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All Over The Map: Who named Seattle’s Northgate Mall?

It was 72 years ago this week that plans for a revolutionary new shopping center in Seattle were announced, which would later be known as ‘Northgate Mall.’

The mall is now in the midst of a major redevelopment project. Construction is underway, a light rail station and new housing, as well as a practice facility for the city’s new NHL team, are just ahead in the not-too-distant future. And while the 70-year old mall is looking a little bleak and deserted these days, there are several businesses still open during construction.

The name “Northgate” for the shopping center, the street, and even the neighborhood might seem pretty obvious now, given the location and all the activity, and especially considering its proximity to Interstate 5.

But in February 1948 when the project was first announced, there was no I-5. Roosevelt Way, two blocks to the east, was a thoroughfare, but Highway 99, the main road in and out of Seattle in those days, was (and still is) a mile and a half to the west. The city limits were 25 blocks south at Northeast 85th, and Northgate wouldn’t become part of Seattle until 1954.

So it wasn’t quite the boonies, but it was definitely the outskirts of town. The entire shopping center was designed for people to visit by personal vehicle in those booming postwar years that helped guide the creation of so much of the city’s car-focused infrastructure.

A man named Jim Douglas developed the property and managed the shopping center for several decades. Douglas was a civic leader who took part in just about everything in Seattle in the second half of the 20th century. He died in 2005 at age 95.

His cousin, political analyst C.R. Douglas, says Jim used to tell a lot of stories about Northgate, such as the time in 1950 when the shopping center displayed the world’s tallest Christmas tree, but he never spoke about who came up with the Northgate name.

“My guess is that Allied Stores (which owned the Bon Marché) and which owned the land originally (and hired Jim to develop and manage it) already had the name when Jim arrived,” C.R. Douglas wrote in an email.

In old photos of the shopping center – many of which are on display in a hallway at the north end of the mall – the original Bon dwarfs the other parts of the complex. To be clear, Northgate wasn’t originally an indoor mall, it was a series of covered breezeways — and lots of parking, parking, and more parking — until the early 1970s.

Digging into the newspaper archives, The Seattle Times of February 22, 1948, published a big spread on the plans for the shopping center. The story quoted one of the developers, a local investor named Ben Ehrlichman (the uncle of future Watergate figure John Ehrlichman).

“The name Northgate was chosen, Ehrlichman [told the Seattle Times], because the development ‘will be the most important northerly business district serving Seattle and vicinity and the gateway to metropolitan Seattle.’”

Though a 30th anniversary story in the same paper in 1980 credited Ehrlichman for coming up with the name – based on the 1948 story — we may never know for certain whose idea it was.

Further newspaper archive searches turned up an apartment building on Lower Queen Anne Hill that was built in 1918 called “Northgate.” The building appears in classified ads under that name until 1944, and then the name just goes away. At some point, that building was renamed “Queen Anne Arms.” If there’s any connection between this original Seattle Northgate and the late 1940s shopping center, that’s also something we’ll likely never know.

The big Bon Marché at Northgate opened in April 1950, with several other stores opening in time for that year’s Christmas shopping season, and that giant 212-foot Christmas tree. Northgate Way, comprised of what was formerly Northeast 105th and Northeast 110th and segments of a few other streets, was officially called that in 1968 after a seven-year effort led by Jim Douglas and the Northgate company. New signs went up in July of that year, so credit Jim Douglas for the free advertising that comes with the neighborhood and the street being named after the shopping center he brought to life.

For Jim Douglas, development was in his genes. His father was J.F. Douglas, who developed the Metropolitan Tract in downtown Seattle. This was the original site of the University of Washington. The real estate is still owned by the school, and it generates significant lease income. Under J.F. Douglas’ leadership of the Metropolitan Building Company, the Metropolitan Tract became home to some of the city’s finest early 20th century buildings, including the city’s original ice arena (built in 1915 where the IBM Building now stands). The team that played in that ice arena, and won the Stanley Cup there in 1917, took its name, the Metropolitans, from the Metropolitan Building Company.

Given the Metropolitans’ history of playing and winning in an arena presided over by J.F. Douglas, there’s some satisfaction knowing that the new hockey team, whatever it’s eventually named, will practice at a place originally developed by J.F.’s son.

Though it’s not quite a small town anymore, Seattle is still something of a small world.

More from Feliks Banel.

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