September 2013 – The Sylvan Theater

This month, we have a special back to school special for you!!!  So grab an apple, grab a notebook, and listen to our wonderful historian, Lori!  There will be a test!



Ah September!  The month children dread and parents long for—school’s back in session!  To accompany the excitement of buying très cool school clothes, meeting the new homeroom teacher, and the familiar smell of a freshly-opened box of crayons (remember when Crayolas came in colors like “Prussian Blue” and “Flesh”?), this edition of Local Haunts has an education theme.  There are a number of reputedly haunted schools, colleges and universities in the Pacific Northwest to choose from, so  let’s start with “The University of a Thousand Years,” the University of Washington.  UW is reportedly the home of a few haunted locations including the Art Building and Suzzallo Library. The campus is a beautiful place to explore at any time of the year, but it is particularly lovely in the autumn. So while the weather’s still nice, let’s visit an outdoor locale:  the Sylvan Theater.

But first, a little history behind the Sylvan Theater.  The Territorial University of Washington opened on November 4, 1861, located on a ten-acre parcel of land in downtown Seattle known as “Denny’s Knoll” that had been donated for the purpose by Arthur A. Denny, Edward Lander and Charles Terry. The Territorial University building was located at what is now 4th Avenue and University Street (that’s why there is a University Street in downtown Seattle), the present site of the Fairmont Olympic Hotel. The Territorial University must have been quite an impressive structure standing on a hill above Seattle, a small town of only 250 inhabitants in 1861:  a two-story, clapboard building with a cupola, and four 24-foot tall, hand-carved Ionic cedar columns painted with white enamel supporting its porch.


Washington Territorial University, c. 1861

(Photo source: “Territorial University Opens on November 4, 1861,” HistoryLink)

In 1861, the Territorial University consisted of 30 students and one teacher, Asa Shinn Mercer, and it offered mainly preparatory classes as well as college subjects. The University had some rough early years. It closed several times (in 1863, 1867-1869, 1874 and 1876) due to lack of students or lack of funding (“on account of poverty”). It took fifteen years for the University to graduate its first college student: Clara Antoinette McCarty, who earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1876.   The University’s situation improved substantially in the 1880s and 1890s (it became the University of Washington when Washington became a state in 1889).  In the three decades since the University’s founding, its enrollment grew to almost 300 students and UW found it had outgrown the old Territorial University building and its auxiliary buildings.  The University’s buildings were not only overcrowded, but they were poorly maintained as well. UW President Thomas Milton Gatch wrote, “We should have new buildings.  I have refused to admit young ladies into the old boarding house.  It is uncomfortable and unsafe.  The main building is too small for our work.  The State should give us new buildings or close the University.”

Moreover, since 1861 Seattle had grown into a city of over 50,000 inhabitants and its downtown area now encroached on the University’s ten-acre campus.  The UW Board of Regents’ Annual Report for 1890 concluded, “In the opinion of the regents ampler grounds are essential to the prosperity and well-being of the university, and grounds more remote from the center of a rapidly growing and expanding city.  The experience of educational institutions unites upon the idea that such institutions flourish best removed to a distance from the excitements and temptations incident to city life and its environments.”  One contemporary complained that the University’s downtown campus was “hemmed in on all sides by buildings and population, and the saloon area of Seattle is rapidly approaching it.”

The State Legislature’s Joint Special University Committee was appointed in 1891 to select a new site for the UW campus.   The Committee was chaired by UW alumnus Edmond S. Meany (1862-1935).  Meany had graduated as valedictorian of the UW class of 1885, earning a Bachelor of Science degree, and a Master of Science degree in 1889.  After serving two terms in the state legislature (in 1891 and 1893), Meany became UW’s first Registrar and secretary to the Board of Regents.  In 1897, Meany became a Professor of History, a position he held until his death in 1935.  The Committee selected a wooded 335-acre site on Union Bay for the new location of the University, which was purchased by the Legislature in 1893.   Parts of the tract were cleared of trees and its earliest buildings constructed before UW moved to its present location in 1895.


Edmond S. Meany

(Photo Source: “Edmond Stephen Meany,” HistoryLink)

The University retained ownership of the Denny’s Knoll property and the old Territorial University building, which was rented out as office space.   In 1907, the Denny’s Knoll property became formally the “Metropolitan Tract,” through an agreement between UW and the Metropolitan Building Company, which leased parcels of the property to businesses. (The Metropolitan Tract is now one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in Seattle from which UW earns gazillions of dollars through leases each year.) Meany hoped that with the financial support of other UW alumni the old Territorial University building could be moved from downtown to the new UW campus or otherwise saved from demolition amid the booming development of the Metropolitan Tract.  In the meantime, the Territorial University building was temporarily moved about a hundred yards (to near 5th Avenue and Union Street) to make room for the construction of 4th Avenue through its original location.  When Meany failed to raise the money to preserve the Territorial University building, it was demolished in 1908. Meany lamented the public’s lack of “sentiment or regard for an old building.  In the years to come there are sure to be many regrets.”  However, Meany did manage to raise enough money to save the four cedar columns that graced the old building and to have them moved to the new UW campus. The Columns are all that remain from the original Territorial University building. Meany and UW Dean Herbert T. Condon named the Columns “Loyalty,” “Industry,” “Faith” and “Efficiency” = L.I.F.E.  The Columns were kept in storage until Campus Day in 1911, when they were placed on the path leading to Denny Hall.   In 1921, the Columns were moved to become the centerpiece of the Sylvan Theater, then on the outer edge of campus.

