Having direct contact with the manufacturing processes, the materials and the machinery that create Seattle and King County buildings, city roads and marine-highway systems, we truly do develop new appreciation for the built environment and a greater commitment to preserve it.

Share story

BEAUTIFUL BUILDINGS that have architectural significance are easy to recognize. It’s tougher to look into the grit and muscle of a region’s infrastructure and appreciate the landmarks that do the everyday work of building and supporting our way of life.

To put these in the spotlight, as program director of Historic Seattle, in 2006 I started offering opportunities to explore some of these industrial and engineering wonders.

When we started our Preserving Utility tours, I had no idea how popular they would be. But having brought hundreds of people to Seattle Steam, Ash Grove Cement, Nucor Steel, the Fremont Bridge, Hiram M. Chittenden Locks and Mutual Materials, I’ve seen firsthand that our childhood excitement and curiosity about how things work continue into adulthood and even old age.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

I’ve also come to understand that by having direct contact with the manufacturing processes, the materials and the machinery that create our buildings, city roads and marine-highway systems, we truly do develop new appreciation for the built environment and a greater commitment to preserve it.

Only recently have industrial buildings and sites been regarded as historically or architecturally significant. Their general invisibility makes it much tougher to champion them when they become obsolete or simply outdated, or happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Always, their worthiness is tested. And often, they don’t have the chorus of community supporters to vouch for their value. As a result, some have been razed without much thought. Fortunately, others have been turned around, luring a younger generation to gentrify factories and warehouses in the rough-edged working areas of Seattle, Tacoma and Portland.

OF COURSE, some buildings and sites that have been around for a century continue to contribute — and offer inspiration for preserving what we already have.

Seattle Steam, a private utility and heir to a progressive urban system established in 1893, is one. It maintains its early headquarters (built in 1902) and still makes steam in Pioneer Square. Several blocks north, a second plant continues to feed steam heat and hot water to downtown and First Hill commercial buildings and hospitals. That plant, which was converted to burn pulverized coal in 1917, was recently upgraded to meet green standards for the 21st century.

The Nucor Steel plant is another. Founded by the Piggott family of Paccar fame, it was built in 1904 and started making steel in 1905. Originally run as the Seattle Rail Car Co., it kept going under a number of names until the 1920s, when Bethlehem Steel took over. It passed through a succession of owners until Nucor Steel bought the assets in 2002. The 50-acre plant near the Duwamish, once proclaimed “Seattle’s Little Pittsburgh,” represents a layering of old and newer buildings.

The Fremont Bridge, which crosses the Lake Washington Ship Canal to link the Fremont and Queen Anne neighborhoods, offers still another example of structures still working for us. Opened on July 4, 1917, the bridge rises for marine traffic on average about 35 times a day, making it one of the busiest bascule bridges in the world. Recent upgrades, including a new deck, allow this vital transportation link to continue serving us.

But what about industrial buildings that have outlived their original usefulness?

This question has been answered creatively in cities across America. The mammoth Chickering Piano Factory in South Boston became the Piano Craft Guild apartments in 1972. The abandoned 1884 Lone Star Brewery in San Antonio opened as a dramatic setting for a new art museum in 1981.

Closer to home is Boeing’s Red Barn. The wooden planes built in the 1909 plant were babies compared to the latest jets off production lines now. But innovative ideas led the Port of Seattle to donate the building in 1975 to the Museum of Flight, which moved the barn to Boeing Field (now King County International Airport), where the company story is told.

Nearby, the Georgetown Steam Plant, though no longer providing auxiliary power to Seattle City Light, continues to be a teaching tool for students and, on occasion, to a public awed by the enormous scale of the still-operational vertical turbine generators. They represented a major advance over the conventional steam engine and helped bring low-cost power to our communities.

After the old Rainier Brewery on Airport Way South was closed in 1999, the complex of buildings dating from as early as the 1890s was gradually transformed into ArtsBrewery, a melting pot of recording studios, production and manufacturing, offices, retail and artist-studio housing.

And catering company Herban Feast has developed a private event hall, Sodo Park, in a century-old factory on First Avenue South. With vaulted ceilings featuring huge exposed beams, the space is marketed as a “distinctive warm fusion of modern and rustic accents.”

Our most visible landmark to obsolescence is the rusted skeleton of the Gas Works on the north end of Lake Union. In the 1970s, most people probably would have thought that razing it would open up a public space and view corridors in lower Wallingford. But the creative approach taken by Rich Haag, internationally respected for his landscape design, encouraged a park that could encompass remnants of the plant and even turn a section of it into a children’s play area. It was a unique model for cleaning up a polluted site and giving it over to public use while honoring its industrial past.

Downtown Tacoma’s renaissance came about because of the University of Washington’s commitment to turn warehouses into classrooms, a library and student center. The first of these “adaptive-reuse” buildings opened in 1997. The library is now in the Snoqualmie Falls Power Company transformer house.

