An Opinion: Climate Pledge Arena, Promises & Pledges Honored

The grand opening of Climate Pledge Arena (CPA) marks a dramatic moment in the history of Queen Anne and Seattle.  Cherished since the 1962 World’s Fair when known as the Washington State Coliseum, it served as the site of the World of  Century 21.  The building has since been home to the Seattle Storm and the dearly missed Seattle Supersonics, the scene of innumerable concerts, and host to the elephants of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.  It was hard to see how the building could be converted to a giant modern arena that actually respected Seattle’s historic preservation ordinance and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation.  The Oak View Group (OVG), the site’s developers, pledged that it could and would build a new arena under the historic roof while respecting the intriguing patterns of the Coliseum’s window walls.

A visit to the CPA today (October 24, 2021) reveals that OVG kept its promises and certainly exceeded the expectations of this sometimes-cynical historic preservation planner.  A central provision of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation states that “New additions, exterior alterations or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features and spatial relationships that characterize the property.  The new work will be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.”

In 1995, it didn’t take Queen Anne folks long to give up the Coliseum name when the building was rebuilt and renamed the Key Arena.  As with this recent rebuild, the 1995 project dug a deeper bowl and attracted more income by increasing the number of luxury boxes.  The 1995 work preceded landmark designation by the City of Seattle by over a decade, for it wasn’t until the summer of 2018 as OVG began planning a new arena on the site that the landmark was designated.

It does not seem unfair to characterize the 1995 rebuild as botched.  In that go-around, Seattle Center excavated the massive buttresses that support the roof and exposed them to allow entrances on the arena’s floor.  That project seriously altered the south façade, adding a loading zone at street level, an underground ramp for trucks unloading gear on the arena floor and a new building running north-south between the arena and the Blue Spruce  building where I later occupied a dingy office.  Seattle Center called it Pavilion B.  Its ground floor served as the kitchen for the food vendors in the arena.  The south-facing changes extensively altered that side of the building and left little to protect when landmark designation happened.

The 2018 landmark designation protected only the Native American* inspired rain-hat shape of the 44-million-pound roof and the glass walls designed by architect Paul Thiry (1904-1993), who also served as the primary architect of the entire Century 21 Exposition.
*Reference:  Potlatch Meadows

Climate Pledge Arena viewed looking northwest–10/25/21

Now, there is no question that the OVG rebuild goes beyond protecting those designated parts of the building.  It enhances them. The troughs dug around the buttresses to provide ground floor access have been filled in.

Powerful buttress restored
Powerful buttress restored. Looking west on the fountain side

You enter at the top of the arena and the better your seat, the lower you descend into the bowl.  Placing the entrances at the original ground level created expansive pedestrian plazas on all four sides of the building.

This change actually restores the relationship of the large building to its surroundings while tying it into the expansive grounds of Seattle Center to its  east.  The primary entrance to the CPA now spans the entire southern edge.  Called the Alaska Airlines Atrium, the entrance pavilion responds marvelously to the Secretary of the Interior Standards for Historic Preservation because it reads clearly as a new addition and because it marks well where the lines of the historic roof end.

Atrium with solar panels. Note the clear separation from historic roof.

The solar panels on the atrium help  to make this point.  The north elevation of the building is a glass wall that preserves the framing patterns of Thiry’s original Coliseum while opening the entire bowl of the arena to daylight and the plaza that reaches over to the Northwest Rooms (also designated landmarks) that now hold KEXP, the Vera Project and the SIFF Film Center.  That glass wall is a brilliant touch.

Looking across the ice to north windows

OVG and Populous, the architects of the CPA, trumpet the Net Zero Carbon results in the new building.  They are certainly right to do that; however, for a preservation planner like me the success of this project lies in the degree to which the new work respects the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards.

Looking east, window framing preserved

As with all projects of this scale, there are disappointments.  The southern additions to the International Fountain Pavilion and to  KEXP’s wing of the Northwest Rooms try desperately to hide themselves.

Extension to International Fountain Pavilion looking east

Both modifications are justified by the need to create inobtrusive ventilation and emergency exits for the CPA.  At the International Fountain Pavilion very little separates the historic building from the addition, while the duplication of Thiry’s distinctive bas relief tilt walls try to make the new work blend with the old.  At KEXP, the extension of the balcony overlooking the arena’s western promenade is great, but little distinguishes the additions from the original building.

Balcony overlooking eastern plaza

The city’s Landmark Board approved OVG’s trashing of the distinctive railing along the balcony, but it could have been saved and incorporated into the new one.  The biggest preservation disappointment is the shrinking of the basin of Paul Thiry’s clever fountain just outside the courtyard entrance to KEXP and the failure to restore it.