The Sylvan Theater is located southeast of Drumheller Fountain, between Rainier Vista NE to the west, East Stevens Way to the south, and The Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering to the northeast. The Sylvan Theater consists of an open grassy area encircled by a walk and benches; the Columns are set behind the natural stage at the southeast end of the amphitheater.  Meany’s contribution to saving the Columns is commemorated by a monument located in the shrubs behind the western-most column: a stone and bronze plaque with the likeness of Meany and the words, “In Memoriam,” donated by the UW Class of 1885. The entire amphitheater is enclosed by tall trees through which only a few secluded entrances lead inside. The Sylvan Theater is the most used outdoor space on the UW campus: it has been the site for numerous graduation ceremonies, plays, banquets and weddings over the past century.   When not in use for such events, the Sylvan Theater is one of the most peaceful spots on the UW campus—hundreds of people a day probably walk past the encircling trees without even knowing the treasure that is hidden inside.


The Columns formed the Backdrop for a Modern Dance Performance in the 1920s

(Photo source: UW Libraries Special Collections)

In 2005, the Sylvan Theater was closed to allow the installation of underground drainage and irrigation systems; the replacement of the original gravel path around the amphitheater’s perimeter with a paved one; the replacement of the original wooden steps leading up to the stage with concrete steps and handrails; and the removal of a number of diseased trees and the planting of new ones.  After years of exposure to the Pacific Northwest’s weather, the Columns too were in need of repair and refurbishing.  By 1958, the capitals on the Columns had so decayed that they were replaced by fiberglass duplicates.  In 2007, the Columns were removed from the site and repainted, and their deteriorating wooden bases were replaced with concrete replicas.  This renovation was made possible by contributions from the fiftieth reunion of the UW Class of 1956. The Columns’ return to the Sylvan Theater in 2008 was an event celebrated at UW.

Visitors to the Sylvan Theater recount two very different experiences at the site.  Some report feeling an uneasy, even foreboding atmosphere, especially at night.  A young male entity dressed in dark clothing with a translucent scarf around his neck has been seen, and he reportedly walks through the Columns and disappears. He apparently has an angry dislike for visitors to the location; in particular, he seems to target couples spending a few romantic moments on the benches in the Sylvan Theater. He reportedly growls, shakes nearby bushes and trees, and creates odd vibrations as if he is stamping his feet. If ignored, his actions become more and more agitated until the couple leaves.  Paranormal investigators believe he was somehow connected to the old Territorial University building in downtown Seattle and that he moved with the Columns to the new campus.  Some attribute the young man’s anger to an unfortunate event connected with his time at the University—that he may have been expelled or otherwise failed his classes. However, one might speculate that his targeting of romantic couples may be indicative of a jealousy born of an unhappy experience in love.

Other visitors recount a very different experience at the Sylvan Theater, especially by day.  They report encountering a pleasant (but less active) spirit who seems to welcome visitors. Some have felt this presence stand close to them, and even the feeling of a warm hand on their shoulder.  Many believe that this is the benevolent spirit of Edmond Meany, still watching over the Columns he preserved for the University of Washington.


Paul Dorpat, “Denny’s Knoll,” Seattle Now and Then (1984)

“University of Washington,” Wikipedia

“Edmond S. Meany,” Wikipedia

“Edmond S. Meany,” UW Office of Research


“The University of Washington’s Early Years,” University of Washington Libraries


“The Decision to Move to a New Campus,” University of Washington Libraries


“The New Campus Site,” University of Washington Libraries


“Territorial University (University of Washington) Opens on November 4, 1861,” HistoryLink


“Edmond Stephen Meany (1862-1935),” HistoryLink


“University of Washington Moves from Downtown Seattle to Present University District Campus in

1895,” HistoryLink (

“Sylvan Theater Undergoing Needed Restoration,” UW Today


“Columns Come Home to Sylvan Theater,” UW Today


Ross Allison, Spooked in Seattle: A Haunted Handbook (2011)

Jeff Dwyer, Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Seattle and Puget Sound (2008)

Linda Moffitt, Washington’s Haunted Hotspots (2009)

Joe Teeples, Pacific Northwest Haunts: A Ghost Hunter’s Field Guide (2010)