A walking tour of Seattle architecture
Seattle architecture reveals Seattle history, as Maureen R. Elenga gives Seattle Times book critic Michael Upchurch a tour around the Emerald City's downtown retail district.
Seattle Times book critic
We walk past them every day — but do we really look at them?
I'm talking about Seattle's architectural gems, quirks and occasional monstrosities. Not the superstars of our skyline — the Space Needle, the Smith Tower — but the quieter buildings in brick and stone and terra cotta. They have a history of their own, and shed light on our city's history.
But where can you go for help in discovering that history?
Maureen R. Elenga's book "Seattle Architecture: A Walking Guide to Downtown" (Seattle Architecture Foundation, 298 pp., $20) is a splendid resource. Published earlier this year, it's a compact guide to Seattle's downtown corridor.
Elenga, a Portland native who moved to Seattle nine years ago, vividly showed me what an architectural historian's eye picks out when she took me around Seattle's retail core earlier this month. Here are some of the highlights:
Seaboard Building (1500 Fourth Ave.)
"It was built in 1909. It's a trapezoidal-shaped, Beaux Arts-style building, with brick and terra cotta. The shape was dictated by the former alignment of Westlake Avenue, which went right through where the park is now. This building is an example of adaptive reuse that's been going on in this area a lot, where we have these obsolete office buildings that are wonderful spaces, but they just don't function for the needs of a modern office. This one was [converted to] a couple of floors of commercial office space — and then the rest is condominiums."
Nordstrom (500 Pine St.)
Formerly the Frederick & Nelson Building: "One of the very first major retail businesses to move this far north," Elenga notes. "It was in 1918 when they chose to relocate here from lower Second Avenue down between Madison and Spring, where the retail hub was at that time. So it was considered a pretty risky move. But within 10 years, it totally drew the retail district up into this area, where it remains to this day. It was originally a four-story building that had a really elaborate, beautiful copper cornice on it. But in 1953 five stories were added, in a compatible style but with much less detail. This is one of these things that you see in a lot of department-store buildings from this time: the vertical expansion of these buildings after World War II. Macy's, which was the Bon Marché, was also vertically expanded, and you can see where the stone cladding doesn't quite match the originals."
Ross (301 Pike St.)
"This was the Woolworth's Building. It was based on a standard company design, and it was one of the only major, nongovernment, non-federally-funded buildings that was built downtown during the Depression. And it makes sense that a five-and-dime at that time would be thriving. It is also an example of one of the last uses of terra cotta in downtown Seattle. At that time there were a lot of companies that manufactured architectural terra cotta. After World War II, we moved more towards modernism. So it stands for an era where things sort of stopped and re-emerged much differently than they once were."
Men's Wearhouse (1404 Fourth Ave.)
Built in 1929, this housed the ticket office for the Great Northern Railway. Its architect, R.C. Reamer, had "very diverse skills," Elenga notes, designing, in a more rustic vein, Lake Quinault Lodge and Yellowstone National Park's Old Faithful Inn. "This is a really interesting transitional building. Very incised, very crisp, boxlike. It anticipates modernism, but it still incorporates classically inspired elements." Elenga's favorite feature: "You see the window mullions? Toward the top they taper like Art Deco skyscrapers. To me it's just a charming bit of subtle marketing — there're exciting places you could get to on the Great Northern Railway."
1411 Fourth Avenue Building
"1929 was a good year for R.C. Reamer [who designed the Great Northern building]. He did this building too. Fifteen stories when it was built, it was the largest building in the city to be entirely faced in stone — native gray sandstone. This was built for the steamship and railroad companies as well. So these two buildings made this part of town the transportation hub."
Cobb Building (1301 Fourth Ave.)
"This building was part of a larger plan for 11 buildings meant to be unified architecturally, Beaux Arts style. This is the only one that remains."
