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Originally published April 12, 2012 at 9:24 PM | Page modified April 13, 2012 at 2:00 PM

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Overlooked World's Fair relic is a center of attention again

Seattle Center's venerable Center House — home to cultural festivals and a place for family fun — has gotten a face-lift.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Information

Images of Terry Furchgott's murals: http://terryfurchgott.com/portfolios/public/uw/uw.html

Farewell, Center House, hello Armory

Here's what to look for — and what to say goodbye to — in the renovated Seattle Center Armory/Center House atrium.

What's new

Restaurants: Skillet, MOD Pizza, Big Food, Pie, La Spiga and a future full-service restaurant.

Food carts: Confectional, Eltana bagels, Street Treats, Ceres Nuts, POP popcorn, Dante's Inferno Dogs.

Also: Outdoor dining.

What's gone

Restaurants: Center House Bistro & Bar (formerly Michelangelo's), Steamers (becomes part of Quincy's Grill), Center House Deli, Rico Burrito, Royal Thai, Orange Julius, Pizza Haven, Frankfurter, Bubbles, Magic Dragon.

Also: Large murals by Terry Furchgott, view-blocking restaurants and wall on west side.

What's the same

Restaurants: Quincy's Grill (adding seafood in conjunction with Steamers), Subway, Kabab Corner, Starbucks, Seattle Fudge.

Also: A section of the Berlin Wall, now more prominently displayed.

Armory/Center House timeline

1938: Construction begins on the Field Artillery Armory, housing National Guard tanks and a rifle range. (Duke Ellington played a University of Washington junior prom here in 1941.)

1962: Armory's second-floor drill hall is re-christened the Food Circus for the 1962 World's Fair, with 52 concessions. First floor holds guest services; upper floors have administrative offices and employee rooms.

Post-fair: Bubbleator is moved in from Coliseum. Visitors ride the sphere to the third-floor balcony shops, called the International Bazaar, or to the penny arcade and other amusements on the first floor.

1970s: Low-budget makeovers come with a new name: Center House. Bubbleator is removed.

1985: Children's Museum moves into first floor.

1987: Disney Imagineering proposes tearing down Center House and replacing it with a smaller building. The public rejects the idea.

1995: Children's Museum expands; Center House is reconfigured for public performances and cultural festivals.

2001: Seattle Public Schools opens an arts-oriented high school called The Center School, now based on upper floors of the building.

2012: Many decades of revisions are stripped away from the Seattle Center Armory/Center House (it'll be Seattle Center Armory by fall). New doors are installed to gain natural light and greater connection to the outdoors.

Sources: Seattle Center; Seattle Times archives; Landmarks Preservation Board nomination

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Seattle Center's venerable Center House — home to cultural festivals and a place for family fun — has gotten a face-lift.

Furnishings and decorations added since the 1962 World's Fair are gone.

Old restaurants are leaving and a handful of new ones, plus food carts, are coming.

Sections of the west wall have been knocked out and glassed in, and an outdoor dining area added.

Now looking a tad more like the National Guard Armory it was in 1939, the old building is also getting a new name: Seattle Center Armory/Center House, with the words Center House to be dropped by fall.

Whatever you call it, it looks different.

The $4 million remodel will achieve two goals, said Seattle Center Redevelopment Director Jill Crary.

The first was to turn the building at the heart of Seattle Center into "the true center of the Center," connecting the building's interior to what's happening outside. The second was to tone down the sometimes distracting colors and images that had built up over the years.

Cutting through the 18-inch-thick concrete west wall to create four storefront-glass openings allows people outside to see in and people inside to see out.

"People walk by this building and have no idea what cool things are in this building," Crary said. "Or they're in the building, maybe coming from the Monorail, and don't know what's on the other side. We became convinced making those openings was Step 1."

The remodel won't change what happens inside, including The Children's Museum, The Center School, theaters and the Festál cultural festivals.

The new indoor-outdoor dining area features a 60-foot-long deck overlooking Fisher Pavilion and the International Fountain. Food-cart vendors will sell hot dogs, bagels, nuts, popcorn and sweet treats in the space between the windows, and the building's steel structural supports are once again visible.

Only a few new vendors will open in time for the April 21 "Next 50" celebration, but food trucks will be on hand.

Skillet, MOD Pizza, Big Food, Pie and La Spiga will open this spring and summer on the north, east and south sides of the Armory. Skillet's patio will be within waving and shouting distance of the Collections Café patio at Chihuly Garden and Glass, which opens next month.

Seattle Center has yet to sign a new full-service restaurant.

"We definitely are pursuing vendors who will make things classier and appeal not just to tourists, but others as well," said City Councilmember Jean Godden, chairwoman of the council's Libraries, Utilities and Center Committee.

The remodeling project also was intended to "declutter" the Armory, Crary said. "There was a lot of stuff that, as it aged, the answer had been to revitalize it with bright colors."

It was time to tone down the distractions, removing neon and repainting with shades of beige, Crary said.

Among the colors removed were the bright images of Terry Furchgott's 116-foot-long mural installed at the top of the north wall in 1999.

Also pulled down were four Furchgott murals placed in 2001 next to windows on the Armory's south wall.

The murals depicted jugglers at Seattle Center, children laughing and playing, skateboarders, rockers, athletes and ballroom dancers — with a big emphasis on African Americans, Asian Americans and other minorities.

Furchgott's murals — digital vinyl prints of smaller paintings — were placed in storage after she objected to signing a release agreeing the works could be destroyed. "It was a shock," she said. "I was sad that they couldn't put up at least part of them somewhere else. They didn't seem interested in that."

Forchgott and Center officials discussed the possibility of finding a home for the murals elsewhere, such as a gymnasium, but so far no concerted effort has been made to do that.

The Armory renovation, funded by the city's real-estate excise tax, is a modest venture, compared to the $191 million of Armory improvements called for in the $567 million Century 21 Master Plan for Seattle Center the City Council approved in 2008.

The plan envisions a glass roof and a new Bubbleator (a clear-plastic bubble of an elevator from the fair that was removed in the 1970s) taking visitors to other parts of the roof where they could stroll and visit a restaurant.

The other very-big-ticket item in the master plan is replacing Memorial Stadium with an underground parking garage, a smaller stadium, open space and an amphitheater.

But the city has other funding priorities such as libraries and the Alaskan Way sea wall, and no one expects the center's master plan to be fully funded any time soon.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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