The 'Mad Men' landmark that might have been

Gourmet food, cool architecture, cocktails, and modern art: Seattle Center could have had an exceptional cosmopolitan amenity, but the city said no.

Crosscut archive image.

Even today, Seattle Center hopes to remake its dining choices, as shown in this rendering.

Gourmet food, cool architecture, cocktails, and modern art: Seattle Center could have had an exceptional cosmopolitan amenity, but the city said no.

The private owners of a successful restaurant want to cut a deal for a piece of Seattle Center in order to expand their business and create a showcase for a renowned Northwest artist. But some people object, citing the lack of public process, a hurry-up schedule and decrying the private use of public property at the Center.

Sound familiar?

Yes, but this isn't the Space Needle and Dale Chihuly in 2010. It happened 50 years ago on the eve of the Seattle world's fair. Yet the dispute is eerily familiar as the shape and future of the Center and its public-private nature are still hotly debated.

The year was 1961 and the city was getting ready to host the first American world's fair since World War II. The fair was going to be the launch pad for a new permanent civic center in Seattle, and long before the fair began, planners, civic and business leaders were mapping out the complex's post-fair use.

Old facilities were to be refurbished or transformed (Memorial Stadium, the Armory, Civic Auditorium), and others were to get a running start during the fair. The U.S. Pavilion would be turned into the Pacific Science Center, for example, and the Space Needle was planned as a permanent tourist attraction.

In November of '61, as the race to get the fair up and running hit high gear (it was set to open in April of '62), a private group stepped forward with an ambitious idea. Restaurateur Peter Canlis and businessman John Hauberg unveiled a $500,000 proposal to build a new Canlis restaurant next to the new Opera House at Seattle Center. According to The Seattle Times, the plan was to remodel or replace the old Veteran's Annex to the Civic Auditorium with a fine-dining establishment and Mark Tobey art museum.

Tobey, at that time, was one of Seattle's most famous artists, and Canlis the owner of the city's finest restaurant. Hauberg and his wife, Anne, were major arts patrons. The combination seemed perfect.

The fair would be a world showcase for Northwest art, plus a spur to the local food scene even then gaining in reputation (some bubbling critics said the city was already starting to give San Francisco a run for its money, dining-wise). The project would put the Northwest palate and palette at Ground Zero for the "new" Seattle.

The proposal was welcomed by fair organizers, though it came relatively late. Century 21 Exposition manager Ewen Dingwall said it would be a "wonderful addition." The model for the new Center was partly inspired by Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens (Seattle urbanists' fascination with that Danish city is longstanding).

Canlis said his restaurant would be the first step toward bringing about the Tivoli vision of the Center. He saw the restaurant facing the International Fountain and hosting 250-300 diners at at time. It would be, he told the Times, "a jewel in the beautiful fountain plaza area." 

There were problems, however, according to newspaper accounts. The Canlis backers wanted the city to sell them the property, or give them a 50-year or longer lease. The private Space Needle backers had already gotten their property from the city, and that deal was controversial.

The Canlis backers also wanted car access and parking on the site (a depressed roadway onto the fair grounds was one possibility). Some veterans' groups, which used the Annex as a meeting place, questioned whether privatizing public property for a "luxury" restaurant would be legal. Others worried that the building schedule would disrupt ongoing fair construction. A city councilman questioned whether liquor should be sold so close to a high school stadium (Memorial). In early December, the Civic Center Advisory Committee told the City Council it opposed selling Center property to the restaurant.

Sounds very Seattle, doesn't it? Objections about cars hurting walkability, questions about private gain over public benefit, worries about alcohol sales, angry groups petitioning the City Council against caving to the local elite. In the march up to the fair, Seattle public process was sometimes steamrollered by backroom deals orchestrated by civic and business leaders.

Some feared that this would continue. When business bigwigs founded the group, Post-Fair Unlimited, to advise and perhaps run the fair post-Expo, it was blithely reported in The Seattle Times (whose publisher, W.K. Blethen, was part of the group) that they would be conducting their business "off the record" for the time being.

Modern Seattle as we know it, including the Center, would likely not exist if today's process had ruled the day. But on the eve of the fair, and in the early planning stages for what was to come, there were signs of backlash amid the boosterism.

By mid-December, the Canlis-Hauberg plan was dead. In a telegram to City Council President David Levine, Hauberg said he was withdrawing the proposal until the city had decided how to "govern" the Center after Century 21.

The Canlis-that-could-have-been was soon forgotten in the fair hoopla. The Haubergs, who commissioned a Tobey mural for the new Opera House, continued to dream of a museum dedicated to the artist's work. In fact, they planned to build the museum on their Pilchuck Tree Farm in Snohomish County — that is until a young artist named Dale Chihuly came along and convinced them to back his plans for a glassmaking school.

But the Canlis-Hauberg plan is one of those intriguing, forgotten ideas that in retrospect seem like a slam dunk. Today, the Center would still love to have more fine dining on the campus, and Tivoli is still regarded as a role model.

Canlis' handpicked designer for this project was Roland Terry, the legendary Northwest architect who designed the existing Canlis. Terry had discussed the restaurant/museum plans with Century 21 master planner and Coliseum designer, Paul Thiry, and Paul Hayden Kirk, who designed some key fair structures (Fine Arts Pavilion, the Playhouse). Along with being at the center of a renewed city, the project might have represented part of an amazing collaboration of local architectural talent.

Art tastes and the restaurant business are fickle, and the collaboration might not have lasted. Still, imagine Canlis cuisine (still getting recognition), mystic modern art, enduring Northwest architecture, and a fabulous urban amenity in the heart of Seattle with a splash of "Mad Men" style. Fifty years ago, Seattle lost a chance to create another attraction that might have become an anchor of a place still searching for its Tivoli-ness.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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