Seattle’s Immigrant Photographer: Werner Lenggenhager

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.

Looking north toward Queen Anne Hill from what is now the Flag Plaza of Seattle Center. This Werner Lenggenhager photo of 1957 also shows his appreciation of clothelines as a humorous touch to what would otherwise be a sad photo portent of doom for these houses.

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.

Werner Lenggenhager did a photo study of this house at 329 Warren Street with its fine Victorian details.

Werner Lenggenhager did a photo study of this house at 329 Warren Street with its fine Victorian details. The house was in the district to be cleared for the site of the Century 21 World’s Fair.

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.”

Houses which were on John Street at the present Seattle Center site.

Houses which were on John Street at the present Seattle Center site.

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.


About Wedgwood in Seattle History

Valarie is a volunteer writer of neighborhood history in Seattle.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Immigrant heritage and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Seattle’s Immigrant Photographer: Werner Lenggenhager

  1. bluestar2012 says:

    Great post!👍🏻

  2. I don’t think you will be changing your name to “Werner,” but you certainly stand in his legacy with your wonderful photo observations of Seattle today, Fred.

  3. pbecker165 says:

    Lovely, Valarie!


  4. Paula, you of all people probably know the most about the Century 21 World’s Fair, which you shared in your wonderful book, The Future Remembered. Bloggers alert! Paula’s next book will tell about local author Betty MacDonald, author of The Egg and I and other quirky Pacific Northwest tales.

  5. hdemare says:

    Thank goodness that people like Lenggenhager and Steinbrueck realized the value of historic architecture before all of it was razed for urban renewal.

  6. Eleanor Boba says:

    Very interesting. I recently had occasion to look through Lucile McDonald’s papers at the University of Washington. There was a large collection of letters between her and Lenggenhager. His were tightly typed on small sheets of paper. The purport of their letters generally came down to “What are things coming to!”

  7. It is sad to consider all that was lost for the clearing of what is now Seattle Center, the freeway and other projects, and we are so thankful for Werner Lenggenhager’s work to document “what was there.”

  8. kayakyrstin says:

    That’s really fun to learn about.
    I have an engineering/architecture by day, photographer by night, family member (she’s not an immigrant but her father is). Her housewarming gift to us was a photo of our house right after it was built with an old style car in front of it. Coolest housewarming gift we got.

  9. Many house photos are on-line at the King County Parcel Viewer (see the link on the right margin of my blog page.) These photos were taken in 1937-1938 as the first effort to photograph all structures for tax assessment purposes. The actual photos are kept at the Puget Sound Regional Archives, the repository of property records of King County. Then there are volunteer efforts such as those of Werner Lenggenhager but these are all over the place in different collections, including the Seattle Public Library.

What would you like to know about Seattle neighborhoods?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s