Seattle Center: Is historic district designation ahead?

Balancing the needs of history and redevelopment is both a challenge and opportunity for Seattle Center.
Crosscut archive image.

A break during a 2008 game at KeyArena.

Balancing the needs of history and redevelopment is both a challenge and opportunity for Seattle Center.

The decision to host a world's fair and preserve the site as a permanent civic center has, with time, ensured that Seattle Center is home to a cluster of city landmarks. Debates over what the Center should be — park, cultural center, amusement zone, urban neighborhood — are ongoing and they will increasingly be shaped by the passage of time as many of the Center's parts age into historic status. The post-fair Center is 50 years old this year. The refurbished fairgrounds re-opened as Seattle Center on June 1, 1963.

Already, there are six designated city landmarks there: the Space Needle, Science Center, Armory, Monorail, Horiuchi Mural and the Kobe Bell. But a new historic survey of the site demonstrates that there are many additional eligible landmarks dating both from the 1962 fair and before. The Center has a number of structures that pre-date the fair, such as the Armory/Center House and Memorial Stadium, because the Century 21 exposition's builders were dedicated to adaptive re-use and eager to save money by capitalizing on existing infrastructure.

The new "Seattle Center: Historic Landmark Study" commissioned by the Center was finished in March and is now available to the public (you can get a copy of it here). It was produced by the team of and Artifacts Consulting, Inc. of Tacoma. Their findings are slated to be presented to the city's Landmarks Preservation Board on May 1.

The study covered buildings, other structures (fountains, the North entrance) and parts of the landscape and layout (Fisher Green, the original city street grid) that might meet one or more of the city's six landmark criteria. To be a landmark, a candidate property need only meet one of the six criteria, but the city also considers the issue of "integrity," whether the nominated site still is true to its original architectural form. This can be an area of scholarly debate: Does a historic structure, for example, maintain its character, or has it undergone one too many alterations? It's sometimes a judgment call.

The study found that there are 17 properties that meet one or more of the city's landmark standards, led by KeyArena (formerly the Coliseum and Washington State Pavilion) which was assessed as meeting all six. It has undergone significant change, especially on the inside. But the outside is as recognizable today as in 1962.

The future of the Key is the subject of much discussion. Mayor Mike McGinn recently announced an agreement over rents and upgrades to the facility in anticipation of its hosting, on an interim basis, professional basketball and perhaps hockey, courtesy of Chris Hansen, who is trying to bring the Sonics back to town. But preservationists worry about its eventual future if a new arena is built in SoDo. Some local politicians have suggested that the facility is doomed in that event. Others, like city council member Jean Godden, are actively looking at alternative, long-term uses for the Key to keep the Fat Lady from ever singing there.

The study finds that many of the potential landmarks fall within two clusters, which they named for the architects that had influence there. At the West end of the Center is the "Thiry Concentration" centered largely around KeyArena and the Northwest Rooms. Architect Paul Thiry designed the arena and oversaw the architectural plan for the fair and post-fair.

On the North side of the Center is the so-called "Kirk Concentration" named after architect Paul Kirk whose firm was connected with structures like the Playhouse, Exhibition Hall (formerly the Fine Arts Pavilion), Mercer Arena and even the Mercer Street Parking Garage. McCaw Hall, formerly the Opera House and before that the Civic Auditorium, does not qualify because nothing of the old structure really remains.

Crosscut archive image.

The Horiuchi Mural is the backdrop for the Mural Amphitheater/Credit: Peter Prehn 

The survey also identifies a number of plazas and open spaces, like the Mural Amphitheater, the International Fountain and the space surrounding it and other areas integral to the design of the Center and valuable in the way they showcase the campus's mid-century modern design and retain some of the fair's vistas and context. The survey provides planners with a kind of road map not just for preservation but one identifying areas where creative development can take place.

One of the report's authors, Michael Sullivan of Artifacts Consulting, says he hopes it will result in "a clearer understanding of the buildings, features and story at Seattle Center [that] will help planners and stewards make smart decisions about the future." Not everything at the Center is worth preserving, of course. Redevelopment of major sections have been proposed (like the Memorial Stadium area) and it continues to add new features over time, including EMP, Chihuly Garden and Glass, and the upcoming KEXP studios. It has also lost popular features, such as the Fun Forest. If nothing else, this helps everyone understand the historic importance  (or lack thereof) of some of the existing puzzle pieces.

Crosscut archive image.

The Chihuly Glass and Garden at Seattle Center on a December afternoon/Credit: Wonderlane

For history buffs, the report is fascinating in its documentation of the Center's structures and features and their origins. Many fair survivors, even obscure ones, are still in use, like the Blue Spruce Building, near KeyArena, which once housed fair staff offices, or the old NASA pavilion which is now used for facilities maintenance equipment, a far cry from space capsules. Unlike the Space Needle, no one is missing views of these. Other features are generally overlooked by the casual visitor. The Center site incorporates elements of the original city street grid, which is what explains those concrete boulevards. They help to keep the Center's connection with the layout of the Warren Avenue neighborhood that preceded the fair, and also preserve one of the organizing principals of the fairgrounds. They're one reason the Center still keeps much of the feel of the original fair.

One question is, with so much now surveyed and identified, what is the best way to protect the worthy historic elements? Each could be nominated individually, or the Center could be proposed as an Historic District. That might be a long process, and one so complex that it could bring restrictions no one would like. An alternative would be to focus on landmarking the clusters like the Thiry and Kirk concentrations where buildings and their relationships to one another are clearly important. One thing is certain: the 50th anniversary legacy now includes a way forward that doesn't ignore the past.


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.