Seattle Center: How the city bulldozed history to create change

The creation of Seattle Center required the demolition of a historic, living neighborhood, but it also carried the seeds for a future urban ethic of preservation and reuse.

Crosscut archive image.

This 1959 photo is listed in the Seattle Municipal Archives as being from Lower Queen Anne, parts of which were considered blighted and bulldozed to make way for the Century 21 Exposition. The photo is listed under "demolition" and "world's fair."

The creation of Seattle Center required the demolition of a historic, living neighborhood, but it also carried the seeds for a future urban ethic of preservation and reuse.

Fifty years ago, as organizers raced to build the Century 21 Exposition, there was more at stake than simply putting on a good party. The end result was going to be a permanent Civic Center. That, after all, is what city voters had approved bonds for in 1956. The fair was the means by which a long anticipated center would come to life. By leveraging the Civic Center funds with matching monies from the state and additional federal and private investment, Seattle could have a PR boost and leave an unmatched urban legacy.

While Century 21 was future focused, the "first Space Age world's fair," it also took the past seriously. The Civic Center idea had been kicking around in urban planning since the end of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (AYP) in 1909, and one was part of the (defeated) Bogue plan of 1912. Civic centers were in vogue, the kind of urban amenity a modern city needed. Seattle often looked to San Francisco as a big-sister model of sophistication, and the city had hosted three expositions, one, in 1915, which had helped leverage the building of a major civic center that still thrives. 

The Seattle Times had reporters like Stanton Patty scour the experience of other fair host cities for lessons that could be put to good use in Seattle: Chicago, New York, Brussels, and San Francisco were all researched, and their expo histories brought to light for local analysis. The city also drew on its own 1909 experience. Century 21 had once been conceived as a 50th anniversary celebration of our first fair. The 1909 fair itself had been designed to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Klondike Gold Rush, an event that was barely history when celebrated. In fact, as historian Matthew Klingle has written, AYP was "a world's fair that celebrated neither history nor past heroes but present location and aspirations." 

But now that boosterism served as a historical antecedent. Links to AYP were frequently discussed. Al Rochester, the city councilman credited with coming up with the Seattle fair idea, had attended AYP and his boyish enthusiasm was unabated. Business leader and real estate man Henry Broderick had been on the board of AYP, and was appointed to the Century 21 board, the only man to serve in that capacity at both fairs. Fairs, by their nature, are about progress, development, trade and technology. These men served as living links with the past: A past that was about building the future. 

There was no dissonance felt in the fact that to build the long-cherished idea of a Civic Center, and to create a fair that was itself an important link in the historical chain of expositions, the old had to give way to the new. An old neighborhood had to be demolished, and some landmark buildings razed.

The scope of the destruction was extensive, some 200 homes flattened, many of them turn-of-the-century houses that we would rehab and treasure today (including at least one apartment house built for AYP). The grand, 57-year-old Warren Avenue School came down too, and with it there was collateral damage outside the neighborhood: the old, beloved 70-year-old Lowell School on Capitol Hill was torn down for a new facility that would house the district's "spastic children's program" displaced by the flattening of Warren Avenue. 

Symbolically, the first act of demolition was taken when Broderick, the lone AYP and Century 21 trustee, gleefully swung a crane's clamshell into the side of a home, making him "the envy of every small boy in Seattle." Broderick provided the historic link that connected past, present and future.

According to the newspaper, as the wrecking ball demolished a modest house at 619 Nob Hill Ave., the crowd cheered. All except a man who had lived there from 1897 to 1948.

The newspapers reported the historic carnage with enthusiasm: It meant progress toward the much anticipated fair (and both the P-I and Times were in booster mode). There was comparatively little outcry from the public, no landmarks process or historic districts to protect significant structures. By and large, the Warren Avenue neighborhood was considered blight (so, too, the Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square). Slum clearance was thought to be good urban policy. Some citizens simply asked that some of the major demolitions be conducted with respect. Regarding the Lowell School, one Times letter writer said "Seventy is a long time in the history of a young town like Seattle and old Lowell is as venerable a relic as we have — too valuable to be knocked down without a suitable gesture of farewell."

While the bulldozers were growling, there was an alternative urban sensibility emerging. Victor Steinbrueck, who did design work for the fair, issued his seminal book Seattle Cityscape in 1962 in which he literally sketched out the city's soul as reflected in its urban fabric, where old combined with new in unique ways. The book celebrated old, settled Seattle with a modern aesthetic that informed both preservationists and urbanists. The book was frequently handed out as a gift during the fair, as if to say our future was rooted in a very real, often gritty, city.

The destruction of a large swath of South Queen Anne for the Civic Center stirred up memories that remind us that the kind of urbanism that once treated settled neighborhoods as erasable slates often killed something precious: the kind of urban neighborhoods we aspire to have today. Listen to this quote from a neighborhood resident from a story by Lucile MacDonald writing about the impending demolition of the Warren Avenue School:

"I wouldn't have traded living in the Warren Avenue neighborhood for anything," said Mrs. [William] Friedli. "It had so many advantages. Industry was close by and our classes could walk down to visit the waterfront and go through the Washington Co-operative plant and bakeries. There were cable cars on the Queen Anne counterbalance and the Civic stadium was on the auditorium site. Kids used to climb fences to peek at games. There was always something going on."

Good schools, safe for kids, near work, walkable, with rail, local food (bakeries) and entertainment (baseball). Sounds like the Brooklyn idyll we're still trying to recreate in SoDo, South Lake Union, Belltown.

One reason the current Seattle Center site was chosen was that it did have a useful past. The fair might have been located at Fort Lawton (now Discovery Park) or Sand Point Naval Air Station (now Magnuson Park), two of the alternate locations considered. But as much as Century 21 was about "new," it was also about recycling and adaptive re-use.

The old Armory was turned into the fair's Food Circus, now Center House; Memorial Stadium, which Civic Center planners had hoped to tear down and replace, lives on, and was a major venue for fair entertainment, not to mention subsequent decades serving events like Bumbershoot. The Civic Auditorium was retained and refurbished as an Opera House as a cost-saving measure. While the fair bulldozed much of the existing residential neighborhood, it incorporated some of its most important community structures. 

Some believed the result was decidedly mixed. Donlyn Lyndon, head of the architecture school at the University of Oregon, critiqued the resulting Seattle Center in 1965. He called Memorial Stadium a structure that cut "malignantly" into the Center's space, and condemned the interior view blockage of the concrete box that is Center House. These are still points of contention, as is the Center's lack of connection with the surrounding neighborhood.

In 1962, a Civic Center was seen as a discrete cluster or campus. But then and now, some urbanists argue that it ought to be better connected to its context and the larger city. Lyndon thought the fair's recycling of structures was too much of a compromise. Instead of a prophetic vision, he concluded, the designers had built the "approximation" of a dream. 

In creating Century 21, Seattle had done something historic, and helped revive a potent form of civic improvement, the world's fair (Seattle's was the first in the U.S. after a 22-year gap since 1940). It had also helped codify that the city's history was, in fact, one of steady urban progress: a dedication to renewing a Northwest-style of urban idealism. 

At the same time, it helped shape some of the urban lines of thinking that would look more skeptically at things such as civic centers and the wholesale demolition of "blighted" neighborhoods, and help usher in a period where preservation was viewed as an urban development tool, rather than a hindrance, and livable neighborhoods were something to be nurtured rather than problems to be erased by bulldozer.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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