On the northwest corner of Second and Marion downtown there is an arch made of stone. I passed it the other day while I had my camera with me. It stands near the sidewalk at the front of the upper plaza of the Henry M. Jackson (a.k.a. “Federal”) Building. I’m going to tell you just a little story about that arch.
Many of them were silly, but we had a lot of traditions. Looking back, I guess they were a way that we teenagers — famously stuck between impotent childhoods we wished to leave behind and the responsibilities of adulthood that we were not yet allowed — could make the world our own. My friends and I excelled at creating these traditions. There was a tradition upon leaving Kip’s house that as I or Jeff was pulling away, Kipper would thump “BUMP BUMP baDUMP BUMP” — the five notes of the old “shave and a haircut” musical phrase — on the trunk of our car (or, if we were backing out, on the hood). We would sound the corresponding two notes of “two bits” lightly on the horn. This just happened once, and then it became a thing we always did, even if we were leaving after midnight and sleeping neighbors might hear. It was no less than a pledge of continued friendship at parting.
Kip and I also had a tradition, whenever we ate at Pizza and Pipes in Bellevue, of asking the organist, Dick Schrumm, to play “Windy”, which he always did. We sat down close to his perch at the front and drank root beer and ate pepperoni pizza and heckled him, and he heckled us back. He once told us with a salacious wink that he was known far and wide as “Big Dick and his swingin’ organ”.
There was a season when Jeff and I rode the bus from Bellevue to downtown Seattle a lot, and we ended up waiting in front of the Federal Building, which had been built in the early 1970s. It is an amazement to me now that I gave no thought whatsoever to the nature of this arch, to this peculiar portal’s provenance. I think I assumed that it was simply a recent piece of sculpture erected there, since the building’s plaza was also home to some other works of art.
Every time we ended up here waiting for a bus home, we each climbed up one side of the arch as high as we could, and reaching up above our heads we deposited a penny on the little ledge formed by the capital above the pillars. It was just an inch or so wide. We did this every time, hoping to ascertain whether a penny thus saved might be a penny earned next time we reached up there. But the pennies were always gone the next time we checked.
It’s hard for me to remember this mindset, but there was a time when I viewed the built environment as a static thing. I had not lived long enough to see any of it change significantly, and so it didn’t occur to me, I mean consciously, that every modern building I could see had replaced some older building of brick or stone, and that the old stone and brick buildings still extant had in their time replaced grand old Victorian houses — right here on the slopes of downtown Seattle. It seems intuitive and obvious now, but I swear it didn’t occur to me, especially since we still had an “old” section of town called Pioneer Square. That’s where the old buildings were, and they were still there. I didn’t actually say that in my mind, but the assumption informed my perspective. Similarly, we didn’t have Victorian mansions here in Seattle. Those were houses I read about in stories about the East Coast. If you had asked me if I believed that every building I saw had been erected on newly cleared ground I would certainly have chuckled and said no. I had just never really had any occasion to imagine the layering of the city’s history through time.
Had I bothered to read the little plaque bolted to the wall next to the arch, I might have known that it was the preserved front portal of the Burke Building, which had preceded the Federal Building on this site and had been razed to make way for it, as these photos kindly provided by Paul Dorpat show. The Burke was one of the many “Richardsonian Romanesque” buildings that architect Elmer H. Fisher designed for Seattle’s post-fire reconstruction boom. I believe it was built in 1889, just after that fire reduced most of the downtown area to smoldering ash.
My discovery some years later that this piece of stone art that we had been clambering on was a remnant of Seattle’s elusive past marked the beginning of my awareness of the city as an unfolding thing, a dynamic system, and a corresponding change in my attitude toward it. I had enjoyed Paul Dorpat’s Now & Then column every Sunday in the paper for years, but I somehow hadn’t connected the historical photos he presented with a citywide historical view in my mind — each was simply a unique visual puzzle. Now I was enchanted. What had the rest of the Burke Building looked like? What other treasures lay unheralded around the city in little squares and down forgotten alleys, or right out in front of everyone’s noses? Even ten years ago, when I first discovered what the arch was, it was not as easy as it is now to simply google up the name of a building and find out everything you wish to know about it, with photos. Now, of course, a quick search of the building’s name turns up many photos from different eras. Here, in addition to my own photos, I’ve used several that Paul sent me and one I found online.
At some point we stopped going downtown on the bus. Our lives became about college, and other things. Jeff moved away. I’ve walked past the arch many hundreds of times since those days, but a few weeks ago I actually stepped up onto the base of the right-side pillars and reached a hand up above the capital to see if there was a penny there.