Remains of protected fountain by Paul Thiry

Looking east towards KEXP: Paul Thiry fountain.I almost wish we hadn’t fought to save it.

These little disappointments notwithstanding, the people of Seattle and Queen Anne owe Seattle Center, OVG and the Seattle Kraken a big thank you for all the care that went into making our new arena a success.

Suffering Soffits!

You might say that I was startled to learn that beadboard, painted and unpainted, appears throughout our Queen Anne neighborhoods on pre-World War II houses.  But my failure is worse.  As a recent stroll down the north side of Queen Anne to Fremont revealed, it isn’t just beadboard.  I’ve simply never paid much attention to unpainted porch soffits, and they are everywhere.  Unpainted soffits of beadboard, knotty pine, ash and other woods appear on a multitude of traditional and modern neighborhood buildings.  Faced with a revelation a neglect of this magnitude, Captain Haddock, the belligerent pal of the Belgian comic strip hero Tintin, would surely have proclaimed, “Suffering Soffits!”

To begin with, a soffit is essentially the underside of architectural features such as porches, eaves and even arches.  In a wooden building, a soffit protects rafters from the weather, birds, wasp nests, and other unwanted intruders from below — just as wooden shakes or asphalt shingles protect them from above.  Where historic plaster and lath or modern-day drywall form ceilings inside buildings, soffits do it on the outside.

According to a recently updated article in the Old House Journal, “Behind the Scenes with Beadboard,” by John Leeke, beadboard flourished in the United States between 1880 and the 1930s.  It appears as a wall covering called wainscoting and on the soffit of porches.  When it appears as a soffit it also sports a fancy middle French name plancier.  Pronounced plan seer, the word means soffit.  Digging into my now rusty knowledge of French philology, I think the word meant ‘board-like,’ or (no surprise) ‘plank-like.’   In modern French, a planche is a board or a plank; of that, I am sure!

These days you can buy beadboard at Home Depot in 4’ by 8’ sheets, but I think of the beadboard on old houses on Queen Anne as upside-down flooring.  That’s because they are narrow 3- or 4-inch boards which are edge-matched or tongue-in-groove.  Nails tacked through the tongue are hidden from view.  The installed boards show 2 ¼ or 3 ¼ inches of wood because the hidden tongues measure about ¾ inch.  According to Leeke, the boards ranged in thickness from ¾ inch to as thin as inch.

                                                             Above:  a great unpainted porch soffit on 2nd Ave. N.

It comes as no surprise that the most distinctive feature of beadboard is the half round bead (!) along which runs a quirk or deep recess.  All that busyness happens along the top of the groove and serves to hide the seam between the two planks.  Beadboard can be painted, oiled, varnished or even treated with specialized coverings such as linseed, teak or tung oil.  Polyurethane, which has a plasticky look and feel, is often used, even though it is sure to peel off in time.

On my Craftsman Bungalow on First Ave. N., the soffits are painted.

Beadboard:  bead may be drowned in paint; a historical fixture

Without doing a lot of delicate scraping and paint removal that I am unwilling to do, I can’t be sure they were left bare in 1907.  Nearly all the soffits down the hill are edge-matched (tongue in groove) beadboard.  There are a fair number of unpainted porch soffits on Second Ave. N. below Queen Anne Drive.  I think they look great, but in my many strolls around the neighborhood straining my neck to observe every soffit, I find that most of them are painted.

That said, you might be stunned to learn that I have become a great fan of varnished or oiled soffits.  I haven’t figured out why people went to the trouble unless it was simply an aesthetic choice.  A colleague on the Board of the Queen Anne Historical Society is busy rehabilitating a house on Queen Anne.  Her house will sport unpainted beadboard soffits finished with a product called Warhorse which was introduced about 1907 — the same time her house and mine were built.  My board colleague taught me about unpainted soffits in the first place.

Then I went looking for them everywhere.  I can report that the new garage on the alley at W. Boston between 1st and 2nd W. has a tiny unpainted soffit over its roll up door.  When I asked the garage owners how they had known to treat the soffit that way, they attributed the choice to their painter.  Obviously, traditions have lasting value in the trades!

                                    Beautifully maintained soffit at 2919 2nd Ave N.

To that point, there is a new house on the northwest corner of W. Prospect and First Ave W. that adopts the soffit feature handily.  Indeed, the soffit actually wraps down the northern wall of the house to embrace the entranceway.

