March 2003: Preservation and Seattle Center
By Heather MacIntosh

The proposed monorail route through Seattle Center is one of the most controversial sections of the 14-mile line. Those against this stretch of elevated rail feel that the integrity of the place and its civic function within the city would be greatly and irreparably compromised. Is the proposed alignment through the Center, along the edge of the International Fountain, a preservation issue? The answer may lie, in part, in the place of history and change on the Seattle Center's site.

A Center Before the Center

Early settlers, operating under the false notion that Native Americans celebrated festivals there, called the place "Potlatch Meadows." The City of Seattle purchased the Seattle Center site in 1900. Ten years later, the City transferred the site to the Parks Department, who developed the flat land into Mercer Playground that served a growing community of working class families, and Warren Avenue School, located nearby.

Around the same time, Virgil Bogue, working in the "City Beautiful" tradition, proposed a plan that would have transformed downtown Seattle into a white city on the Sound. In this plan, lower Queen Anne would have had more in common with Washington DC than its existing vernacular context.

The plan included a Civic Center, with radiating streets and classically-inspired buildings at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Blanchard Street. An imposing passenger train station at Mercer and Dexter would have terminated a Central Avenue from the middle of the Civic Center.

Seattle voters balked at the plan, and the price tag, and defeated the idea at the polls. The Olmsted Brothers' green, undulating vision of parks throughout the city better met the community's concept of public space.

In the late 1920s, the city supported construction of a Civic Auditorium complex around the Mercer Playground. This sports and entertainment center included an ice rink, a 35,000 seat Civic Field and a multipurpose building that combined a field house with a Veterans Hall. Around World War II, the Seattle School District built Memorial Stadium on the civic field site, replacing the 1920s building.

The Washington National Guard built an armory to the south of the Civic Ballfield in 1938, designed by Arrigo Young, of Schack, Young, and Myers and Floyd Naramore, well known for his work with the Seattle School District.

The collection of ad hoc, moderately-sized public buildings in lower Queen Anne had relatively little impact on the modest residential and evolving commercial character of the neighborhood. The open spaces and amenities were Seattle's, but many of the users were Queen Anne residents.

The World's Fair

A decade after World War II, the public spaces and places in lower Queen Anne changed dramatically.

In 1956, the extant civic complex was chosen as the site for a World's Fair commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. The previous half-century of recreational and civic building development clinched the Fair Commissioners' choice. What had grown up as an accretion of public amenities would mature into a city center with a large slate of amenities. The Century 21 Exposition would produce buildings serving the community long after the fair's end.

This thinking ahead help voters approve the $7.5 million bond issue that would fund part of the budget for a concert and convention hall, a multi-purpose auditorium, and upgrades to the civic auditorium.

The civic buildings of the 1920s did not jibe stylistically with the fair's modern theme and aesthetics. The civic auditorium was adapted into the Seattle Opera House, with the original design completely absorbed into the new. The most recent renovation of the opera house was just as dramatic. During new construction, some of the 1920s building absorbed by the 1960s alterations made a guest appearance.

The Veterans Hall was left between the International Fountain and Memorial Stadium until 1999, when it was reviewed by the Seattle Landmarks Board, who found it did not meet landmarks criteria. It has since been demolished.

Remaking the Center

Clearing the 77 acres of Queen Anne for the fairgrounds meant demolition of a number of historic homes and buildings. The fair nearly coincided with a number of large public projects that moved cars around, but did not add to Seattle's pedestrian experience. New highways sliced the city's center, facilitating development north and south of the city.

The destruction and construction related to I-5, which demolished swathes of historic affordable housing, was illustrative of contemporary, automobile-oriented priorities. The viaduct, now controversial, was built less than a decade before the fair. The fairgrounds would be a center in Seattle, significantly located north of the city, away from the grungy brick streets of Pioneer Square, before its historic significance was recognized by city ordinance, and the National Register of Historic Places.

The fairgrounds, cleared, became a tabula rasa for proponents of the modern movement, a space where designers could explore contemporary design unfettered by neighborhood or urban context. Worlds Fairs were showcases of new architecture since their inception in the mid-19th century. Although mostly conceived as a composition of temporary buildings, many of the more exceptional examples of Worlds Fair architecture graduated to iconic status whether or not they remained standing. The Trylon and Perisphere of the 1939 New York World's Fair, the 1928 Barcelona Pavilion (demolished), and the 1851 Crystal Palace (destroyed 1936) are some of the best known examples.

Remembering the Center

The remaking of lower Queen Anne as a space apart, a place of Seattle's future, left a lasting impact. Unusual structures and architectonic forms produced as a part of the exposition have been incorporated into the city's image - these include the Space Needle, the Monorail, and to some degree the Pacific Science Center's monumental attenuated pergoloids. The 1962 Space Needle is the city's youngest landmark, and the only designated Seattle landmark meeting all six criteria.

The 1962 Monorail also qualified for landmark nomination and was designated by the Landmarks Board, but no controls were placed on the structure due to the potential construction of the new monorail along the same route.

The legacy of the 1962 Worlds Fair bares consideration. Some architectural elements of the fair have passed before landmarks review and did not meet designation criteria (the Flag Pavilion and the Veterans Hall), but the place of history and preservation at Seattle Center seems to be based in public sentiment as much as it is process, criteria, and policies.

Seattle's public open spaces are in short supply, and are often hard fought for. They occupy a special place in the hearts of Seattleites who traditionally vote in favor of community centers and parks when asked.

Traces of the Worlds Fair remain in Seattle Center's still pedestrian-only thoroughfares. Though many of the buildings and structures associated with the fair have been demolished or absorbed by new construction, the composition of the site itself, as a plan, is still relatively easy to discern. It is one of few places in the area where cars are off limits, where retail recedes to the edge, and where most people feel welcome and safe.

Spaces and buildings at Seattle Center take on importance and meaning with the passing of time. The International Fountain, which some have considered a potential landmark even though the structure was significantly altered in the 1980s, is a unique gathering place, a place of mourning and remembrance, a magnet for public expressions of unified grief and celebration. People gathered there after September 11th. Besides Westlake Center, and to some degree Gas Works Park, no space in Seattle functions this way. What started as a unifying water feature for the fair has taken on a wholly different meaning for the community who has made it their own.

In Rome, at the center of Vatican Square, is an expansive space surrounded by curved classical arcades. The Square is slightly concave, with decorative stone pavers that accentuate the curvature. The center of this central square is called the omphalos, or navel of Catholicism. Though much more modest, Seattle's International Fountain serves a similar function, but its alterations may disqualify it for landmark status.

But if the fountain is sacrosanct, do we need a landmarks ordinance to protect it?

The significance of the fountain doesn't neatly conform to preservation policy. In this case, when weighing the value of the past versus new construction, the question isn't whether or not the water feature has historic significance, but whether or not the fountain's (and surrounding grounds') contemporary value and role in our urban environment is recognized and honored.

View last month's Neighborhoods article

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