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 Alphonso 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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The Federal Building #2 was located on the southwest corner of 1st Avenue and Madison Street.


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. At the beginning, the building housed fifty-two government agencies, the largest tenant of which was the Department of the Treasury. A US Post Office occupied the north end of the first floor. The building has a first story trimmed in terra cotta, 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.gov, "Old Federal Building, Seattle, Building History," accessed 02/24/2016.) Downtown Seattle has streets named for each of these Euro-American pioneers.

Additionally, on 06/06/1889, the Federal Building stood on the site of a cabinet shop where a fire started that eventually scorched 30 surrounding blocks and 64 acres of the city's central business district. The fire started when a glue pot burst into flame in the cabinet shop of Victor Clairmont on southwest corner of of Front Street (later renamed 1st Avenue) and Madison Street. The Clairmont and Company cabinet shop was located in the basement of the Pontius Block, destroyed in the blaze. The fire affected the passing of new building codes requiring fireproof materials, causing a shift away from wood and toward concrete, terra cotta, brick and other forms of masonry. (Steel framing also received a boost in the new post-fire code environment.) The 1889 fire proved a commercial disaster for many merchants, but a boon to local architects and builders.

Architects working in the Office of the Supervising Architect, James A. Wetmore (1863-1940), Acting Supervising Architect of the US Department of the Treasury, , worked with the Saint Louis-based firm, Murch Construction Company, that was awarded the building contract. Interestingly, Wetmore was a lawyer by training, who had a great talent at managing simultaneous building projects.

Building Notes

The Old Seattle Federal Building had an complex aesthetic character that combined a variety of stylistic strands popular for institutional building at the time. In general, the Federal Building #2 was an early federal government building to bear some Art Deco hallmarks. According to a General Services Administration (GSA) website: "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.gov, "Old Federal Building, Seattle, Building History," accessed 02/24/2016.) The Old Federal Building was not a textbook example of Art Deco, however, 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. Its strongly vertical stress with tall piers extending up in straight, unbroken lines, 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). The central tower's ziggurat form was a familiar motif of 1920s skyscraper design. Its ornamentation, mostly concentrated at the parapet line, echoing the mountain ranges on the west and east. The Seattle Federal Building #2 had some of the geometricizing tendencies of the Art Deco, but also possessed a notable 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 above the front doors and in the metal spandrels.) The architect, Wetmore 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 whose production was centered, in part, in the Pacific Northwest. Aluminum manufacture requires large amounts of electricity, a resource plentiful due to the region's numerous dams producing low-cost, hydroelectric power.

The Federal Building #2 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

GSA Building #WA0036ZZ.


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.

Some renovation work to the building's front facade occurred in 2021.

National Register of Historic Places (Listed 1979-04-30): 79003155 NRHP Images (pdf) NHRP Registration Form (pdf)

PCAD id: 4211