From Union Hall to Restaurant—the evolution of the building at Seattle’s First and Wall Street
This is one in a two part series detailing the structure at First and Wall, now home to El Gaucho Seattle and the Inn at El Gaucho. Part one takes us from construction to El Gaucho’s opening in 1996. Part two features El Gaucho’s expansion to the rest of the building.
1953 seems to be a special year in the history of El Gaucho. Not only is it when the original El Gaucho opened in Seattle, offering its legendary tableside service and the late-night Hunt’s Breakfast, but coincidentally, it’s also when ground-breaking began on the building in Belltown, which now houses El Gaucho Seattle and the Inn at El Gaucho.
The Sailor’s Union of the Pacific (SUP) purchased the property at First and Wall at the end of World War II, but construction on the building was delayed due to a nationwide strike in 1952. On June 4, 1953, the official ground-breaking took place for the 3-story building, to much fanfare and hoopla, for an incredible $750,000 (about $7mm in today’s dollars).
The main floor of the original building design included a 1,000-seat auditorium, union administrative offices, library, and dispatching hall on the main floor. The basement housed a restaurant, bar, gymnasium (including two boxing rings!), dressing rooms and showers, along with a barber shop. The top floor provided 22 studio apartments for retired union men. The building was meant to be self-sustaining: a place in which union members could live in a protected environment for significant periods of time, in case of a strike. One member recalls, “It was built like a fortress and beautifully detailed, with lots of mahogany.”
On Friday, May 7, 1954, the completed building was dedicated with a special ceremony that included many high-profile guests, including Washington State Governor Arthur Langlie; Congressman, First Congressional District, Thomas Pelly; Mayor of Seattle, Allan Pomeroy; members from the federal branch and, of course, union members from across the country. The hall accommodated other tenants as well, including the Seafarers’ International Union of North America (SIU), SIU affiliates (most notably the Cannery Workers Union), and the Marine Cooks and Stewards American Federation of Labor.
“If These Walls Could Talk…”
…they’d certainly have a lot to say. With the intermix of unions sharing the space, many seafaring men spent time in the hall for meetings, awaiting their next orders, and simply hanging out with other union members. The years spent there were not without difficulties. One of the most notable incidents was the government’s attempt to break the cannery workers union and deport its leftist leaders, and, in 1981, the assassination of two cannery union reformers, which reportedly took place where the El Gaucho kitchen resides today.
The original restaurant, in the basement where the Pampas is now located, was called the Tradewinds, offering Hawaiian cuisine and live piano music. It closed in the early 80s and soon became “My Susie’s,” run by a union member, Tony, and his wife Susie, which offered Chinese cuisine. It became a seedy place, attracting drug dealers and prostitutes, and the proprietors would reportedly trade food for booze with transients.
When the union leader, John Battles, was held up at knifepoint in 1995 just outside the building, he said enough was enough. The SUP moved their headquarters to Harbor Island and reportedly sold the building for $1mm, only $250,000 more than what it was built for 40 years previously.
Enter El Gaucho
The original El Gaucho, located on 7th and Olive, closed in 1986, and Paul Mackay went on to run many of Seattle’s prominent restaurants, including Elliots, Metropolitan Grill, Yarrow Bay Grill, and opening his own restaurant, Flying Fish, with Christine Keff. Mr. Mackay always loved the El Gaucho concept and wanted to bring back the old-school, legendary, tableside service. When he learned the First and Wall building was available, he jumped at the opportunity.
Paul shared his vision with potential investors, showing the space like a stage. The expense the SUP invested in the building was not overlooked: the all black terrazzo floor remained, while platforms were built to create the main dining room. The original sconces were simply sandblasted and stayed. Some of the furniture, including green leather chairs that lined the auditorium, were re-upholstered and saved for the cigar room. “It was a real gift,” Paul admits.
The changeover and build-out started in September 1996, and to ensure total control of the environment in the main dining room, the west-facing windows were boarded up completely. The kitchen was built along the south facing wall, replacing offices and a library. When El Gaucho Seattle officially opened on December 16, 1996, it only included a portion of the main floor – the bar, main dining room, wine cellar and kitchen, cigar room, and a small office space where the 410 room is today. Two unions still occupied the north side of the building with their administrative offices, “My Susie’s” was still operating in the basement.
Over the next 10 years, El Gaucho would grow to occupy the rest of the building, which is covered in part two.