Seattle’s Sacred Wall

In a levy vote conducted in early February 2022, Seattle Public Schools secured $65,500,000 to upgrade Seattle High School Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center.   In anticipation of the vote, the City of Seattle (Seattle Center) and Seattle Public Schools signed a letter of intent (LOI) in October 2021, according to which the schools would relinquish control of the parking lot and the stadium while continuing to use the rebuilt stadium for games and graduation ceremonies.  According to the LOI, the city would take control of the site, add funds to the levy, and build a new stadium integrated into the Seattle Center landscape.  The city also agreed to pay the school district for the revenue lost from the 5th Avenue North parking lot and to give it land for a new high school at the former entrance to the Battery Street tunnel.  Now that the levy passed, the city and school district will iron out a final agreement.

Civic Field ca. 1928. Looking towards Lake Union

The new stadium will be the third one at this location.  The first, Civic Field (aka Civic Stadium), occupied the site from 1928 to 1947, when it was demolished.  Civic Field replaced an open pasture located between Republican St. and Harrison St. and 5th Ave. N. and 3rd Ave. N.   Home plate was in the southwestern corner.  The field had an extremely hard dirt surface (no grass) and wooden stands on its western and southern sides. Civic Stadium is reputed to have been the most hated place to play baseball in the Pacific Coast League.

Memorial Stadium ca. 1947. Courtesy MOHAI

The Queen Anne Historical Society recently toured the site in order to take an informed position about whether or not the stadium merits landmark preservation and to assess the potential infringement of a new building on other landmarks at Seattle Center:  the Space Needle, the Armory, the Monorail Station, two Monorail cars, and the recently renovated Coliseum (now called Climate Pledge Arena).

Actually, the self-guided tour was limited to the exterior of the huge field and included only one person, me.  My stadium experience includes innumerable high school soccer games in the early 1990s during which I was frequently chastised for not attending all of my son’s games.  My visits also involved the odd Bumbershoot concert over Labor Day weekends since 1971.  Unlike real Queen Anne old-timers, my tour included no memories of the 1962 World’s Fair such as the water-skiing show held four times a day in a special 100,000-gallon tank or the Fair’s opening and closing ceremonies in April and October.  I was definitely not one of the 20,000 people who attended Billy Graham’s Revival there on July 8.

Built in 1947 to be the centrally located ‘home field’ for the city’s high school football teams, the site now reads as two primary zones which are in fact separately owned by the school district. The large parking lot on 5th Ave. N. between Harrison and Republican streets is one lot while the stadium with its facing stands and cantilevered roofs and enhanced grassy area on the west end is the other.  

The stadium is the work of architect George W. Stoddard (1896-1967), a prolific Seattle designer remembered for his 1950 work on the south stands of Husky Stadium.  Its dramatic cantilevered roof may have been inspired by the ones at Memorial Stadium.  The western segment is enclosed by a wall dating from the Fair and is probably Paul Thiry’s design.

North Stand looking east –2022

The east, west, and southern sides of the field are significantly lower than most of Seattle Center.  In the early 2000s.  This change in elevation inspired community activists led by David Brewster to suggest a large subterranean garage here.  It would have replaced all the public parking structures surrounding Seattle Center and created vast opportunities for new open spaces!  I still like this idea and welcome a new stadium as long as it isn’t fenced like the old one is today.

There is little chance Brewster’s fantasy will be realized, but it does suggest that protecting the landmarks surrounding Memorial Stadium requires locating any new building on the parking lot along 5th Avenue.  Harmonizing with the Gates Foundation buildings and Frank Gehry’s MoPOP (the old EMP) will be a trick, but Seattle architects are surely up to that challenge.

The most important design element at the stadium is the memorial wall along the western edge of the parking lot.  It lists the names Seattle public school graduates who died in World War II and is the 1949 design of Marianne Hanson (1932-2015), then a student in her senior year at Garfield High School.

The Seattle Daily Times reported on October 7, 1949 that the school board had accepted Hanson’s design.  The paper noted that she competed against 59 other entrants and that construction would begin immediately.  The newspaper article begins with a call for the 57 names of Broadway High School students or alumni. Their names had apparently been lost when the high school closed and the building served another purpose. In 1949, only the names of the 700 known dead were to be inscribed. The school board planned to pay for the memorial with funds raised at upcoming 1949 Seattle All-State football championship game on Thanksgiving Day and those raised at the game in 1947 and 1948.

The names on the wall include graduates of Ballard (85), Cleveland (28), Franklin (102), Garfield (63), Lincoln (108), Queen Anne (98), Roosevelt (99) and West Seattle (60) high schools.  It is unclear if the names of the 57 Broadway High School graduates who died in the war were included on the wall.  According to a (renamed) Seattle Times article describing the dedication of the wall by Hanson on May 29, 1951, it was now inscribed with the names of 762 men.  Above the list of names, the wall is inscribed with “Youth Hold High Your Torch of Truth and Tolerance Lest their Sacrifice Be Forgotten.”

Wall Dedication noted in Seattle Times, May 30, 1951. 

Standing in the gruesome parking lot as you look west, Hanson’s name appears on the wall’s lower right-hand corner.  At 17, Hanson understood that a simple design is the best way to honor the men who had died defending our nation. 

By the time the wall was dedicated by Marianne Hanson on May 29, 1951 the list of names later became an important owner of art galleries, first in Seattle, then in San Francisco.

Marianne Hanson in 1952

The wall at Memorial Stadium is simply a sacred place.  As someone whose father served in WWII and who has close friends whose fathers died in that war, I am adamant that the wall be protected.  The new stadium must preserve the wall.  A new design would eliminate the rows of automobiles that conceal it, restore the fountains and fluted concave walls that frame them, and eliminate the hedge in front of it that makes in nearly impossible to read all the names.

Landmarking is the best way to honor the memory of the Seattle high school graduates who sacrificed their lives during WWII and to protect Hanson’s work.  It creates a rare opportunity to protect a work that documents the female influence in design which in Hanson’s instance lasted until her death in 2015.

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.