AKA: Old Federal Office Building, Downtown, Seattle, WA

Structure Type: built works - public buildings

Designers: KPFF Consulting Engineers (firm); Murch Construction Company (firm); SERA Architects, Incorporated (firm); United States Government, Department of the Treasury, Office of the Supervising Architect, Simon, Louis A. (firm); Wetmore, James A., Architect (firm); Murch (building contractor); Louis Adolphe Simon (architect); James Alfonso Wetmore (lawyer)

Dates: constructed 1931-1933

12 stories, total floor area: 307,170 sq. ft.

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909 1st Avenue
Downtown, Seattle, WA 98104-1055

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Located on the southwest corner of 1st Avenue and Madison Street.

Overview

Seattle grew very rapidly from 1890 until 1910, becoming a major metropolitan area. The size of the federal government also ballooned by the 1920s, as the number of regulatory agencies operated from Washington, DC, multiplied. In order to create enough space for a growing city and expanding bureaucracy, the Congress allocated $2 million in 1928 to pay for a whole-block site and massive building in which to consolidate dispersed federal offices. The building has a first story trimmed in stone, while more inexpensive brick clads the 11 upper floors.

Building History

According to a web site compiled by the Government Services Administration (GSA), the Federal Building #2 occupied a site on which two historical events occurred, one in 1851 and the other 1889. "According to local tradition, the Federal Office Building in Seattle is located on the site where city founders A.A. Denny, William Bell, and C.D. Boren docked their boat after making initial surveys of Puget Sound and its harbors in 1851." (See GSA, "Old Federal Building, Seattle, Building History," accessed 02/24/2016.) Downtown Seattle has streets named for each of these Euro-American pioneers.

The steel-and-concrete Federal Building was also built at the site of the origin of the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, the basement of a cabinet shop at the southwest corner of Madison Street and First Avenue. The fire wiped out 30 surrounding blocks and 64 acres in total, a disaster for merchants but a boon to local architects and builders. The fire began in the Pontius Block, in the basement shop rented to the Clairmont and Company cabinet shop.

Architects working in the Office of the Supervising Architect, James A. Wetmore, worked with the Saint Louis-based firm, Murch Construction Company, that was awarded the building contract.

Building Notes

Accoridng to the GSA, the Old Seattle Federal Building blazed new stylistic trails for a federal government building. It stated: "One of the earliest federal buildings in the Art Deco style of architecture, the building's design was a departure from the more traditional styles of Classical Revival and Beaux Arts Classicism and a step toward more modern architectural styles that were gaining popularity. However, the building retains conventional symmetrical massing and proportion." (See GSA, "Old Federal Building, Seattle, Building History," accessed 02/24/2016.) The Old Federal Building is not a textbook example of Art Deco, but rather has an eclectic appearance. Its front entryway reflected the classicism inherent in the WPA Moderne style of the 1930s and its main facade in general has the symmetry of a Classical building. It strongly vertical stress with tall piers extending up in straight, unbroken lines, its stepped massing and the squared-off shape of its central tower recalled 1920s skyscrapers in Seattle (such as the Northern Life Insurance Building #2) or San Francisco (such as George W. Kelham's Jacobethan Russ Building). Its ornamentation, mostly concentrated at the parapet line, suggested a snow-capped peak. It had some of the geometry of the Art Deco, but also possessed a residue of English Gothic and Jacobethan architecture. (These antique English qualities can be seen in the basket handle arches outlining top floor windows, and the blind tracery inset in the metal spandrels.) The architect, James A. Wetmore (1863-1940), Acting Supervising Architect of the US Department of the Treasury, amalgamated the dynamic massing of Art Deco skyscrapers, residual revivialism of the Roaring '20s, and references to local snow-capped mountains.

Spandrels of the Federal Building #2 were composed of aluminum, a relatively new building material that was produced in the Pacific Northwest, due to the region's numerous dams producing low-cost, hydroelectric power.

GSA Building #WA0036ZZ.

Alteration

This immense building, occupying the entire block bordered by 1st Avenue, Madison Street, Marion Street and Western Avenue, underwent a renovation c. 2005 supervised by SERA Architects Incorporated; KPFF Consulting Engineers also participated.

National Register of Historic Places: 79003155 NRHP Images (pdf) NHRP Registration Form (pdf)

PCAD id: 4211