The Municipal Building, that dismal box that housed eight mayoral administrations, passed away at the age of 41.
Its skeleton still pokes through the ground at the corner of Fourth and Cherry downtown, where workers are disassembling it piece by piece barely 10 paces from its glassy, glitzy successor, the new City Hall.
Practically no one has anything good to say about the Municipal Building, which over the years had become the butt of many a civic joke. So no funeral has been scheduled. Fact is, people had been itching to knock the place down for decades.
But on the occasion of its demise, we should pause to offer a eulogy of sorts (no one else will) for the Seattle it reflected: a humble burg that didn't think the office for city politicians had to be some sort of chic homage to government. It was simply a place the mayor and City Council went to work.
If the new place evokes a bit of pomp and circumstance, that's as it should be, say the civic leaders of today. Seattle always deserved better than the Municipal Building.
Even before it was born in 1962, architect Victor Steinbrueck lamented its design, calling it a "gross mistake" with "little to distinguish it from any other office building."
It wasn't even nice enough to call City Hall, really. The drab title "Municipal Building" always seemed a better fit.
At best, this was a building people put up with. Former Mayor Charles Royer, who spent three terms inside, once remarked that the best thing about working there "is that you don't have to look at it."
Even Gordon Clinton, Seattle's mayor when the building opened, could muster only faint praise at the end of its life.
"At the time it was quite adequate," he said. "On balance I think it served its purpose."
AND WHAT IS the purpose of City Hall, anyway?
Since 1916, city workers had shared space in the King County Courthouse, but by the late 1950s it was clear the growing city needed a new building. Still, the politicians of the day didn't think it prudent to build themselves a palace. In an act of thriftiness hard to imagine now, the City Council, led by J.D. Braman, scrimped and saved enough extra money in the budget to pay the entire $7 million bill for a new building in cash.
They got what they paid for. A Texas architectural firm served up cookie-cutter plans that, according to civic legend, copied some hotel or office down there. The result was an unremarkable, 12-story office tower stuck with little regard for its surroundings on a steep hill at the south end of downtown. The building said nothing about the Northwest. It might as well have been in Houston.
Coinciding with the cheap instincts of city government were the design fashions of the day, which spurned the classic Stately Government Building mold of marble stairs and columns in favor of futuristic boxes of colored panels and glass.
"There was a disdain for anything from the past," says City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, like his father, an architect.
That modernist thinking was responsible for the Municipal Building's homely coat of blue-ribbed ceramic tiles and prefabricated concrete panels blasted with crushed quartz. The same mindset propelled millions of homeowners into smothering their hardwood floors with shag carpet.
But soon, those who dwelt in the dim recesses of the building were treating it like the hotel it resembled: They didn't want to stay long.
After spending $150,000 on renovations in 1970, city architect Walter Dimmich remarked hopefully that the improvements ought to "hold us another four or five years." Such comments became a municipal ritual as every few years city pols predicted the building's imminent death.
At times, the place was downright embarrassing. The roof over the mayor's 12th-floor office periodically sprung leaks. The City Council declared a "public-works emergency" in 1996 to justify repairing it. The elevators often stalled between floors, sometimes with foreign dignitaries on board.
Perceptions are hugely important, Royer adds. "You go over to somebody's house and there are dirty dishes all over and it stinks and the furniture is bad, it makes an impression."
THE SEATTLE OF today yearns for a world-class reputation, a longing reflected in our massive civic building boom of the past several years.
Workers are wrapping up a new $162 million downtown library, a geometric experiment drawn up by renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, that is equal parts icon and book repository. We blew up the Kingdome, that quaint relic of a thrifty time when folks thought that baseball and football teams could actually share a stadium.
"Civic architecture should stand for more. It shouldn't emulate speculative office buildings," Steinbrueck opines. "It serves a higher purpose."
That high-minded thinking comes with a big price tag. As the latest testimonial to our eminence, City Hall, designed by architect Peter Bohlin, cost nearly $77 million. In contrast to the cash transaction for the Municipal Building, the new City Hall was put on the taxpayers' credit card, using so-called "councilmanic" debt that voters don't get a chance to approve or reject.
And City Hall is only part of the three-block Civic Center campus. Throw in the Justice Center, a new public plaza and renovations to city-owned Key Tower, and the total price tag approaches $300 million a debt we'll be paying off for 30 years, eating up cash that could have been used to hire more police officers or keep libraries open. If the new buildings last a century, as we've been promised, that may not turn out to be such a bad deal. We'll see.
For the money, we got a seven-floor City Hall that is smaller than its predecessor. About 320 people work there, compared with 550 in the old building. But what it lacks in office space, it shoots to make up for in symbolism.
Perhaps overcompensating for the tiny entrance to the Municipal Building, the new City Hall features one of the most expansive lobbies in town. The enormous public space, in a building entirely clad in glass, is meant to reflect the ideal of transparency in government. A grand limestone staircase rises alongside a man-made waterfall, part of a creek that will conceptually tie together all three blocks of the Civic Center campus. Monorail activist Peter Sherwin likes to call it the council's "moat."
Suspended over the lobby is the "Blue Glass Passage," a bridge designed by New York artist James Carpenter to connect City Council offices to council chambers. It cost $682,000 and is supposed to suggest the sky and water or other blue things.
The bridge is one of many artworks funded by the city's generous "1 percent for art" program, which ensures that the berets get a piece of the construction action along with the hard hats. The signature piece in the new lobby is an installation called "Evolving Wing and the Gravity of Presence," a melange of Native American tribal canoes, cedar paddles and airplane wings.
But for all its pretensions, the new building so far lacks some practical features of the irredeemably ugly Municipal Building.
On the first floor of that building were offices where you could pay your utility bills or make complaints about city government two services the regular citizen could actually use. But despite its paeans to open, friendly government and early plans that called for including the customer-service counter, the new tower has no place for it. You'll have to go to the 27th floor of Key Tower to find it.
Instead, the new City Hall has an espresso stand. Perhaps nothing more need be said.
All of this isn't to say you should shed a tear for the passing of the Municipal Building. The good folks on the City Council, in fact, have tossed around the idea of a fund-raiser where people could take turns whacking the remains of the building with a sledgehammer. Not exactly a wake.
Local historian Walt Crowley, who worked in the administration of Mayor Wes Uhlman, suggests we remember the old thing as "like your stingy Uncle Olaf who worked hard and was a little cranky and eccentric. Not the nicest guy you knew, but not a bad guy. And then he dies and doesn't leave you anything in his will."
In lieu of flowers, the city requests that donations be made to the new City Hall.
No need to send a check. It's already showing up on your tax bill.
Jim Brunner is a Seattle Times staff reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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