Stories from the Square: Pioneer Square Pride History

Stories from the Square: Pioneer Square Pride History


1930's - Present

We are excited to introduce a new series highlighting Pioneer Square’s LGBTQ history. Beginning in the 1930’s with the opening of the Casino Pool Hall, which allowed same-sex dancing, until the mid-1970’s with clubs such as Shelly’s Leg, Pioneer Square was the center of early public gay life in Seattle. During this series, we will dive into lesser known historical LGBTQ spaces in Pioneer Square.

This week, we are focusing on the Mocambo Restaurant which was located at 203 Yesler Way where the Quintessa Apartments now stands.

The Mocambo Restaurant

The Mocambo Restaurant served as a restaurant and cocktail bar. Bill Parkin, a dishwasher at the Mocambo, recounts that, “The Mo was a mixed crowd until 1955, when it became mostly gay - except for daytime, when office workers, courthouse workers, lawyers and judges came in for lunch…The menu was sophisticated; Coquille St. Jacques, Provencal and roast loin of pork, stuffed with prunes, etc. for $1.30.”

By the 1960s, the Mocambo was part of a social circuit as LGBTQ patrons navigated the neighborhood’s queer landscape. Mel H. recalled the routine: “It was a cocktail lounge, and what a lot of people would do is, they would drink earlier in the places like- One popular place was the 6-11 on 2nd Avenue because beer was 10 cents and at happy hour you could have a lot of beers. But then they would go to the Mocambo. And the group would just kind of go to the Mocambo, and what was very interesting was a lot of the group that I was going with would start at Spags, meet people later at the 6-11, then go to the Mocambo or go out to dinner but they’d all wind up back at Spags, because that was the closest bar to Capitol Hill. There were no gay bars on Capitol Hill at that time.”

The Mocambo, open from 1951 to 1978, served a vital role as a meeting place for early gay organizations. The Queen City Business Guild, an organization of bar owners that would eventually become today’s Greater Seattle Business Association, as well as the United Ebony Council, a black gay male organization founded in 1975, and part of the Court of Seattle with its empresses and royalty, both used the Mocambo for early organizational meetings.

Another important organization that met regularly at the Mocambo during the late 1960s was the Dorian Society. The Dorian Society was Seattle’s early homophile organization, as most gay groups were called during this era. In addition to traditional educational efforts such as a newsletter, the Dorian Society had a speakers bureau to speak in Seattle public schools, appeared on radio programs, led tours of gay bars for a program called Urban Plunge, and hosted drag balls.

The building that once housed the Mocambo Restaurant has been demolished, and falls within a series of spaces that served as a social space and hosted the meetings of early LGBTQ social and business groups which no longer exist.

Sources: The Land at Our Feet: Preserving Pioneer Square’s Queer Landscape, Richard Dreitas.Queen City Comes Out: Exploring Seattle's Lesbian and Gay History created by The Northwest Lesbian & Gay History Museum Project.

South End Steam Baths

The South End Steam Baths was located at 118 ½ First Avenue in the Northern Hotel/Terry-Denny Building. It was one of several underground spaces including The Casino.

The Terry-Denny Building (109 First Avenue), built in 1891, housed the Northern Hotel on its upper floors and a steam bath in the basement. The baths are listed in the Polk City Directory as the Hotel Northern Turkish Baths as late as 1939. The hotel itself was popular with those on their way to Alaska for the Klondike Gold Rush. It was reportedly also a place where liquor could be obtained during Prohibition. The baths became the South End Steam Baths in the early 1940s and served a gay clientele.

While not the only gay bathhouse in Seattle, the South End was certainly the oldest. Although baths are often thought of as a purely sexual space, they were also an important social space for gay men. Many of the baths were exclusively gay and were often less prone to police raids than the bars, so they tended to be one of the safest public spaces available to gay men at this time.

In only a few cases does physical fabric remain to indicate a site’s LGBTQ heritage. In addition to the Shelly’ Leg sign (now located at MOHAI), the sign for the South End Steam Baths still exists but is not on public display. The sign sits inside the former Steam Baths site off to the side of the route used by the Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour.

Sources: The Land at Our Feet: Preserving Pioneer Square’s Queer Landscape, Richard Dreitas. Queen City Comes Out: Exploring Seattle's Lesbian and Gay History created by The Northwest Lesbian & Gay History Museum Project.

The Garden of Allah

The Garden of Allah was located at 1213 First Avenue on the outskirts of Pioneer Square near Downtown Seattle.The Garden of Allah was a mid-20th century gay cabaret that opened in 1946 in the basement of the Victorian-era Arlington Hotel.

The Garden of Allah was not patronized solely by queer people and was a meaningful gathering place to its queer patrons and performers. The Garden of Allah was not an isolated bastion of LGBTQ culture but coexisted as part of a local network of public places that were friendly to queer patrons in and around Pioneer Square. The Garden of Allah on First Avenue and its neighbor, the Spinning Wheel (1334½ Second Avenue) at the corner of Union Street and Second Avenue, were important outposts in the earliest days of Seattle’s queer culture often serving soldiers returning from World War II.

Pat Freeman, born in 1933, patronized the Garden of Allah as a queer teenager: “It’s like trying to describe the fear that existed back then. You can’t describe it. And people today don’t understand it when you say there was this terrible, terrible fear and it permeated everything. It’s the same thing with this recognition, you had so little places to meet people; not everybody who was gay went to a gay tavern. You met people on the job, you met them other places, but you had to be so careful. And I think you developed this ability to focus in. And if there was the response, you focused in enough until you were comfortable enough. You wouldn’t just say, ‘Oh, I see you have a pinky ring on,’ and ‘The way you stand’”

The Garden closed in 1956, when a combination of a rate raise from the musicians' union and a raise in city taxes on locales that provided both entertainment and alcohol put it out of business.

Sources: An Evening at the Garden of Allah: A Gay Cabaret in Seattle, Don Paulson. The Land at Our Feet: Preserving Pioneer Square’s Queer Landscape, Richard Dreitas.

The Stage Door

The Stage Door Tavern was located at 158 S. Washington St. in Pioneer Square.

The Stage Door opened in 1962 and served as competition to other nearby queer spaces such as the Double Header. The Stage Door was smaller than the Double Header, yet both spaces often were in conflict over capturing the same customer base. The 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle heightened that tension following the influx of out of town visitors. With lines around the building to get into either space, which space performers would perform at on a given night often was the subject of arguments by the owner of the Double Header and The Stage Door.

One patron, Dale Peters, described his experiences in the cluster of queer spaces south of Yesler Way as: “I just was not aware that there were gay bars, that there was any kind of social life. It was so underground and so hidden. I mean, when I finally did come out in June of ‘63 there were six, I suppose, and of those six bars, probably two were mixed. Gay bars, that gay people could go into and feel comfortable. That was it, totally, except for an after-hours dance club, and that was the total extent of it. And off of those were located in Pioneer Square, most of them…. I’m sorry, there were two steam baths at that time that were frequented by gay people. But if you didn’t drink, or weren’t interested in going to the bars, there were no other venues in the 60s.”

The Stage Door closed in 1968 and the building has since been demolished. The location now serves as a parking lot.

Sources: The Land at Our Feet”: Preserving Pioneer Square’s Queer Landscape, Richard Dreitas. Dale Peters, interview by Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project, January 11, 1998, transcript.