Pacific Northwest | January 18, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineJanuary 18, home
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Seattle Municipal Building R.I.P. 1962 - 2003
Seattle's new $77 million City Hall lights up the evening across the street from the beginning of a man-made fountain and creek that will eventually tie together a three-block Civic Center campus.
A PIECE OF SEATTLE history is slowly being laid to rest on the streets of downtown, and there isn't a mourner to be found.

The Municipal Building, that dismal box that housed eight mayoral administrations, passed away at the age of 41.

Its skeleton still pokes through the ground at the corner of Fourth and Cherry downtown, where workers are disassembling it piece by piece barely 10 paces from its glassy, glitzy successor, the new City Hall.

Practically no one has anything good to say about the Municipal Building, which over the years had become the butt of many a civic joke. So no funeral has been scheduled. Fact is, people had been itching to knock the place down for decades.

But on the occasion of its demise, we should pause to offer a eulogy of sorts (no one else will) for the Seattle it reflected: a humble burg that didn't think the office for city politicians had to be some sort of chic homage to government. It was simply a place the mayor and City Council went to work.
The remains of the 11th-floor City Council chambers lie buried in rubble as demolition work continues on the Municipal Building late last year.
Seattle has grown in its ambitions, to say the least. The new City Hall hosts City Council meetings beneath a titanium dome in a chamber that looks like it could be a modern church sanctuary. Nondenominational, of course.

If the new place evokes a bit of pomp and circumstance, that's as it should be, say the civic leaders of today. Seattle always deserved better than the Municipal Building.

Even before it was born in 1962, architect Victor Steinbrueck lamented its design, calling it a "gross mistake" with "little to distinguish it from any other office building."

It wasn't even nice enough to call City Hall, really. The drab title "Municipal Building" always seemed a better fit.
Civic lore holds that the plans for the Municipal Building, designed on the cheap by a Texas architect, were lifted from a hotel blueprint. That inspired the building's nickname "the Holiday Inn for bureaucrats."
Of course, people came up with plenty more colorful names of their own. "The Holiday Inn for bureaucrats," was a favorite, referring to its outward resemblance to a hotel. The late columnist Emmett Watson simply called it an abomination.

At best, this was a building people put up with. Former Mayor Charles Royer, who spent three terms inside, once remarked that the best thing about working there "is that you don't have to look at it."

Even Gordon Clinton, Seattle's mayor when the building opened, could muster only faint praise at the end of its life.

"At the time it was quite adequate," he said. "On balance I think it served its purpose."

AND WHAT IS the purpose of City Hall, anyway?
"Evolving Wing and the Gravity of Presence," by Vancouver, B.C., artist Eric Robertson, is featured prominently in the lobby of the new City Hall. The installation combines metal and wood shapes to evoke Native American canoes and cedar-bark hats along with space-shuttle thrusters and airplane wings, symbolizing the Northwest's heritage of native cultures and the aerospace industry.
It depends on when you ask the question. In 1962, Seattle was — despite the ambitions it expressed in the World's Fair that year — a smaller, more conservative town. There were fewer renters. Republicans weren't yet an endangered species, exiled to the suburbs. City Hall was expected to take care of the basics: fire, police, potholes and garbage. You'd have been laughed out of here for proposing an Office of Sustainability and Environment or a Department of Information Technology — two departments that exist today.

Since 1916, city workers had shared space in the King County Courthouse, but by the late 1950s it was clear the growing city needed a new building. Still, the politicians of the day didn't think it prudent to build themselves a palace. In an act of thriftiness hard to imagine now, the City Council, led by J.D. Braman, scrimped and saved enough extra money in the budget to pay the entire $7 million bill for a new building — in cash.

They got what they paid for. A Texas architectural firm served up cookie-cutter plans that, according to civic legend, copied some hotel or office down there. The result was an unremarkable, 12-story office tower stuck with little regard for its surroundings on a steep hill at the south end of downtown. The building said nothing about the Northwest. It might as well have been in Houston.
Featuring one of the most expansive lobbies in town, the new City Hall's enormous public space, in a building entirely clad in glass, is meant to reflect the ideal of transparency in government.
"The city was a bit immature at that point in our development," says Bill Bain, consulting partner with NBBJ, the giant architectural firm founded in Seattle. "The architecture that was acceptable at that time had to be very frugal in order to be politically correct."

Coinciding with the cheap instincts of city government were the design fashions of the day, which spurned the classic Stately Government Building mold of marble stairs and columns in favor of futuristic boxes of colored panels and glass.

"There was a disdain for anything from the past," says City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, like his father, an architect.

That modernist thinking was responsible for the Municipal Building's homely coat of blue-ribbed ceramic tiles and prefabricated concrete panels blasted with crushed quartz. The same mindset propelled millions of homeowners into smothering their hardwood floors with shag carpet.
Seattle's City Hall from 1891 to 1909, known as "Katzenjammer Castle," doubled as the Police Department headquarters at Third and Yesler downtown.
Of course, lovely things were said at the dedication ceremony. It's never nice to make fun of a newborn. Besides, they were actually proud of those blue tiles at the time. Councilman Braman declared there was "no finer workmanship in any office building in Seattle."

But soon, those who dwelt in the dim recesses of the building were treating it like the hotel it resembled: They didn't want to stay long.

