The Seattle Empire Laundry building (known to the modern city as "66 Bell") was built in 1913 by Ira S. Harding. The building was commissioned by David Codding Keeney, the owner-founder of the first Seattle Empire Laundry - whose premises were previously at Fourth and Pine St for ten years. The architect of the building is listed as Mr. Ira S. Harding; the building permit (#128588) was issued on December 10, 1913. The laundry moved in May of 1914, as a feature in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted, hailing Keeney's Bell and Western premises as "a new and modern building with every modern facility incorporated...to meet the requirements of his business".
The laundry is located on the corner of Bell Street and Western Avenue, and commands the Northwest corner of the intersection. Its site slopes considerably from the original front (the East side) towards the West and Puget Sound which is located several blocks below. This location maximized ventilation available from prevailing Southern winds.
Situated on a slope directly East and above Puget Sound, the laundry embodies conditions considered ideal for a then- flourishing industry. These included proximity to large amounts of water, desirable commercial customers (hotels, restaurants and rooming houses), and the facilitation of frequent deliveries. The structures very existence testifies to growth and ambition, both within the laundry business and the Seattle of its day.
Behind the Western facade of the building today there is an alleyway; the next street to the West is Elliott Ave. The site also slopes slightly from the South to North. The structure fills an entire 60' x 120' lot, one platted as Bell & Dennys 1st addition Block 29, Lot 12. The building is constructed of red "paving" bricks with a gray concrete foundation. The roof was originally tar and gravel.
The large and expansive windows were the main means of ventilation for the laundrys original workforce. They dealt with heat of up to and over 100°, as well as several types of heavy machinery and weighty piles of clothing (both wet and dry). The windows have brick sills but no surrounds. The walls are built of solid brick - remarkably, they are three bricks thick.
The building has three stories with a full basement, and the initial concrete reinforcement is still very visible. Sanborn maps show the site as vacant in 1888, the year pioneer D. C. Keeney came to Seattle. By 1893, there was a structure on the lot, probably the stable Keeney later bought in 1909 from cigar dealer E. C. Winebrenner and his clerk W. H. Gamidge.
brief building history
1999, the Seattle Empire Laundry was the only completely-preserved, custom-built
pre-World War I laundry in Seattle. Only three other laundries of this era
are still standing; each of them has suffered considerable alteration. One,
however (the current New Richmond Laundry) has also been designated a Seattle
Inside as well as outside, Seattle Empire's architecture was linked directly to economic function. During its incarnation as a power laundry, the basement, first, second and third floors each served a different purpose - and they were constructed to fulfill specific tasks.
But, taken as a whole, the building embodies one of the most unexpected sagas in Seattle history. Its life was pivotal in the lives and accomplishments of famous national and regional figures: Teamster organizer Dave Beck and Northwest magnate John C. Hagen; the pioneer Seattleite James Branson Simpson, founder of the Arctic Fur Company.
The old laundry even touched upon the legacy of Walt Disney's - for his 1955 version of frontiersman Davy Crockett, this building produced 90% of the nation's "coonskin caps". The occasion was one which has never been repeated: the first and to date the greatest, merchandising craze ever fueled by electronic media.
The Seattle Empire Laundry was purpose-built at the apex of a national laundry boom. That boom lasted for the whole first quarter of the 20th century and it was the catalyst for seminal moments in labor history.
Its builder, D.C. Keeney, knew the laundry business inside-out. Coming to Seattle in 1888, he was involved in commercial laundry by 1895 (starting out as the proprietor of the W.T. Chop House, Keeney joined Samuel H. Vincent's Seattle Steam Laundry and Carpet Cleaning Works that year.) By 1900, David Keeney had his own business - the Empire Hand Laundry at 1513 First Ave. His relative Mark Keeney, formerly in lumber, was running the Seattle Steam Laundry by 1902.
Thus, when David Keeney came to build Seattle Empire, he had eighteen years' experience. In the city's sixth-largest business, he was a dominant figure.
Keeney's view of that business - like his successor John Hagen - was monopolistic and antiunion. The two men who ran the laundry located at Bell and Western founded powerful business cartels. Those placed the building at the heart of historic events: in 1917, the first laundry women's strike (a struggle which succeeded in establishing their union); in 1925, the dispute which brought future Teamster leader Dave Beck US prominence; and, in 1932, a bitter, violent strike, in which the Seattle laundrymen's cartel was finally vanquished.
In 1951, the Alaska Way viaduct spelled the end of the building's use as a laundry. But its change into a manufacturing plant for the Arctic Fur company, brought Seattle Empire new national fame.
Initially, it manufactured fur Korean War goods, cold-weather supplies for an unprepared military. Then, in 1955, a bizarre fate overtook it. This building, in which J.B. Simpson maintained a private office, manufactured over 90% of the "coonskin caps" for the Davy Crockett craze which had swept America. It even spawned the 'Polly Crockett' hat - Simpson's own invention.
Nominally, the famous figures in the building's history are male. Yet, initially, it made history because of the laundry's women: 80% of those who worked around and in the laundry were women. To step inside the building as it was before 1999, is to see much of the Seattle Empire Laundry they knew.