All these projects are the result of three things: personal and public commitments, money and physical labor. Some of them undoubtedly seemed impossible at first. How could money be raised? Who would be interested in setting up an office here, a studio or a shop there? Would people come to a museum or store or park in this part of town?

A developer must have extra vision to make good use of something that might otherwise be torn down or allowed to decay. At its core, it requires thinking outside the box. The payoff is that people have a chance to experience more fully their community heritage. At the same time, the risk-takers and visionaries are rewarded, earning a decent living by helping preserve these irreplaceable places.

IT’S NOT ALWAYS possible to get good results. The effort to preserve endangered vestiges of our industrial, agricultural and commercial heritage faces many challenges. Looking at both successes and failures can be instructive.

First, a pair of successes — one involving heritage barns, the other, city of Seattle properties.

Despite their prevalence, barns were significantly underrepresented in historic registers and surveys. So in 2007, thanks to a statewide Heritage Barn Preservation Initiative, a Washington Heritage Barn Register was established to recognize barns as historically significant. The register provided the state Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation with more complete information about these resources. The preservation initiative also provided for competitive matching grants to help owners preserve and rehabilitate their heritage barns.

In Seattle, the city initiated a 2007 survey and inventory of its properties — including fire and police stations, public utilities, reservoirs, Parks and Recreation Department structures, and buildings at Seattle Center. That has helped the city evaluate what buildings are significant and set priorities when these properties are considered for closure, replacement or expansion.

Seattle Fire Station No. 17, on Northeast 50th Street and 11th Avenue Northeast, is a good example of why that matters. The historic station house, a modernistic reinforced-concrete building from 1930, was seismically upgraded and refurbished, and a new addition was designed to be compatible with the old structure. Its scale allows the original building to continue to draw the attention.

Unfortunately, other opportunities slipped away.

The Collins Building in Everett staved off demolition for several years but failed to find an angel to save it. The Hulbert Lumber Co. built the plant in about 1925 for the North Coast Casket Factory. It was a classic example of post-and-beam, wood-frame construction, used for large manufacturing buildings in the early 1900s. Built on pilings over tidelands on Port Gardner Bay, it eventually was surrounded by loading docks and parking lots. The building was sold to the Port of Everett in 1991, and converted for light manufacturing and warehousing.

When the port unveiled plans for its North Marina Redevelopment Project showing that the Collins Building might be demolished, some local citizens formed the Collins Building Committee of Historic Everett. In September 2005, the port signed a four-year agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation to rehabilitate and reuse the building. The Port Commission, however, changed course and decided to pursue demolition in 2007. Despite further attempts to intervene, the Port in the end had the building “deconstructed,” essentially taking it apart to recover most of the windows, columns and beams for reuse. A great opportunity was missed.

Seattle has a less publicized but equally disheartening story. In 2009, the Boeing Co. announced plans to demolish its Plant No. 2 — a nondescript building architecturally, but significant historically. The B-17 bomber was born and built there. So critical to the war effort was this plant that to prevent an enemy air attack, its roof was elaborately camouflaged to appear from the air like a tidy residential subdivision. With its historic role long gone, it’s a challenge to make the case that the plant should be saved.

Another structure tied to the airplane industry might have a better chance: Quad 7 Hangar (West Coast Airlines Hangar) at Boeing Field (King County International Airport). The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation listed the hangar as one of its 2010 Most Endangered Historic Properties.

Built in 1962 for West Coast Airlines, the hangar was designed by John Morse of Bassetti & Morse, one of the region’s most prominent architecture firms in the mid-20th century. The firm closed in April 1962, making the hangar one of its last projects. The engineering firm was Skilling, Helle, Christiansen and Robertson. Principal Jack Christiansen was considered a world leader in the design of thin-shell concrete structures.

Today, the hangar is used to service and outfit small jets and planes catering primarily to corporate clients. But the current tenant, who leases the property from King County, plans to demolish the hangar and build seven new ones.

Is there a more innovative solution?

WE CAN LEARN a lot from the wide range of approaches to these unique historic structures.

We’ve seen that it’s possible to embrace change in a way that respects the vestiges of our past, either by continuing to use them as they were intended or to creatively adapt them to accommodate new uses and new users.

But that can happen only if we maintain a long-range view toward these structures — not responding instantly to passing fads, changes in the real-estate market or opportunities for profits.

We should think, then think some more about the impact of deciding too quickly to raze a property. The recent explosion of empty lots and foundation canyons that replaced solid, viable buildings are testament to the hubris of some developers, now stalled in their tracks.

And if you doubt that people in the community can make a difference, drive by Oxbow Park, on Corson Avenue South, which now houses the relocated and refurbished Hat ‘n’ Boots gas station and restrooms — local icons of roadside architecture. The Georgetown community lobbied to preserve them and to have the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board designate them. Ordinary citizens worked with the city and the Parks Department to move them in 2003, then raised money for restoration.

Now they can pat themselves on the back for a job finally finished in 2010.

Lawrence Kreisman is a regular contributor to Pacific Northwest magazine.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.