After spending $150,000 on renovations in 1970, city architect Walter Dimmich remarked hopefully that the improvements ought to "hold us another four or five years." Such comments became a municipal ritual as every few years city pols predicted the building's imminent death.

At times, the place was downright embarrassing. The roof over the mayor's 12th-floor office periodically sprung leaks. The City Council declared a "public-works emergency" in 1996 to justify repairing it. The elevators often stalled between floors, sometimes with foreign dignitaries on board.
The "Blue Glass Passage" in the new City Hall connects the City Council chambers to the council offices. Designed by New York artist James Carpenter, the bridge cost $682,000. The view of downtown from the bridge keeps getting better as the old Municipal Building is torn down.
Royer recalls one visitor grimacing upon spying the duct tape that held two pieces of wall-to-wall carpet together. "He said, 'For chrissakes! This is the mayor's office.' "

Perceptions are hugely important, Royer adds. "You go over to somebody's house and there are dirty dishes all over and it stinks and the furniture is bad, it makes an impression."

THE SEATTLE OF today yearns for a world-class reputation, a longing reflected in our massive civic building boom of the past several years.

Workers are wrapping up a new $162 million downtown library, a geometric experiment drawn up by renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, that is equal parts icon and book repository. We blew up the Kingdome, that quaint relic of a thrifty time when folks thought that baseball and football teams could actually share a stadium.
The Municipal Fountain, by Glen Alps, as it looked when installed in 1962 in front of the new Municipal Building.
The titanium dome housing the new City Council chambers sits amid the grass and shrubs planted on City Hall's green roof.
We're gradually erasing the penurious structures of our recent past, replacing them with edifices that toast our significance. The people who run Seattle today say our public spaces should showcase the highest ideals of the city.

"Civic architecture should stand for more. It shouldn't emulate speculative office buildings," Steinbrueck opines. "It serves a higher purpose."

That high-minded thinking comes with a big price tag. As the latest testimonial to our eminence, City Hall, designed by architect Peter Bohlin, cost nearly $77 million. In contrast to the cash transaction for the Municipal Building, the new City Hall was put on the taxpayers' credit card, using so-called "councilmanic" debt that voters don't get a chance to approve or reject.

And City Hall is only part of the three-block Civic Center campus. Throw in the Justice Center, a new public plaza and renovations to city-owned Key Tower, and the total price tag approaches $300 million — a debt we'll be paying off for 30 years, eating up cash that could have been used to hire more police officers or keep libraries open. If the new buildings last a century, as we've been promised, that may not turn out to be such a bad deal. We'll see.

For the money, we got a seven-floor City Hall that is smaller than its predecessor. About 320 people work there, compared with 550 in the old building. But what it lacks in office space, it shoots to make up for in symbolism.
Paul Kraabel, who served on the Seattle City Council from 1975 to 1991, perches on the seventh-floor balcony of the new City Hall, checking out what's left of his old offices in the Municipal Building.
It seems somehow appropriate in a city where recycling is mandatory that City Hall was designed to meet the environmentally rigorous "silver" standard of the U.S. Green Building Council. That means everything from collecting rainwater to use in toilets to installing white panels that jut from the north side of the building to reflect natural light back inside and conserve electricity. In practical terms, what people will notice is that they put grass on the roof and waterless urinals in the men's rooms. The city will no doubt get a green merit badge for such feats.

Perhaps overcompensating for the tiny entrance to the Municipal Building, the new City Hall features one of the most expansive lobbies in town. The enormous public space, in a building entirely clad in glass, is meant to reflect the ideal of transparency in government. A grand limestone staircase rises alongside a man-made waterfall, part of a creek that will conceptually tie together all three blocks of the Civic Center campus. Monorail activist Peter Sherwin likes to call it the council's "moat."

Suspended over the lobby is the "Blue Glass Passage," a bridge designed by New York artist James Carpenter to connect City Council offices to council chambers. It cost $682,000 and is supposed to suggest the sky and water or other blue things.

The bridge is one of many artworks funded by the city's generous "1 percent for art" program, which ensures that the berets get a piece of the construction action along with the hard hats. The signature piece in the new lobby is an installation called "Evolving Wing and the Gravity of Presence," a melange of Native American tribal canoes, cedar paddles and airplane wings.

But for all its pretensions, the new building so far lacks some practical features of the irredeemably ugly Municipal Building.

On the first floor of that building were offices where you could pay your utility bills or make complaints about city government — two services the regular citizen could actually use. But despite its paeans to open, friendly government and early plans that called for including the customer-service counter, the new tower has no place for it. You'll have to go to the 27th floor of Key Tower to find it.

Instead, the new City Hall has an espresso stand. Perhaps nothing more need be said.

All of this isn't to say you should shed a tear for the passing of the Municipal Building. The good folks on the City Council, in fact, have tossed around the idea of a fund-raiser where people could take turns whacking the remains of the building with a sledgehammer. Not exactly a wake.

Local historian Walt Crowley, who worked in the administration of Mayor Wes Uhlman, suggests we remember the old thing as "like your stingy Uncle Olaf who worked hard and was a little cranky and eccentric. Not the nicest guy you knew, but not a bad guy. And then he dies and doesn't leave you anything in his will."

In lieu of flowers, the city requests that donations be made to the new City Hall.

No need to send a check. It's already showing up on your tax bill.

Jim Brunner is a Seattle Times staff reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.