One For All

Naming Seattle's Monorail a landmark could derail the city's new monorail system.

Seattle Monorail, downtown Seattle

Credit: Matthew Abbey

When Seattle hosted the World's Fair in 1962, the city showcased a brand-new futuristic monorail system, running 1.2 miles from downtown to the fairgrounds. Forty-one years later, the German-made Alweg trains still shuttle riders back and forth on the two-minute journey between downtown and what is now called the Seattle Center, home of the Space Needle.

The 1962 Seattle World's Fair official guidebook called the monorail a "preview of the mass transit system of the future." Today, the monorail has become an important window to Seattle's past.

On April 16, 2003, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted unanimously to make the beloved monorail an official city landmark. But now some Seattleites are concerned that the landmark designation may hinder construction of a new, more ambitious monorail that's planned to partially follow the old route.

The designation was good news for Seattle architects Susan Boyle and Andrew Phillips, who co-authored the landmark application. Both are members of DOCOMOMO International, a global preservation group whose goal is documenting and conserving modernist structures. "[The monorail] is such an iconic piece of the city," says Phillips. "It's hard for anyone to debate against the fact that it's a landmark."

The World's Fair installation was the nation's first full-scale commercial monorail system. Like many exhibits at the fair, it was meant to be temporary.

But it worked so well for so long that in November 2002 Seattle citizens voted to build a similar 14-mile monorail line, dubbed the "Green Line," to run from the city's Ballard neighborhood through downtown to West Seattle. Construction of the $1.75 billion Green Line, the first phase of a projected citywide monorail system, is planned to begin in 2004. 

Seattle monorail

Credit: Matthew Abbey

Of course, monorail technology has changed a lot in 40 years. The existing monorail tracks, which are called guideways, and pylons meet neither the new design specifications nor current seismic codes— important in earthquake-prone Seattle.

The Seattle Monorail Project (SMP), which will oversee construction of the Green Line, hopes to remove the existing monorail pylons in the downtown area and replace them with sturdier, slimmer supports.

Project officials say Green Line trains will be unable to travel on the old guideways. In fact, there are several design differences between the existing monorail system and the proposed Green Line; for example, the older trains have drivers, and the new trains will be fully automated.

Anticipating construction of the Green Line, the SMP urged the Landmarks Board to allow demolition of the original pylons. However, in its ruling, the board treated all parts of the monorail system as one unit. In other words, landmark status protects not only the modernist trains, but the tracks they run on and the posts holding them up.

Can Seattle let pylons be pylons? Apparently not. As concerns grow over how the landmark designation of the existing monorail might affect construction of the Green Line, the Seattle Monorail Project finds itself walking a fine line between acknowledging the influence of the city's first monorail—undeniably the inspiration for the new one —and building the Green Line, as it says, "on time [and] under budget."

"We would love to see the historic route and vehicles preserved," says SMP spokesperson Rita Brogan. The SMP has declared itself "committed to preserving the historic Alweg trains either in active service as part of the new monorail, on a new monorail guideway, or on display in a museum or other setting."

It's that last bit—the notion of the kinetic World's Fair monorail trapped like a fly in amber "in a museum or other setting"—that bothers some preservationists.

"The monorail is a dynamic landmark," Phillips says. "So the idea that just the design of the cars is important, that you could just look at them behind glass somewhere— that seems a little absurd."

Seattle monorail

Credit: Matthew Abbey

The Seattle Monorail Project probably will go back to the Landmarks Board and seek permission to make changes to the existing monorail. If an agreement satisfactory to both parties can't be reached, City Council President Peter Steinbrueck notes, the council has the authority to override the board's designation.

"It's not likely we will determine the monorail isn't a landmark," says Steinbrueck, "but designation does not ensure a structure will be preserved in its entirety."

On the other hand, if the entire monorail is preserved, the Green Line could be prevented from running on the historic route. The new monorail could run beside the old one, follow a different path through downtown, or be built double-decker style, on top of the old one—something that would add millions to construction costs and result in what Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels has called "an eyesore."

The monorail project, which is charged with building, owning, operating, and maintaining a citywide monorail system, has delayed assuming ownership of the existing monorail. "The City of Seattle still owns it," Brogan says. "We will not take it over unless this issue is resolved."

Councilmember Steinbrueck says he'd like to see at least a section of the monorail preserved, but adds, however, "I'm not convinced that we have to preserve the entire structure end to end."

For now, the 1960s-era monorail continues to run seven days a week, transporting 2.5 million tourists and Seattleites per year.

Monorail defender Phillips says that as the city anticipates building a new monorail, it "seems inexcusable to glibly skip over" the old one. "I don't really know what its fate will be in the end," says Phillips.

Jane Lotter is a Seattle writer.  

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