Heart of Olympia? 4th & Cap

Where is the geographic Heart of Olympia? I have a short list of candidates, one of them being the intersection of 4th and Capitol (formerly known as "Main"). The color postcard graphic I have attached is pretty much the way that part of town looked and how I remember it when my family moved to Oly from Spokane in 1958.

The buildings from 1958 are still there, but all of the business names have changed. The NE corner was a drugstore. I don't recall if it had a soda fountain in the back like some others. We used the drugstore on the SW corner of 5th and Capitol.

The NW corner was Mottman's. When you paid for the merchandise, the salesperson would put your money in a wire basket that went up to a balcony in the northwest corner where the cashier sat. I loved watching those transactions, it seemed so Rube Goldberg. Come to think of it, Goldberg's was across the street! Hmm. It was on the top floor of Mottman's that I started to doubt the existence of Santa. In 1959 I walked up the ramps (there were no stairs in Mottmans) to see him there. He was in an area that was probably used for storage most of the year. Santa sat under a bare lightbulb amid dust bunnies the size of tumbleweeds. And he smelled funny. "Something is wrong here," I thought in my little critical mind. Where were the happy elves and reindeer? By 1960 it was all over. I had figured out the sordid truth.

The SW corner was Goldbergs, a furniture store. One time I was in there and my Mom pointed out a commercial artist who was drawing the newspaper ads for the next sale. Hey, a guy who gets paid to draw! Wow! When our house burned in 1965, this store helped us out so we could sleep on something other than the floor.

The SE corner was the National Bank of Commerce, where I had my first bank account. If I had more than five dollars in there I thought I was rich.

This intersection is where the main East-West/North-South arteries of Oly cross paths. Until I-5 was created, the intersection was where US 101 turned into US 99. If you were driving from Portland to Seattle, you had to pass through this crossroads. Hard to believe today.

I became interested in the history of this spot and the idea of using just one small area to trace where Olympia has been. Here are some sources I found to quote:

Building a Capital City : Olympia's Past Revealed Through its Historic Architecture / written by Heather Lockman ; researched by Shanna Stevenson (2000). Great fun and well edited. Historical candy for those of us with visual minds.

Early Sites of Olympia / Bernice A. Sapp (1950). An unpublished manuscript. Bernice (1881-1965), came to Olympia from Illinois with her family in 1887. She was active in various historical groups and obviously loved Olympia, carefully documenting the significant sites.

Olympia, Tumwater, and Lacey : a Pictorial History / Shanna B. Stevenson. (Rev. ed. 1996). A great place to start if you want to dive into Oly history. Comprehensive and loaded with terrific photos.

Rogues, Buffoons & Statesmen / Gordon Newell (1975). An irreverent and entertaining history of Oly in the role of Cap City. Gordon also has a political bent, so knowing national governmental history is helpful before picking this up.

So Fair a Dwelling Place : a history of Olympia and Thurston County, Washington / Gordon R. Newell. [Updated ed., 1985?] Somehow my Dad was able to obtain a signed copy for me back in 1985. This was originally published in 1950 and includes a whole chapter by Bernice Sapp. I'm guessing the Sapp manuscript I mentioned before was a rough draft for this book.

A Walking Tour of Historic Downtown Olympia / Olympia Heritage Commission, [198-?]. A nice 16 p. pamphlet covering several historic buildings and places in Oly. Chiefly compiled by Shanna Stevenson.

While reading the extracts below, note how much impact the 1949 earthquake had on reshaping things.


"The stockade on Fourth Street during the Indian War of 1855-56 was built from bay to bay. At that time there was an inlet on the east side that ran as far as Union Ave. about where the Northern Pacific Railroad trestle is now. Therefore, the stockade started at about Water Street and ran to about Plum Street."--Sapp

"The Territorial Legislature passed an Act on January 28, 1859, incorporating the Town of Olympia. The first meeting of the Board of Trustees was held in a little old frame building owned by Charles E. Williams (4th and Main)"--Sapp

"All of what we know today as the Port of Olympia is land created by fill. Olympia Avenue (originally 2nd Street) was the northern limit of downtown in 1870. Extreme high tides flooded buildings as far as Fifth Avenue ..."--Walking Tour

