An Historic Brew of Architecture in Seattle

A Guide for Travelers to Washington State

detail facade of ornate windows with terra cotta walrus figures between windows
Arctic Club Building, 1916, Seattle, Washington. Carol M. Highsmith Buyenlarge/Getty Images (cropped)

The architecture in Seattle, Washington tells a story not only of itself but of a nation. Exploration of the lands west of the Mississippi River increased in the 1800s when the city was first settled by Easterners of European descent. The California and Klondike gold rushes had a home base in the community named for Chief Seattle, leader of the local inhabitants. After the Great Fire of 1889 destroyed much of the original 1852 settlement, Seattle bounced back, eventually throwing itself into the modernity of the 20th century. Visiting the Pacific northwest city is like taking a crash course in architecture. Although well-known for the nearby snow-capped mountains and the beauty of the Pacific Ocean, the City of Seattle should be especially admired for its approach to design and urban planning. When tragedy strikes or when opportunity knocks, this American city has taken action. Seattle, Washington is a very smart city, and here's why.

Seattle Takeaways: 10 Sites to See

  • Smith Tower
  • The Arctic Club Building
  • Pioneer Square and Underground Tours
  • Volunteer Park
  • Pike Place Market Historical District
  • Seattle Public Library
  • MoPOP
  • Hammering Man and Other Art
  • Floating Houses on Lake Union
  • The Space Needle

Get High in Seattle

The 1914 Smith Tower is not the tallest skyscraper anymore, but it gives a great introduction to historic Pioneer Square and downtown Seattle. The pyramid roof used to contain a huge water tank to supply the building with indoor plumbing. Today's visitors can take an Otis elevator to the 35th floor observation deck to get a first glimpse of the city.

The Seattle skyline is recognized by its iconic observation tower, the Space Needle. Completed in 1961, it was originally built for the Century 21 Exposition, also known as the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. At over 600 feet tall, the observation tower allows a 360 degree view of the region at 520 feet, from the distant Mount Rainier to the swervy metal Frank Gehry-designed museum nearby. This observation tower has become a symbol of Seattle and an icon of the Pacific Northwest.

Higher still is the 902 foot observation deck at Columbia Center, originally the Bank of America Tower built in 1985. As one of the top ten tallest buildings in Seattle and one of the the tallest buildings west of the Mississippi River, the Columbia Center offers the Sky View Observatory on the 73rd floor for sweeping views of the Seattle area.

Like other great tourist destinations around the world, Seattle now has a huge ferris wheel located by the water's edge. Since 2012, the Great Wheel has been getting tourists high in enclosed gondolas that travel over land and water.

space-age tower next to metal swirl building
Seattle Space Needle and Frank Gehry's Music Experience Project. George Rose/Getty Images

Stay Low in Seattle

Most of the original 1852 settlement — wooden structures that had been built on the low, marshy ground — was destroyed by the Great Fire of June 6, 1889. After the tragedy, the area was filled, raising the street level about eight feet. The Yukon Gold Rush of the 1890s brought business to the town, but the rebuilt storefronts eventually had to be built up to reach the street level, creating what is now known as "Seattle's underground." This entire area known as Pioneer Square was saved and preserved by local citizens such as Bill Speidel, who started giving tours in 1965. The underground tours begin at the historic Pioneer Square, near Doc Maynard's public house. Who was Doc Maynard? Born in Vermont, Dr. David Swinson Maynard (1808-1873) befriended Chief Seattle and became one of the founding fathers of Seattle in 1852.

Closer to ground level is the 1912 Volunteer Park, landscaped by a man who became known as the Father of Landscape Architecture. For over three decades, the Massachusetts landscape architecture business founded by Frederick Law Olmsted had a presence in Seattle. The city first bought this park land in 1876, and the Olmsted firm was on board early on. Volunteer Park, one of many parks in Seattle, now includes a famous water tower, conservatory, and an Asian Art Museum — all great Things to do in Capitol Hill.

brick storefronts on an urban tree-lined street
Pioneer Square Where Seattle's Underground Tour Starts. Joel W. Rogers/Corbis via Getty Images (cropped)


The Pioneer Square Historical District is at the heart of Seattle. After the Great Fire of 1889, Seattle laws mandated rebuilding with fire-resistant masonry. The Pioneer Building (1892) is a fine example of the kind of Richardsonian Romanesque style used to rebuild Seattle. The Cadillac Hotel (1889) is also one of the first masonry structures built in post-fire Pioneer Square. The three-story Victorian Italiante structure was built to house local laborers: longshoremen, loggers, fishermen, rail yard workers, and prospectors preparing to search for gold in Canada. Nearly destroyed by arson and the 2001 earthquake, the structure is now outfitted with solar panels and considered a textbook example of adaptive reuse. Although the building is said to be haunted, the Klondike National Historic Park is located here.

