Seeing an industrial landscape as beautiful, picturesque, and heroic, as opposed to dingy, blighting, and toxic is a concept that arose in the 19th century, quickly died, and stayed dead for almost a century. In the latter part of the 20th century, however, a number of academics, designers, and photographers reconsidered long-stigmatized or anonymous industrial sites, and translated these environments into places with great visual interest and public value.
Adapting a toxic industrial site into a public park, while maintaining the once environmentally-offending infrastructure as part of the design, was a new and challenging idea back in the early 1970s when Gas Works Park was a concept in search of community consensus. Now a public park and a City of Seattle Landmark, Gas Works Park remains an unusual and progressive example of adaptive reuse, a noteworthy landscape design, and is undeniably one of Seattle's favorite places.
Seattle's early development grew from a strong industrial base of timbering and, believe it or not, coal. Seattle's waterfront was home to coal bunkers in the late 19th century. Coal was one of the area's most lucrative exports in the city's earliest days. The cities commercial and residential growth hinged on the production, processing and distribution of fuel.
Lake Union's central location near downtown and in the middle of a number of high-density residential areas, and the potential for canals which would link it to Lake Washington and Puget Sound made it an ideal place for a gas processing plant. From 1900 to 1906, Seattle Gas Light Company purchased the land for this use.
In 1903, the Olmsted Brothers, who were conceiving a city-wide park system, thought the site would be ideal for a public park and playground, given its great views of the city, and lakeside location. In 1911, Virgil Bogue, who developed a plan for Seattle influenced by the City Beautiful Movement, advocated for industrial rather than recreational use of the lake. The gas works at Lake Union, known as the Lake Station plant, became the largest private utility in Seattle. It grew quickly, and by 1954, the plant used 1,071 miles of gas main to serve Seattle, Renton, Kent and Tukwila. Production ended in 1956, when Seattle converted to natural rather than coal-generated gas.
The relationship between the water, waterways, and industrial work was integral and commonplace in Seattle's first half century of development. By the mid-20th century however, pollution of area waters became a public concern, as was the recreational use of local water. By the 1950s, public health, historic salmon runs, and recreational activity in Lake Washington, was significantly compromised by industrial and human waste contaminants. The problem was so severe that King County voters approved a comprehensive plan for sewage treatment and water quality facilities in 1958. After this environmental low point, area water quality steadily rose.
The Lake Station plant played a large part in polluting Lake Union's waters and its underlying soils. The City of Seattle purchased the site and its structures between 1962 and 1972, partly with Forward Thrust funds. Forward Thrust, approved by King County voters in 1968, provided hundreds of millions of dollars for local capitol improvements, $118 million of which went to public parks. The development of the Lake Station site as a park was ideal as it combined the public benefits of mediating a highly toxic site while generating open space.
Better Living by Design
Susan Wessman, a local landscape architect and brownfields expert, describes the site's pre-mediation condition as "between a brownfield and a superfund site." The adaptive reuse of the site was not an easy sell. While the City of Seattle began acquiring parts of the site, public discussion concerning the reuse of land and structures was considerable. Park advocates, led by Myrtle Edwards, eventually won their case.
The Seattle Park Board retained local landscape architect Richard Haag to conduct a site analysis and develop a master park plan. Haag was (and still is) a nationally-respected designer, and was a favorite professor at the University of Washington. His design for Gas Works has been studied and praised by some of landscape architecture's best critics.
Haag's concept for the park was extremely progressive. In 1971, official historic preservation activity in Seattle was still embryonic, and focused on the brick buildings of Pioneer Square. The Environmental Protection Act, which required Environmental Impact Statements and historic resource evaluations, was federally mandated only a year before. Haag, however, recommended the incorporation of the potentially problematic gas structures as a part of the park's design due to their "historic, esthetic and utilitarian value." This interpretation of the site and adaptive reuse plan required an intense appeal for public support. The Park Board eventually voted unanimously in favor of Haag's proposal.
While park signs advise visitors against eating the dirt there, the site recently underwent additional remediation to remove contaminated soils. The long history of environmental impacts at Gas Works will require specialized maintenance efforts for some time to come. The effort is well worth it. There is no better convergence of Seattle's industrial past and its present values than Gas Works Park.
A Footnote to a Good Idea
Another adaptive reuse of a historic industrial area into a park is in the works. The Herring's House Park, located in the Duwamish Waterway, was dedicated on June 4, 2001. While the park does not include historic industrial structures, it provides another local example of a hazardous waste site turned park. The head of the Duwamish River is the historic beginning of white settlement within Seattle proper. The river, as a result of that history, has suffered through a century and a half of timber milling and other industrial activity that supported the meteoric growth of the Northwest's largest city. The park was a part of a mediation effort to restore this historic salmon habitat. A number of federal, state, and local agencies, as well as the Muckleshoot and Duwamish Tribes, are partners in this project.
For more information about the history of Gas Works Park, visit the Landmark's Office within the Department of Neighborhoods and request the 1998 landmark nomination.
For more information about related topics and local environmental history, visit HistoryLink.
View last month's Preservation & Environment article