The case of the vanishing bank

The sale of Seattle's low-profile Federal Reserve Bank is subject of a federal lawsuit over its sale, and possible demolition.
Crosscut archive image.

Money bunker: the 1950 Federal Reserve Bank building in downtown Seattle.

The sale of Seattle's low-profile Federal Reserve Bank is subject of a federal lawsuit over its sale, and possible demolition.

In U.S. Federal court March 11, the Federal Reserve Bank and a group led by historic preservationist Art Skolnik will face off in a dispute over the Fed's pending sale of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco's Seattle Branch. The bank branch has moved to Renton, leaving its old downtown Seattle headquarters empty.

Skolnik's group, The Committee for the Preservation of the Seattle Federal Reserve Bank, is worried that the sale will mean the demolition of the historic bank building on Second Ave. between Spring and Madison downtown. The group is funded by big-money interests (Skolnik won't specify who) who are rumored to include at least one deep-pocketed nearby property owner who doesn't want a new high-rise to replace it. The Fed hasn't disclosed the name of the buyer either. Some believe the fight is more of an old fashioned dispute between developers than it is about preserving history.

Be that as it may, the Federal Reserve Bank is an important downtown structure, and key to the debate is whether or not the bank has followed proper federal law in assessing its potential historic value and the impact of the sale weighed against that value. The bank building has been deemed eligible for the National Historic Register, yet the city of Seattle declined to name it a landmark in 2008. The bank submitted a nomination and was hoping to have it rejected to clear the way for the sale.

However, new information has surfaced that could change how the building is viewed. It has long been believed that prominent Seattle architect William Bain, Sr. was the architect of the building, and he was. But Skolnik says his group recently received documents from the Federal Reserve in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that confirm that the bank's designer was actually one of the 20th century's most famous and honored modern architects, Pietro Belluschi, who designed many major buildings in the Pacific Northwest (including the Federal Reserve Bank branch in Portland and the Portland Art Museum).

Belluschi is considered an important influence in Northwest modernism, and is internationally famous for being a design consultant on structures such as New York's iconic 1963 Pan Am Building and is an AIA Gold Medal recipient. Documents indicate Belluschi was still being consulted about possible alterations to the bank as late as the 1980s (he died in Portland in 1994). Whether Belluschi's involvement will make any difference in the court case or what happens afterwards is unclear. Skolnik's group is seeking to nullify the sale.

The 1951 building was designed to contain money, lots of it. It features an enormous vault (5,000 square feet) and was not only an important modern building in Seattle during the post-war period (it's in the Moderne style), but it's also a Cold War survivor: It was built to withstand a nuclear attack. If you have never noticed it, it's no wonder. The squat, six-story structure was meant to be a kind of "strongbox" that did not call attention to itself, but rather exuded an aura of stability and safety. In other words, it's a potential landmark in part because it does not look like a landmark.

The Federal Reserve Branch was designed to withstand the atomic bomb, but there's no guarantee it will survive Seattle's downtown development pressures once the court untangles the issues raised in the case.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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