                                                   House of many planes at 1101 1st Ave W.  Built in 2020


                                                    Soffit wrapping to  vertical wall at 1101 1st Ave. W.

Still in Queen Anne, you’ll find a big wooden soffit gracing the new building on the parking lot of the former Bleitz Funeral Home at Florentia and 3rd Ave.

                                 Building on Florentia at Bleitz site looking westerly

Frankly, I think it is beautiful. It is apparently constructed of edge-matched knotty pine.  I don’t know how it is finished, but the wood isn’t stained.

                                Knotty pine soffit looking north at Bleitz site

It is a grand addition to our neighborhood.

                                   Soffit at Tableau Building 744 N. 34th St.
                                                   Entrance and Canopy with wooden soffit at Tableau

Just across the canal in Fremont, the Tableau building and the brand-new Watershed, both under the Aurora Bridge on the north side of N. 34th St. ,have elegant wooden soffits.

Aurora Bridge above the Watershed                                            Soffits at Watershed, 900 N. 34th St.

The most elegant modern soffit to attract my attention isn’t in the neighborhood.  It is on the new 2+U Building south of SAM at 1223 Second Ave.  Designed by Graham Baba, its construction was overseen by a friend of mine who works for Kendall/Heaton Associates Inc. of Houston.

                              Ash Soffit at 2+U looking southeast and up

He reports:  “The wood soffit seen from the ground plane is Rulon (brand) solid ash.  It is coated with Sherwin Williams Ken Aqua Lacquer.  The lacquer selection is crucial in commercial construction since building code requires an assembly that maintains a Class A fire rating.”

As you walk around our neighborhood, Fremont, or even downtown, abide by the architectural historian’s mantra:  Look up!  You too will join Captain Haddock and me as we exclaim, “Suffering Soffits!”

N.B.:  For better and for worse, the author took all the photos used here.

The ‘P’ in Preservation Advocacy

Many decades ago, I told my friends that the letter ’P’ in my PhD in Romance Languages and Literatures stood for ‘perseverance.’  Getting that doctorate did require some basic smarts, but really it took focus, a passion for the subject matter, consistent efforts and time, lots of time.  Just as becoming a PhD takes Perseverance, so does being a successful Preservation advocate.

Preservation advocacy can involve directly preparing landmark nominations, raising the money to hire someone to prepare one, writing articles and books, policing rogue alterations to landmark buildings, or testifying before the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board (LPB) for the nomination of a building or against unsympathetic irreparable alterations.

I document here three examples of preservation advocacy by the Queen Anne Historical Society (QAHS).  Now celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding, the Society has advocated for well over 50 different landmarks.  They range from churches to industrial buildings, to SRO hotels for working-class men, to homes for the rich along the boulevard and, yes, to the boulevard itself.

I am inordinately proud of this work.  With over fifteen historical societies scattered across the city, the QAHS is the only one regularly engaged in preservation advocacy.  While others have made significant contributions, ours is the only one to do it all.  In fact, the only comparable preservation advocates in the city are Historic Seattle and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, where unlike our all-volunteer group, paid employees do the work.

Seattle City Light Power Control Center at 157 Roy Street

This unusual building caught the eye of one of the youngest members of the QAHS board because of her passion for mid-20th c. architecture.  In 2014, she proposed that we hire someone to write the landmark nomination of the building or just do it ourselves.  Although I’d done several nominations to the National Register of Historic Places, I’d never written one for Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board (LPB).  In 2014, I began researching the history of this two-part octagonal/hexagonal structure on Roy Street across Warren Ave. from Metropolitan Market.  I was delighted to learn about the building’s architects Harmon, Pray and Dietrich and their place in our city’s architectural history at the time of building’s 1963 construction.  The history of Seattle City Light had been a fascination of mine ever since I learned about the ‘power war’ between it, the country’s earliest municipally owned utility, and Puget Power, an ‘off-spring’ of Stone and Webster, one of the largest power monopolies of the early 20th c.  It cheered me that Seattle voters had exiled Puget Power and acquired its Seattle systems in 1951.  I was intrigued that the construction of I-5 and the demolition of an early power control center had triggered building this one.  I also liked very much that the unusual structure lay in the shadow of the Space Needle and that its design reflected the influence of the Century 21 World’s Fair held at Seattle Center.  After numerous editorial reviews by the QAHS Preservation Committee, friendly architectural historians and the LPB staff in the Department of Neighborhoods, the society submitted the 82-page nomination in February 2016.  It helped that City Light, the building owner, endorsed the nomination.  It had smooth sailing with hearings before the LPB on May 4 and June 16.  The Power Control Center became a designated city landmark when Mayor Edward Murray signed Ordinance 125321 on June 1, 2017, three years after we had started the research for it. Talk about perseverance!

