May 2003: Seattle's Canyon of Dreams: Preservation along Second Avenue
By Heather MacIntosh

Local historian Paul Dorpat used the evocative phrase "Canyon of Dreams" to describe downtown's Second Avenue in an Allied Arts publication on the legacy of terracotta in Seattle. "Regardless of your name, Smith or Hoge, your fortune, made in typewriters or real estate, or how monumental your ambition or kitschy your taste, if you were going to build on Second Avenue you had a civic responsibility that was prescribed by the example of (carved stone and molded terra cotta)."

Continuing this eloquent thread, the historian describes the street as an "unrolled city center extending twelve blocks from the curve at Yesler Way to the curve at Stewart Street."

In 1933, another historian, J. W. Sayre waxed:

"every large American city has its famous thoroughfare of trade ... few other of the great boulevards of commerce, it may be said, possess so many and so varied points of distinction as Seattle's Second Avenue ... it has the city's tallest skyscraper, the largest office building, the leading furniture store, the pioneer, as well as the largest book store; the biggest commercial bank and the leading savings bank of the Pacific Northwest, all of the pioneer banks, virtually all of the stock and bond houses, eight of the leading hotels, the three largest realty offices and three of Seattle's five department stores."

The historic commercial heart of the city maintains many of the landmarks associated with the maturation of Seattle from frontier town to northwest urban metropolis.

Unrolling the Center

In its earliest days, before the 1889 fire that charred the city to a "horrible black smudge" (so described by Rudyard Kipling during a visit that year), Seattle was a city of wood planks and modest buildings concentrated in what is now Pioneer Square. Soon after the building boom that followed the fire, which left a legacy of brick buildings in the older urban core, business moved north steadily, leaving emphatic architectural statements in its frenzied wake.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the economy of Seattle shifted from one supported primarily by manufacturing, to a diverse combination of manufacturing, sales, and service oriented businesses that provided for its quickly growing population.

As business grew, so did the role of distinctive buildings downtown. Building materials such as stone and terra cotta leant themselves to individualistic civic expressions much more readily than wood or brick. As the city shaped its civic and business identity in tall buildings, sculptural use of stone and terra cotta gained popularity, and helped establish Seattle's Wall Street.

First and Second Avenue became our city's "canyons" - a term used to describe streets in official metropolises such as New York and Chicago. The cosmopolitan character of streets darkened by ornate tall buildings stood in direct and close contrast to the mid-rise brick buildings in Pioneer Square.

For the first part of the twentieth century, the monumental, linear character of Second Avenue provided a processional stage for Seattle's parades. The Golden Potlatch, the city's first official summer festival proceeded along Second. Tall buildings covered in visually appealing details lend themselves to full enjoyment of public displays, for pedestrians and viewers perched in windows above the parade route. Banners and flags festooned Second Avenue to welcome the return of troops, or the arrival of dignitaries like President Theodore Roosevelt in 1911.

Best of the Past

A number of buildings associated with the glory days of Second Avenue remain. Some are protected Seattle landmarks, some are not.

Official landmarks along Second Avenue downtown (between Stewart and Yesler) include:

Bank of California Building/Key Bank Building, 815 Second Avenue, John Graham Company, 1923-1924. This neoclassical building was the last major banking headquarters built on Second Avenue in the heart of the city's banking district. Callison Partnership (now Callison Architects) restored the building in 1982, an effort that included the reconstruction of a skylight that had been blacked out since World War II.

Brooklyn Building, 1222 Second Avenue, 1890. The Romanesque Revival building is one of few built immediately after the Great Fire surviving today. The building's combination of residential and commercial functions illustrates the early residential character of Second before its transformation into a commercial district and ceremonial space. The building was designated a city landmark in 1986, but was altered to accommodate the construction of the Washington Mutual Tower. Only the two primary facades remain.

Dexter Horton Building, 710 Second Avenue, John Graham Company, 1921-1924.When it was built, the Dexter Horton Building was the largest office building in the country, and included state of the art innovations such as high speed elevators and a footprint that maximized light to its thousand offices. The Northern Clay Company, a major local terra cotta manufacturer, provided the cream colored cladding for this Beaux Arts-inspired building. The Second Avenue lobby is a particularly grand, but dignified statement.

Exchange Building, 821 Second Avenue, John Graham Company, 1929-1931. Another extraordinary lobby along Second Avenue is located in the Exchange Building which was built to house Northwest commodities and stock exchanges. The decorative motif running through the spectacularly detailed building is directly linked to the state's products. Wheat, grapes, peaches, tulips, roses and wildflowers are dazzlingly articulated in cast stone, plaster, bronze and sandblasted wood. The building has been a designated landmark since 1990.

