Seven years ago, I spent a few months looking at the major building projects proposed in the City of Seattle but never built. In the same way that repressed memories can give us insight into a personality, I thought maybe unbuilt projects would show me the psyche of the city. It is tempting to see, in the city's history of refusal, a kind of predisposition to squelching things, but all cities probably harbor as many examples. Here are a handful of the most ambitious. Make of them what you will. (If the subject interests you, read Steven Cecil's 1981 master's thesis, on file at UW.)
In 1890, the visionary Chicago architect Louis Sullivan designed a grand opera house for Seattle. Sited on the northeast corner of Second Avenue and University Street (where Benaroya Hall now sits), it featured a 1,200-seat auditorium, apartments, and offices, and was budgeted at $325,000. By November 1890, when construction was about to begin, a British bank failed and the money for the opera house dried up, but not soon enough to keep the city's 1890 Bird's Eye View map from featuring it. (As historian Dennis Andersen said to me, "What's the difference between real and projected? The city was nine parts plans and intentions, and those are what they advertised.")
Seattle has always imagined and failed to build comprehensive rail systems. In 1907, city engineer R. H. Thomson (the man who gave us the regrades) proposed a regional system centered at Riverside, at the base of Pigeon Hill in West Seattle. A subway line would run downtown under Third Avenue. Thomson's plan was budgeted at $1.3 million, and the price was thought too high. Later plans (A. H. Dimock's in 1920, Carl Revves's in 1926, D. W. Henderson's and the DeLeuw Cather designs for Forward Thrust in the '60s and '70s, etc.) were also quashed, always with a hue and cry about high costs. It's interesting that even Thomson (Seattle's Robert Moses), who was able to wash away the city's biggest hills, could not compel the city to build an urban rail system.
In 1911, the Washington State Arts Association broke ground at Fifth Avenue and University Street on a state-of-the-art convention center. With its 4,000-seat auditorium, roof garden, art galleries, and museum, the building would establish Seattle's supremacy as a convention city "once and for all." Like that year's ambitious Bogue Plan (replatting the city along grand diagonal boulevards and sumptuous public squares), the convention center was never built. Disagreements with the University of Washington regents, who owned the downtown block, scuttled the project, and 13 years later the regent-approved Olympic Hotel (now the Fairmont Olympic) was built on the site.
In 1928, Seattle firm Lawton and Moldenauer designed a 40-story office tower for the southeast corner of Second Avenue and Spring Street. Topped by an ornamental dome, its design prefigured and would have nicely complemented the 1929 Northern Life Tower—now the Seattle Tower and arguably the city's second-most beautiful building, after the library. I have no idea why it was never built.
In 1932, John Graham Sr. proposed a massive, art-deco-inflected office complex for the block where Fred Bassetti's beige-waffle Federal Building now stands. With rooflines that echoed Raymond Hood's masterful McGraw-Hill headquarters in New York, a corner tower rising to 37 stories topped the 18-story building. Bassetti, by the way, also drew up plans for a tiki-themed village to be built on Pier 50, near the ferry dock. The speculative design, which would have gathered thatched huts tightly together into a small residential village extending out into the harbor, never got past the early drawing stage. Cartoonist Jason Lutes (Jar of Fools, Berlin) memorialized the design in a 2000 cartoon set in "unbuilt Seattle," published in the design journal Arcade.
Later in 1932, J. Lister Holmes proposed an office tower for the triangle of land west of the Smith Tower (once the Occidental Hotel, now the prow-like parking garage). A brutal agglomeration of large volumes stepping back into a pinnacle, octagonal tower, it would have dwarfed Lyman Cornelius Smith's 1914 landmark (which the Syracuse, New York, gun manufacturer had situated in Seattle so as to put his name on the highest building west of Ohio). Again, there is no evidence of the design advancing past early drawings; perhaps the Depression made such an ambitious project impossible?
In 1963, in the giddy afterglow of the Century 21 World's Fair, Seattle planned to level most of Pioneer Square, tear down the Pike Place Market, and build a ring highway around downtown. Slab towers and four huge parking reservoirs, with 13,000 parking spaces, would punctuate the open spaces within the ring. Inspired by Le Corbusier's Radiant City, this plan, the Monson plan, included reconstruction of the waterfront and a new downtown government center.
The Monson plan was funded by the city in collaboration with downtown business group the Seattle Central Association and was received enthusiastically by the Seattle Times, which helped argue for the $225 million in public money that was being asked for to fill out the $575 million budget. It also catalyzed opposition that became the city's first effective grassroots preservation movement, culminating in the Save the Market campaign.
By far the most haunting absence in the Seattle landscape is the 1967 Mies van der Rohe headquarters for KING Broadcasting. Commissioned by restless visionary Stimson Bullitt (then-president of KING), the slim 18-story box tower was a simple reworking of Mies's Chicago high-rises of the 1940s and 1950s. It was sited at the foot of Brooklyn Avenue, on the shore of Portage Bay, on land the UW regents ultimately claimed for their ever-expanding health-sciences center. In addition to giving Seattle a Mies, completion of this building would have preempted the slug-like, brown headquarters KING eventually built on Dexter Avenue.
Last, and most regrettably unbuilt, in 1977 a former city engineer named Emmett Wahlman proposed restoring a salmon stream from Volunteer Park, south across Capitol Hill to Denny Way, then west under the freeway into downtown. It would run along Pine Street, forming a half-dozen pools between Fourth and Sixth Avenues, and then turn north along Westlake Avenue to empty into Lake Union.
Reached by phone in Hawaii, Wahlman told me he couldn't recall exactly when the idea occurred to him. He said, "These things pop into your mind, all sorts of things are just popping and popping all the time, they keep bombarding you like Nissans. There's just no shortage of them, is there?"