Park honors ‘man who invented caring about Seattle history’

Dec 16, 2022, 3:44 PM | Updated: Dec 19, 2022, 6:28 am
Steinbreuck Park (Photo courtesy of KIRO 7) A 1963 plan for downtown Seattle would have replace Pike Place Market with Pike Place Plaza, obliterating what's now generally regarded as the heart and soul of the city with outdoor malls and parking garages; a red oval shows the approximate location of what's now Victor Steinbrueck Park, named for the man who led the effort to save the Market. (Image courtesy Downtown Seattle Association)

Victor Steinbrueck Park at Pike Place Market will close next week for a lengthy renovation project.

The park, which functions like something of a year-round outdoor living room for Pike Place Market, is named for a man who ‘invented’ caring about – and doing something about – preserving Seattle history.

This outdoor living room – a metaphor which has both good and bad connotations – is at the north end of Pike Place Market at the foot of Virginia Street. It was created in the early 1980s and was originally called Market Park. When Seattle architect Victor Steinbrueck passed away at age 73 in 1985, it was named for him by the Seattle Parks Board at the urging of Mayor Charley Royer.

Steinbrueck had designed Market Park in partnership with landscape architect Rich Haag, he’s the guy who designed Gas Works Park and the grounds for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair at what became Seattle Center. Still, it made sense to name the park for only Steinbrueck, mainly because it was Steinbrueck who led the grassroots campaign and eventual public vote to save Pike Place Market rather than replace it with something called Pike Place Plaza.

Pike Place Plaza was a proposed major redevelopment from the early 1960s, which would have built new pedestrian malls, parking garages, and ring roads – and, we know now, would have totally wiped out almost every trace of Pike Place Market.

This type of “urban renewal” was popular in the United States in the years after World War II as downtown areas reckoned with the suburban flight of residents and retail establishments, and tried to figure out how to keep dense areas vital – and manage cars and mass transit.

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Author John Steinbeck visited Seattle in the 1940s and knew the old city well. He then came here again in the late 1950s as he was touring the country, making notes for what would become his book “Travels With Charley.” In the few pages he devoted to Seattle, Steinbeck eerily predicted what could easily have happened to Pike Place Market or perhaps Pioneer Square.

“When a city begins to grow and spread outward, from the edges, the center which was once its glory is in a sense abandoned to time. Then the buildings grow dark and a kind of decay sets in; poorer people move in as the rents fall, and small fringe businesses take the place of once flowering establishments. The district is still too good to tear down and too outmoded to be desirable. Besides, all the energy has flowed out to the new developments, to the semi-rural supermarkets, the outdoor movies, new houses with wide lawns and stucco schools were children are confirmed in their illiteracy. The old port with narrow streets and cobbled-surfaces, smoke-grimed, goes into a period of desolation inhabited at night by the vague ruins of men, the lotus eaters who struggle daily toward unconsciousness by way of raw alcohol. Nearly every city I know has such a dying mother of violence in despair where at night the brightness of the street lamps is sucked away and policemen walk in pairs. And then one day perhaps the city returns and rips out the sore and builds a monument to its past.” –John Steinbeck, “Travels With Charley,” page 162

Fortunately, what Steinbeck predicted never came to pass. However, because it was so long ago and now seems so unimaginable, most people (this history radio guy included) don’t fully appreciate what it meant for someone to step up and say, “WE SHOULD SAVE THIS OLD NEIGHBORHOOD” during a time when preserving anything was antithetical to the drumbeat of progress and so-called urban renewal. And then, to go beyond just saying those words and actually take action was simply radical for its time – that can’t be overstated.

How, exactly, was Victor Steinbrueck inspired to save the Pike Place Market and help save Pioneer Square?

As a young architect in Seattle immediately following World War II, Steinbrueck was immersed in a time of modernism and looking to the future when it came to designing structures; the houses he designed then and, just a few years later, the Space Needle, which he also designed – are cutting edge. But in 1953, Steinbrueck also wrote the first book about the history of Seattle architecture, including Indigenous structures in the 1850s to the modern buildings of the 1950s.

