Seattle landmarks face gold rush, World’s Fair combined

Jan 18, 2017, 6:06 AM | Updated: Sep 7, 2022, 3:46 pm


The City of Seattle has formed an advisory panel focused on counseling the mayor's office as redevelopment proposals are submitted. (Photo by Feliks Banel)

(Photo by Feliks Banel)

It’s beyond cliché that the look and feel of Seattle is changing. Hardly a week goes by, it seems, without some beloved building getting torn down or some longtime local business shutting its doors. Sometimes it makes you wonder, is this is the price we pay for having a booming economy, and for living in a city that’s always been far more interested in its future than its past?

For Tacoma-based historian Michael Sullivan, the fast pace of change and seemingly unlimited flow of money into the area have created a boom time of historic proportions, on par with other outsized dynamic periods in Seattle’s past.

“Right now is a very hard time in Seattle’s history, I would think,” Sullivan said. “It’s like the middle of the Gold Rush. It’s a very hard time to get people to think long-term either looking back or looking forward. Everybody is very captivated and just enchanted by the moment, and marveling at what’s going on around them,” Sullivan said. “It’s like we’re in the middle of a World’s Fair.”

And now, in the middle of this combined gold rush and World’s Fair, the merits of preserving two distinctive and very different structures are being weighed by the City of Seattle. On Wednesday, the building occupied by Mama’s Mexican Cantina was designated as a historic landmark. And by later this year, the KeyArena could literally have a new lease on life, and be on its way to becoming the next home of the NBA, as well as an NHL franchise.

During a meeting on Wednesday at City Hall, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board decided Mama’s meets the criteria to be protected along with other city landmarks.

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Steve Hall, a community organizer and spokesman for the volunteer group Friends of Historic Belltown, says the building on the corner of Second Avenue and Bell Street has already achieved a special status on its own, for the function it has served in the community for more than 40 years.

“Mama’s is definitely already a landmark [in the unofficial sense],” Hall said. “It’s kind of one of those things that if you say, ‘Meet me at Mama’s,’ kind of like the pig at the Market, it’s just one of those places that is known in the community, and important to the community character.”

The owner of Mama’s closed the restaurant and sold the building last year to developers. New owners of the “Mama’s” name reopened the restaurant (now called “Mama’s Cantina”) with a new menu, and had planned to operate it there until the building was torn down, and then open once again in a new building to be built on the same site.

Though a new building will still be developed, Mama’s facade will be incorporated into the design, according to Hall.

Friends of Historic Belltown supported the designation of Mama’s. The group knows its way around the city landmark process. They formed in 2015 to support the landmark designation of the building next door to Mama’s, the Wayne Apartments. “The place that looks like Popeye lives there,” Hall said.

Developers who’d purchased the Wayne were required by state law to file the necessary paperwork to determine whether or not the building met the criteria for becoming a Seattle Landmark. Hall and dozens of supporters backed the designation and were successful in convincing the Landmark Board that the Wayne merited designation.

Hall says that the owners of the Wayne were then required to negotiate with the City of Seattle. The wording of the ordinance is, “the Board staff shall attempt to commence negotiations with the owner on the application of controls and incentives to the site, improvement, or object, regarding the specific features or characteristics identified in the Board’s report on designation.

Steve Hall laments the adversarial nature of preservation campaigns that pit community groups like his against property owners and developers, and wishes there was a different path to common ground.

“These places that are just visual anchors of the community, those are what we’re trying to protect and not necessarily stop development,” Hall said. “And I think it’s an asset and I would like it if developers would see these iconic and historic buildings as an asset, too, which is great for their business, rather than a liability to be dealt with.”

Even with Mama’s designated as a landmark, the owner and the city must then reach an agreement about how to preserve the historic elements – going through the same process as the Wayne Apartments. And, though it’s complicated and can take years, the owner can still tear down a landmark if it can be demonstrated that operating it within the constraints of the landmark designation creates a financial hardship.

Jeffrey Karl Ochsner is a professor of architecture at the University of Washington. He’s studied Seattle’s landmark ordinance and authored books on local architects and architecture. He says the ordinance is limited in its scope because it doesn’t dictate to a property owner how a landmark can be used.

“The ordinance does not allow [the Landmarks Board] to legally protect use, they have the right to deal [only] with material fabric,” Ochsner said. “So it’s a challenge, because people could get up and talk about whether or not that building should be protected and they can talk about the importance of Mama’s the restaurant, and the neighborhood and all that stuff, [but] the question comes down to, well, if the restaurant were to close, is the building still significant as a physical entity in the neighborhood?”

A few blocks away from Mama’s is one of the original buildings from the Century 21 Exposition, that momentous event better known as the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. This particular building is part of the Seattle Center and it’s owned by the City of Seattle. It would probably qualify as an official Seattle landmark, but it’s never been nominated.

Nowadays known as KeyArena, the venue was built as the Washington State Pavilion for the fair. It housed an exhibit imagining the future called “The World of Tomorrow,” which was the original home to the Bubbleator, a spherical Plexiglas elevator that was later moved to what’s now the Armory, and which then ended up as a terrarium in Richmond Beach. You can’t make this stuff up!

After the fair, the facility became known as the Seattle Center Coliseum, original home of the Seattle SuperSonics basketball team, and a venue for concerts (for such artists as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and countless Bumbershoot acts), ice hockey, and various political events and other spectacles over the years.

