Up on the Roof

I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be”

Up on the Roof by the Drifters

For someone who would rather be far from the city, it surprises me how much enjoyment I get from simply looking at it, examining its contours and angles and spaces and contrasts. Most of you know about me that I’m drawn to the odd folds of the city where it seems to be keeping its history. But sometimes, just the skyline itself appears wondrous to me, even buildings I don’t particularly cherish. There’s something about the way the buildings seem to move around in relation to each other and the way light brings out the edges and faces and the way shadow gathers in corners and valleys that keeps me interested in the whole picture, all the time.

The buildings along Post Alley in the afternoon. The tennis court and parking lot are three or four floors above the street. The two low brick buildings are the Colonial (furthest away) and Grand Pacific hotels.

When you begin to know a city you become acquainted with particular landmarks first. Maybe the first office building you worked in, maybe a historic landmark like the Smith Tower or a cultural landmark like the Experience Music Project. The piece you know sits among pieces you know less well or not at all, so the cityscape is like a hodge-podge of known and unknown, familiar and less familiar, and yet it’s all on a huge scale, so that you can get down in it and looking at it from one place inside it gives you a different arrangement of those knowns and unknowns than you get standing somewhere else inside it, and the relationships change when you look at it from different vantage points outside it as well. It never appears the same way, even from the same spot, because then the season may be different and the light accordingly crafts each object a certain way for that day, for that weather, and even the buildings themselves are changing, new ones being added and old ones quietly being removed. More of it becomes familiar to you as you spend time in it, but you can never know it all.

The building engineer checks the cooling system just as the morning fog is lifting.

For me, that shifting interplay of known and unknown is like life itself. Mara knows that the Columbia Tower is the tallest building in Seattle, but sometimes she asks me why today it’s shorter than other buildings nearby, which it isn’t, I explain, it’s just that buildings that are closer to us seem to be taller. Our eyes, then, feed us raw information that is almost useless until it can be understood through the filter of experience, sometimes through waiting, sometimes through movement and exploration and always through attention to relationships. So many things in life are like that for me, especially as I get older and I know my life better. The knowns become great or small for a time, or they become occluded, but I can trust that they are still where I know them to be; older unknowns are there in shadowy anonymous lumps like Donald Rumsfeld’s “things that we don’t know we don’t know” and new things startle me and for a while I may not have a way to harness them to the grid.

The mayhem of First and Second avenues disappears. Note the bright ivory-hued backs of the Beebe Building (the higher one) and the old Hotel Cecil (the lower one) on First Avenue, and the front of the red brick Holyoke Buidling across the street.

A month or so ago the building engineer for the building I work in, neither of which I will name in this post so as not to get him in trouble, gave me a key to the door that accesses the roof so that I could take some photos from up there. “Just don’t fall off”, he said. The building is a six-story red brick rectangle with a green cornice and prominent scrolled Ionic capital ornaments built from 1904 to 1905 as a warehouse for goods shipped in and out of the waterfront, which is hard by. The building looks itself like a large brick with windows in it. It was restored late in the last century, but earlier, when John Wayne made the cop movie McQ, it was an old wreck of a warehouse that the city did not mind having a police car driven into and exploding into flame against.

The old post office, the Exchange Building, and Smith Tower, among others, struggle to emerge from a blanket of fog.

A closer look at the fogbound Art Deco ramparts of the post office.

The building is not tall enough to enable you to look down on the surrounding buildings, but there are other places for that. It’s actually good for something else: walking around on the roof of my building puts you high enough above the streets that they disappear unless you are looking off one of the corners, while still being nestled among other buildings. And not only that, the canyons that the streets lie in compress and vanish when you look across them so that the buildings on different blocks all look as though they are coplanar, part of a single multifaceted backdrop. In this way the “hustle and bustle” part of city life — the sidewalk, that is — literally vanishes, and all you are left with is the part of the city that children draw with crayons. It’s no wonder being “up on the roof” is so often associated with safety, retreat and romance. I’m thinking of the 1962 Drifters song and Marlon Brando’s rooftop scene with Eva Marie Saint in the 1954 movie On the Waterfront, and any number of other cultural classics that have to do with rooftops in the city.

