Monday, February 13, 2012

Busy Corner

There is a very special place to me in Seattle’s downtown, a place where, even in a rush, I’ll slow down, look around and let the history wash over me. 
Google Maps
lt is where First Avenue and Marion Streets come together and all historical hell is breaking loose there.  It is where Denny, Bell and Boren docked their boat in 1851 after reconsidering a permanent settlement at Alki Point in West Seattle.  It is where the Great Seattle Fire started, wiping out the entire downtown.  It is where John Muir, the great environmentalist and Gifford Pinchot, the nation’s first forester, blew up their friendship in a knock down drag out over lands policy in the lobby of the Grand Rainier Hotel though there’s a debate about whether it actually happened there.  Certainly their friendship blew up and it might as well of happened at the Grand Rainier. 

The Grand Rainier was torn down in 1930 and the old Federal Building stands in its place today, its terra cotta representations of Mount Rainier glaciers streaming down its brick slopes.  It is where Congressman Warren Magnuson, full of his youth, position and good looks, went to work when home from Washington, DC.  To the South is the Colman Building, covering the lot next door to the original Henry Yesler's Mill, the termination of Skid Road.


James Colman managed Yesler’s Mill and soon began acquiring property for his own enterprises and began building a dock next to Yesler’s.  Colman had designs made for an elaborate building to put to the east of the dock, on what they then called Water Street, now First Avenue.  His dock burned in the Great Fire and what was left and with other materials, including a ship Colman was hoping to salvage, became the stuff that filled in the tideflats for the building that would follow.  Soon a new dock was in place, a domed waiting room punctuated by a clock tower at its west end. This was the home to much of the city’s famous mosquito fleet.  Colemn added more floors to his original Water Street Building in 1905 and a remodel 20 years later gave it metal and glass awning along the themes of the Pergola up the street and some lovely brass and marble work.

Museum of History and Industry
Across the street is John Graham’s Exchange Building.  Graham’s buildings cover so much Seattle dirt and almost all have the plain spoken exteriors of this one.  But these simple lines conceal as lush an Art Deco experience as exists in the Northwest, matched only by the Seattle Tower, across the street from Benaroya Hall.  An immigrant from Liverpool, Graham became an architect the old way, as an apprentice to an architect. The Exchange Building was going to be at the very center of commerce in Seattle with a stock and commodity trading room located at on its second floor surrounded by a gallery for onlookers who would watch value grow as if it were a sport.

Original Coleman Dock
Museum of History and Industry


You should know that this intersection is thick with bad luck.  Colman dock suffered many fires, several collisions with boats, many lives lost and the clock tower, surrounded by flames and smoke, falling into Puget Sound.  Graham’s Exchange Building came on the market in 1930 and the Pit of the trading floor never heard a cheer. 

His son, John Junior, has the building just across Marion, the Henry M.  Jackson Federal Building, which the younger Graham designed with Fred Bassetti.  Bassetti never saw a brick he didn’t like and wanted the whole structure encased in brick, setting off a struggle, mediated by Senator Magnuson, between the bricklayers and the cement masons.  There is compromise written all over this block.  The lovely plaza, all brick, done by Bassetti and Rich Haag, the landscape architect responsible for Gasworks Park, gets the shorter end of the stick.  The entire office structure is encased in precast concrete.

The last breaths of the Burke Building, torn down for this new building, its arch and the decorations from its top, are incorporated into Haag’s design of the Plaza.

The charm of the two federal buildings exists mainly on the outside, although the old building has a pair of elevator doors and some lighting fixtures that are fantastic.  Rules against photography inside federal buildings prevent showing them here.  Also, if you want to time travel, the Post Office to the right of the main entrance remains in 1933, which shows through eighty years of wear.

The aluminum plates that decorate the building are a major statement for the time.  It is conventional wisdom that the aluminum came from smelters on the Columbia, but the smelting industry did not start on the Columbia until well after the plates were made and installed. 

Aluminum is the capstone of the Washington Monument and the Old Federal Building was one of the first in the western US to incorporate the expensive new metal.  For many years I had an office across the street on Western Avenue and looked out onto those plates in the back of the building.  In addition to the cast plates between windows, other plates depict the logos of the federal agencies who moved into the building. 