Hoge Building, 705 Second Avenue, Bebb & Mendel, 1909-1911. The Hoge Building was the Seattle's second skyscraper, and broke records for the speed in which it was built. The frame for the 18-story building was in place in 30 days. The building employed the most up-to-date seismic requirements in response to a 1906 quake in San Francisco. When architecture firm GGLO renovated the building in 1994, visible girders were added to further reinforce the solid structure. The work involved removing a marble-faced entrance addition, and reconstructing the lobby and banking hall. The building was designated a city landmark in 1984.

Smith Tower, 502-508 Second Avenue, Gaggin and Gaggin, 1910-1914. One of Seattle's favorite buildings, and a distinctive part of our city's skyline, Smith Tower became an official landmark in 1987. Lyman Cornelius Smith of Syracuse, NY made millions manufacturing typewriters (Smith Corona) and revolvers (Smith & Wesson). Smith sought to trump the Hoge family's effort to build an 18-story skyscraper nearby, and with his son's encouragement, constructed the tallest building outside of New York. At the time of its completion, Smith Tower was the fourth tallest in the world.

Many details distinguish Smith Tower. Its Second Avenue lobby, paneled in Mexican onyx walls, is decorated with 22 hand carved, painted Native American heads. The eight elevators moving through the building were critical elements of the skyscrapers design, and included within the landmark designation. The Chinese Room on the 35th floor is a favorite space for medium-sized special occasions and affords a spectacular 360-degree view. NBBJ Architects and Mithun Partners designed upgrades for the building's office spaces in 1998-99.

A number of older buildings along Second Avenue are not landmarks, but convey the significance of the street's glory days in the first part of the twentieth century.

A few of these buildings are directly affected by planned developments.

Future Past?

Not all of Second Avenue's glorious past is assured of preservation in the future. The architectural remnants of the once-spectacular Burke Building now edge the Federal Building's plaza. In the early 1970s, Seattle's early preservation advocates argued to save the six story, Richardsonian Romanesque building, designed by Elmer Fisher, the architect of the Pioneer Building. After some discussion of relocating the federal offices within various historic buildings in Pioneer Square, the federal government opted to tear the historic building down for the current highrise office tower.

The "compromise" of recycling architectural remnants within the hardscape of the Federal Building's plaza would not be considered true preservation by most professionals today. This was, however, considered to be something like mitigation back in the early days of the preservation movement.

The 1920s Rhodes Department Store located at Second and Union Street was recently reviewed by the City of Seattle's Landmarks Preservation Board. Due to the significant amount of alterations around the building's street level, and the replacement of windows throughout, the landmarks board determined the building did not meet basic criteria for listing. The building is due to be demolished for a new Washington Mutual tower.

The Eitel Building, located at Second and Pike Street, was constructed in 1904 and was the most substantial real estate development in the northern end of the city at that time. The first tenants were physicians, which makes the building one of the first to house medical offices downtown. William Doty Van Siclen designed the building, but is better known for his Seaboard Building (1506 Westlake Avenue), which is now an official landmark.

The Eitel Building might be described as a "borderline" landmark due to the degree to which the street level store fronts have been altered. The building's age, the designer associated with the building, and its construction so early in the development of its surrounding blocks will probably lead to a landmark nomination within the planning process for planned monorail system.

The Preferred Alternative for the proposed Seattle Monorail includes a vertical station at this location.

Big Plans for Second Avenue

The current plan for the downtown leg of the Seattle Monorail puts the line on Second Avenue from Stewart Street to Yesler Way, with stations at the aforementioned location, Madison (at the Federal Building Plaza or the Federal Reserve), and Yesler at the site of the Sinking Ship Garage which will be demolished (with very little love lost).

The impact of the monorail on Second Avenue will be substantial, and is a part of the environmental impact statement which is integral to the planning for this project. Historic preservation has been identified early on as one of the elements of this study. How the guidelines and stations will respond to the historic environment will be a huge challenge.

This isn't the first time a monorail was proposed for Second Avenue. In 1910, the Universal Elevated Railway Company proposed to build a monorail on Second Avenue. Seattle declined, and opted for a street car system.

For more information:

Copies of Impressions of Imagination: Terra Cotta Seattle are available in the Historic Seattle offices. The book was produced by Allied Arts of Seattle in 1986.

Larry Kreisman's book, Made to Last: Historic Preservation in Seattle and King County is an excellent resource for information about individual landmarks and districts in Seattle, and the history of the preservation movement in this city. Copies of Made to Last are available for sale at Historic Seattle's offices.

View last month's Neighborhoods article

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