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.
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