The two fantastic urns decorating the First Avenue side front are transplants from the site of the 1909 Alaska Yukon Exposition held at the University of Washington campus, Seattle’s first world’s fair. 

Over at the Colman Building the brass design elements at the front are done by Dudley and Virginia Pratt.  Originally installed for Joshua Green’s People’s National Bank, the treatment also included a pair of lovely brass doors showing scenes from the economic life of the region.  The doors were removed after two of the scenes were stolen.  The Pratts were a prominent couple, he teaching sculpture at the University of Washington and she running the art department at Lakeside School.  While they had separate careers, she often helped with the decorative designs and her hands would have been on this artwork.  (See "Dudley and Virginia" in "Our Great City")

The Colman Building is the only commercial structure in Seattle that has two Irish bars.  “Fado” is where the People’s Bank was and out back, off the alley, is the “Owl and Thistle.”  If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, Saturday, March 17, 2012 is the next St. Patrick’s Day.

Let’s go over to the lobby of the Exchange Building.  The best entrance is off Second Avenue, underneath a pair of stained glass windows to a gleaming marble and brass entryway flanked by an enormous wooden panel.  It is here you will find the last of the original elevator doors, perhaps the most lovely freight elevator in the universe.  

This is a cared for building.  Over the years, the false ceilings that covered up nearly all of this beauty have been removed and the decorations lovingly restored by the handful of plaster artisans who can still do this work.

For a period of time, Graham was the supervising architect of the Ford Motor Company, designing many buildings across the country which would accommodate the company’s manufacturing strategy of assembling cars for regional markets.  Two are in Seattle.  One is at the red storage building in South Lake Union and the other, now known as Federal Center South, currently used by the Corps of Engineers. 

John Graham’s resume includes the Frederick and Nelson Building, now Nordstrom, the Joshua Green Building at 4th and Pike and he had a hand in the Marine Hospital, the art deco building on top of Beacon Hill used by Amazon.

HistoryLink
But his real project was his son, John Junior.  He brought him along in the firm and, in 1946, gave him the company. John Junior promptly went to work on a project for Allied Stores, for whom he had worked briefly in retail, and his little project became America’s first shopping Mall, Northgate Center, in 1950.  He soon was replicating the ideas from Northgate across the country and the world. 

At one of his projects, the Ala Moana Shopping Center in Honolulu, he put a restaurant that rotated on top of an office tower.  The concept became the center of the second Seattle World’s Fair where Graham, Victor Steinbrueck and others created the Space Needle. 

While working on the Ala Moana project, Graham submitted a patent for the revolving restaurant idea and he was awarded the patent in 1964.  Since then, at least 237 rotating restaurants have been built around the world.  It’s noteworthy that nearly half of the 51 built in the United States no longer rotate today.

Graham was best known as a prodigious money-maker, not a designer.  He created over 70 malls across the world and, for that, earned a place with James Rouse and Eddie DeBartolo in the Mall Hall of Fame.  Yes, there is one. 


Graham’s string ran out with the Stimson Center Project, an office tower with extensive street level and underground shopping, that his development company proposed for Sixth and Pike in 1982.  The project was poorly timed and characterized by internal strife among the partners.  Graham was very bitter.  A Seattle ordinance limited the building height and the design community and organizations like Allied Arts and the League of Women Voters loathed its bulk and its high end pretentions and Graham challenged them as "uneducated little girls."

"You can't lose as much money as I have lost and not be emotional," he said at the time.  "It's very earth shaking to have lived an entire life in a town and have your best and finest work torpedoed.

He retired then amid lawsuits and anger, selling the development company and merging John Graham and Company with an Omaha architect and engineering company.  He died in 1992. 

The Grahams were more businessmen than designers.  The first John Graham was a supervising architect who approved the work of others, like Francis W.  Grant, the lead architect on the Exchange Building.  Graham's son was really a developer with an architect's education.  Each was aware that business came first and that designers like Fred Bassetti, Victor Steinbrueck, Ibsen Nelson and Frank Grant could be purchased to give grace to a good business deal.

It is the focus on business that makes their buildings so numerous in our city.  That some of them are fabulous is a gift. 

1 comment:

  1. This is amazing. The use of prefabricated walls made of concrete allows for sustainable and renewable architecture to flourish in and out of the city. I hope this gets replicated throughout the country as this is surely the future of construction and design.

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