Another popular destination in Seattle is the Pike Place Market Historical District. A farmers' market since 1907, Pike Place now hosts hundreds of independent artisans in what is said to be "the oldest continuously operating and most historically authentic public market in the country."

outdoor sign in red neon, Public Market Center Farmers
Farmers Market Since 1907. Carol M. Highsmith Buyenlarge/Getty Images (cropped)

Modern Designs by Famous Architects

The 1991 Seattle Art Museum known as SAM was designed by the architecture team of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates. Although the architecture is world class, the downtown campus may be better known for the 48-foot outdoor sculpture of Hammering Man by Jonathan Borofsky and the totally free Olympic Sculpture Park nearby.

The Museum of Pop culture (MoPOP) used to be called the Experience Music Project (EMP) when it opened in 2000. This high-tech, interactive museum explores creativity and innovation in music, science fiction, and popular culture. It is the brain-child of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen but the architecture is pure Frank Gehry. Take a quick look by riding the Seattle Center Monorail that goes right through the building.

The Seattle Public Library built in 2004 is another deconstructivist design by the Dutch modernist architect Rem Koolhaas and American-born Joshua Prince-Ramus. Open to the public, the library represents the art and architecture that Seattle's citizens have come to expect.

detail of modern glass facade without metal grids
Seattle Public Library. Ramin Talaie/Corbis via Getty Images

Floating in Seattle

Washington State has been called the floating bridge capitol of the world. Pontoon bridges that carry Interstate-90 traffic over Lake Washington are the 1940 Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Bridge and the 1989 Homer M. Hadley Bridge.

How are they engineered? Large, water-tight concrete pontoons are prefabricated on dry land then towed onto the water. The heavy, air-filled containers are placed end-to-end, and connected by steel cables, which are anchored to the riverbed or lakebed. The road is built on top of these pontoons. "Despite their heavy concrete composition," claims the Washington State Department of Transportation, "the weight of the water displaced by the pontoons is equal to the weight of the structure (including all traffic), which allows the bridge to float."

long automobile bridge floats on the water to connect two land masses
Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Bridge in Seattle. Atomic Taco via flickr.com, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Staying in Seattle

The Arctic Club built in 1916 played host to lucky prospectors returning to Seattle with Klondike gold. Known for its sculptured walrus heads and Beaux-Arts opulence, the Arctic Building is now a DoubleTree by Hilton.

The first skyscraper built in Seattle still stands. The 14-story, L-shaped Alaska Building, built in 1904 was the first steel-framed skyscraper in Seattle. Now a Courtyard by Marriott, the Alaska is more Chicago School style than the Beaux-Arts Hoge Building, Seattle's second skyscraper built in 1911. Both buildings were surpassed in height when L.C. Smith built his own skyscraper with the pyramid roof.

Where do people live in Seattle? If you're lucky, you'll own a perfect little house by Brachvogel and Carosso, a local architectural firm that continues to build functional, historically modern houses for the Seattle area.

Modernist style in the Pacific northwest flourished in the mid-twentieth century. Enthusiasts of northwest modernism have documented the lives and works of over 100 architects and designers who are associated with Washington State. Likewise, the independent documentary film Coast Modern includes Seattle in their examination of West Coast Modernism. "Seattle is part of the Coast Modern story" say the filmmakers in their blog.

Most unique to the housing in and around Seattle, however, is the number of "houseboats" being designed for residents and vacationers, especially in the Lake Union area. Called "floating homes," these residences embrace Seattle's natural environment and northwestern lifestyle of mixing work with pleasure.

houses and boats along the shore of water
Houseboats on Lake Union. George Rose/Getty Images (cropped)

The City of Seattle claims the International District to be "the only area in the continental United States where Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, African Americans and Vietnamese settled together and built one neighborhood." Living together has never been an easy path, however. In 2001 the William Kenzo Nakamura U.S. Courthouse was renamed for a Japanese-American war hero whose family was ordered to internment camps during World War II.

The 1940 courthouse is an interesting building architecturally, being described as Classically modern, Federal Art Deco, and PWA Moderne by the General Services Administration (GSA). The PWA or Public Works Administration was part of the New Deal of the 1930s. When the federal government renovated the building in the 1980s, the GSA's Art in Architecture project commissioned Caleb Ives Bach to paint The Effects of Good and Bad Government, an American version of the 14th century Lorenzetti fresco. Another U.S. Courthouse in Seattle is well-known for large murals in the lobby painted by artist Michael Fajans. Seattle is not only an interesting mix of art and architecture, but also a fascinating brew of people and history.

Sources

  • City of Seattle. Historic Districts. http://www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/programs-
    and-services/historic-preservation/historic-districts
  • General Services Administration. William Kenzo Nakamura U.S. Courthouse, Seattle, WA. https://www.gsa.gov/historic-buildings/william-kenzo-nakamura-us-courthouse-seattle-wa
  • Historic Seattle. History of the Cadillac Hotel. https://historicseattle.org/documents/cadillac_exhibit.PDF
  • National Park Service. A Short History of Seattle. https://www.nps.gov/klse/learn/historyculture/index.htm
  • Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). Floating bridge facts.
    http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/SR520Bridge/About/BridgeFacts.htm#floating