Steinbrueck’s son Peter is an architect, former Seattle City Councilmember, and former Port of Seattle Commissioner. He was born in the late 1950s and grew up in the middle of his dad’s preservation efforts – and thought everybody’s dad spoke out at council meetings, collected signatures, and organized marches.

The younger Steinbrueck said his dad was an “urbanist” – not in the sense of demolishing and modernizing and increasing density at all costs, but in a more cosmic sense of balancing the old with the new, the traditional with the modern.

And, Peter Steinbrueck says, saving the Market and helping save Pioneer Square – in an era when historic preservation wasn’t really being applied much to American cities – was not something his father set out to do.

“I think he was thrown into this kind of lonely preservationist’s crusade at a time of great change because he was shocked and appalled,” Steinbrueck told KIRO Newsradio. “The downtown leaders were planning to tear down Pioneer Square and put up parking garages and build freeways around the city and through the city and tear down Pike Place Market.

“And these were things that he felt were unique to Seattle and they are,” Steinbrueck continued. “And they were that, [and] there needed to be greater attention to protecting those places. So he kind of became a preservationist out of necessity because of his shock and horror at what was going on.”

What Victor Steinbrueck did makes him one of just a handful of people in this city who “invented” really caring about the history here and, more importantly, doing something to keep that built history vital or to restore its vibrancy as part of the city’s future.

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There were certainly writers studying, documenting, and publishing Seattle history as early as the late 19th century, when journalists like Frederic Grant and Thomas Prosch were recounting what had happened just a few decades earlier. And this work was continued by people like Clarence Bagley, Edmond Meany, C.H. Hanford, and eventually Murray Morgan in the 20th century.

Victor Steinbrueck’s legacy is different, and is more than just volumes on a shelf. Though he published some gorgeous sketchbooks about Seattle architecture and neighborhoods – notably “Seattle Cityscape” from 1962, a sequel published a few years later, and “Market Sketchbook” – Steinbrueck rolled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty galvanizing the community and politicians to save some of the most precious things he’d been sketching and writing about.

It turns out I’m not alone in believing this theory about Victor Steinbrueck’s place in local history. I ran my ‘thesis’ past a few respected historic preservations and architectural historians and heard back near unanimous agreement.

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“It’s true,” wrote MOHAI executive director Leonard Garfield in an email. “Victor ‘saw’ Seattle history –literally–in a way that transcended those who ‘studied’ Seattle history. He looked up and out, whereas others looked down (and books, etc.) and inward. And seeing Seattle, he understood the living connections between past and present.”

“One person who shared some of that same understanding of the present-ness of history, and whose work also contributed significantly to an appreciation that led to the preservation, was Bill Speidel,” Garfield added, pointing to the man credited with discovering, championing, and monetizing “Underground Seattle.”

“I think your thesis is sound,” wrote Jeff Murdock of Historic Seattle. “Victor was an architect of his time, among those great Midcentury designers investigating an appropriate modernist style for our unique place. Perhaps in that architectural investigation, he also developed an appreciation for the authentic old places that make Seattle an original place, the Market, Pioneer Square, and others, and sensed their fragility in the push to make Seattle a modern 20th-century city.”

“I like your premise,” wrote Washington’s State Architectural Historian Michael Houser. “He was a doer.  I was also thinking about Ralph Anderson, who was a big player in getting Pioneer Square landmarked and then moved his office there, bought several buildings and went on to restore several buildings as well.”

If you’d like to pay your respects to Victor Steinbrueck and his preservation legacy, look for copies of his books at your favorite used bookstore or online bookseller. If you plan to visit Victor Steinbrueck Park, do so now. The park is closing early next week for about a year. Seattle Parks and Recreation says that the waterproof membrane between the park and the parking garage below is failing – and they will also be making changes to the park layout, including connecting it directly to the recent MarketFront addition to Pike Place Market.

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Victor Steinbrueck was also involved in the design of what ultimately became Westlake Park in downtown Seattle, and, according to a Seattle Times article published in 1985, many thought Steinbrueck’s name would be used for that park instead. Westlake Park was formally dedicated in 1989.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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Park honors ‘man who invented caring about Seattle history’