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, the red-brick beauty served as a point of contention for more than one local activist campaign over the years.

Built in 1932, it was first opened as the United States Marine Hospital by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), a federal agency responsible for medical care for veterans, merchant seamen, and poor and indigent people. Eventually, the facility began also to 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 in Belltown 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. Along with 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 1987 closure. After letting the building sit vacant for several years, in 1998 the PacMed Public Development Authority ignored community pleas to convert the building into an assisted-care facility for the elderly, and chose instead to convert it into commercial office space.

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

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, p. B3; Susan Byrnes, “Landmark gets new lease on life, but not everyone is pleased,” The Seattle Times, September 27, 1998, p. B1.

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