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It's time to designate the Key Arena a historic landmark

Guest Opinion: The World's Fair building is a piece of our cultural history. Let's treat it that way.
A break during a 2008 game at KeyArena.

A break during a 2008 game at KeyArena. Colin Whittaker/Flickr

Architect Paul Thiry, a proponent of modernism, designed the original Seattle Center Coliseum, now called KeyArena: This is structure as sculpture.

Architect Paul Thiry, a proponent of modernism, designed the original Seattle Center Coliseum, now called KeyArena: This is structure as sculpture. Lawrence W. Cheek

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:

a) It is the location of a historic event with a significant effect upon the community: World’s Fair, SuperSonics, Storm, Bumbershoot, Seattle Center

b) It is associated with the life of a person important in the history of the city, state, or nation: Paul Thiry, Ewen Dingwall, Joe Gandy, Bagley Wright, Governor Al Rosellini, Elvis Presley, Barack Obama, Pete Seeger and many others;

c) It is associated in a significant way with a significant aspect of the cultural, political, or economic heritage of the community: sports, culture, Seattle Center;

d) It embodies the distinctive visible characteristics of an architectural style, or period, or a method of construction: modernism, building engineering of second half of  the 20th c.;

e) It is an outstanding work of a designer or builder: Paul Thiry’s most impressive work; and

f) It is an easily identifiable visual feature of its neighborhood or the city and contributes to the distinctive quality or identity of such neighborhood or the city. While it doesn’t scream Seattle, Seattle Center and the City of Tomorrow quite as loud as the Science Center or the Space Needle, the Coliseum is definitely one of the cornerstones of the World’s Fair site and is easily recognized from many vantage points.

In addition to meeting at least one of the six standards, a building must also possess integrity or the ability to convey its significance.

The alterations to the building have been significant, but the dramatic structure and its four-acre footprint were designed to make changes easy and frequent. In an unusual twist of the integrity concept, making changes to the Coliseum respects the integrity of its design.

A 1993 photograph of Mayor Norm Rice announcing the Coliseum’s new name shows a building awaiting the reinstallation of the roof, a deeper bowl, new seats and a modified ramp and loading dock on the building’s south side. The massive interlocking steel trusses, the tripedal concrete buttresses from which the roof cabling and the roof are suspended and the window walls, its most significant features, are intact today. Enclosing a huge amount of unobstructed space, the building was designed to be flexible and alterable. Even today, its gigantic open span makes it work for basketball, hockey, concerts and even the occasional Bumbershoot film.

Paul Thiry incorporated the idea of changing interior shapes in his design. From the very beginning, Thiry anticipated the conversion of the Coliseum to an 18,500-seat sports and convention facility at the conclusion of the fair. Consequently, when assessing the building’s qualifications as a City of Seattle landmark, its design flexibility is paramount. The Coliseum was engineered for change.  Just as the fair envisioned the future, so the building, an amazing example of adaptable space, embodies it.

The peril of losing the Coliseum is increasing in the rush to embrace a new stadium for still-unidentified basketball and hockey teams. Local politicians — including Queen Anne-based state legislator Reuven Carlyle (D) and its newly-minted mayoral candidate, City Councilmember Tim Burgess — have written the building off as a white elephant.

Seattle architecture critic Lawrence Cheek underscored the danger to the Coliseum in a November 30, 2012 Seattle Times article.

"It's appalling that Seattle continues abandoning major civic buildings after just 20, 30 or 40 years. I don't think anybody misses the Kingdome or the old Central Library, but Key Arena is a superb building, and it did not deserve to be orphaned."

Seattle Center just concluded its celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and focused the celebration on the next 50 years. The Coliseum merits the same protections as its siblings, the Space Needle and the Pacific Science Center. They were built for Seattle’s future. Just as a 1962 film heralding the fair said, “See …the gigantic, wall-less, pillorless Coliseum and have fun with the happy-go-lucky crowd!”

Now, after 50 years, we can add, “Forever!” Only landmark designation can make it happen.

 

Michael Herschensohn, Ph.D is the President of the Queen Anne Historical Society. Reach him at

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Comments:

Posted Tue, Dec 11, 8:56 a.m. Inappropriate

First a note re: Crosscut in general: Does anybody proofread the articles? In this one, it should be Reuven, not Reuben Carlyle. Check out other articles today and you'll find other misspellings, etc. Not a lot, but enough to be jarring.

