Located on the corner of 1st Avenue and James Street, the Pioneer Building has become one of the most iconic buildings in the city of Seattle. The captivating history of the Pioneer Building began before it was even constructed, when Henry Yesler built Seattle’s first sawmill on the spot in 1853.
Producing low quality lumber (by Yesler’s own account) the mill operated 24 hours a day and sent lumber as far as Alaska and Hawaii (historylink.org). Soon other, more technically advanced sawmills began to crop up in the area, expanding the Seattle lumber industry rapidly. The role that Yesler’s sawmill played in establishing the city of Seattle cannot be denied; it launched the lumber industry in Seattle which helped to create the city that we know today.
By the beginning of 1889, Yesler had hired architect Elmer H. Fisher to construct the Pioneer Building, and excavations began soon after. But, on June 6, 1889, the Great Seattle Fire swept through Seattle’s commercial district, razing it the ground. Remarkably, the excavation for the Pioneer Building along with Elmer Fisher’s drawings survived the fire, and construction was completed on the building in 1892 (historylink.org).
(Fisher’s drawings, University of Washington Digital Collections)
Some of the building’s first tenants included The Puget Sound National Bank of Seattle, the Union Trunk Line, and the King County Medical Society.
The Pioneer Building has been used for a number of purposes and housed a variety of different companies throughout its 125 years. Between 1897 and 1908 , amid the Klondike Gold Rush, it became a hub for mining companies, and it was “Seattle’s finest speakeasy” in the 1920s during Prohibition (Pacific Coast Architecture Database). The building began to fall into disrepair in the 1930s, continuing into the 1940s and 1950s. During the late 1950s, however, support mounted for renovation and rehabilitation of Pioneer Square, with the Pioneer Building being one of the main focuses. In 1970 it was added to the National Historic Places list, and saw significant renovation by 1980.
The Pioneer Building has changed hands three times since 2001. After being acquired by 600 Pioneer LLC in 2001, it was sold to Sun Capital Corporation in 2014 for $12.3 million. Finally, a Chicago-based real estate company, called Level Office, bought the building in 2015 for $20.5 million, and it now houses offices for small businesses.
During its 125 years of existence, the Pioneer Building has carved a place in Seattle history and created a legacy that will endure for years to come.