Seventh Church of Christ, Scientist at 2555 8th Ave. W.

Seventh Church of Christ, Scientist, 1941

The efforts by the QAHS to save this beautiful neighborhood church were unbelievably complicated and extended over many years.  Built in a Neo-Byzantine Early Christian Revival style and designed by Harlan Thomas (Thomas & Grainger) in 1926, the church reflected the historic boom of the Church of Christ, Scientist following its founding by Mary Baker Eddy in Boston in 1870, and its decline after WWII.  In the churches’ heyday, Seattle had 12 Churches of Christ, Scientist.  Only three remain active today (2021).

When the City of Seattle issued a demolition permit for the church in 2006, the QAHS and its Preservation Committee led by Char Eggleston and Leanne Olson sprang into action.  The committee engaged the Queen Anne Community Council; it enlisted the pro-bono efforts of preservation architects and structural engineers; it appealed and testified before the Hearing Examiner against the city for issuing the demolition permit; it supported other appellants in succeeding to have the city’s decision remanded; and it assisted Larry Johnson, the architect who had been attempting to save the church since 1992, with the preparation of the landmark nomination.  The Preservation Committee engaged the assistance of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation whose staff facilitated the purchase of this neighborhood treasure by the Church of Christ following an agreement with the site’s owner to sell if a new buyer could be found. Concurrently Char convinced the Church of Christ to support designation of the building and site.  Mayor Mike McGinn signed the ordinance designating the church a city landmark four years after the battle began on July 16, 2010. It never would have happened without the advocacy efforts of the Queen Anne Historical Society.

The Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Garfield Exchange at 1529 4th Ave. W.

Garfield Exchange, 1936

Built to house heavy telephone equipment and the young women who operated it, this landmark was completed in 1922.  A second story was added in 1929, and the structure was later donated to the Seattle Public Library by the telephone company.  When the Library got ready to sell the building, it hired BOLA Architecture and Planning to prepare a landmark nomination for the LPB’s consideration.  When BOLA presented the nomination, the QAHS swung into action writing letters and testifying in favor of the nomination and subsequent designation.  Once designated as a city landmark, the controls and incentives negotiated with the LPB by the Seattle Public Library protected the building as it changed ownership.  Soon after the 2016 designation and its purchase, the new owner, the Faul Company and their architect, BuildingWork, began presenting design options to the Architectural Review Committee (ARC) of the LPB.  The QAHS attended numerous meetings of the ARC related to the Garfield Exchange commenting on the transformation of the industrial spaces to 25 residential apartment homes featuring 15-foot ceiling heights and restoration of the building’s exterior façade, its seismic retrofit and new building systems.  The proposed changes included a redesign of the primary entrance leading to the street, the replacement of windows, the introduction of a new elevator in the hidden courtyard on the south side and the addition of a penthouse.  The Queen Anne Historical Society did not oppose the hidden changes in the courtyard and embraced the penthouse addition since it was set back from the historic façade and could not be seen from the street directly in front of the building.  Significantly the penthouse addition met the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation by not mimicking in the new work historic qualities of the original fabric.  The society demanded the retention of the terra cotta capped stairway with its unique hammerhead shape and encouraged retention of a historic hoisting device on the alley side of the building.

Queen Anne Exchange, July 2021, looking west. Restored Entrance

After some initial resistance, we agreed to the sympathetic replacement of all the windows.  We continued to support the project following resistance by neighborhood groups which had concerns with street parking impacts.

As of this writing (July 14, 2021), this fantastic preservation project now renamed the Queen Anne Exchange is one apartment short of being fully leased.  Housing has been created for more than 25 people and an important feature of Queen Anne’s historic built environment has been preserved. The energy, risk taking, and talent of Chris and Angela Faul backed by the talent of Matt Aalfs, the primary architect and principal of BuildingWork, are largely responsible for the superb outcome.  It also helped that, like the Power Control Center, a city agency owned the Garfield Exchange at the time of nomination and designation, for building owners are often major obstacles when it comes to preserving historic buildings.

Queen Anne Exchange – July ’21 – Waiting for cornice – looking west

There is also no doubt that the preservation advocacy skills of the Queen Anne Historical Society eased the public and private efforts to save all three of these historic buildings and assured their conformity to our national standards.  It is also clear that without the society’s assertive preservation advocacy, the Seventh Church of Christ, Scientist would have been lost, and both the Power Control Center and the Garfield Exchange would have been subject to demolition due to the valuable development potential of their sites.