The signature edifice of the lately lamented Washington Mutual Bank (known hereabouts as WaMu) occupies the entire block of downtown Seattle bounded by Second Avenue, Third Avenue, Seneca Street and University Street. I promised twice in past posts that we would return to this neighborhood for a closer look at what’s been done right, and lo, here we are. As always, click to enlarge the photos.
I wasn’t paying attention when this doughty structure, née the Washington Mutual Tower and now called simply the 1201 Third Avenue Tower, was piled up against the sky in my home city, nor could I at the time have told you what kinds of buildings and businesses occupied the block before 1986, when construction began. But I know now. These days I can walk down the streets of historic Seattle in my mind, layering the epochs on top of each other like sediment in each block.
For instance, when I walk past the hideous parking garage at the corner of University and Third, I can see not only the somber and Gothic Plymouth Congregational Church that stood there in the early 1900s, but also Pantages’ bone-white, cake-like and urbane Palomar Theatre, which replaced it there — its very opposite idea — in the last century’s teens. Where the triangular “sunken ship” garage splits Yesler and James between First and Second, I see not only the venerable and well-appointed Hotel Seattle that was torn down the year before I entered the world, but also the Occidental Hotel that had previously occupied the same site until it burned in the Seattle Fire of 1889, and even the “Old West-style” wood-sided hotel with a deep porch that was there in President Garfield’s time. Sometimes I see things wrong, but I seldom just see one thing. The history is there like good hardwood under bad tile and worse carpet.
I have to admit I like the WaMu Tower. Not the upper floors I’ve never seen (for what have I to do with the lofty offices of commerce?), but the part I have to trip over on my way around the village. But let’s start at the top anyway. I like the pyramid roof (click the link a couple paragraphs up). It’s distinctive. And the graduated setback is nice, it recalls a sort of chubby Chrysler, Empire State or Woolworth’s (though I can see how the nickname “the Spark Plug” got traction). The arches below the top are festive, and the curved sides lower down break the monotony of the many flat sides on Third. I wasn’t crazy about what I call the “garden block” theme that runs down each side of the building and reappears in the accessories here and there — I thought it looked silly — but I’ve grown accustomed to the little Xs and now they cheer me, like kisses. Or hugs, whichever. WaMu’s love for me writ large.
But it’s the courtyard or “plaza”, along with the lower lobby, that really makes this more than just another tall building and gives a little bit back to the community. For this is what we must do with tall buildings, we must find what’s good and celebrate it. Otherwise we focus only on the fact that people generally sit in them and dream up ways to separate us from our money and ruin our culture and community. If we can lounge around among the shady roots of these concrete sequoias and find some peace and serenity, then that is much, I say. Often, corporations don’t give us even that, but cities occasionally demand some give for the take, and too, I believe WaMu started out with a (relatively) less rapacious attitude than the one it ended with.
In support of that outrageous statement I give you Exhibit A, the two photos above of the courtyard. This is a nice place to walk through. I actually bank here, depositing my paycheck with whomever “owns” whomever (“whatever”), and I love walking among the deciduous trees and up the stone stairs outside and the marble stairs inside. It feels Mediterranean to ascend and descend these stairs, and I always feel a little better about myself as a human being as I walk through — the self-doubt ebbs away and I walk with my shoulders back a little. That’s what’s called “ennobling” and it’s what architecture and other arts used to be about. There is a courtyard at the bottom of the stairway and there is another above it which is at all hours of the business day filled with smokers from the tower taking a break from the stress of living and working in a world created by their very selves and envisioned by those in the offices a few floors higher. (It is illegal to smoke in public buildings in this state, or within 25 feet of an external doorway to such a place.) So much for serenity. I am unable to linger there.
The only thing I don’t really dig is the art installation, the fallen pillar, which actually blocks one’s way through the courtyard and thus peeves one (good art evokes an emotional response, right?). I like this piece of art a little, but only because I “get” it. I see that it is a Baroque moment (a second pillar opposite is out of alignment but is not yet falling). But it’s such a stale and overdone moment, or worse, a slap in the public’s face. The old values come tumbling down and lie in ruins. Yay, commerce is king. I’d prefer something I didn’t understand but that felt positive and uplifting.
The lower lobby is bright, airy and large, and has a grand piano in it if you feel like tinkling. There’s almost always someone in here reading Sue Grafton or that thriller guy. It’s not technically a public place; it’s privately owned by J. P. Morgan Chase Bank, but it’s still a civic space, unless I’m using the word improperly. This space is part of what makes the building a success, in my view. It doesn’t shut you out, it invites you in.
Many years ago, a family of peregrine falcons took up residence under the high outside arches on the east side of the building. A camera was installed and you could walk into the lobby of the bank portion of the main floor and stand there and look at a television showing, often, the parents standing watch over the eggs in their dizzy, windblown nest. It was big news, and good PR for the bank. You can hardly feel but that the nesting of raptors amounts to some sort of blessing on the building. Or maybe not, maybe just a sad reminder that there used to be trees here (but let us paint a hopeful picture, and press on).
Finally, there is the Hotel Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Building was built in 1890 and it’s still there as an office building, the only thing on the block that was not razed when the tower was built. Here are some pictures to show you where it is:
The old inn and oysterhouse was spared and incorporated into the design, more or less, probably because it’s a landmark. I’m not going to examine corporate motives too closely when the result is historic preservation. Maybe the developer had no choice and the tiny remnant of yesteryear was a thorn in their side while designing the project, much the way the nearby Oakland Hotel refused to be sold when Martin Selig wanted to tear THAT block down to build his Columbia Center (after he built his tower, which looms over the ancient brick hotel-cum-offices, the owners of the Oakland sold it to him, and with a little tape and scissors he incorporated it into his vast multi-level lobby). Sometimes, developers are given a tax or other break if they preserve the facade of an old building they are replacing. That has happened a lot in this city (and would make a good post in itself), but there are those who believe that this only encourages civilians to accept the gutting and basically the destruction of our historical buildings. I can see their point. I have mixed feelings about it, and the main one is that I don’t have enough money myself to buy up the buildings I’d like to save, so I am grateful for whatever preservation happens.
No one knows who designed or built the Brooklyn Building. A plaque on it dates it and describes it as having been among those many hotels that popped up in the wake of the great fire to house the throngs who came to help rebuild the city that burned, and being one of the oldest of such buildings to survive. Its neighbor a few doors south, the Savoy, started out as one of the city’s early luxury hotels, but fell on hard times midcentury and was eventually demolished, I believe as part of the clearing of the block for the WaMu Tower. All that remain of the Savoy are aluminum castings of the capitals that topped the pillars of the first floor’s interior. The plaster originals were hidden behind a false ceiling for decades, forgotten during the hotel’s seedy twilight, then rediscovered upon demolition. Two of the castings are now affixed to the outside wall of the tower at street level.
Below is a shot Paul Dorpat sent me from early in the last century, before the Brooklyn’s taller, grander neighbor the Savoy was built. This is looking down University, westward, at the back of the hotel. The street is still mud, that’s how old this image is. After it, in the manner of Paul’s famous Now and Then paradigm, is my “now” version, shot during my lunch walk this very day, to snap us back to the present.
I understand that most of these old buildings had to go. Old brick and stone buildings become hard to maintain, often neglected, some ultimately unsafe and all of them insufficient to the purposes of those who now own the property they sit on. I get it. We can’t save them all. Still I love them (or their memory in many cases, since I never saw them). Even the broken down and sooty ones. They represent a time when human scale and ennobling art still had a place in the architecture of commerce. But if they have to go, I’m glad when those ideals are preserved in some small part of the colossi that replace them.