Here is one secret of its allure: It’s kind of creepy.
IF YOU VISIT the Georgetown Steam Plant, you’re likely to notice a few things immediately: It is cold — so cold that your feet will begin to ache through your boots. It smells of . . . something. Old concrete? Mildew? It is also dirty, with peeling paint and dusty remnants from decades of disuse.
But you will look past all that. Because this gritty, long-dormant building somehow manages to be enthralling. Although essentially unused for 60 years — and on life-support before that — the plant has the feel of a living thing. There is a phone system that still rings. There is a tool board marked with the outlines of a hammer, wrenches and screwdrivers. There is an office with a desk where a manager used to sit.
And, amazingly, the steam plant’s 100-year-old machinery still works. In fact, its turbines are said to be the last surviving examples of a technological achievement that helped transform the country.
See the steam plant
What: Tours of the Georgetown Steam Plant.
When: The plant is open the second Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with guided tours available at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Where: 6605 13th Ave. S., Seattle. The plant is located adjacent to Boeing Field. Access is from the east side of Ellis Avenue South, opposite South Warsaw Street.
Cost: There is no admission charge, and reservations are not required. For groups of 15 or more, call 206-763-2542.
“It’s a tribute to the pioneers of electricity,” says Lynn Best, Seattle City Light’s environmental affairs and real estate division director.
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You might not be the kind of person who is interested in electrical pioneers. I know I wasn’t when I first visited the building on a public tour in November. Nor am I the sort of person who has much of an interest in industrial technology. I just thought it would be interesting for my mechanical engineer boyfriend. Yet delving into the steam plant’s history has given me a new perspective on how Seattle became the city it is today. I found myself compulsively Googling “how does coal become electricity?” and telling my photographer friends about this little-known visual gold mine.
“This building,” Best notes, “has the ability to get people to really care about it.”
Indeed, by the time the tour group walked out the door on that crisp afternoon, the building had hooked a few more.
HERE IS ONE SECRET of the steam plant’s allure: it’s kind of creepy. There are hidden corners and mysterious valves and dim lighting. On one visit, the shop phone suddenly rang loudly throughout the building, even though it probably hadn’t been used since the 1970s. The place is eerie enough, in fact, that it has been used for a zombie photo shoot.
“They say it’s haunted,” says Pepe O’Baya, City Light’s senior capital projects coordinator. City Light owns the building and is in the process of refurbishing it for increased public use.
The creep factor stems partly from the fact it is practically unchanged since 1907, when its first steam turbine was fired. It’s kind of like walking into a museum, only it’s the sort of museum you don’t normally see: dirty, rugged, real. That gritty authenticity gives visitors a sense of discovery, as if they’ve just arrived in a time machine. Even the entrance, along the Boeing Field fence line, tucked behind nondescript flight-related businesses, is hard to find.
Of course, you aren’t really discovering anything. Fascination with the building has been ongoing, even as access has been limited and upkeep has fallen behind. Big Black, a punk band, held its last concert here in 1987. In the late ’80s, avant-garde trombonist Stuart Dempster led performances of a piece composed specifically for the building, featuring brass, strings and percussion, with a “Steamwhistled Teaservice” at the end. A play was staged here. Nonprofits have done tours. It has been a hub for miniature railroad aficionados and for hobbyists looking to show off homemade steam-powered contraptions. It’s hard to imagine a roster more diverse.
“It has appeal to the techie, in-your-head, kind of people who say, ‘Oh my gosh, look at those boilers!’ ” Best says. “And it has appeal to the in-your-heart artist types.”
Tia Kramer and Tamin Totzke, artists who will stage a dance and video performance here this fall, say they were instantly smitten.
“There’s this energetic history that I immediately connected to,” says Totzke, a dancer.
Kramer, a video and performance artist, searched for the right words. “It’s like a monolithic monument to a really fleeting moment in time.”
Which leads to a second secret of the steam plant’s allure: It represents a technological advancement that swept the country and helped usher in the modern electrical age. Yet the facility was also becoming outdated within a year after opening.
IN 1984, THE Georgetown Steam Plant was listed as a National Historic Landmark. This, says Rebecca Ossa, City Light’s historic resource specialist, is a big deal. The Brooklyn Bridge is on this list. So is the Grand Canyon Lodge.
Part of what’s exceptional here is the machinery. The plant houses the only operational examples of the world’s first large-scale steam turbine, the vertical Curtis turbine generator.
If this doesn’t immediately grab you, consider this: This machine “came to represent one of the most significant advancements in the history of industrial technology,” according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Now consider how that affected life in Seattle.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Seattle’s population was exploding. Meanwhile, as electricity was introduced, it quickly spurred an increasing demand. If the supply didn’t keep up with that demand, economic growth would stall. Businesses needed reliable electricity. It was needed for the city’s impressive streetlights that attracted oohing and aahing crowds of tourists. It would power the city’s streetcars, which helped fuel the real estate market, allowing middle-class families to live either inside or outside the city and still get to work on time. The region’s transit system became “an advertisement for the city, as a moneymaking venture and as a stimulus to real estate development,” according to the National Historic Landmark nomination.