On the Coliseum/Key Arena, of course it should be designated an historical landmark. But my guess is that the powers behind the Sodo arena don't want it done for fear that it might somehow impede "progress" -- you know, replacing (and demolishing) a fine, usable structure with a new one, so McGinn can have his "legacy" when he is unceremoniously dumped after one failed term. The structure is a "white elephant" only because the powers that be choose to make it so by starving it to death with the Sodo competitor.

It's been said before but should be noted again: in a city that prides itself to the point of smugness on being "green" through, among other things, reuse and recycle, treating the Coliseum/Key Arena as a piece of trash that should be landfilled is the height of hypocrisy.

Posted Tue, Dec 11, 9:13 a.m. Inappropriate

There is one important requirement Key Arena does not meet to be nominated for historic preservation - it is not yet 25 years old. This is not the same Washington State Pavilion or even Seattle Center Coliseum that was erected for the 1962 World's Fair. That building, the floor, the entire interior, most of the walls, the infamous leaky roof and foundation were demolished save for four massive steel trusses that hold the roof up. As Virginia Anderson said on its opening in 1995, "People think a remodel means you paint and you fix, but this is a brand-new building."

I would suggest the Center officials first decide how to re-purpose the building or site. With the prospect of a new Sodo Arena, it's days as a sports arena are probably numbered. And with I-91, funding for that purpose is problematic.

I do agree that the form of the building has been an important part of the city skyline (although it has become more and more obscured by recent construction in Lower QA) and if designation does occur someday, I hope it does not include the huge "Key Arena" signage on the roof top. That definitely wasn't a part of the building 25 years ago.

fred117

Posted Tue, Dec 11, 10:41 a.m. Inappropriate

It's a fine building, but landmarking might lock it into economic decline and prevent repurposing. One of my favorite ideas for "saving" it is to put lots of uses into the below-ground areas and then to turn the ground level into a winter garden, with the famous roof floating overhead like a huge umbrella. Seattle Center needs more open space that works in rainy weather. And a winter garden would allow for lots of uses (cafes, small concerts, play equipment) set amid the greenery.

Posted Tue, Dec 11, 3:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Interesting idea. Might be handy in a disaster scenario as well, presuming those windows are shatterproof glass.

s_calvert

Posted Tue, Dec 11, 7:58 p.m. Inappropriate

An amphitheater, retain the steel trusses and half of the roof, facing into Seattle Center. Strip out darn near everything else, down to the bones.

Mr Baker

Posted Wed, Dec 12, 6:56 a.m. Inappropriate

This building seems reminiscent of the 'Googie' style that originated in Southern California in the 1930's.
The old Denny's in Ballard was debated as a building worth saving for time-capsuling a similar futuristic style.

Unfortunately, both buildings were made obsolete by either the location (Denny's) or the business of professional sports (Key).
Preserving the shell would be interesting though.

jeffro

Posted Wed, Dec 12, 2:51 p.m. Inappropriate

I think it's commonly understood these days that if you want to do economic harm to someone who owns an old building you proceed to nominate his/her property as "Historic". Such designation can turn a reasonable building into a guaranteed money loser and assure the owners of legal and technical invoices far into the future. But first, of course you have to spend money to fight the designation, not necessarily a negligible cost. Wishing this on KeyArena is not a good idea.

kieth

Posted Wed, Dec 12, 8:18 p.m. Inappropriate

Here's a comment sent to David Brewster, from Robert Weaver:

David – I hate to say it, but your comment on the Key Arena was off mark when it comes to “economic decline and repurposing.” This is a general misperception often raised by developers that want to get rid of a Landmark. It also is a public misperception. Also, the person who said that it doesn’t meet the 25 year rule (now 50 years later) also doesn’t know what he’s talking about. As a former chair of the Landmarks Board (Seattle) and Vice-chair of the King County counterpart, I can assure you that Key Arena should qualify. The dynamic outer shell has not changed that much; Landmarks typically recognizes that buildings need to be repurposed. Many if not most have been (see Wallingford Center, Queen Anne High School, Franklin High School and many more). And many had been renovated before nomination (mainly interior, but not necessarily). It all has to do with what is designated and “controlled” relative to Landmark status. Often this is just the exterior unless there are some really important and unique interior qualities (like the Bon Marche). Also, the reason for identifying specifically what is and is not “controlled” on a building is an important step. The Board wants to bring their experience in sensitive redesign into a process so changes don’t do serious damage to the aesthetics of the building. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t allow change. There are all sorts of good (and bad) ways to readapt a building. In fact, your vision probably would fly. So please don’t perpetuate misperceptions about Landmarks.

Robert Weaver

Posted Sat, Dec 15, 4:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Well, gee, I miss the old central library. One of the finest Carnegies in the country. A sad loss.

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