Last Night

Last Night: Columbia City Alley Tour

By Erica C. Barnett October 5, 2010

On Saturday morning, actually, I went on a tour of the alleys of Columbia City led by two lovely ladies from the Rainier Valley Historical Society. Ordinarily, they give more conventional tours of historic Columbia City buildings; for their last tour of the year, however, they  provided a peek at some of the places even longtime residents don't often pay attention to.

A few interesting things I learned:

1) Most of Columbia City alleys (and, I suspect, alleys in any Western town that was around at the turn of the last century) used to be in active use---for businesses both legitimate (a hardware store, a barber shop) and nefarious (speakeasies---Columbia City was dry even before Prohibition---and pool parlors). Even advertising!

2) Since those days, though, most of the alleys have been closed for business, ads for Broadway touring shows replaced by signs prohibiting trespassing, drugs, prostitution, and dumping garbage. As a sad consequence, many windows and doors have been bricked over or boarded up: People would rather look out onto the street than into the alleys that used to be the center of so much commerce.

3) The Masons left their mark on the neighborhood, literally and figuratively. Among other things, they built the building that now houses the Columbia City Cinema, which used to have a glove factory on the bottom floor (accessible by an alley door that is now bricked up) and a Masonic Temple on the top. The cornerstone for that building is labeled "5921"---a nod to the Masons' weird calendar, which maintains that the world began 4,000 years before Christ was born. (The building was erected in 1921).

4) The Columbia City Cinema also exemplifies one architectural trend that prompted a brief but heated argument between two of the Historical Society members on the tour: The tendency, over the course of the last century, to add awnings and marquees that obscured buildings' original brick facades. Many of those additions, including the cinema's marquee, are now old enough to be considered historical in their own right. Here's how the cinema building looked before and after the marquee was added.


And now:

5) Finally, and only tangentially related to alleys: The old Columbia City Hall, which was active for the 14 years Columbia was incorporated as an independent city, was moved two blocks west, many of its distinctive architectural features (including a tall cupola) removed. I couldn't find an old photo, but today, it's used as a duplex:

Learn more about the Rainier Valley Historical Society at their web site.
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