Port Townsend, Washington – Idyllic 19th Century Town

Let your wanderings take you where they may…

A Pictorial and Well-Preserved Historic Downtown

A significant part of my photography work over the last several years has focused on 19th Century historic downtowns. And while my scope is broadening to include many other aspects of these places and the American Landscape as well, I’ve been concentrating lately on an idyllic downtown on Puget Sound. Port Townsend, discovered and so named in 1792 by Captain George Vancouver for his friend the Marquis of Townshend, is one of the best preserved 19th Century towns I’ve yet seen.

The Hastings Building
The Hastings Building (b.1889-90)

Many of these places lose their historic buildings over the years to abandonment, decay and newer development. But Port Townsend seems to retain a good amount of its architectural heritage, and there are also several side streets with beautiful buildings as well. The historic towns I’ve photographed typically have a main street with surrounding Victorian neighborhoods, but not much in the way of large buildings off of the main street. That was first thing that struck me as I drove down Water Street for the first time—there were several side streets to explore as well.

Restoration and Redevelopment

Many of the buildings have been restored or are in the process.
N.D. Hill Building
The N.D. Hill Building b.1889

A compelling aspect of the town is that many of the buildings have been restored or are in the process. Restoration and redevelopment can often mean that a significant amount of the building’s original fabric and appearance will be lost. It depends on the condition of the building and the goals for the development project. But in Port Townsend the restored buildings seem to have much of their original fabric and character; especially the beautiful window sash and ornate window casements that are a prominent element of the Italianate style. And that’s important because then you retain the building’s (and town’s) unique character. Typically, there’s a historic preservation committee that oversees restorations and changes to architectural elements to conform with a plan for keeping the town’s historic character in tact.

On a recent visit I stayed in the Waterstreet Hotel located in the historic N.D. Hill Building (b.1889), and it’s absolutely beautiful. The building was completely restored in the 1990’s and they appear to have kept all the original woodwork—moldings, doors and windows—and the interior looks much as it must have 100 years ago. There’s a huge atrium in the center of the building where you access all of the hallways and rooms. I also had to fiddle with one of the windows in my room to make it shut evenly and keep out a cool draft in the evening. Having lived in a late-Victorian house I’m familiar with old windows, and it adds to the romance for me. As does the wonderful weather, so nice and cool in the middle of July. I’m from New Jersey and grew up with hot, humid, sweltering summers; great when I was a kid and spent my days swimming, but as an adult it’s become increasingly oppressive. I love the weather here, and I think you’ll like it, too.

Pubs, Cafes and Art Galleries

enjoying the bay view at Sirens Pub
A couple enjoying the bay view at Sirens Pub

There is a lot to do and see here, like visiting the cafes, restaurants and boutique shops along Water Street and side streets. Sirens Pub (823 Water Street) is my favorite pub in town—or in the world, for that matter! It’s located upstairs in the funky and artsy C.C. Bartlett building (b.1881) and their space is stunningly original in its historic aspects. The original woodwork and large room where the bar sits are richly appointed. Tall windows look out on a vast expanse of Puget Sound and you can just imagine the 19th Century tenants working in there. There’s also an awesome deck right off of this large room where you can sit and enjoy the idyllic quiet of the bay. Port Townsend is known as a “Victorian Seaport and Arts Community” and there are many art galleries situated in the downtown area. You’ll find painting, photography and various other media in a range of galleries. I visited a few of these on my last trip and Northwind Arts Center, located on the ground floor of the historic Waterman & Katz Building (across Quincy street from the N.D. Hill Building), is a trendy contemporary gallery. The exhibit in progress had the largest collection of encaustic paintings I’ve ever seen in one place. And they were large works, too.

Port Townsend is known as a “Victorian Seaport and Arts Community.”

The stunning work by local artists working in this medium was truly inspiring, and makes me want to restart my own work with wax. While working on my graduate thesis in photography, I experimented with a partially encaustic-like process where the pictures are basically coated with wax to render an Impressionistic effect. That sort of approach appeals to me because it’s hand-applied and not a Photoshop plugin or other digital sorcery.  My goal is to evolve the process so that the effect is more subtle and in line with my reasons for not necessarily wanting to make my photographs look like painting. You can read my post on that concept here on Photopaedia. And you can see those pictures in my 19th Century House Project – Elegance and Artistry series.

A Languid Pace

Rose Theater
The Rose Theater and the B.P.O. Elks Building (1889)

The great thing about Port Townsend is that you can let your wanderings take you where they may and never be at a loss for something to do…or not do. If you want to hang at Sirens and just stare out at the water, your experience will not be diminished for it. Quite the opposite, actually. The town is so laid back; the pace is languid and you can just take your time. Take a walk and check out the historic buildings. As I mentioned before, Port Townsend has one of the finest collections of original, large scale 19th century buildings I’ve experienced…and my experience is fairly expansive. Or maybe take in a film at The Rose Theater, where you can smell the popcorn from the street.

You might also hear Phil playing his flugelhorn at the intersection of Water and Taylor streets across from the famous Hastings Building. He’s a nice guy and will play your request (if he knows it), so go over and say ‘Hi.’ Or enjoy the various vantage points to take in the waterfront. There is a lot of sailing in this town and it is my intent to do as much of that as possible. I love sailing, and if that’s all I ever did in Port Townsend that would be fine with me. I’d also love to establish a second photography studio as a satellite location to my planned studio space in Downtown Olympia. We will make this happen and you’ll be the first to know about it here on Photopaedia.

Other Buildings and Interests

Old Town Hall
Old Town Hall Building

You will probably want to take a look at the Jefferson Museum of Art & HIstory. It’s in the historic Town Hall Building (b.1892) with the Jefferson County Historical Society. I haven’t been in there yet, but it’s on the list for my next visit. I’m involved with historic preservation efforts in New Jersey and plan to continue that work here in Washington (more about that in upcoming posts). They have a staffed Research Center used for primary research and as a repository for the Society’s archives. I imagine there’s a treasure trove of information contained within on Port Townsend’s magnificent buildings. The Town Hall Building is located at the Northeast end of Water Street near the marina. Also located there is the Northwest Maritime Center across the street. They have a boatbuilding museum, event space, sailing instruction and maritime education, along with various events and programs. Their big event of the year is the Wooden Boat Festival, which sounds cool—3 days of boating, live music and fun activities for everyone.

Deck at Sirens Pub
The Deck at Sirens Pub

I’ve only covered a few of the more tangible and readily visible aspects of Port Townsend that make it a great place to visit. But there’s so much more to it in terms of feel and atmosphere, and what you’ll take away from the experience. It is far and away the most authentic historic downtown I’ve found so far. You feel like you’ve stepped back to a simpler and unhurried time—much like what most of us imagine 19th century life to have been like, I suppose. Of course, everything is relative but I have no doubt you’ll fine Port Townsend to be a great little escape.

Author: jamestcallahan

James T. Callahan is a commercial and fine art photographer based in Hillsborough, New Jersey. His specializations are in product, industrial and architecture. His fine art work takes a poetic look at the American Landscape through 19th Century architecture, historic and abandoned railroads and the American Small Town. You can see his work on his website at www.jamestcallahanphotographer.com, and on Instagram at www.instagram.com/jamestcallahan/.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: