WHAT HAPPENED TO the Seattle of old?
Another day seems to bring another news item about one more historic structure coming down. Recently, it was the pink Elephant Car Wash sign, the one greeting you as you drive in from the north end. No question that you’re in Seattle.
Since 2016, dozens more local landmarks have been cataloged in the Facebook page for Vanishing Seattle.
Don’t get too dour. There is plenty in Seattle that still makes it Seattle.
We’ll tell one little nugget, one story behind the story of some of our best-known places. Something even old-timers will find of interest.
We went straight to the sources who know the real deal, such as Jay Starr, who for 40 years has been maintaining the big red Pike Place Market neon sign. Or to Knute Berger, who wrote the authoritative book on how the Space Needle came to be.
It’s when you know the history of a town that you can connect to it.
Here is some advice from Llewelyn Pritchard, 88, a retired attorney, who back in 1962 was a newcomer to Seattle, just like some of you now. Over the years, he’d join a long line of civic leaders; he’s now president of the board of directors of the Allied Arts Foundation.
About this town, he says, “I was a New Yorker by birth, Seattleite by choice. It was very accepting of me, an irascible, young, smart lawyer. The only requirement was that you learn to love the place.”
WHENEVER A SEAHAWKS home game is broadcast, it’s inevitable there’ll be a video of guys at Pike Place Fish Market doing their toss.
Within a few feet of each other, here you find three of its most-photographed attractions: the fish place, the big neon sign with its clock and the pig.
The fish that are thrown are not actually sold. They’re just for show.
It wasn’t that way sometime in the 1970s, says John Yokoyama, 80, who used to own the business.
Yokoyama remembers he had a Eureka moment when he was in front of the fish counter, making a seafood sale, and, for ease, “I decided to toss it to the kid behind the counter.”
He then mulled over what he had been doing for years. “Eighty steps going back and forth.” No more.
Anders Miller, 44, is one of four fishmongers who bought the business two years ago from their employer.
“When you have 300 people, four cruise ships, these people want to see a show. The crowd wants to see fish fly,” he says.
The thing is, throwing fish for show makes them soft.
“So, we buy lower-grade chum salmon and throw them until they get soft. Then we freeze them and donate them to Wolf Haven.”
IF YOU TAKE a closer look at Rachel the Pig, a market landmark for 34 years, you’ll notice a bit of surgery has been done to the 550 pounds of bronze sculpture.
In the early morning of Feb. 5, 2011, a taxi was waiting for the light to change at First Avenue and Pike Street. The cab was rear-ended by another car with such force that the cab went “careening,” according to a Seattle Times story. Then the cabdriver panicked, turned into the market and smashed into Rachel.
Rachel went careening off the cement that was anchoring her feet.
There was a crack by her left ear, her left side was flattened and one of Rachel’s feet was bent.
The pig was carted off to the Whidbey Island studio of Georgia Gerber, who had designed and sculpted Rachel.
Her husband, Randy Hudson, did the repair. The crack was welded shut. The dent was pulled out, just like at a car repair shop. Scrapes were sanded out. Patina was reapplied to get that oxidation coloring.
If you look closely, says Hudson, you’ll notice the dent isn’t completely gone, and there are still a few scrapes. Plus, you’ll see one of Rachel’s feet has a little cement heel. That leg had been bent in the accident, and that’s how she was leveled.
YOU CAN BE a lifelong resident of Seattle, and the “Seattle Public Market” red neon sign, with its 6-foot letters, and the 10-foot-diameter clock alongside, always signals: You are home. There’s always a crowd under the sign on New Year’s Eve.
And tourists — they can’t resist it, either. A 2008 study by University of Washington researchers said it was the market’s most-photographed image.
They are hardy things, these tubes that have been bent and filled with neon gas. Much of what you’re looking at is 92-year-old neon. The atoms in the gas glow when electricity hits electrodes in the tubes.
According to the market’s preservation authority, the sign was put up in 1928, a few years after the technology was developed. That’d make it one of the first such outdoor neon signs on the West Coast.
“The only thing we do is wash it down with soap and water. That’s it. The only service has been to replace the transformer,” says Jay Starr about taking care of the sign. Other than that, he says, a few years ago there was rusting on the sheet metal onto which the tubing is anchored, and it was replaced.
As to why a neon sign such as the market’s draws us in?
“There is just something about the glow of neon. It’s warm and fuzzy. It hearkens back to Americana. I wish I could come back with some scientific explanation why it’s appealing to human brains,” says Tod Swormstedt, founder of the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati.
THE SPACE NEEDLE’S design didn’t just happen. It went through numerous incarnations, some quite far-fetched.
In his book, “Space Needle: The Spirit of Seattle,” Berger itemized some of the discarded ideas.
In one concept, there was a cable-tethered tower restaurant, resembling the shape of a cocktail shaker. Then there was the dramatic drawing of a restaurant that looked like a flying saucer, hovering over a man-made lagoon.
Berger traces the history of the design to April 1959, and Eddie Carlson, a local guy who made good as a hotel and airline executive and led the effort that resulted in the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.
He and his wife were vacationing with friends in Europe, including a stop in Stuttgart, Germany. They dined at a famous restaurant atop a 712-foot TV tower.
Carlson was so impressed with the views that the next day, “He sketched something resembling a ring or a flying saucer at the top of an obelisk and wrote the word ‘Space Needle’ under it,” writes Berger.
From that doodle on a napkin, or possibly a place mat, or something else — the original one has been lost — the concept ended up with Seattle architect John Graham’s firm.
None of the initial designs by the firm clicked.
That’s when Graham brought in University of Washington architecture professor Victor Steinbrueck for the summer at $5 an hour ($44 in today’s dollars). This was the same Steinbrueck who later led the campaign to save Pike Place Market.
Steinbrueck made more than 1,000 sketches until finally he came back to a 2-foot teak sculpture he had bought from artist David Lemon. It was an abstract figurine with three legs rising to a narrow waist, arms extended upward. Its name was “The Feminine One.” That was his inspiration.
Writes Berger, “It defies the almost-universal idea that towers are masculine symbols … For a 600-foot-tall tower restaurant, there were many cooks in the kitchen, but instead of spoiling the broth, they had cooked up a superb Space Age souffle.”
It turns out the Space Needle is a she.
AT THE INTERSECTION of Rainier Avenue South and South McClellan Street, where the huge Lowe’s Home Improvement center is located, you have to use your imagination to envision what used to be here.
It was the location of a magnificent baseball stadium that featured great sightlines and an unobstructed view of Mount Rainier.
“It ushered in the first golden era of Seattle baseball. At the time it was built, it was the nicest minor-league ballpark in the country,” says sports historian David Eskenazi.
He tells about the stadium’s place in local baseball history:
“It was here that local boy Fred Hutchinson, fresh out of Franklin High School, dazzled baseball fans by winning 25 games in the Seattle Rainiers’ inaugural season of 1938, including his 19th win on his 19th birthday in front of an overflow crowd. This is still regarded as a top moment in Seattle sports history.
“And here that the Seattle Pilots, Seattle’s first Major League Baseball franchise, played their home games in what was now a 31-year-old retrofitted minor-league stadium. Despite the Pilots moving to Milwaukee after only one season in Seattle, they directly paved the way, largely through tenacious litigation, for the arrival of the Seattle Mariners in 1977.”
It was also at this same stadium in which a young Elvis played before screaming teen girls on the stage set up just past second base.
It’s easy to drive by the worn wooden signs on each side of the Rainier and McClellan corner.
Each sign says, “Historic Site of Sick’s Stadium 1938-1979. Home of the Seattle Rainiers Baseball Club.”
Use your imagination to go back to Sept. 1, 1957. Place yourself inside the Lowe’s customer service aisle. That’d be just where second base was, and where the stage was erected for Elvis’ debut appearance in Seattle.
Retired Seattle Times rock critic Patrick MacDonald was at the show, as a kid. He wrote many years later how, when Elvis mounted the stage, he simply stood grinning for a few minutes at the deafening screams. When it quieted for a bit, MacDonald wrote in 2002, “He grabbed the microphone and purred, ‘Well …’ ” The screams started all over again.
An outdoor rock festival also was held at the stadium, on Sunday, July 5, 1970. Janis Joplin, the Youngbloods, Pacific Gas & Electric and the Steve Miller Band played.
For that, the stage was closer to deep center field, which would be way, way back in the Lowe’s store.
A Seattle Times review told how Joplin arrived on stage with a bottle of Southern Comfort “camouflaged coyly in a brown paper sack,” and how fans from the fenced-off area behind the stage called out for autographs and a sip. “Just so I can say I shared a drink with Janis,” a fan was quoted.
Three weeks later, on July 26, Jimi Hendrix would play at Sick’s. It’d be his last concert in his hometown. Hendrix died less than two months later.
At Lowe’s itself, the only thing commemorating what used to be here is a life-size metal cutout of a baseball player ready to swing a bat, onto which somebody has hung a COVID mask. The cutout is not exactly prominent, placed behind a hot dog van, and by concrete bags and a forklift.
IF YOU’RE AMONG the thousands who visit Green Lake and stroll its 2.8-mile path, surely you pause at the tranquillity around. Ahh, nature, right in the middle of the city.
We like Green Lake so much that it’s on a 2010 list of most-visited city parks in the country, according to The Trust for Public Land, a park advocacy nonprofit.
Well, there is nature, and there is nature.
This is one of the most manipulated urban lakes you’ll encounter.
Green Lake, formed 50,000 years ago from a glacial ice sheet, would have naturally, eventually, turned into a bog, and then meadowland. Humans hastened that with logging around it, plus nutrients flowing into the lake from sources such as dog waste and lawn fertilizer. All that accelerated blooms of toxic blue-green algae that at times closed the lake to recreation.
Since 1991, aluminum sulfate (it’s environmentally safe, says the city) gets dumped into the lake about every 10 years to control the blooms.
Green Lake has been diked, dredged and filled.
We have lowered it by 6 feet to create more park space.
When Aurora Avenue was constructed and we cut through the hillside by Woodland Park, guess where we hauled that dirt?
Because of the lowering, instead of draining naturally along Ravenna Creek and then Lake Washington, the lake now drains through a storm water pipe on Meridian Avenue North and into Lake Union.
And instead of being fed by springs and streams, Green Lake now gets its water from storm water runoff and rain.
Duck Island? Artificially created.
“An early iteration was sort of like a raft of logs. They must have been lashed together, and dirt and vegetation put on top,” says Jennifer Ott, an environmental historian and the assistant director at HistoryLink. In 1936, an actual island was constructed as part of a WPA project.
Even the path encircling the lake also was purposely created for that natural look, says Ott.
With the lake lowered, the Olmsted Brothers, hired by the city in 1903 to create a park system, “shaped the shoreline with curves.”
Green Lake. “It’s very effective manipulation,” says Ott.
ON OCT. 22, Washington State University football coach Nick Rolovich was engaged in a trash tweet with a Husky fan.
The coach wrote, “Isn’t your stadium built on an old garbage dump?”
We’ll get to that in a bit.
Maybe next year, or the year after, there will be football again at Husky Stadium; that is, football games that 70,000 fans can attend.
That’ll mean tailgate parties at the huge parking lot just north of the stadium.
Through all the previous years, how many partyers have ever wondered about the two dozen white 10-foot pipes sticking out of the ground?
Some of the pipes are encased in cement, painted yellow, to protect them from celebrating RVers backing into them.
The pipes have a special mission. They are escape hatches used to vent and monitor methane gas bubbling up from a 200-acre garbage dump underneath.
If you’re a longtime resident, you’ll remember this was a monster landfill that was variously called the Ravenna Dump, University Dump, Montlake Dump or Union Bay Dump. It lasted from 1926 to 1966. In parts, it was 40 feet deep.
A 1954 city engineer’s report said the garbage included “ … large timbers, waste lumber, shrubbery, building refuse of all sorts, leaves, paper, boxes, barrels, scrap metal, logs and stumps, bed springs, tanks, large cans and some garbage.”
In 1971, the landfill was closed and capped with 2 feet of clean soil, with areas that’d be landscaped getting an additional 6 inches of topsoil. Then, for the parking lot, came asphalt.
The pipes were put in there because at one point, says a 2017 UW study, methane was “detected at explosive levels in some areas of the landfill.”
Don’t worry, says Doug Gallucci, the UW’s assistant director for Environmental Programs. Sure, the latest report says a few of the pipes still detect methane gas at “a concentration above the lower explosive limit.”
“That’s not enough to sustain a flame,” he says.
Now, about Rolovich’s tweet.
Husky Stadium was built in 1920 south of where you now have the UW’s Intramural Building. The dump was north of that.
Sure, Coach, it’s an off-the-cuff tweet.
But you know, come the Apple Cup, these kinds of things matter.