's cultural importance. Architect Nestor arrived in Seattle in 1883, and perhaps was drawn here for this large and important commission. He had had prior experience building theatres, a complex building type, and had become expert in the use of iron in construction. Theatres were prone to disastrous fires, and iron might have been viewed as a possible means of mitigating fire liability. Contemporaries viewed it as Seattle's preeminent venue for musical and dramatic performances between 1884-1889, providing the ambitious and growing city a cultural attraction distinguishing it from Tacoma, Portland and other West Coast rivals. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer said of it: "The Frye Opera House stands unrivaled in the Pacific Northwest; it is not excelled on the Pacific Coast; no city in the United States of less than twice the size of Seattle can show its equal." (Ochsner and Andersen, Distant Corner, p. 35.) It was also the largest performance theatre north of San Francisco, seating 1,300, and a significant barometer of Seattle's cultural progress.

In 1884, George K. Beede leased the Opera House operation from George F. Frye. (See Seattle, Washington, City Directory, 1884, p. 104.)

Building Notes

Located on 1st Avenue, the Frye Opera House stepped down a steep grade, its first floor retail spaces set into the hillside. The building formed a rectangle, its long dimension running north-south. Nestor split the internal configuration in half, the western side devoted to retail and office spaces, the eastern half to the opera house space.

The stage stood on the opera's house's north side. Users gained entrance to the opera house from a south-side door placed centrally on the eastern half facing Marion Street. They climbed a flight of stairs to reach the theatre's main floor. A U-shaped gallery stood above main floor seating. Dressing rooms were situated in the basement.

Like many large auditoria of the times, the Frye served as a multi-purpose facility, hosting various public meetings, political rallies, and school performances; for example, Seattle's Central School #1, without a large assembly space, held its first high school graduation for 12 seniors there in 1886. George Fletcher Cotterill (1865–1958), who later became an assistant to City Surveyor/City Engineer R.H. Thomson (1856–1949), laid out the seating arrangement of the Frye Opera House.

The Seattle Pharmacy, managed by P.H. Gallagher, sold drugs and pharmaceutical preparations. in a ground floor retail space of the Frye Opera House in 1888. This drugstore occupied the corner location at 900 Front Street. A shop selling hand prints occupied the shop at 904 Front, and a book binder's shop stood at 908 Front. (See Insurance Maps of Seattle, Washington, [New York, NY: Sanborn Map Company, 1888], Sheet #4.)

In 1888, the Seattle Tribune newspaper, edited and published by R. Darius, occupied Rooms #7 and 8 of the Opera House Block. (Seattle, Washington, City Directory, 1888, p. 199.)

Dr. T.T. Minor and L.R. Dawson, both medical doctors, shared Office #82 in the Opera House Block in 03/1889. (See Minor and Dawson classified ad, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 03/01/1889, p. 4.)

Roberta Frye, relative of the builder George Frye, spoke on "Pioneer Theatres" before the Women's University Club, 08/23/1933. She spoke about the development of theatres in early Seattle, noting the presence of Plummer's Hall, Yesler's Hall, Yesler's Pavilion, Theatre Comique, Alhambra Hall, Squire's Opera House, Smith's Bijou Theatre, Alhambra Theatre, and The Standard. She also noted that the Frye Opera House had been patterned on the Baldwin Theatre in San Francisco, CA. This was an early talk recapitulating the history of theatre history in the city, and predated Eugene C. Elliott's study, History of Variety-Vaudeville in Seattle, written in 1944. (See "Family Trees Will Be on Display Here," Seattle Times, 08/20/1933, p. 16.)


The Frye Opera House was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1889. This building had a brick exterior, but all of its structural framing was composed of wood, making it vulnerable to fire. George Frye built his Hotel Stevens on the opera house's site. Later, Bassetti and Company's Federal Office Building #3 was built on this site in 1971-1974.

PCAD id: 4631