Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood lives on in next generations
The community that formed here and thrived until the early 1980s represents a bygone Seattle, one that people have come to think of as special, even for a city known for fiercely proud and independent neighborhoods.
PAUL SAUVAGE LIVES just a few doors down from the house he grew up in on Seattle's Capitol Hill, but this neighborhood of houses bursting with bedrooms and lined with towering old trees feels vastly different from the way it was when he was a boy in the 1960s, a truth made all the more stark when he starts to talk about how many kids used to live on his street.
The family next door to his on 22nd Avenue East had eight children. A little farther down, the house had nine. Next to them, another home had nine kids, then a family with 14, then a couple more with eight, then a house with 12.
Every family was Catholic.
If you didn't know better, you'd think Sauvage was talking about another city.
For sure, Sauvage, one of eight children raised by Mary Ann Sauvage and pioneering heart surgeon Dr. Lester Sauvage, is the product of another time.
The Capitol Hill neighborhood stretching from East Interlaken Boulevard in the north to East Roy Street in the south was so thoroughly Catholic that in the early part of the last century it earned the nickname "Catholic Hill."
Families attended mass at St. Joseph Church at 18th Avenue East and East Aloha Street and sent their kids to the parish grade school, then either to Holy Names Academy, the nearby Catholic girls' high school, or Seattle Preparatory School, the formerly all-boys Catholic high school.
The community that formed here and thrived until the early 1980s represents a bygone Seattle, one that people like Paul Sauvage have come to think of as special, even for a city known for fiercely proud and independent neighborhoods. It was a blue-collar neighborhood with flashes of upper-middle-class success. Here, and at that particular time in Seattle's history, Boeing factory workers lived next to families headed by doctors.
The neighborhood exerts on those who lived here a gravitational force so strong that "nostalgia" doesn't quite capture it. It's the feeling you have when a place gets in your blood, when your roots burrow so deep you can't tell where yours end and your neighbors' begin, especially when you marry one of those neighbors, as has happened a few instances here.
"At any time in the summer you could stand on the street and just wait for a game of kick-the-can or capture-the-flag to start up," the 50-year-old Paul Sauvage says, thinking back on his childhood.
He's lived in other parts of the city, but "one way or another, I knew I was gonna end up back here," he says. "We all have this homing instinct."
He wants his own four children to experience that comforting sense of legacy and continuity that hangs above these idyllic streets, echoes through the wooden stairwells of all these hulking bungalows, and nestles in the memories of people who came of age here.
"It's just a familiarity," he says. "Every time you walk outside, you just get that feeling you've known your whole life. It just makes you feel connected. It's grounding."
Paul's sister Mary Ann moved into a home across the street from the house where the kids grew up. His brother Bill lives two streets away and teaches religion at St. Joseph School.
Brother John also lives nearby on 21st and is married to Mona McChesney, who grew up a few doors down from the Sauvages.
Further entangling the neighborhood's family tree, the 7,000-square-foot house where Paul Sauvage and his wife, Debbie, have raised their four kids is the same one where Mona and the other McChesney children grew up.
The current principal at St. Joseph School, George Hofbauer, is the same one who led the school when Paul and his siblings attended a generation ago. Some of the teachers, like Bill Sauvage, were themselves students there.
People who grew up on Catholic Hill don't need to muse wistfully about their childhoods. In many ways, it has followed them into adulthood.
"There's almost always a Sauvage in here," former U.S. Attorney John McKay says as he surveys the customers at the Tully's Coffee across from St. Joseph Church. The cafe used to be Benson's Mission Pharmacy, and the proprietor's wife seemed to know every child by name, or at least be able to match a face to a family.
McKay grew up one of 12 children just down from the Sauvages. One street over, his classmate at St. Joseph and Seattle Prep, former Mayor Greg Nickels, grew up in a house with five children.
McKay remembers a neighborhood that had its own cocky lingo. Kids thought of themselves as "Hillers."
"Up here, I'm Johnny," McKay explains. Never John — too stuffy.