But as demand increased, technology wasn’t keeping up. The best technology of its day — the reciprocating steam engine — wasn’t all that efficient. Bigger wasn’t the answer, either. Larger machinery “literally shook the earth,” according to an ASME dedication document.
An engineer named Charles G. Curtis found a solution. He designed and patented a new machine, the vertical steam turbogenerator, that was far more compact and efficient than its older cousin. Curtis sold the rights to General Electric and, within months, GE sold more than 1,000 of these generators across the country. An engineering marvel — one expert called it one of the most “extensive and strenuous (jobs) in the art of engineering” — the design won prizes at the St. Louis Exposition of 1904 and the Lewis and Clark Exposition of 1905 in Portland.
SO THE GENERATORS were a natural choice for the Georgetown Steam Plant, which was built by a private company in 1906-07 on a crook in the Duwamish River. The plant was mainly intended to power the company’s streetcar and railroad lines, one of which ran all the way to Tacoma.
The Curtis turbines that dominate the Georgetown plant’s main wing today are what make the place unique. Although there were once thousands of these machines powering progress throughout the country, they have all gone by the wayside, and at the time the Georgetown plant was listed as a National Landmark, these were the only ones that not only survived, but could still run.
The plant itself, one of the first reinforced concrete buildings on the West Coast, is also notable. It was designed by well-known industrial engineer Frank Gilbreth, whose family life (he had 12 children) was the subject of the 1948 book and 1950 movie “Cheaper by the Dozen.” Gilbreth is famous for his work on streamlining workers’ movements. Everything about the steam plant was built for efficiency, from the fast-track construction method to the wing of superheated boilers.
The Georgetown plant initially installed two vertical Curtis generators, rated at capacities of 11,000 kilowatts combined. But it didn’t take long for the technology to become outdated. By 1908, just one year after the plant opened, GE had already started to abandon the original Curtis design. When Georgetown installed a third Curtis generator in 1917, it was built in a different, horizontal configuration than the first two and was much smaller, yet generated nearly the power of the other two combined. That’s how fast technology was changing.
The truth is, the Curtis machines were already on the way out. As demand for electricity continued to increase, there was a shift toward hydropower, which could outperform Curtis exponentially, at a radically lower cost. Within a few years of Georgetown’s opening, the region’s electricity increasingly was being powered by water.
“The technology took off,” says Ossa, “and left this poor steam plant in the dust.”
By 1912, the plant was being used “only in cases of emergency,” according to paperwork submitted for the National Landmark designation. Meanwhile, another development became a major blow to the plant. In 1913, work began to straighten the Duwamish waterway, putting an additional 3,668 feet between the plant and its water source. So much for Gilbreth’s efficient design. Now, workers had to install an enormous flume down to the river.
By the 1920s, the plant was no longer of much use at all. Its last production run was from November 1952 to January 1953, when a major water shortage limited the hydro plants’ capacity, according to the Landmark documents. It was fired occasionally after that, mostly for tests.
The hot new technology was dead. Making a big splash upon its birth at the turn of the 20th century, it raced through its adolescence and adulthood, then quietly retired. Depending on how you count, most of its usefulness occurred over a matter of a few years, or at best, a decade or two. Yet without those few years of steady and reliable electricity that fueled a rapidly growing city and the development of “streetcar suburbs,” Seattle would arguably have been a different place today.
IN A LITTLE-KNOWN National Park Service workshop on Whidbey Island, Scott Swenson and several other men are laboriously hand-scraping, glazing and painting windows that have been removed from the steam plant for restoration. The project, which will include more than 200 windows and doors, is expected to span four years, at a cost of about $800,000.
City Light, which took over electricity delivery in Seattle and has owned the building since 1951, has plans to increase public access to the steam plant and turn it into a community hub. Since last fall, they have been conducting monthly public tours. Before that, City Light was required by the state Department of Ecology to complete extensive cleanup as part of the restoration of the Duwamish. It turns out that workers years ago had been using the land as a dumping ground for coal ash and other contaminants. Finally, restoration of the plant itself has begun in earnest.
“I have this vision of it being one of our great tourist attractions,” Best says.
In addition to the windows and doors, City Light also plans to rig up a decent heating system and make the roof watertight, among other improvements, with a two-year budget of about $400,000. The aim is to make improvements, but retain the things that make the place unique.
“Our job isn’t really to make things better,” Swenson explains. “As much as possible, we want to retain the historic fabric.”
The National Park Service workers have been through this routine before, on a number of other historic preservation projects in the Northwest. Their work is meticulous, repetitive and painstakingly slow.
In the 21st century, this is not how we typically do things. We are accustomed to technology changing before our eyes. The iPhone 4 makes way for the 5 and 6 and 7 in no time flat. What’s old is tossed out. The thing that Georgetown reminds us is, 100 years ago, technology was changing just as quickly. But both the building and the machinery were designed to endure — and have. “Their survival” the National Landmark nomination says of the turbines, should “remind us all of a national movement into the Electric Age,” when stable supplies of electricity were key to economic growth. At the same time, the document continued, they are also “an ironic comment on how quickly what seemed paramount so soon became mundane.”
Mundane? Perhaps. But after decades of quiet waiting, the steam plant is poised for something new.
“It’s an integral part . . . ” begins one of the window-scrapers as he works.
Swenson continues: “Of who we are.”