Werner Lenggenhager (1899-1988) was a Swiss immigrant who had lived in Australia and California before coming to Seattle in 1939 at age 40. A trip home to Switzerland in 1949 made Lenggenhager realize that historic buildings are not always valued until it is too late. Working at Boeing Aircraft Company in Seattle was Lenggenhager’s “day job” and in his free time Lenggenhager launched a one-man effort to record as much of Seattle’s historic architecture as he could.
The 1950s in Seattle was a time of enormous changes when some people felt that it was better to sweep away old buildings and districts to be replaced with new, modern structures. Large-scale clearing of houses and neighborhoods took place for the construction of the Interstate 5 Freeway and for Seattle Center which was to be the site of the Century 21 World’s Fair in 1962.
The proposed Century 21 fairgrounds at First & Mercer Streets, at the foot of Queen Anne Hill, was the site of very old houses in what was considered to be a deteriorated district. Lenggenhager documented the houses on the site before they were cleared for construction of the Century 21 World’s Fair buildings.
Lenggenhager’s work caught the attention of Victor Steinbrueck, Seattle architect and preservationist, who included some of Lenggenhager’s photos in a book called Seattle Architecture 1850 to 1953. This book became one of the keys in turning the tide of public opinion away from a “clean sweep” of old architecture, and toward historic preservation.
Victor Steinbrueck is best known for his leadership to preserve Seattle’s Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square. In the 1950s and 1960s the City of Seattle debated tearing down these old districts but because of Lenggenhager’s influential photos and Steinbrueck’s preservation advocacy, a historic preservation program and Landmark Districts were created in Seattle.
Lenggenhager launched out to photograph historic monuments and markers all around the State of Washington, which he published in ten volumes between 1967 and 1970. Lenggenhager collaborated with historian Lucile McDonald on two other books, serving as photographer on The Look of Old Time Washington (1971) and Where the Washingtonians Lived: Interesting Early Homes and the People Who Built and Lived in Them (1969).
In the 1960s Lenggenhager had a weekly photo feature in the Seattle Times’ newspaper magazine section, much as Seattle historian Paul Dorpat later did, from 1982 to 2019. (Mr. Dorpat retired in 2019, and his column is still continuing with contributing writers.)
In an interview for a Seattle Times article of October 2, 1955, Werner Lenggenhager said, “Some persons contribute time to charitable causes. My pictures are my small contribution to the city.”
In January 2016 the Seattle Public Library announced that seven hundred more of Werner Lenggenhager’s photographs had been digitized and made available on-line. At the rate of seven hundred photos per year, it will only take about forty-two years to put up all of the collection on-line, because Lenggenhager gave about 30,000 photos to the library. Smaller collections of Lenggenhager’s photographs are held by the Washington State Archives, the University of Washington Libraries, the Museum of History and Industry, and other institutions.
The Werner Lenggenhager Photograph Collection at Seattle Public Library has an on-line finding aid and listed categories. The photos I have used in this blog post are from the 1962 Century 21 World’s Fair category, sub-category Seattle Center before Century 21.