George Bartholick: restoring the Pike Market and envisioning our Zoo
by Bob Royer
George Bartholick at Western Washington University Credit: Robin Bartholick
The recent completion of the Pike Place Market's $70 million infrastructure replacement project is now done, and the 105-year-old market looks fit and hardy.
It was all done just in time for the start of the cruise ship season and the crowds of tourists that come in the summer — crowds I don’t necessarily like but support because they benefit the city and my many friends who work in the market. And the place is such an American treasure that we simply have to share it without too much complaint.
The remodel made me much more aware of the many changes in the Market that somehow slide into the place and seem old on their second day. I still feel highly Seattle when I say “meet you under the clock” and have tried to stick to that description for many years. The new brassy piggy bank under the clock has changed the whole thing around, and when I email “meet you under the clock,” I get a response that says “why don’t we meet at the pig?” followed by a Smiley Face emoticon.
I also love the gum wall, something that just showed up and must drive the health department crazy. Another is the bierstube that Uli’s Sausages created. I went in the other day and had a spicy Italian sandwich and a brew, and felt pretty good about where I was sitting and what I was doing.
While there, I asked myself if George Bartholick would have thought the place a good idea.
Bartholick was the architect and planner we entrusted with the complete structural remaking of the Market beginning in 1974 and who finished the job six years later in 1980. It is one of the great historic preservation jobs of its time and remains a great one today. Little was known about how the Market had been originally constructed or how the damage from fires and earthquakes had been repaired. Record keeping had been sloppy. Plans and documentation were often absent. The original construction was done quickly and cheaply.
Its reconstruction was not. The project had a lot of surprises, and those surprises cost lots of money. Planners in the Department of Community Development called the project “Our Vietnam.” They also worried whether the investment would truly pay off. When the renovation started, 80 percent of the Market was not rented.
It was a Bohemian place that he took on and he put it back largely unchanged; still Bohemian, but updated, and with a backbone and ribs of steel to which the buildings were attached. He checked his considerable ego at the door and put the Market back pretty much as it was physically. Though he had no control what happened to the spaces he remade, they seem to fit today.
Courtesy of Robin Bartholick
George was able to do what he did, in part because he was a bona fide Bohemian himself. He grew up in Bellingham, the son of a shoe shop owner, who did things like building a giant, mobile shoe that was a mainstay in the little parades that popped up around Bellingham.
George was just the right age to fight in World War II, serving as a navigator on the B-24 bombers of the 446th Bomb Group. He guided his aircraft, the I Hope So! to Dresden on Feb. 13, 1945, the night it was destroyed. The same night some of Europe’s finest architecture collapsed into the firestorm.
The 446th Bomb Group deployed in England in November 1943 and finished in April 1945. In its first missions, 31 crew members were killed during six bombing runs over Germany, mostly over Bremen. In early 1945, the war resistance on the ground was waning, but the bombers flew nearly every day into seas of flak. George saw the new German Messerschmitt fighter deployed late in the war; their appearance is noted in the logs of the 446th. Though I knew George pretty well, he never talked to me about this part of his life.
After the war, he came back to the University of Washington and got an architecture degree there, before heading back to Europe where he worked for the next six years in Holland Sweden, and Switzerland. He also exercised his skill in drawing.
In 1953, George showed up one day at the Paris home of Alex Trocchi, a Scottish writer and one of the founders of the literary magazine Merlin. It was the first magazine to publish Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, as well as publishing Irish writer Samuel Beckett and American novelist Henry Miller. Trocchi was among the first of the Beat Generation.
George had drawn several panels showing Crusader knights and Muslim soldiers fighting with a red cloth as their banner. At the end of the panel, all the soldiers on each side were dead and only the red cloth remained. It got into Merlin magazine along with a piece of criticism by Beckett, then who was almost completely unknown to American readers.
Eventually, George made his way back to Seattle and to Bellingham, where he opened his architectural practice and was soon hired as the campus architect for Western Washington University.
He was very tall, had a full head of gray hair and expansive eyebrows. I’ve never seen bigger. He frequently wore black and in the winter he would wear a black wool cape, attached 19th century style at the neck, over his suit.
George kept odd hours, working most of the night and then sleeping through the morning, arriving at the Market for breakfast about one o’clock. His staff would have been working since early in the morning and would prepare materials for his review. While a supportive and kind man, George could be picky and demanding. He wanted things done right, but mainly he worked for the joy of it and the relationships he found at work.
Sometimes his staff would play tricks on him, like designing an apartment that had a shared medicine cabinet with the unit next door, mocking a television commercial for Right Guard Deodorant. George would take home such plans, discover the joke, and glow with the knowledge he had hired some fine, clever people that needed to be watched.
He liked to say about the Market project that it was like a forester restoring a mountain meadow, “If he does it right, no one will know that that he was there.”
George was entrusted with three of western Washington’s most important institutions. The Market, of course, is probably the most visible, but his first great project was Western Washington College, where he was the campus planner and architect from 1963 to 1979. He helped create one of the state’s most lovely college campuses, complete with a sculpture park — long before we got one in Seattle. A Bellingham native, George also provided the emotional and technical energy necessary to save the old falling down City Hall, now the amazing Whatcom County Museum.
The third project was his most controversial and one he considered a failure. But on reflection, it was just the start of a process that would lead to a great outcome — today’s Woodland Park Zoo.
