Capitol Hill is the most densely populated neighborhood in Seattle, Washington. It is the center of gay life in Seattle and also a center of its counterculture, while also home to some of the city's grandest mansions.
The origin of the neighborhood's name is disputed. According to one story, James A. Moore, the real estate developer who platted much of the area, named it thus in the hope that the Washington government would move to Seattle from Olympia. According to another, Moore named it after the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver, Colorado, his wife's hometown. It is thought by the editors of HistoryLink that the true story is a combination of the two.
Prior to Moore's naming it so in 1901, Capitol Hill was known as Broadway Hill.
Since about 1980, Capitol Hill has had a reputation as the center of gay life in Seattle, although it has never been as exclusively gay as The Castro in San Francisco or Davie Village in Vancouver, British Columbia. It also has a reputation as the heart of "hip" Seattle, and was the neighborhood most closely associated with the grunge scene, although most of the best-known music venues of that era were actually located slightly outside the neighborhood.
Most of the Hill's major thoroughfares are dotted with coffeehouses, taverns and bars, as well as numerous retail stores, boutiques, and (along E. Pike and E. Pine Streets) a few art galleries. Residences cover the gamut from modest motel-like studio apartment buildings to some of the city's grandest and most venerable mansions, with the two extremes sometimes cheek-by-jowl.
The neighborhood figures prominently in nightlife and entertainment, with many bars hosting live music and with numerous fringe theaters. Capitol Hill is also home to two of the city's best-known movie theaters, both of them part of the Landmark Theatres chain and both of them architectural conversions of private meeting halls: the Harvard Exit, in the former home of the Women's Century Club (converted in the early 1970s) and the Egyptian Theatre, in a former Masonic lodge (converted in the mid-1980s). The Broadway Performance Hall, located on the campus of Seattle Central Community College, also hosts a variety of lectures, performances, and films.
Under Washington State's liquor laws, until the 1990s it was virtually impossible to have a bar that served hard liquor without having a full restaurant: at least 40% of revenues had to come from food. Drinking establishments were (and still are) divided into bars with full licenses and taverns that could sell only beer, wine, and hard cider.
At least since the 1970s, Capitol Hill has played a prominent role in Seattle's nightlife. Prominent bars in the 1970s, inevitably also full-scale restaurants, were the upmarket, elegant Henry's Off Broadway and two Broadway "fern bars" owned by Jerry Kingen. (Kingen also turned the Red Robin from a single tavern at the southern end of the University Bridge into a restaurant chain.) The bars at his Boondocker's, Sundecker's, & Greenthumb's and Lion O'Reilly's & BJ Monkeyshines were both popular with a young crowd, mostly heterosexual and single. Lion O'Reilly's had a last hurrah as "Lion O's Rock Hard Cafe", which resulted in legal action by the Hard Rock Cafe chain. Surviving from that era, with a rougher-hewn version of the same style, is Canterbury Ales and Eats on 15th Avenue E.
With a similar look, but far more emblematic of what was to come, was the Brass Connection, a bar and disco with a predominantly gay male crowd and occasional drag shows. It played a key role in moving the heart of Seattle's gay nightlife scene from relative hidey-holes, mainly in the Pioneer Square and Belltown neighborhoods, to higher-profile venues, mainly on Capitol Hill and especially in the Pike-Pine corridor.
In the late 1980s, another gay bar, Tugs Belltown, moved up to the Hill (corner of Pine and Belmont) and became Tugs Belmont. In this new venue, it played a key role in Seattle's burgeoning fringe theater scene. Possibly the first bar in Seattle since before the Prohibition era to regularly host theater performances, in the early 1990s it was the primary home of the Greek Active Theater, founded by Dan Savage (working pseudonymously as Keenan Hollohan).
The scene along the Pike-Pine corridor was not exclusively gay. In the 1990s Moe's, on Pike just east of Broadway (now the site of Neumo's) transformed a former Salvation Army facility into a combination bar, restaurant, and performance venue, with local and national acts as well as dance nights, and became for several years one of Seattle's most prominent musical performance venues, drawing a mixed straight and gay crowd.
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