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Layers of hidden history in Seattle building’s long-forgotten ‘Prohibition Room’

Even though we’re in the midst of a historic pandemic, it’s still May. This means that the annual observation of Historic Preservation Month is underway around the United States, even if only virtually this year.

Preservation Month began as “Preservation Week,” when longtime U.S. Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson from Washington introduced it in a bill back in 1973, that President Nixon later signed  into law.

So, it makes sense that one of the ways the federal government is observing Preservation Month this year is through a restoration project of what’s known as the Old Federal Office Building in downtown Seattle.

The Old Federal Office Building at First and Madison was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. This is not the tall 1970s Federal Building – which is actually named in honor of the late Senator Jackson – also at First and Madison, and is often the site of protests; this particular historic building is from the 1930s, and is across First Avenue to the west.

The art deco style building opened to the public in early 1933 during the depths of the Great Depression. Funding had been approved years earlier, on May 29, 1928, when Calvin Coolidge was still in the White House, but the project was slow to get underway.

Eventually, buildings at the site were demolished – including Aronson Hardware and the Rainier Grand Hotel – to make way for the new structure, but newspaper editorials at the time complained about the slow pace of the project.

President Herbert Hoover was elected in 1928. He gets very little credit for how he handled the federal response to the Great Depression, which began following the stock market crash of October 1929.

It may be surprising to some to learn that the Hoover administration actually led an effort to speed up funding for federal construction projects, including Seattle’s Federal Office Building and what was then the Maritime Hospital on Beacon Hill, in order to stave off the effects of the economic downturn.

This effort was nowhere near as sweeping an intervention as President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” would be a few years later, but it’s a little-remembered federal attempt to boost the economy between the crash of 1929 and FDR’s election in 1932.

In its heyday from the 1930s to the 1960s, the 1933 building was home to offices of all kinds of federal agencies, and it’s considered to be the first building in Seattle to be constructed specifically to house federal offices.

One of the agencies that took up the most office space was the Bureau of Internal Revenue (better known nowadays as the IRS), but the building was also home to the FBI, and the place where official Seattle weather observations were made by the U.S. Weather Bureau before Sea-Tac Airport was built in the late 1940s.

Management of the building, like most federal properties, is the responsibility of the General Services Administration.

The GSA recently began a $24 million project to address several long-term maintenance needs. Local company Lydig is serving as the general contractor, with Pioneer Masonry also serving a significant role in the roughly 18-month project that will wrap-up in late 2021.

Aaron Evanson led a special Preservation Month tour of the old building earlier this week. Evanson works for the General Services Administration and is project manager the effort, which includes refreshing and updating some key parts of the building’s exterior.

As Evanson stood near the cornerstone of the building at First and Madison, he pointed to words carved into the granite, and to a metal plaque that was added after construction.

“You can see there’s a couple of monuments here,” Evanson said. “One for the day that it was built, and there’s this [because] where the Seattle fire started was actually reportedly in the location of the existing boiler room” of the 1933 Federal Office Building.

The topography of the city was much different when the Great Seattle Fire struck on June 6, 1889.

“Seattle’s built up on itself here,” Evanson said. “Everything was built on top of the fire. So we’re actually standing about 20 feet above the original ground level of the street itself, and of the original Seattle.”

Before decades of sawdust and regrade materials altered the terrain, the ground level was lower. The water of Elliott Bay was also much nearer to First and Madison in 1889 than the few blocks currently between the Federal Office Building and the waterfront.

The water was even closer back in February 1852.

That’s when another iconic event in the city’s history purportedly happened in almost the very same spot: Arthur Denny came ashore in when the settlers known as the Denny Party decided to move from Alki in West Seattle to what’s now downtown.

As he led the tour, Aaron Evanson said the 220,000 square foot building rests on hundreds of cedar pilings driven into the ground before construction began in 1930. He also pointed to decorative elements made from bronze, including two large urns at the front entrance that once housed light fixtures, and a series of aluminum decorative panels positioned in between the building’s windows. Decorative elements are nearly everywhere you look, from animal heads above the front doors, to maritime-themed panels above the side doors, to emblems of the various branches of the US military.

Most of the building is eight stories tall, with a central tower that’s the equivalent of eleven stories. Evanson says the structure is made of steel and granite and brick, and is clad in a special kind of glazed brick called terracotta. That material is a major focus of the work over the next year and a half.

“The majority of the work here is cleaning all of the terracotta and the brick and the granite, and repointing all of the mortar,” Evanson said. “There’s ten-and-a-half miles worth of brick mortar” – the cement-like compound placed between bricks – “that we’re actually pulling out and replacing, and [we’re] getting rid of all the old biological growth that’s on here, and brightening the whole thing up.”

In the months of prep before the restoration work started a week or so ago, Aaron Evanson says he came across two pretty cool things. One is the old architectural drawings for the building.

“They’re hand-drawn, and all we have is facsimiles of them,” Evanson said. “But the plans themselves are gorgeous.”

And it was within those vintage plans where Evanson found the other cool thing.

“At the time this was built and designed they actually included an entire room for bootleg liquor in the plans,” Evanson said. “You can actually see in the plans that there’s a ‘Prohibition Room.’”

A “Prohibition Room” makes sense for a building designed in 1930, when most alcohol was still illegal. Evanson led the tour along the north side of the building to Western Avenue, which functions as the service entrance, with access to the parking garage and a series of loading docks.

And, no, a “Prohibition Room” was not a hidden speakeasy for federal employees; it was a place to keep confiscated booze.

“So right off of here, what is now part of the loading dock is actually where the Prohibition Room was,” Evanson said. “It’s actually an all-wood floor, because they were worried about the acidic property of whiskey landing on the concrete, so they actually overlaid all the floors with on-end two-by-fours to soak up any of the spilled liquor.”

All this history is interesting, of course. But even though the 1933 Federal Office Building is nearly 90 years old, it actually has most of the other more modern federally-owned buildings in the region beat in at least one very important category.

“One thing that’s actually amazing is that because of the concrete mass of this building itself – the walls are incredibly thick, there’s terra cotta infill on the steel beams as you go from floor to floor – and the fact that it’s a hundred percent free-air coming into the building,” Evanson said, “it’s actually one of the top energy performers of our entire [federal] Region 10 portfolio.”

And this includes some of the newest federal buildings in the system.

“The building from 1933 outperforms the brand new courthouse that’s on 8th and Stewart,” Evanson said.

For Aaron Evanson, that efficiency is a point of pride, but the past, present and future of Seattle’s old Federal Office Building represents something more than the sum of the granite, brick and terracotta.

“These [federal] buildings are a fabric of the society that they’ve been built up in,” Evanson said. “Seattle has grown up around these, and they’re very central to what it was to be in Seattle at that point in time. It’s an homage to the agencies that have been here and it’s a physical representation that our government, that our federal agencies and those that work within them are here to last.”

“They were here 90 years ago,” Evanson said “And we’re prepping it for another 90 years in the future.”

And that’s something worth remembering during any month of the year.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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