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Historic Seattle gargoyles gone forever, but questions persist

One of two gargoyles from the Civic Arena demolition in Seattle Center that were supposed to be preserved. (Photo courtesy Seattle Opera)

It looks like the reward offered for the return of Seattle Center’s infamous missing gargoyles will probably never be claimed.

Seattle Center officials conceded this week that there’s no hope of recovering two 91-year-old concrete gargoyles, that were mistakenly hauled away as construction waste sometime last month. The disappearance of the gargoyles was first reported by Crosscut last week.

Details remain sketchy around many of the specifics of what exactly happened to the gargoyles, such as when they were actually removed from the Seattle Center campus, and what steps Seattle Center took to track them down once it was determined the gargoyles were missing.

Seattle Center officials acknowledge that they made mistakes in not properly caring for the artifacts, and they have not been able to provide a timeline pinpointing when the gargoyles were hauled away. They also acknowledge that they only learned that the gargoyles were missing because Crosscut writer Brangien Davis called to ask where they had gone.

Seattle Center spokesperson Deborah Daoust wrote in an email late last week that the architectural relics were likely “demolished” almost immediately by Republic Services, the company the city contracts with for waste removal from the former World’s Fairgrounds.

Another Seattle Center official wrote in an email earlier this week that the gargoyles may, in fact, have been loaded onto a railroad car and shipped to an unidentified location on the very day they were hauled away from behind the new Seattle Opera facility. This same official pledged better care will be taken with any historic resources in the future.

The Civic Arena, built in 1928, was originally adorned with four roughly 40-inch concrete gargoyles atop tall plinths that stood between (and on either side of) the three main entry doors to the facility along Mercer Street.

Civic Arena gargoyles
One of two gargoyles that were destroyed in March 2017 when the Civic Arena was demolished. (Feliks Banel)

As KIRO Radio reported in March 2017, the 1928 Civic Arena façade was covered with modern brick in 1961 as a modernization effort in advance of the 1962 World’s Fair. A demolition permit for the entire facility was granted in 2016, in part, on what turned out to be inaccurate staff and consultant assertions that the 1928 façade had been completely destroyed, and any ornamentation removed, as part of the 1961 renovations.

KIRO Radio was on hand when the 1961 brick was removed, and the 1928 façade was revealed, almost completely intact, contrary to what staff and consultants had said in proceedings that led to issuance of the demolition permit.

However, demolition crews working on behalf of Seattle Opera did not pause their machinery, and immediately destroyed two of the original four gargoyles, along with much of the previously intact façade. Q13 was also on hand, and shot widely-viewed video of the demolition of the “Romanesque Revival” architectural details.

The two gargoyles that had initially survived were carefully removed from what remained of the façade by contractors working on behalf of Seattle Opera. They were given to Seattle Center, who pledged to find a new home for them somewhere on its campus.

Those remaining gargoyles, along with some other pieces of ornamental concrete, had been sitting on pallets between the Seattle Opera and High School Memorial Stadium when they were hauled away as waste.

The two failures, then, that led to all the issues around the loss of not just the gargoyles, but also the loss of the entire 1928 Civic Arena, were essentially policy shortcoming.

The first is the failure of experts working for the City of Seattle and the Seattle Opera to recognize that the 1928 façade was still intact, or even that it might still be intact, and the choice those professionals made to not investigate what might still be intact behind the 1961 brick wall.

The second failure was the lack of any mechanism that would have protected that façade and all of its various elements, once it had been revealed by the initial steps of the demolition contractor, and once those elements were removed and set aside for preservation.

KIRO Radio also inquired last week regarding the whereabouts of bronze light fixtures that had been removed in 1961 from the 1928 Civic Arena façade — they were originally mounted on each plinth, one below each gargoyle — and had then been incorporated into the 1961 brick wall.

Bronze lighting fixtures
Bronze light fixtures from the 1928 building were used on the 1961 brick wall; Seattle Center officials said late last week the lights are being stored in McCaw Hall. (Seattle Center)

Visitors to the Arena might recall these lights, which looked oddly out of place on the ultra-modern 1961 exterior brick walls.

Seattle Center officials reported Friday that the bronze fixtures were found in a locked storage area at nearby McCaw Hall.

There are currently no specific plans for the bronze fixtures.

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