October 4, 1971: Beacon Hill, Before Amazon

Seattle's Pacific Medical Center building, back in the day

The grand and distinctive Art Deco building that looms over downtown Seattle from the northern edge of Beacon Hill, thereby serving as a landmark for that neighborhood, was known until recently as the corporate headquarters of Amazon.com. But long before Amazon took over that landmark, it served as a point of contention for more than one local activist campaign over the years.

Built in 1933, it was first opened as the United States Marine Hospital by the U.S. Public Health Service, a federal agency responsible for medical care for servicemen and seamen. It eventually began to also serve as a crucial source of affordable health-care services for Seattle’s low-income communities, many of whom lived on Beacon Hill. By 1971, financial strife in the PHS system led the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) to announce the proposed closure of Seattle’s Public Health Service Hospital, as it was then named. On the date in focus here, the newly-formed Public Health Care Coalition, comprising merchant seamen, labor leaders, free clinic volunteers, and other local activists, gathered in Seattle’s Labor Temple to protest the closure plans.

One particularly contentious issue that day was the recent ousting by HEW of Dr. Willard P. Johnson, the hospital’s director, who had already publicly protested the proposed closure. In addition to calling for the cancellation of the hospital’s closure, the coalition also called for Johnson’s reinstatement, as well as the expansion of the hospital’s affordable health-care services.

While the activists won a victory that year, and the hospital was eventually taken over by the City of Seattle, renamed the Pacific Medical Center, and run as a public hospital, perpetual underfunding for public health care throughout the 1980s eventually led to the hospital’s closure. After letting the building sit vacant for several years, in 1998 the PacMed Public Development Authority ignored community pleas to turn the building into an assisted-care facility for the elderly, and chose instead to covert it to commercial office space.

By means of shady sweetheart dealing influenced by then-Mayor Paul Schell, the building was soon leased to the Seattle development company Wright Runstad for 99 years for the dirt-cheap price of $8 per square foot. Wright Runstad then rented the property to Amazon at market rates, making a handsome profit — as well as providing a grand example of the sorts of sordid histories that dwell in many of Seattle’s otherwise lovely landmarks.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: “‘Little Guys’ Fight for Hospital,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 5, 1971, p. A7; “Coalition planning campaign to keep P.H.S. hospital open,” The Seattle Times, October 5, 1971, p. A8; Thomas W. Haines, “Landmark Hospital Site May Convert To Offices,” The Seattle Times, June 10, 1998; Susan Byrnes, “Landmark Gets New Lease On Life, But Not Everybody’s Pleased,” The Seattle Times, September 27, 1998.

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About radsearem

Jeff Stevens is a Seattle native and author of the forthcoming City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle.
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