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.
lt is where First Avenue and Marion Street come together; there, all historical hell is breaking loose. 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 fight over land policy in the lobby of the Grand Rainier Hotel (though there’s debate as to whether it actually happened there). The Grand Rainier was torn down in 1930 and replaced by what we now call the Old Federal Building, its terra cotta representations of glaciers streaming down its brick flanks. It is where Congressman Warren Magnuson, full of his youth, position, and good looks, went to work when home from Washington, D.C.
Next door to the south is the Colman Building, covering the lot next door of 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 so he could build 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 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 of much of the city’s famous mosquito fleet. Additional floors were added 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.
Across the street is John Graham’s Exchange Building. Graham’s buildings, most of which have the plain-spoken exteriors of the Exchange Building, cover so much Seattle dirt. But the simple lines of his buildings 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.
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 building came on the market in 1930 and the pit of the trading floor never heard a cheer.
His son, John Graham, Jr., has the building just across Marion, the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building, which the Graham, Jr. 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 Sen. Magnuson, between the bricklayers and the cement masons. There is compromise written all over this block. The lovely plaza, all brick, done by Bassetti with Rich Haag, gets the shorter end of the stick. The entire structure is encased in precast concrete.
The last breaths of the Burke Building, torn down for this structure, 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, though the old building has a pair of elevator doors and some lighting fixtures that are fantastic. (Unfortunately, rules against photography inside federal buildings prevent showing them here.) Also, the Post Office to the right of the main entrance looks pretty much as it did in 1933, though just with 80 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 installed.
Aluminum is the capstone of the Washington Monument and this building was one of the first in the western United States to incorporate aluminum. 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 that 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 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, 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, making what is perhaps the most lovely freight elevator in the universe.
This is a cared -or 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 that 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, is 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, formerly the headquarters of Amazon.
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