"First horse cars. In 1890, George M. Savage, laid a track along Main St. from Fourth to Thirteenth, and in the winter put on two horse cars. Later he built the track from Fourth to Puget. Thomas Connolly was the driver of one of the first horse cars. They were drawn by three horses ..."--Sapp [click here for more Oly streetcar history]

NE corner:

"On the northeast corner was the first water system in Olympia-- a town pump where Indians and whites came to draw water and exchange gossip. Maybe this was the reason the newspapers have remained on the block so long."--Newell/Sapp [stevenl note: When I was a kid, the Daily Olympian HQ was on the SE corner of State and Capitol].

"Site of the town pump. Back in the fifties was the large spring referred to, which then supplied the village of Olympia with water."--Sapp

"Julian Guyot, a native of Switzerland, was the first jeweler in the Territory of Washington in the early 50's. He had a small shop where the Chambers Building is."--Sapp

"Olympia Stockade. In 1856 Rev. J.F. DeVore, R.M. Walker and William Cock were constituted a committee to proceed at once on works for defense, and, if necessary to detain the Brig. Tarquina, then in the harbor, as a means of refuge. A stockade was erected along Fourth St. from bay to bay, with a blockhouse on the corner of Fourth and Main on which was placed a cannon."--Sapp

"Town Pump. In 1864 the committee on streets was instructed to build a reservoir about a spring on the northeast corner of Main and Fourth Streets and establish a pump for the convenience of the general public. This spring which furnished pure and cold water had long been a village institution, and this corner a gathering place in the evening where politics and village gossip were discussed. The faithful old town pump gave way to a water system installed in 1866."--Sapp

"Chambers Block, 1887, 100 Capitol Way NE. Built by Olympia mayor A.H. Chambers, this is one of the city's oldest remaining business blocks. Decorative cast-iron pilasters survive at street level, but other Victorian features-- an elaborate cornice and large bay windows-- were destroyed in a major earthquake in 1949. When the building was renovated in 1987, new bay windows were installed.
The Chambers Block sits on one of Olympia's most historic corners. It was the site of the settlement's first water pump-- a community crossroads where pioneer residents met, talked and swapped news. It was also the spot where the town placed its cannon during the Puget Sound Indian War of 1855-56."--Lockman [stevenl note: This cannon was later used as a method of celebration during the Civil War. See link]

"Mr. Chambers had a 'patent stone' sidewalk constructed around his new building at 4th and Main, giving as [John Miller] Murphy reported proudly, 'a decidedly city-like ring to passing footsteps'"--Newell.

NW corner:

"On the northwest corner of Main and Fourth stood the residence of Sam Williams, the hardware man. This house is still here, having been moved to a location just south of the Y.M.C.A. North of Williams' house stood his hardware store."--Newell/Sapp.

"Mottman Building. In Feb. 1888 Samuel Williams began the erection of a brick building on the northwest corner of Main and Fourth Sts."--Sapp

"Mottman Building 1888/1911 ... Much changed from its original appearance, this building was constructed as a two-story building by Toklas and Kaufman, pioneer merchants. George Mottman became its next owner in 1896, expanding it in 1911 with a 20-foot extension to the west and the addition of third story. In the process, the lower story windows were enlarged on the south end (along Fourth Avenue), and a six-foot wide, multi-paned transom window inserted all along the Fourth Avenue and Capitol Way frontages. Building entrances were also changed and door knobs lowered to accommodate George Mottman's small stature. In addition, the first elevator in Olympia was installed, and instead of stairs there were floor-to-floor ramps for carts and prams. The store was equipped with wire baskets on a wire and pully system which traveled overhead carrying money and receipts between the sales tables and the cashier's desk on the mezzanine.
Following the 1949 earthquake, other changes were made. The wood trusses behind the first floor transom windows were added. The transom and show windows were removed on the 20-foot west addition, and the small first floor window was added. The curved heads of most of the second floor windows were also changed to flat heads.
Mottman's remained open until 1967 with little change, and in 1952 merchandisers spoke of it as the only store of its kind left in the United States. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places."--Walking Tour

