Although the battle to save the hotel was lost, enthusiasts for local heritage won the war by saving the Pioneer Square neighborhood.

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LAWTON GOWEY was a regular visitor to the demolition scene of the Seattle Hotel. His collection of Kodachrome slides records nearly the entire process of the destruction of the 1890 landmark. Gowey dated this slide June 8, 1961. The demolition work began with the interior on April 3, and here, two months later, most of the top floor is gone.

<strong>NOW:</strong> The mockingly named “Sinking Ship” parking garage replaced the ornate brick Seattle Hotel with a concrete garage capped by a railing of bent pipes that resemble a row of basket handles. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW: The mockingly named “Sinking Ship” parking garage replaced the ornate brick Seattle Hotel with a concrete garage capped by a railing of bent pipes that resemble a row of basket handles. (Jean Sherrard)

The removal of the ornate cornice at the top of the 5½-story landmark got an early start with the city’s 1949 earthquake. For safety, and probably for economy too, much of it was removed following the quake. Still, the hotel stayed open until the spring of 1960, when its closure was announced. It was widely assumed it would soon be razed — not renovated. The same was expected for Pioneer Square, the city’s most historic neighborhood, which was on the skids then.

Citizen response, however, was surprising. In an attempt to save the hotel, a local cadre of preservationists quickly formed. Although that battle was lost, the enthusiasts for local heritage won the war by saving the neighborhood. The city’s new Department of Community Development formed the Pioneer Square Historic District in 1970.

By this time, the four-floor parking garage that was built on the hotel’s footprint was commonly called the “Sinking Ship” parking garage. It is still one of our best local jokes. The garage’s architect-engineers, Gilbert Mandeville and Gudmund Berge, were fresh off their 1959 success as local consultants for the Logan Building at Fifth Avenue and Union Street, the city’s first glass-curtain box. Here, in Pioneer Square, they added what they and the garage’s owners considered a complement to the historic neighborhood: a basket-handle-shaped railing made of pipe, a kind of undulating cornice, that ran along the top of the concrete garage.

Lawton Gowey loved the Smith Tower. His juxtaposition of the well-wrought tower, the injured hotel, and the wrecker’s crane is at once elegant and ambivalent.