Above and below are some of the photos I took up on the roof on different days. Hey, if you are — or have powers of sway over — the keyholder to a view of downtown Seattle that you think I need to see (whether a wide vista or a small nook or cranny), please let me know. I’m willing to wear a hardhat.

The same scene as above but without fog.

Looking eastish up Madison Street over the roof of the Alexis Hotel, née Globe.

The view south. Hi Maritime Building!

Seriously, the Federal Post Office and the Exchange Building are loads of fun to take pictures of.

West by northwest to the Seneca Street off-ramp from the viaduct. I confess to bumping up the saturation on this one because the day was so dismally gray.


12 Responses to “Up on the Roof”

  1. 1 Kip August 18, 2011 at 13:04

    Oh, how I love being up high! I seem to always want to be on top of whatever is the highest point…be it the roof of the house, office building, mountain, tree, etc.It is so cool that you were able to obtain a key to the roof, and the pictures are a rare treat, especially of Madison, a street I know so well, and of the Post Office, a building I’ve mostly seen from the alley. The loading dock to be more specific! The first one is also a great shot. Oh, who am I kidding. I’m a fan of them all, and a little jealous that the only building I’ve been atop of late is a one story radio building with satellite dishes and antennae that do not advance the view. Great photos Matt!

  2. 3 Kip August 18, 2011 at 16:02

    Shhhh, they don’t know I’m here!

  3. 4 Kip August 18, 2011 at 16:09

    And it would seem my son has the same tendencies, as he cannot help but climb to the top of the play structure we have….or to the top of my car either!

  4. 5 Mom August 18, 2011 at 19:16

    V-v-e-e-r-r-y interesting!

  5. 6 Matt August 18, 2011 at 20:20

    @Mom, I still have the key if you want a tour, but it’s a heck of a stairclimb.
    @Kip, you don’t mean to tell me Will is not content to keep his feet in the designated play areas of the structure you built? I can’t imagine what that boy is thinking…

  6. 7 Kip August 19, 2011 at 14:20

    Me thinks he thinks, “Mighty fine view from up here! The neighbor’s corn is coming in nicely. Looks like they have extra tomatoes this year, hope they pass some over the fence! Oh, I think they need some magnetic letters in the yard, if I heave them just so……yep! that one almost made it past the peppers and to the lawn!”

  7. 8 ami August 19, 2011 at 19:15

    Matt-love the post! While I haven’t been captured by the of architecture in the city of Boise, I have quite a fondness of the buildings in my hometown! Kip-can’t stop laughing! William never turns his brain to slow mode. He’s not only looking at the neighbors garden, but how he could turn that corn into a corn maze and possibly bring in some ponies!

    • 9 Matt August 19, 2011 at 20:38

      Kip n Ami, we did the same thing on the “fort” my dad built — went to the roof of it, and I’m sure Mara would have done the same with hers by now if we had opted for the solid roof instead of the canvas one. It seems like a kid can think better up high, clear his/her thoughts. Sounds like Will has the roof gene. What’s your home town, Ami?

  8. 10 ami August 19, 2011 at 21:53

    My home town is Salt Lake City. I grew up in a neighborhood nestled at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon. If we ever end up in SLC at the same time, I would love to show you around! Some of my favorites are the Hotel Utah (now Joseph Smith Building), The Judge Building, Cathedral of the Madeline and the Masonic Temple. Memories of the old hotel make me smile! Sliding on marble floors in socks, jumping in old elevators, watching parades and fireworks off the balcony!

  9. 11 Louis August 29, 2011 at 07:19

    I love these posts, Matt. Simply love them. Did you get a new camera? I ask because there is a sharpness to them I haven’t seen before.

    I have a question for Ami – Did you ever eat at Lamb’s in SLC?

  10. 12 Matt August 29, 2011 at 08:35

    Same little Canon digital, and I wouldn’t say I’ve become a steadier fellow, so I can’t explain the difference. Maybe the universe is just coming into greater focus for you. That happens. I’m glad you enjoy these. Got some serious downtown photo fun coming up that I think you’ll love.

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