For kicks, kids would throw tennis balls at cars and engage in other petty offenses sure to attract the attention of the cops.
"We liked getting chased," McKay, now a legal eagle, says with an ironic grin.
All the boys wore dark Levi 501s, black Jack Purcell Converse and a dark-blue nylon "Hill coat" by Pacific Trail if you could afford it or a cheap knock-off if you couldn't.
There was no such thing as a play date back then. Parents let their kids roam free.
"You sort of watched people's backs," McKay says.
JUST MINUTES FROM downtown, yet perched on a hill away from the city's core, the neighborhood enjoyed a blissful isolation, at least in people's minds.
"No one ever talked about what outsiders thought of us," McKay recalls. "We didn't care. We were in our own world."
It was a world where people bonded around religion.
"Our lives were all the same — everybody went to Mass on Sunday, ate fish on Friday and sent their kids to Catholic school," says Juanita Webb, who grew up on the Hill, graduated from Holy Names in 1940 and is now a bookkeeper at St. Joseph Church.
On Wednesdays during the spring and fall a different household would host a "block rosary" and invite all of the Catholic neighbors over. Living rooms were transformed into miniature houses of worship, with 30 or 40 people on their knees in prayer.
"It's like a big family," says Val Buono Spannaus, who grew up at the extreme north end of the neighborhood.
Her dad, Frank Buono, who ran the family construction and cabinet business on the Hill, grew up close to St. Joseph, where he went to grade school before moving on to Seattle Prep.
When Frank Buono held his 70th birthday party at St. Joseph in 2009, former classmates all the way back to first grade were there to greet him.
"He always says that in all his 70 years, he's never gone more than five miles in any direction," Buono Spannaus says. "You can take the person off the Hill but you can't take the Hill out of the person."
"Fifty-year-old men are still talking about their fifth-grade championship soccer game," she says.
For a quick fix of the old days, people from the neighborhood can pop into Capitol Hill Hair on 19th, where owner Michael Harer, who grew up a few blocks away, presides. McKay and Nickels are among his longtime customers.
Nickels sat in the barber's chair one afternoon and tried to count up all the kids who lived on his street when he was growing up.
"I think there were 113 kids on my block," Nickels says finally.
"That was not unusual," Harer adds.
On another day, Harer and former Hill neighbor Tom Quinn reminisced about the lasting impact coming of age here had on them.
"We grew up in these big families where our parents didn't raise us — they delegated," Harer says.
Kids had to develop a code of ethics early on, one enforced by Mom, Dad and the Holy Father.
"This neighborhood was physically and literally dominated by the church," Quinn says.
The Jesuit tradition of rigorous intellectual engagement, combined with those strong ethics and community-oriented attitude, permeates Hiller culture.
The idea of the "lived mission" forms the backbone of the curriculum at Seattle Prep, says Ellen Sweeney-Clawson, the school's alumni relations director. It's a value system that encourages young people not just to live well but to live right and serve others.
That explains why many who grew up on the Hill and attended its Catholic schools went on to jobs in education, medicine, law, government and philanthropy.
All of this is not to say that Catholic Hill was a perfect place, or that everyone who grew up here led a flawless life. Hofbauer jokes that his students a generation or two ago were "wilder than all hell."
Still, it is impossible to deny that Hillers managed to build something special.
ST. JOSEPH DATES back to 1904, when a mission and small chapel were built at 18th and Aloha. It became a full parish three years later, complete with a school. From the beginning, the parish was a draw for waves of Catholics descended from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Germany and other parts of Europe.
Lester Sauvage says the main reason he and his wife decided to raise their family on North Capitol Hill was the presence of "a strong spiritual atmosphere."
The Catholic schools and church "that helped instill moral values" were very important, says Sauvage, who recently moved with his wife from the Hill to a senior-housing complex downtown.
At this year's Ash Wednesday children's Mass, one of three holiday services that day, the main chapel at St. Joseph is at capacity with elementary-school students singing spirituals and grown-ups praying in the congregation.
