How Gas Works Park shapes the Northwest today

The National Register of Historic Places has just honored the repurposed park. No wonder: The Seattle project started a whole new way of preserving and building on the past for the entire region.
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Gas Works Park

The National Register of Historic Places has just honored the repurposed park. No wonder: The Seattle project started a whole new way of preserving and building on the past for the entire region.

Some Northwest cities have embraced remnants of their industrial past in bolder, greener designs. Leading the way: Seattle's newly honored Gas Works Park.

In Astoria, Oregon there's a boutique hotel on the Columbia River, the Cannery Pier Hotel. It's in the shadow of the impressive steel Astoria-Megler Bridge that arcs above the river to allow massive ships underneath. From your suite, you can look out and observe the ship traffic, diving cormorants and swimming seals.

The hotel was built over the water on the site of an old co-op cannery operation founded by Finnish fisherman and their allies that was once the busiest fish packing plant in a cannery town. Right next to the hotel is another rotting pier just like the one the hotel is built on. Its deck is crumbling; moss and greenery hangs from its dilapidated structure. It is quite beautiful, like an abstract modern sculpture. It gives you an idea of the "before" to the hotel's "after," of the maritime and working heritage of the site and city.

Astoria used to be a place you drove through on the way to the Oregon Coast. Now it combines the flavors of historic Port Townsend and hipster Portland mixed with a genuine working class city where fisherman and loggers still occasionally brawl in the streets. Ships ply the river at the mouth of the Pacific, and on the highway to Astoria you'll pass logging trucks filled with something other than match-stick timbers. The "Sometimes a Great Notion" Northwest still lives, but with inns, galleries and cool restaurants.

The Cannery Hotel represents the newer Astoria, but one built by locals who also embrace the old, industrial waterfront. The hotel is built on century old, old-growth timbers that are still as fresh as the day they were pounded into the muck of the river bottom. The town feels rooted in such foundations.

It's way too tempting and easy to remake cities in the boutique image while tearing down the old, dirty and industrial. But even a dirty industrial legacy can prove adaptable. In Seattle, railroad right of ways have been converted to trails like the Burke-Gilman. In Tacoma, the old railroad corridor that runs through the downtown site of the UW Tacoma is slated to become the Prairie Line Trail, and park, through a campus that has already incorporated many old buildings. New York's High Line is an example too. With projects like Seattle's big waterfront re-make in the offing and the gentrification of SoDo and South Lake Union/Cascade offer chances to adapt industrial legacies. Already, some city landmark structures like smokestacks have been preserved.

There is an extraordinary and pioneering example of industrial adaptation in Seattle to inspire us, and it lies on the north shores of Lake Union. It's Gas Works Park, which earlier this year was honored, with a listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Allyson Brooks, the state's historic preservation officer, explains, "The design conserved part of Seattle's industrial heritage along with introducing a groundbreaking experiment in bioremediation into urban life." In that, it was a radical, national experiment and the first of its kind.

This year represents the 50th anniversary of the city of Seattle making its first payment to purchase the site, and the 40th anniversary of the opening of its first phase to the public (the giant mound) in 1973. The finished park opened in 1975.

Gasworks was the site of a turn-of-the-century gas plant dating from 1906 that produced gas from coal for lighting, heating, cooking and other purposes. At one time, they even made charcoal briquettes there. It closed in 1956. The Olmsteds had much earlier identified the property as having city park potential. In the early 1960s Seattle finally bought the old plant with its spectacular views of the city and lake with the intent to convert it into an urban park on an industrial lake that was shifting toward recreational uses.

The visionary who decided to incorporate its industrial infrastructure — towers, tanks, machines and buildings — into a new park landscape was Seattle landscape architect Richard Haag. It was a radical concept: Parks were about recreating nature in the city; Haag wanted to allow the man-made gas plant to shape the park. As he describes it, he undertook a "selective pruning" of some of the refinery equipment, but left a kind of sculptural remnant that honored the history as well as provided a visual statement. He also turned old machinery into a playground for kids. He called it "iron gothic." Haag embraced the steampunk aesthetic before it was cool.

He also took incredibly toxic ground and proposed a clean-up effort that would utilize natural microorganisms and natural processes to eat-up much of the soil contaminants that had seeped deep underground. The pollution was so bad an inspector passed out from the fumes in a test pit 15 feet down. Gas Works was an early test of these methods. Others were used as well. The recycling industrial technology and innovative clean-up methods at Gas Works were new notions. It was 20 years before the Environmental Protection Agency recommended such bioremediation methods. Haag called it "the park of the future."

It is unusual for sites to make the National Register if the architect is still alive, which Haag is, still working too out of his office on North Capitol Hill. He turns 90 this year. An exception was made for Haag. His Gas Works and Bloedel Reserve projects are recognized around the world. Charles Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, said that Gas Works is "the work of a master in a seminal project, and a pioneering effort in its typology."

In Seattle, it's easy to take these kinds of things for granted: if a park works, it becomes a part of the city and its life. Those Seattleites who picnic at Gas Works or fly kites from the Mound don't necessarily think about the park as a groundbreaking experiment — it's simply an amenity we couldn't live without.

But part of that essentialness, I think, comes from Haag's brilliant and thoughtful incorporation of the park use into the city as it is, and was  — a kind of seamless blending of the Lake Union of smokestacks and the Lake Union of kayaks, Duck Dodges and Fremont parades. Haag made the case that the industrial past, even when it's past, can very much be a part of the landscape of the urban future.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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