The Coliseum was remodeled in the mid 1990s and renamed KeyArena in a now-lapsed naming rights deal with Key Bank. The renovation, made mostly at the behest of the Sonics, included removal of 35 feet of soil to lower the floor of the arena, allowing for more seats and the addition of luxury suites. In spite of the changes to the interior of the building, the exterior, including giant distinctive concrete trusses and the look of the roof, remain intact.

The Sonics played their last home game at KeyArena in 2008 before moving to Oklahoma City. In the meantime, the Seattle Storm has played there, and the facility has hosted numerous other events. Until very recently, an arena project in SoDo promoted by Chris Hansen appeared to have the momentum and dollars necessary to be the next likely home for the NBA and the NHL, but recent developments seem to have muddied these waters somewhat.

One of the recent developments is a “Request For Proposals” or RFP for KeyArena that was issued last week by the City of Seattle.

The new RFP, surprisingly, includes an option for the demolition of the structure. While it clearly indicates a preference for proposals that preserve the original structure, language in the RFP also states that “any proposer may also submit a second proposal for construction of a new facility to maximized the Redevelopment Site’s potential.”

This “construction of a new facility” option – that is, to demolish KeyArena – caught many regular people (and probably some local preservationists, too) off guard.

One person who wasn’t caught off guard is Eugenia Woo, director of preservation services for the not-for-profit group Historic Seattle.

“It didn’t surprise me, but we’re annoyed,” Woo said, with a wry chuckle. “The whole [RFP] talks about reuse, renovation, and it talks about the historic context study that was done that clearly shows [KeyArena] was landmark-eligible. And then there’s this line in there that they threw in like, ‘Oh, by the way, if you want to present a second proposal for tear-down, we’ll look at that too.’ That just should not be an option.”

A lot of people think that demolishing KeyArena shouldn’t be an option.

The structure was designed by Paul Thiry, a graduate of the University of Washington and one of the first local practitioners to embrace modern architecture. Thiry was active on local planning commissions, and in 1957 was named the lead architect for what became the Seattle World’s Fair.

Jeffrey Karl Ochsner says there’s no question about Thiry’s significance as an architect, which bolster KeyArena’s chances of being designated a landmark.

“Paul Thiry is one of the most important modern architects in the history of Seattle,” Ochsner said. Beginning in the late 1940s, Ochsner says, Thiry designed a number of notable modern buildings, including the original MOHAI in Montlake and the original Frye Museum on Capitol Hill, and so the appointment to direct site planning and architecture for what became a futuristic fair made perfect sense.

“He was connected in a political sense, as well as identified with technologically modern buildings,” Ochsner said.

Michael Sullivan also believes Thiry is a significant figure in Northwest architecture, but one who perhaps hasn’t received the accolades he deserves. Sullivan co-authored a 2013 survey of landmarks and potential landmarks at Seattle Center, including those already designated by the Landmarks Board, such as the Pacific Science Center and the Space Needle.

“I think you could maybe argue that the Science Center is the more elegant, more graceful, more masterful sort of architectural work and the Space Needle, from an engineering standpoint, is more of a showpiece,” Sullivan said. “But the Coliseum was the crafted work of a brilliant guy, and I think in the future we’ll recognize more and more how important Thiry was.”

In addition to Thiry’s significance, it’s hard to overstate the impact of the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, and, by extension, KeyArena’s role in that singular event – which is also a factor consistent with landmark ordinance designation criteria. Jeffrey Karl Ochsner has studied the fair and lectured about its unique legacy for years.

“The legacy of the fair is that there were a series of buildings that fostered a series of cultural developments in this city,” Ochsner said. “What happens in most cities is cultural groups are formed and then they look for facilities. In Seattle we had facilities – buildings [at Seattle Center after the fair] – and the cultural groups were formed to take advantage of them. So it really fostered a cultural efflorescence after the fair that is quite remarkable.”

Ochsner says that as the Opera House (a building renovated for the fair and later rebuilt as McCaw Hall) helped launched Pacific Northwest Ballet, so, too, did the Coliseum help make it possible to bring the original Sonics to Seattle in 1967, and so much more. Ochsner says one of his strongest memories of the Coliseum was a Neil Diamond concert.

“The place was packed, and he could still sing even though he was getting older,” Ochsner said. “That was a pretty powerful event to see that in that space.”

“I realize that’s gonna make me sound like I’m a million years old,” Ochsner said, laughing.

On a recent call-out for KeyArena memories via social media, dozens of people responded, listing visits to the World of Tomorrow and a ride on the Bubbleator, Sonics games and Seattle Totems hockey games, an eclectic range of concerts covering nearly every genre of music from Jethro Tull to Macklemore, political rallies for Hubert Humphrey and Barack Obama, and even taking the bar exam.

And as far as the law is concerned, Eugenia Woo says that as part of any plans for KeyArena, the City of Seattle will be required to nominate the structure to be considered as a landmark. She’s confident that it will be designated, and she says that Historic Seattle is “hopeful” that KeyArena will be preserved and renovated by one of the companies likely to respond to the RFP.

Meanwhile, Michael Sullivan worries that the Gold Rush and World’s Fair atmosphere in Seattle will continue to threaten even more places around the city.

Sullivan says that from a “really big picture standpoint,” there are dangers in “creating a city that is of a single moment, of a single period and technology, and of a single design.” It poses a threat to the civic fabric, he says, when all that technology fails or when that design goes out of fashion in all those square blocks at the same time, at some point in the not-so-distant future.

“The way enduring cities that last over time are like rotating crops,” Sullivan said. “You want to always have elements from the past, elements of the new, and have them all be feathered into the city so there’s a healthy life cycle that goes on over a long period of time.”

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Seattle landmarks face gold rush, World’s Fair combined