My Seattle

With seven historic districts and 300 designated landmarks, Seattle is a preservationist’s dream. We asked local author, architectural historian, and guide Lawrence Kreisman for an insider’s tour.


Seattle, Washington

There really is more to Seattle than coffee by the carload. This self-proclaimed "Gateway to the Orient" boasts a thriving downtown retail district, inner-city lakes, an active waterfront, and snowcapped mountains—all within an easy drive. And even though those of us who live here enthusiastically spread the myth that it rains all the time, that's only to dissuade would-be newcomers. In fact, on certain days Seattle might be mistaken for Camelot. That's when I recommend that visitors get out and explore.

A stroll beginning at the south end of downtown and heading north toward the Pike Place Market offers a panorama of our history. It reveals Seattle's layering of architectural styles, and the relationship of streets and buildings to the mountains and the waters of Elliott Bay. Whether you're interested in Richardsonian Romanesque commercial buildings, Beaux Arts and Gothic temples to commerce, Art Deco skyscrapers, International Style boxes, or contemporary landmarks, you'll find them all here in a varied and dramatic cityscape that brilliantly illuminates Seattle's past.

Let's start with some information about that past.

The Great Seattle Fire of 1889 destroyed much of the central business district. Mammoth reconstruction efforts began soon after, and the 1897 Klondike gold rush pushed Seattle headlong into the 20th century.

Within a few years, locals could point to a new downtown, and the Smith Tower—the tallest building west of the Mississippi. The 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition (centennial celebrations are currently under way) highlighted the growing importance of the region, and Olmsted Bros.' designs for the exposition grounds gave the city an extraordinary system of parks and boulevards.

By the end of the 1920s, Seattle's soaring towers and commercial buildings captured the brash, bold spirit of the period before the stock market crash. Even though many are now dwarfed by new neighbors, they continue to add pizzazz to our modern skyline.

 Schoolchildren here learn that the early settlers called Seattle "New York-Alki," Chinook for "New York ... after a while." Look around at our skyscrapers and streetscapes, and you may conclude that their description proved right on target.  

Start at Metro's International District/Chinatown station. Exit south to the plaza facing South King Street.

International District

Since the turn of the last century, the International District has been a place for Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and other Asian immigrants to live, work, eat, socialize, and celebrate. A part of our downtown, yet distinct and apart from it, this neighborhood provides housing and community services to a diverse ethnic population. From the beginning, district residents adapted typical American 20th-century commercial architecture to their own traditions and needs. 

Don't Miss: The East Kong Yick Building, now the Wing Luke Asian Museum, 719 S. King St. One of the city's most ambitious preservation and adaptive use projects involved the transformation of this 1910 brick building, built with the pooled resources of 170 Asian American pioneers. It now houses a Smithsonian Institution affiliate and the premier pan-Asian Pacific American museum in the nation. Installations preserve a retail shop frozen in time, a number of single-room-occupancy units, and a family association meeting room. You feel as though the tenants have just stepped out for tea and will be back any minute.

Walk west along South Jackson Street. Union Station (1911), which no longer functions for rail, has been completely restored and features a grand barrel-vaulted waiting room. King Street Station (1906), the city's Amtrak hub, is undergoing restoration to repair and reconstruct Beaux-Arts plasterwork hidden above dropped ceilings.

Pioneer Square

The handsome red-brick Romanesque Revival buildings (1889-1894) at the heart of Pioneer Square are testaments to the city's exuberance in the years after the Great Fire. Approaching them, you will pass the Cadillac Hotel and Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, at 319 Second Ave. South. Built immediately after the conflagration, the hotel sustained terrible damage in a 2001 earthquake and faced possible demolition. But my organization, Historic Seattle, restored and repaired the building. Check out current exhibits here before continuing west to First Avenue South and north to Yesler Way. Stop and admire the ornate cast-iron waiting shelter at Yesler. It first welcomed tourists in 1909 with what must have been the most beautiful marble underground restroom in the nation.

Don't Miss: The Pioneer Building, 600 First Ave.  Located on the site of millionaire Henry Yesler's home, the Pioneer Building was begun before the Great Fire, but only completed in 1891. It's undoubtedly Seattle's most flamboyant and original interpretation of Romanesque commercial design. Until 1974, five of the building's six floors had been empty for more than 25 years, and it had lost its central tower. But neglect preserved the building facade and interiors under the accumulation of nearly a century of grime. Rehabilitation stimulated other projects in neighboring blocks of Pioneer Square. I tell friends to venture past the entrance and up to the first floor. There, the building opens up into two light-filled courtyards that rise five stories to skylit roofs.

Turn right, walk to Cherry Street, and climb the hill to Second Avenue.