In the late 19th century, a Nova Scotian named Guy Phinney built an estate around his home at the top of the hill overlooking Green Lake and surrounded it with 90 acres of trails, landscaping, a band stand, a bathing beach and a few deer and other exotics, all connected by his own private trolley car. There already was a private zoo in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood, where a trolley line, casino, beach, and a few animals behind fences lured Seattle residents to it.
The city annexed Phinney's property when it annexed Fremont in 1891, and finally bought Phinney’s estate in 1900 for $100,000, causing a fire storm of complaints about purchasing a rich man’s private park (now Woodland Park) located so far from Seattle. When the Olmsted Brothers, a Massachusetts planning firm, started work on Seattle's comprehensive parks plan in 1903, the company included this property in the plan and decided to expand the tiny zoo with "hardy animals." The animals from the Leschi zoo were given to the city's collection when the zoo was sold.
Later, the city would pick up Tusko, an elephant thought to be the largest in captivity.
But Tusko had a temper. He had been sold by a legitimate circus to a series of inexperienced small-time operators, who used the huge elephant as their main attraction. “As big as 1,080 people and 550 horses,” the ads shouted. In the early 1920s Tusko went berserk in Sedro-Woolley, where he threw his trainer and took off on a 30-mile, two-day rampage destroying cars, a couple of barns, and many utility poles before he came upon a still, where he gorged himself on fermenting sour mash for long enough to calm down.
When his small-time torturers exhibited him in Portland over Christmas of 1931, Tusko ripped up his tent and stood triumphant among the debris with all but one of his tethers broken. Then-owners Jack O’Grady and Sleepy Gray, who had bought Tusko at the Oregon State Fair, where he had been abandoned, for the price of his feed bill, quickly called police. The police chief decided to shoot Tusko on the spot and assembled several officers to do the deed, but Portland Mayor George Baker wouldn’t have it. He ordered the police to holster their weapons.
In Seattle in 1933, Tusko got the attention of mayor John Dore, who waded into a controversy and a comedy of errors that left the elephant stranded in downtown Seattle with the city feeding him. Dore heard that Tusko's owner planned to shoot the animal, stuff, and sell him. That was enough for Dore the person, and certainly Dore the politician. He seized the animal for non-payment of feed and proposed taking him to the zoo, which authorities ultimately did, closing down streets along the way and walking Tusko up to the zoo.
Just as they got Tusko settled and after 80,000 visitors came to the zoo to see him, the zoo started a campaign raise the money to keep him fed and in a decent shelter. Weeks later, Tusko laid down on his side and died of a blood clot to his lungs.
Meanwhile south of the zoo, the George Washington Bridge was being built across Lake Union.This led to Seattle’s first freeway fight over a "speedway" through Woodland Park. The speedway would turn out to be Aurora Avenue North and it would, save for three little-used bridges, divide the park into Upper Woodland and Lower Woodland after an initiative to abandon the project failed.
Tusko and the bridge motivated George Bartholick.
The horrible treatment given animals by most zoos — sterile cages, restraints, nothing to break the monotony of imprisonment — plus the division of Woodland Park by Aurora Avenue moved George to weave those two unrelated events into a singular theme that George saw as the centerpiece of his zoo project.
He wanted to cross Aurora with a superlative, glass-covered zoo exhibit that would create room for the eastward expansion of the zoo into Lower Woodland Park, where animals could have even more room for natural living spaces.
Rather than solve the divisions created by Aurora though, George’s plan made them sharper. The fact that this really cool idea doubled the budget was a problem. Recreation interests, seeing a major encroachment, were organized by Benella Caminiti — who ironically both worked at the Washington Primate Research Center and hated zoos. Caminiti had become involved as a powerful opponent. Passionate and tireless, she ultimately brought George’s plan to the Seattle ballot, where it was defeated. The zoo director, an interesting and creative businessman whose own passion was a world class zoo, resigned.
George was devastated. But a young David Hancocks, who was part of a consulting team brought in after the election, became director of the zoo and soon created a natural space in which lowland African gorillas could live more normally while still seen closely. The exhibit was fantastic and put the zoo on the international map. It also became the standard for further naturalistic exhibits at the zoo that respected the animals.
Other exhibits followed — the African Savannah, Asian Primates and a New England Marsh. Ultimately, the zoo’s exhibits won county-wide financial support, which would eventually lead to the creation of the exhibits that now mark it as one of the finest zoos in the world.
George saw many of the changes to the zoo after his departure and eventually became less bitter about his defeated zoo plan. He moved on to the Pike Place Market project and made his great mark there.
Later he moved about — teaching in Mexico, fixing buildings in Mt. Zion Monument Park, and finally moving back to Bellingham, where he died in 1998.
I decided that George would have enjoyed Uli’s bierstube as a Pike Place fixture; it is simple and fun, without pretense. Like so many places in the Market, it is a hole in the wall that shows off a fine surprise when you enter.
In new plans for the waterfront, there is a kind of cascading connection down from the top of the hillside, where the Market sits with its steel backbone. If George were still here, he would have something to say about it and would know viscerally what it might do or not do for the Market.
I thought about another beer at Uli's bierstube, but decided against it. I made my way through the Market, buying peonies and early raspberries, all the time wishing that George would have made that exhibit crossing Aurora Avenue and wondering who in the future will rise up to his cause and unite Woodland Park once again.
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