As the Globe turns

What to do with the P-I's neon icon? How about making it the centerpiece of a memorial to journalism itself?
Crosscut archive image.

The P-I Globe, atop the old P-I building at 6th and Wall

What to do with the P-I's neon icon? How about making it the centerpiece of a memorial to journalism itself?

Back in January I speculated about the future of the Seattle P-I's famous Globe. Some at the paper (like Joel Connelly) were irritated that I was speculating before the paper's heart had stopped beating. But another reporter at the paper asked me if it was true that the Museum of History and Industry had a pre-arranged agreement with owner Hearst Corp. about who would get custody of the Globe. I talked with MOHAI and found no such arrangement had been made, though the museum already has the P-I's original neon sign and the paper's photo archives. MOHAI's Leonard Garfield said the museum who be delighted to make the Globe part of its collection. One idea would be to install it in their planned new museum on Lake Union.

Now that the presses are silent, the Globe is center stage, not spinning in its grave but turning atop the de-populated electronic P-I's Elliott Ave. headquarters. Concerned about its future, three city council members have announced that they're going to nominate the Globe for city landmark status. In a press release March 27th, Tim Burgess, Jean Godden and Sally Clark, all former reporters (Godden a former P-I staffer), said they will be filing the nomination paperwork shortly. State preservation officer Allyson Brooks applauds the idea. Clark emphasized the need for speed, saying, "We can't act too soon to ensure the P-I's contributions to our community are not forgotten." Normally, speed in landmarking is driven by the threat of the wrecking ball, but here the worry seems to be civic Alzheimer's.

Is landmarking the Globe a good idea? There's great publicity value, and it would set out a series of guidelines and procedures for how the landmarked entity would to be managed in the future. And there is general concern. The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation says the Globe has been nominated for its "most endangered" list (listees will be announced in May). But, landmark status cannot offer definitive protection, as supporters of the old Music Hall or the Ballard Manning's/Denny's know. Nevertheless, it's certain that the P-I Globe would qualify as a landmark under multiple criteria.

One interesting aspect of the proposed nomination: The city's landmarks officer, Karen Gordon, says this would be the first time a landmark nomination would have come from the City Council. Anyone can nominate a potential landmark. However, the prospect of sitting council members nominating a landmark raises a question Gordon could not answer: council members also vote on a designated landmark's controls and incentives agreement, the document that sets the ground rules for how a landmark will be protected and managed.

If a city council member submits a nomination, would they then have to recuse themselves from voting on the landmark when it comes before the council? The council is often seen as a court of last resort when landmark owners object to a nomination and they could be seen as biased. I placed a late call (after 5 pm) to the city's ethics office and they responded immediately saying they'd look into it. Sally Clark says she'll also run it by them. Former council member and preservationist Peter Steinbrueck agrees that it's unprecedented, but doesn't think there's an ethical issue and that such council involvement should be encouraged.

Larry Johnson, an architect and experienced preservation consultant, emails that he doesn't generally approve of landmarking objects, though it should be pointed out that Seattle has landmarked many, from the Kobe Bell to the downtown street clocks, from the Chief Seattle statue to a bulletin board in Chinatown. Seattle also has numerous neon signs it loves, the Elephant Car Wash, the Pike Place Market, and the old Rainier Beer signs.

Johnson says, "Such an action would be more ceremonial than tactical, as landmarks are only 'protected' from radical change or destruction if an action affecting the landmark requires a building permit. That is the City's only restrictive power besides resorting to the normal PR route. So assuming the Globe is taken down and located to a holding place somewhere, if the 'owner' then wanted to pick it up and take it to a landfill, they technically could." It should be pointed out that moving, finding a new home for, or even disposing of, the Globe wouldn't be easy: it's 30 feet in diameter and weights over 18 tons. Re-locating it (if necessary) and restoring it are likely to be expensive propositions.

To have any leverage, Johnson says, the city would have to act before the Globe is removed from its current site. Johnson thinks the best outcome would be to move it back to its original location atop the wonderful, 1940s Art Deco P-I building at 6th and Wall. For those whose highest priority is architectural and historical integrity, the goal would be to restore the Globe to the place it was designed to be.

Preservation consultant Art Skolnik has his own idea. He sees the Globe as a reminder of the important role of daily newspapers. He writes: "As a symbol of the death of printed newspaper journalism, it's no different than a monument for valiant service to the public. As I have suggested, it should be the centerpiece of a public space, 'Journalist Square,' that commemorates the printed press and the people who gave it to us."

That solution speaks to Sally Clark's concern that public memory of the days of real newspapering will soon fade (not exactly a vote of confidence in the quality or future of the Seattle Times). The New York Times called the Globe "a beacon of memory of a lost newspaper." The P-I Globe becomes less an historic or architectural icon than one resonant with current significance. That daily newspapers, like dead veterans, might need a memorial is quite a statement. Maybe the best spot for it is Lake View cemetery.

Councilmember Tim Burgess sees the Globe as a symbol too: "As a former radio journalist and longtime Seattleite I can'ꀙt imagine our skyline without the reassuring glow of the globe &mdash a symbol of high journalistic standards." Of course, one man's sense of high standards differs from another's. Plenty of people believe that the bigger, locally owned Times was the superior paper, or some simply hated the P-I. Interesting too that the Globe itself carries an archaic message. "It's in the P-I," the neon letters of the Globe promise. How long has it been since anyone regard the P-I as a comprehensive source of world news?

The point may not be the P-I's death itself (who still laments the death of the Seattle Star?) But rather that it lived long enough, thanks to a government-sanctioned Joint Operating Agreement, to die at a memorable moment. It didn't die in obscurity like so many other big-city newspapers in the 1970s and '80s but rather as a high-profile victim of the collision between the new media age and the Great Recession. The spinning Globe is a reminder of history, a memorial to a journalistic form, a bit of beloved kitsch, and a warning not to let journalism, newspapers or no, die out.

NOTE: Speaking of historic preservation, I will be returning to near the scene of the landmark crime of the Ballard Manning's/Denny's debacle. I'll be reading from my book Pugetopolis on Tuesday, March 31, at 6:30 pm at the Ballard branch of the Seattle Pubic Library. There will be, I hope a lively Q&A session afterwards and I will be signing books. This is my last scheduled public reading in Seattle for awhile. More can be found here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.