Financial and Commercial District

During the first quarter of the 20th century, when Seattle hosted an international exposition and shipped freight from the longest piers in the world, Second and Third avenues were lined with dramatic steel-framed skyscrapers clad in terra cotta and brick that expressed the confidence and sophistication of local builders. Many of our downtown buildings are taller now, but the Smith Tower is still worth the $7.50 ride up its historic elevator (remember elevator men?) to the exotic Chinese Room and outside observation deck.

 Don't Miss: The Arctic Building, 700 Third Ave. Without question, the most familiar and endearing embellishments on any Seattle building are the terra-cotta walruses that have enlivened the facade of architect A. Warren Gould's Arctic Building since 1916. They were a constant reminder to the men of the exclusive Arctic Club of their business successes from the gold rush. The polychrome blue-and-peach treatment of the facade also makes it one of the most colorful of our terra-cotta skyscrapers. The building has recently undergone a stunning conversion to a boutique hotel. I suggest using the Cherry Street entrance and climbing the marble stairs to the opalescent glass Dome Room—the club dining room—rich with plasterwork representing fruits and vegetables, of course.

Hop a bus on Third Avenue, get off at Union Street, and walk south to University Street.

The jazzy spirit of the nation in the upbeat period following World War I was epitomized by skyscrapers, with colorful and exotic ornamentation inside and out. U.S. architects freely adapted stylized European design motifs, introducing them to an American market eager for new ideas. Seattle embraced the rich imagery of this period in the Exchange Building at Second Avenue and Marion Street, which offers up a cornucopia of Pacific Northwest references: stained-glass depictions of wheat, bronze elevator surrounds with fruits from central Washington, and bas reliefs of tulips grown in the western part of the state. But the greatest concentration of these "modernistic" buildings is found north of University Street. And there's no doubt which building tops the mark from this period. It's also my all-time favorite building—not just in Seattle, but in the entire Pacific Northwest.

 The Seattle Tower (originally Northern Life Tower), 1218 Third Ave. It's not often that one can use the word "unique" with confidence. But the 27-story Seattle Tower (1928) is unique. The setback shape was dictated by a city ordinance but also inspired by the rock masses and peaks of nearby mountain ranges. Whatever you do, don't overlook the extraordinary lobby. You'll discover ornamentation informed by Northwest Coast Indian art and by the Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, and Maya cultures associated with trade routes along the Pacific rim. Lest you miss the references, look at the gold-faced relief map at the end wall of the lobby.

Walk up the hill on University Street to 5th Avenue. Look for the Indian heads crowning the Cobb Building (1909) at Fourth Avenue.

The Theater District

Despite its distance from the East, Seattle was once second only to New York in the amount of live entertainment offered by theaters. Though some significant Seattle theaters, including the Orpheum and Music Hall, have been razed, the Moore, Paramount, and 5th Avenue are still active. (The 1916 Coliseum is now a retail store.)

 Don't Miss: 5th Avenue Theater, 1308 5th Ave. If there's a performance when you are in town, go! If not, do peek inside the 5th Avenue. Opened in 1926, it was and is Seattle's most extravagant and eclectic fantasy, called the most authentic example of traditional Chinese timber architecture and decoration outside Asia. Unlike the Chinese masterpieces that inspired architectural elements here, all of the 5th Avenue's rounded posts, stenciled beams, layered brackets, dragons, birds, and flowers are made of plaster, cleverly disguised to pass as wood, which fire codes had outlawed.

For a taste of the future, walk south to Spring Street and the Central Library.

 The most dramatic addition to the cityscape has been the Rem Koolhaas-designed Central Library (2004) at 1000 Fourth Ave. Its striking meshlike glass skin, prismatic cantilevered facades, innovative book spiral, and unusual (some might say perverse) system of moving from floor to floor have drawn many thousands of visitors and residents. The building inspires a range of comments, from the highly complimentary to the downright disrespectful. No doubt, the dialogue will continue.

Exit the library, return to University Street, and head downhill, passing the Seattle Art Museum. Stop to see the exhibits or enjoy a grilled salmon flatbread at Taste Restaurant. Continue north to Pike Street.

Pike Place Market

One of the nation's oldest continuously operated public markets, bustling Pike Place has a special place in the heart of residents—and a roller coaster history. In the early 1940s, the market suffered when local Japanese American suppliers were forced into internment camps. In the 1950s and '60s, shopping centers, grocery chains, and suburban expansion hastened its deterioration. But when a 1963 comprehensive plan threatened demolition, citizens rallied behind a public initiative that saved Pike Place and led to the creation of the Pike Place Market Historic District.

Don't Miss: Corner Market. The handsome signature building at the northwest corner of First Avenue and Pike Street opened in 1912 and was fully restored in 1975. Providing additional vendor stalls to the growing market, it also brought a touch of class to the utilitarian space with its three-story facade of concrete and brick inlay and arched windows.

Before heading back to your hotel for a well-earned rest, indulge yourself with a final stop at my favorite market destination: Le Panier, the French bakery at 1902 Pike Place. The heavenly aroma of croissants and brioches will guide you there.

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