Only one truly amazing Seattle Center building remains to be designated a City Landmark. It is the Key Arena. Meeting all six of the city’s criteria for landmark status, the Coliseum, as it was previously known, deserves recognition and protection from demolition as the city builds a replacement for it in Sodo. As Clair Enlow wrote on October 24, 2012 in the Daily Journal of Commerce, “It is an architectural treasure and a landmark in every sense of the word, except legally.”
Built for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, this spectacular structure is one of our city’s most graceful modern buildings and an exceptional testimony to the quality of post-war American engineering.
Designed by Paul Thiry, the fair’s principal architect and dean of Modernist Seattle design, the building is cherished as the original site of the Bubbleator. The fair's transparent globe-shaped elevator lifted 100 visitors at a time up 28 feet to a structure of 3,500 interlocking multicolored aluminum cubes, where elevator riders were given a 21-minute tour of the future in the World of Tomorrow exhibition. In designing the Coliseum, Thiry worked closely with structural engineer Peter Hostmark, creating a hyperbolic-paraboloid roof structure whose swooping lines are as distinctive as the domes on Minoru Yamasaki’s Pacific Science Center and the spinning top of John Graham, Jr. and Victor Steinbrueck’s fanciful Space Needle.
Financed by the State of Washington and built at a cost of $4,500,000, the Washington State Pavilion was renamed the Coliseum following its conversion to a sports arena after the fair. The building was located at the center of the International Plaza and ringed by the International Commerce and Industry Buildings, part of the World of Commerce and Industry, all of which were Paul Thiry’s work.
Uniquely responsible for bringing European modernism to Seattle, Thiry produced the Northwest Rooms, the Alki Room, the Swedish Building and the now demolished Seattle Center Pavilion. He is especially significant as the chief urban planner for the development of the World’s Fair site, and his mark can be found in unexpected places, such as his design for the back of the Horiuchi Mural.
The Coliseum’s exterior glass walls are set within V-shaped units and enclose nearly 130,000 square feet of space. Under the majestic roof, the interior has a series of ramps around the enclosed arena at the center. Entrances at various levels are situated around the building.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Seattle World’s Fair Century 21 Exposition, alterations were made to convert the structure from an exhibition hall to a sports and multi-purpose facility. This conversion consisted of a reconfiguration of the interior spaces and the installation of new access ramps and partition walls. Like later renovations made in 1993, these alterations did not substantially alter the building’s basic form or its distinctive profile.
After its conversion to a sports arena, the Coliseum hosted the SuperSonics, one of this city’s beloved sports franchises. Today, the building holds a pivotal role in the history of Seattle’s feminist movement as the home of the Storm, now the only women’s sports team in America wholly owned by women. The myriad of international stars who have performed there make it nearly hallowed ground: Madonna, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Radiohead, Nirvana, Barack Obama. The list is endless.
Emotionally, architecturally and historically, there is no doubt that the Coliseum is a landmark.
As the city embraces a study of Seattle Center’s future, nominating the Coliseum as a historic landmark must be part of the process. To be designated a landmark, a building must be at least 25 years old and meet at least one of the six criteria for designation. Of the hundreds of buildings that have been designated historic Seattle landmarks, only two, the Space Needle and the Pacific Science Center, have met all six of them.
The Coliseum also meets all six landmark standards. They are restated briefly here with some of the most obviously compelling reasons for designation:
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