"Store Building built by Charles E. Williams in 1890. Toklas and Kauffman Dry Goods and Clothing Store here from 1891 to 1900. Mottman Mercantile Here from 1900 to 1950."--Sapp

"... George Mottman was adding a third story to the old Toklas and Kaufman building at 4th and Main. The enlarged department store would be the first mercantile establishment in town equipped with a passenger elevator for the convenience of its customers. It was also equipped with marvelous overhead tramways upon which mesh baskets flew like miniature monorails to carry cash and merchandise to the cashier's control tower on the mezzanine and returned with wrapped packages and change for customers. Several generations of Olympia children craned their necks at Mottman's to view with delight the airy flight of the baskets [stevenl note: me included], secretly hoping there would be a collision as the complex tramlines converged on the cashier's booth, which was was always tastefully decorated with a spreadeagled suit of old-fashioned long john underwear."--Newell.

"The building was extensively renovated in 1985"--Lockman

SW corner:

"On the southwest corner was the scene of the first circus"--Newell/Sapp.

"Site of McKenny Block. Built by General T.I. McKenny in 1889. Leased to State for Capitol from 1890 to 1901. Kneeland Hotel from 1901 to 1947."--Sapp

"T.I. McKenny was born in Illinois. He fought in the Mexican and Civil Wars and was an attaché to several generals. He was brevetted Brigadier General and graduated from Physicians College in 1866. In 1867, he was named Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Washington Territory. He spent the rest of his life in Olympia where he was active in real estate, in the school system, and was president of the State Hospital in Steilacoom for a time."--Stevenson. [stevenl note: Olympia environmentalist icon Margaret McKenny was the daughter of T.I.]

"In 1891 the Supreme Court occupied the rooms over the Talcott Brothers' Jewelry Store, but generally the records were stored in the little white frame Capitol on the hill. When the session was over, they would be moved back to the Talcott Building. This practice continued until the state rented the upper floors of the McKenny Building where all State offices, including the State Library and State Law Library were housed. The State rented this building from 1890 to 1901, when the State purchased the Thurston County Court House for a Capitol."--Sapp [stevenl note: The State Law Library and State Library were one and the same in the time period Ms. Sapp covers here. The Thurston County Courthouse mentioned is now the Supt. of Public Instruction Bldg. next to Sylvester Park]

"... The McKenny building was sold to W.H. Kneeland of Shelton for conversion from an office building to a first class hotel."--Newell

[1907] "Comfortable havens of refuge were plentiful. The new Kneeland hotel at 4th and Main had formally opened on New Years day, displaying its 'elegant lobby in mission style' and its adjoining bar, restaurant, grille and house barber shop operated by the town's leading tonsorial artists, Baude and Klambush. The Kneeland's 34 high-ceilinged rooms were all outside, 'many with bath.' Telephones were being installed in all of them, an elevator conveyed the occupants smoothly up and down and a handsome new bus was on hand at the depot and dock to provide free transportation to the lobby. The Kneeland was the first hotel in town to operate on the European plan, the price of rooms not including meals."--Newell

[1910] "In a further skirmish in the war against sin, the Kneeland Investment Company ... brought suit to oust the lessees of the Kneeland hotel at 4th and Main. It was charged that the town's once prestigious hotel had been converted into a 'disorderly house,' with beer and liquor served in the rooms all night and the halls frequented by women of the restricted district."--Newell

[1930] "The Kneeland had slipped to a second rate status."--Newell

" ... Later known as the Kneeland Hotel, the building was torn down after it suffered extensive damage in the 1949 earthquake."--Stevenson

[stevenl note: Goldberg's, the current building, went up in 1950, designed by G. Stacey Bennett, a student of the Cesso sullo Paesaggio school of architecture. 

SE corner:

"On the southeast corner of Main and Fourth was the Turner Block, built by Dr. George Turner, the first licensed pharmacist in the Territory. Many governors had offices in this block, upstairs and handy to the "Capitol," just across the street."--Newell/Sapp.

[stevenl note: This corner of the intersection has the least amount of published documentation. Considering the importance of this section, I think there is an opportunity here for some historical discovery]

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