ALL OVER THE MAP

Darth Vader, Ban Roll-On, Sinking Ship and other Seattle building nicknames

Apr 26, 2024, 12:07 PM | Updated: 1:13 pm

The Seattle Hotel was damaged by the April 13, 1949 earthquake; the steeply tilted parking garage w...

The Seattle Hotel was damaged by the April 13, 1949 earthquake; the steeply tilted parking garage with a bow-like point that replaced it in 1961 has been known for decades as the "Sinking Ship." (Courtesy MOHAI)

(Courtesy MOHAI)

They rarely make it onto maps or on the fancy signage out front, but Seattle has its fair share of buildings with well-known nicknames.

The best nicknames for buildings are “organic” – no focus groups or marketing people were involved in their creation, and no one sought to publicize them. Instead, some wise-guy or wise-gal came up with a clever, free-range name, and it caught on and stuck, and then somehow spread. You could blame social media for that viral spread nowadays, but these best-known examples happen to pre-date the Internet by many years.

And, without exception, these classic Seattle building nicknames are based on how each particular building looks – it’s not about its function or owner or tenant.

Box The Space Needle Came In

When the old Sea-First Bank Tower was under construction at Fourth Avenue and Spring Street in 1968, this name for the giant box-like structure seemingly came out of nowhere to grab ahold of the public consciousness. As previously reported  by KIRO Newsradio, the origins are murky, but this particular building nickname might also be considered one of Seattle’s oldest locally grown “dad jokes.” However, as Dave Ross pointedly asked at the time, how could the box for the Space Needle come along six years after the Space Needle was built? To Dave, that doesn’t make any sense. Official name for this place nowadays is, yawn, “Safeco Plaza.”

Darth Vader Building

This edition of All Over The Map was inspired by a Paul Roberts story in the Seattle Times earlier this month reporting  that a loan is coming due on developer Martin Selig’s portfolio of downtown Seattle properties. That portfolio includes the Fourth & Blanchard Building. In Roberts’ piece, he notes that the structure, with its dark glass cladding and steeply raked upper floors and roof, is known by many as the “Darth Vader Building.”

More All Over the Map: The thousand-year-old origins of the name ‘Washington’

The original Stars Wars film, in which the villainous Vader first appears, was released in 1977; the Fourth & Blanchard Building was completed in 1979. The first mention of the “Darth Vader Building” nickname we could find in print was from the Seattle Times in February 1981.

Sinking Ship

The steeply sloped parking garage on Second Avenue across the street from the Smith Tower is triangular and pointed at its western end, giving it the appearance of, well, a sinking ship. It was built in 1961 on the site of the old Seattle Hotel. That earlier structure was severely damaged 75 years ago this month in the April 13, 1949 earthquake.

More MyNorthwest History: History hidden within NOAA’s ‘Inland Water Wind Reports’

The first in-print use of “sinking ship garage” we could find was in the old Seattle P-I newspaper in June 1974, but it seems this nautical nickname came along much earlier. It’s also unclear what the garage was called when it debuted in 1961, but Diamond Parking nowadays officially refers to it as “Sinking Ship Garage.”

 Ban Roll-On Building

The ho-hummly named “Second and Seneca Building” was completed in 1991, and the “Ban Roll-On” nickname came into use and in print almost immediately, appearing in the Seattle Times in July 1991. The building’s top, which looks uncannily like the ball within the dispenser area of a container of circa 1991 deodorant, inspired the nickname. While this could not be confirmed, it may be that the best view of the top of the building came from the now long-gone Alaskan Way Viaduct. If that’s the case, this nickname’s days may be numbered.

Twin Toasters or just The Toasters

The Metropolitan Park Towers, East and West, were built in the 1980s right alongside I-5 at Howell and Minor. Nowadays, they have been rebranded as “Met Park East” and “Met Park West.” From a certain angle, perhaps from the east side of I-5 on Capitol Hill or from one of the overpasses, the two buildings do resemble a pair of old-school kitchen counter toasters.

The Toasters were apparently built about eight years apart – in 1980 and 1988 – and the first use in-print of the nickname that we could find was April 1993 in a Jean Godden column in the Seattle Times. Godden deserves a lot of credit for that column, which listed many of these nicknames and preserved them for posterity.

Washer and Dryer

This one is a little more esoteric, and the buildings are no longer standing. “The Washer and Dryer” was a nickname that emerged in the mid 1970s for the old KOMO TV and radio buildings at 4th and Denny near the Space Needle. The first building dated to the late 1940s, the second was completed in late 1974 or early 1975. Together, they reportedly looked like a pair of laundry appliances. The first mention of the nickname in print was an Emmett Watson column in the Seattle P-I in October 1974.

Seattle Municipal Tower and Rainier Tower

The building now known as Seattle Municipal Tower was built more than 30 years ago and was originally called the AT&T Tower. Almost from the time that construction was completed, the tower inspired comparisons to male anatomy, most of which we can’t repeat here. In the Seattle Times, Jean Godden called it the “Circumcision Tower.”

When the Rainier Tower was under construction in the mid 1970s, its narrow base proved a compelling sight for pedestrians and drivers, and a frequent topic for newspaper writers. While some Seattleites recall nicknames such as “Sharpened Pencil” or “Pencil Building,” an Emmett Watson column in the Seattle P-I in July 1978 credited two local school children with a nickname based on the Rainier Tower’s similarity in appearance to a tree about to felled by a woodland creature: “Beaver Building.”

If we got any of these wrong or if we missed any other building nicknames, please let us know via my contact information below. And, if you like “organic” names, please check out earlier stories about nicknames  for Northwest companies, and geographic insults.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, 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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Darth Vader, Ban Roll-On, Sinking Ship and other Seattle building nicknames