See the Best Architecture in Seattle, Washington

A Guide for Travelers

Terra-cotta walrus on the Arctic Club building, 1916, Seattle, Washington
Walrus on the 1916 Arctic Building, now a historic hotel. Photo ©Joe Szilagyi, joeszilagyi on flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0 (cropped)

After the Great Fire of 1889 destroyed much of the original 1852 settlement, Seattle bounced back. 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, the City has taken action.

Seattle, Washington is a very smart city.

Get High in Seattle (Observation Towers):

  • The Space Needle, 1961
    Built for the Century 21 Exposition 1962 (the Seattle World's Fair) this observation tower has become a symbol of Seattle and an icon of the Pacific Northwest.
  • Columbia Center, originally Bank of America Tower in 1985, is one of the Top 10 Tallest Buildings in Seattle and one of the the tallest buildings (view image) west of the Mississippi River. The Sky View Observatory on the 73rd floor offers sweeping views of the Seattle area.

Stay Low in Seattle:

  • Seattle Underground Tour
    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 street levels and creating what is now known as "Seattle's underground." Tours begin at the historic Pioneer Building.
  • Volunteer Park, 1912
    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.

    Selected Historic Districts:

    • Pioneer Square Historical District
      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.
    • International District
      The City of Seattle claims this area to be "the only area in the continental United States where Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, African Americans and Vietnamese settled together and built one neighborhood."
    • Pike Place Market
      A farmers' market since 1907, Pike Place (view image only) 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."

      Modern Designs by Famous Architects:

      • Seattle Art Museum (SAM), 1991
        SAM's downtown campus, designed by the architecture team of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, may be better known for the outdoor sculpture of by Jonathan Borofsky.
      • The Experience Music Project (EMP), 2000
        The brain-child of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, this high-tech, interactive museum explores creativity and innovation in music, science fiction, and popular culture. The architecture is pure Frank Gehry.
      • Seattle Public Library, 2004
        Deconstructivist design by the Dutch modernist architect Rem Koolhaas and American-born Joshua Prince-Ramus

      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 (view image) are:

      • Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Bridge, 1940
      • Homer M. Hadley Bridge, 1989

      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."

      Choose a Historic Seattle Hotel:

      • Arctic Building, 1916
        The Arctic Club played host to lucky prospectors returning to Seattle with Klondike gold. Known for its sculptured walrus heads (view image) and Beaux-Arts opulence, the building is now a DoubleTree by Hilton.
      • Alaska Building, 1904
        The 14-story, L-shaped structure, the first steel-framed skyscraper in Seattle, is now a Courtyard by Marriott. The style is more Chicago School than the Beaux-Arts Hoge Building skyscraper built in 1911.

      Northwest Modernism:

      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. Docomomo WEWA (Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement in Western Washington) has documented the lives and works of over 100 Architects and Designers who practiced Modernism in Washington State.

      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.

      Learn More:

      Sources: A Short History of Seattle, National Park Service at www.nps.gov/klse/historyculture/index.htm; Pioneer Square Historical District History, City of Seattle website at www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/preservation/pioneersquare_history.htm; History of the Cadillac Hotel at www.historicseattle.org/documents/cadillac_exhibit.PDF, Historic Seattle website; Floating bridge facts, Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) at www.wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/SR520Bridge/Questions.htm#floating; Pike Place Market Historical District at www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/preservation/pikeplace.htm and History of the International District at www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/preservation/id_history.htm, City of Seattle website [accessed June 2-3, 2013]