The plant has endured a “rare combination of deeply caring people and also a kind of benign neglect.” Georgetown Steam plant

There's something about an old building that proves irresistible to the imagination. My urge to explore the abandoned relics of our industrial past is strong, so I jumped at the chance to go on a (safe, legal) tour of the Georgetown Steam Plant, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1984 and now owned and operated by Seattle City Light. On June 10, the steam plant will be hosting an open house in conjunction with the Georgetown Carnival, and on June 22, it will celebrate the 110th anniversary of the first day the plant generated electricity in 1907.

The tour I went on—organized by Atlas Obscura, a website for connoisseurs of unusual and out-of-the-way travel destinations—was a chance to see (and photograph) a slice of the city's bygone infrastructure from the inside.

As we stood outside the plant, located near Boeing Field in Georgetown, the fancy-camera-to-people ratio was at almost one to one. The first half of the tour highlighted how the Georgetown Steam Plant came to be: Built in 1906 for the Seattle Electric Company, the plant provided both AC and DC currents for the streetcar and Georgetown proper to slake a growing city's thirst for electricity at the turn of the century.

But the real reason many of us were there: ruin porn. Though the plant is by no means a ruin—it is remarkably well-preserved—it provides the same sort of visual eye candy that is the stuff of a steampunk band's album-cover-photo dreams. Cameras clicked away at the interlocking sinews of thick piping and the sweeping views from the rafters of the gigantic Curtis turbines (among the last of their kind in this country).

"Are you all sufficiently impressed now?" tour guide Kelsey Wildstone asked us as we stood in the large echoing chamber of the boiler room. We were. I tried to pay attention as she explained how the plant was designed by "efficiency expert" Frank Gilbreth (who, along with his wife, inspired the film Cheaper by the Dozen). But honestly, all I wanted to do was run around, take endless photos, and play.

There were those charming details of design that draw you in: the small steering wheels at the ends of pipes, the brass-plated temperature gauges, the original framed certificates of patent ownership. I saw one person lovingly rubbing the shiny copper railing of the ladders leading up the turbines.

"I just love these anachronistic technologies," said Don Smith, the man I caught caressing the railing, when I asked what brought him here. "The quality of the craftsmanship and that turn-of-the-century Victorian aesthetic just really appeals to me."

Smith described himself as a "maker" and an engineer—a physical engineer, not a software engineer. "In Seattle, I have to specify that I work with hammers, not keyboards," he laughed.

"It's easy to fetishize these kinds of things," Smith said, right before he showed me his tattoo of steam engineering gear drawings that runs all the way down his leg. "It's this technology that we don't really use or understand anymore. So it has this kind of strange and magic appeal."

Our tour guide is also an engineer (electrical, Amazon), and she said, "It's just really fascinating to see all the steps of innovation along the way. But the grunginess and the grittiness are what I love most about it."

The steam plant has endured through a "rare combination of deeply caring people and also a kind of benign neglect," said Julianna Ross, the senior community program developer for the space. Ross said the plant is looking for ways to fund sorely needed renovation projects. Over the past couple of years, the site has hosted commercial videos, concerts, and theater and art events, including Duwamish Revealed in 2015.

"One of the things that is so special about it is that it's a masterpiece of mechanical engineering. Artists go nuts in here. Photographers, musicians, performers, writers," Ross said, "they all love it." recommended