Worshippers file to the front of the church to have their foreheads marked with a cross of ash, a symbol of repentance, grief and human fallibility.
It's a remarkably multigenerational affair. The elder Sauvages are there, along with some of their children and grandchildren. So are the Buonos.
"Even though things have changed, it's still home," Frank Buono says after the service.
If you're Catholic and grew up in the neighborhood, you'll always belong.
"Having that was really special," Bill Sauvage says.
But he acknowledges that building a community as close as this one is "more art than science."
It all starts in those big houses, some of which an outsider might mistake for mansions.
Bill and Paul Sauvage's in-law, Cathy Hamblet, was one of seven daughters and seven brothers who made up the McChesney household. The upper floors of the family home, where Paul Sauvage lives now, are a warren of bedrooms, nooks and balconies with breathtaking views over the Washington Park Arboretum and Lake Washington. You can easily imagine rambunctious children scrambling across the hardwood floors and downstairs to the cavernous living room.
Hamblet's dad worked for Boeing, and her mom stayed home and raised the kids, a typical arrangement in those days.
"There were some families of means," in the big homes that line the street, she says. "Then there were families like mine who just needed the space."
For decades, the church encouraged couples to grow the parish flock by having lots of children, and it even offered incentives, Principal Hofbauer notes.
"The archbishop would come out and baptize the 12th child," he says.
"But then all of a sudden, that stopped, and a large family became three or four kids," Hofbauer says.
There are many reasons for the shift, including the advent and growing social acceptability of birth control. But economics is a major factor, too.
Some who grew up on the Hill have basically been priced out as adults because of skyrocketing home values.
Frank Buono says his dad sold the family's home in the mid-1970s for $32,000.
"Now it's worth over a million dollars," he says.
McKay says his parents bought the house he grew up in for $27,500, but it's worth upward of $4 million now.
Today St. Joseph is a destination parish where before it was fed by people who lived within walking distance, says Archdiocese of Seattle spokesman Greg Magnoni, who grew up on the Hill. The church has had to rebuild its identity and attract a much broader group of parishioners, he says.
Today, many church members have to commute to St. Joseph by car or bus because they live so far away.
Hamblet, one of the McChesney children and a teacher at St. Joseph, attended that school and Holy Names in the late 1970s and early '80s. By the sixth grade, she recalls, many of her classmates were coming from outside the immediate area.
Today, maintaining ties to the neighborhood requires a bit more initiative.
When Hamblet's dad, Mac McChesney, died four years ago, Hamblet marveled at the number of people from the neighborhood who turned out to pay their respects at his funeral.
"There's still a sense of honoring that time by honoring the parents who really made it a magical place," she says.
Harer, the hair stylist, says funerals often turn into big neighborhood reunions.
The glory days of Catholic Hill were, in a sense, a blip in time.
Even so, the secret to this neighborhood's success, and maybe its future, may not be so esoteric after all.
"It's just a physical place, but people and relationships make it special," says Bill Sauvage.
While the neighborhood's connective tissue remains — in the form of the schools, church and a few homes passed down through the generations — the way people preserve the community atmosphere has changed.
In the absence of an overflowing Catholic enclave to draw from, the schools have to reach beyond the surrounding parish, too.
"People still want a faith-based, community-oriented school," Hofbauer says, noting that St. Joseph School even today is more than 70 percent Catholic. But "you have to market a school, sell it."
With Hofbauer retiring as principal next year, though, the neighborhood stands to lose another link to the community's past.
"I think this is kind of the end of it," Paul Sauvage laments.
Sauvage heads to the patio of his home and looks out over the alley behind the house and the rooftops of his neighbors.
A newer house stands today on what was once a field nicknamed "the clover," where kids would play British bulldogs, a schoolyard game that's similar to Red Rover. Every spot holds a thousand stories.
The alleys are mostly silent now, the warm breath of memory the only sign of the lives that used to unfold here.
But for the lucky few who can still call Catholic Hill home, it's a connection well worth kindling.
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.