Elenga points out a diamond-and-dot motif that decorates the underside of all the 1910 building's upper window frames: "A level of detail that you don't see in buildings anymore. That pattern ties in with the Indian heads up on the frieze, which is probably everyone's favorite feature on this building. They're not Chief Seattle. A lot of people assume that they're Chief Seattle, [but] they were just meant as a symbolic representation of Western Native Americans and the strength of the West."
No need to bring a telescope to see the Indians' heads in detail. Step under the portico and you'll see the impressive, enigmatic features of the man to your right.
Olympic Hotel (411 University St.)
"This was financed by a group of businessmen. It was built in 1924. They felt that Seattle really needed a world-class hotel for visiting businessmen and dignitaries. It's done in a Renaissance Palazzo style — brick and terra-cotta cladding. The terra cotta is designed at the base to look somewhat like rusticated stone."
Seattle Tower (1218 Third Ave.)
The tower was built in 1929 for the Northern Life Insurance Co., one of whose founders, Elenga says, was an avid mountain climber. "He belonged to The Mountaineers. He actually got married up on Mount Rainier. And he wanted a building that was going to exude strength and permanence. "At the tip of the piers, the caps are white terra cotta which is meant to resemble the snow-capped peaks of the mountains. And even the steel rods at the very top are shaped like evergreen trees. This is really Seattle's quintessential Art Deco building. It has all the elements: strong verticals, setback. Just marvelous."
The building's lobby, with its bronze paneling, gilt ceilings, marble floors and striking overhead light fixtures, has a gleaming opulence and detail that's a must-see. At the far end of the lobby is a map of the Pacific in brass relief, festooned with elephants, camels, pagodas and palm trees. At its bottom right is a motto: "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way."
IBM 5th Avenue Plaza (1200 Fifth Ave.)
This 1964 building designed by Seattle-born Minoru Yamasaki and Naramore Bain Brady & Johanson (now NBBJ Architects) is a structural precursor to the twin towers of Yamasaki's World Trade Center in New York City. "Yamasaki's buildings always reflect this passion that he had for structural innovation," Elenga says. "Usually in skyscrapers, perimeter loads are carried through the steel beam and column system. In this building, perimeter loads are carried through these tightly spaced steel pipes that are wrapped in precast concrete ... the vertical elements all around the outside of the building."
Rainier Square (1301 Fifth Ave.)
One of Minoru Yamasaki's last major works: "It looks extremely precarious, this structure on this little, thin pedestal. But it's engineered like a wineglass. Below grade there's this huge, deep concrete caisson that's heavier than the structure above. So it's actually probably a very good place to be in the event of an earthquake."
Skinner Building/5th Avenue Theatre (1326 Fifth Ave.)
"Another R.C. Reamer building, 1926. This is a more restrained Italian Renaissance style — not a lot of detailing on the sandstone. You have a false loggia up there, and the red tile. But then when you get under the marquee for 5th Avenue Theatre, it's quite extraordinary, of traditional Chinese timber architecture. There was a separate designer who specialized in theater interiors who worked with Reamer. The inside of the theater is supposedly inspired by Peking's Forbidden City."
US Bank Centre (1420 Fifth Ave.)
"A perfect example of the postmodernism that was popular with office towers in the 1980s. The top has a French mansard roof, but at each corner it's topped with Egyptian-style obelisks. One of the things that was really valued in the fiercely competitive office market of the 1980s was to have these corner offices with glass. And this building doesn't have those. But what it has is these accordion-style windows in the center that offer 180-degree views and make up for that lack of corner windows."
Banana Republic (500 Pike St.)
Originally the Coliseum Theater, one of the city's premier movie palaces: "Built in 1916. Designed by B. Marcus Priteca, who was a leading designer of movie theaters in the early 20th century and really helped define the genre. ... On the inside, all of the interior elements were retained behind the neutral walls of Banana Republic. So if at any point they want to convert this back to a performing-arts theater, they can do that. Again, another example of adaptive reuse that has helped really revitalize the retail district in Seattle."
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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