The fight for Seattle's Federal Reserve bank

Preservationists have won a round in their battle to save Seattle's old Federal Reserve building, despite the Fed's own efforts to sabotage the effort with a lame landmarks application.

Crosscut archive image.

Outside the bunker: Seattle's historic Federal Reserve branch.

Preservationists have won a round in their battle to save Seattle's old Federal Reserve building, despite the Fed's own efforts to sabotage the effort with a lame landmarks application.

For the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, the Federal Reserve Bank has been a rhetorical whipping boy. In Seattle, a group of historic preservationists have their own fight with the Fed. They don't want to bring down the system, they just want to stop the owners of the historic former Seattle branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco from tearing it down. The resulting battle has been waged in the courts rather than at Westlake, by attorneys and architectural experts wielding reports rather than pepper spray.

A major decision earlier this month marked a victory for those who've argued that the branch building, at 1015 Second Ave, is worth saving. It also highlights differences over architectural history and interpretation that could affect the the building's fate and its place in the historical record. On November 3, the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation voted to add the vintage-1950 structure to the state Heritage Register and approved its nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. This is a win for those who have argued that the building deserved special consideration as an important historic property.

One reason it is notable is that it runs counter to a judgment made in 2008, when the Seattle Landmarks Board unanimously turned down the building for city landmark status. That decision was based on an application put together on behalf of the Federal Reserve Bank itself. The bank had moved its branch to another facility and wanted to ensure that the old building would not be encumbered with landmark status, which would hinder a buyer from demolishing it for development. So it submitted a landmark application hoping it would be rejected. Documents presented later in federal court revealed that bank officials were delighted when that happened. In a so-called "high five" email the Fed congratulated its consultant, Susan Boyle of Seattle's BOLA Architecture and Planning, for securing a rejection. That removed an potential impediment to the sale to sell the property to a buyer who planned to put up a high-rise.

The Committee for the Preservation of the Seattle Federal Reserve Bank Building, headed by preservation consultant Art Skolnik, took the Fed to court, charging that it had subverted the intent of the landmarks process and violated the federal government's own procedures regarding the sale and disposition of the building under the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. In 2010 a federal court ruled in favor of Skolnik's group, finding that the Fed had bungled its environmental review, and cancelled its sale. One key issue: Because the Fed had agreed to sell the building before it had finished its environmental impact statement, it had precluded a fair consideration of alternatives to demolition. The Fed dropped an appeal and went back to square one. Last June it issued a new draft EIS claiming the building did not qualify for the National Register. The Fed maintains that position today.

Among the responses submitted to the DEIS is a blistering 91-page critique of the research done by the bank and its consultants from UW architecture professor Jeffrey Karl Ochsner, a recognized expert on Seattle architects and the history of downtown development. Ochnser argues that the historic data and analysis they provided are incomplete and riddled with inaccuracies, which he exhaustively details, and that the bank branch qualifies as a landmark under both city and federal guidelines.

The two sides' experts disagree even over how to categorize the building architecturally. The bank building, an anchor of the financial district, was one of the few major buildings built downtown between 1940 and 1950. The Fed's historians regard it out of date — a late, watered-down example of the Moderne architectural style of the 1930s — and otherwise unremarkable. The building does indeed have a kind of anonymity about it, but that was by design: It was built like a massive strongbox, for commercial clients rather than the public. Jeffrey Ochsner counters that the bank is actually an important, transitional mid-century Seattle building, an experiment in modernist minimalism meeting the particular challenges of building an affordable, strong bank for a conservative client.

Another area of disagreement between the parties is who designed it. The Fed's current historical consultant, Erica Kachmarsky of Building Resources Group in Redmond, believes the bank was largely designed, in collaboration with the Fed, by William Bain, Sr., a partner in the architectural firm Naramore, Bain, Brady and Johanson, or NBBJ. In a letter to the state advisory council this October Kachmarksy argued that it had "never been found to rise to the level of significance, even at the local level, as an example of the firm or Bain's work."

Ochsner argued that the branch is, in fact, a significant collaborative work by NBBJ, one of Seattle's most important post-War architectural firms, a seminal partnership that designed such key local structures as the University of Washington Medical Center and the (since demolished) Public Safety Building. It was hardly a run-of-the-mill project; multiple NBBJ partners cited it afterward as a notable example of their work.

Drawing on Ochsner's critique of the Fed's conclusions, Michael Sullivan of Artifacts Consulting of Tacoma developed a detailed application for Skolnik's committee nominating the building to the National Register. To get that far, it needed the approval of both the state's Historic Preservation Officer, Allyson Brooks, and the Washington State Advisory Council. Karen Gordon, the staff director of the Seattle Landmarks Board, wrote the advisory council that she believed no substantial new information had been provided since 2008, when the city Landmarks Board considered the Fed's original application; ergo, the bank branch is not a worthy local landmark, regardless of whether it makes it onto the National Register.

This month, the advisory council unanimously sided with the preservation advocates and recommended the building, "a rare example of early post-war modernism," for the National Register. It found that the bank satisfies at least two criteria for the register: It embodies distinctive characteristics of its type and time and is associated "with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history." Those would include the expansion of the Fed and the establishment of Seattle as a major regional financial center. 

If the bank makes it onto the National Register, it will be a repudiation of both the Fed's underlying assumptions and the Seattle Landmarks Board's judgment. Making the register, which the National Park Service oversees, does not ensure a building will survive. But it can help a new owner adapt or preserve the property, via tax benefits. A decision on the old Fed branch could come by the end of the year. In the meantime, a final EIS is being circulated.

Whatever happens, the dispute has brought an expansion of the historical record about a building that is unique in Seattle. That review has offered insights into the details of the architecture and its Seattle and national context: What did it mean for Seattle to host a branch of the Federal Reserve? How did the presence of a major financial institution affect the city and the Pacific Northwest? How were Cold War-era ideas of economics and security reflected in the work? At the very least, it's given us an interesting history lesson.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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