To those of you who thought yet another Seattle landmark was gone — in this case the historic downtown Macy’s Christmas star that took its corner spot in the 1950s — well, it’s been saved for this year, and for many years to come.
The total cost won’t be cheap: around $500,000.
In a Seattle in which Amazon and, really, corporations in general, have been pummeled by a segment of politicians and in social media, guess who stepped up?
The Jeff Bezos company that now occupies the top six floors of the eight-story department store.
Amazon says it’s paying around $250,000 to repair and strengthen the old star. All those years up on the roof, exposed to the elements, had done heavy damage.
And there was the $60 billion East Coast real-estate firm that bought the building and will take over when Macy’s closes in February at the Third and Pine location.
Starwood Capital Group, of Miami Beach, says it’s paying around $250,000 for a new version of the star that’ll be built reusing parts of the updated star, and be displayed beginning in 2020.
In addition, says Amazon, which has more than 2,000 employees in the building, the contract it signed with Starwood includes a clause that, “if for whatever reason Starwood decides to discontinue the installation of the star, Amazon will cover the expenses of this process so it can endure.”
With a workforce of more than 50,000 here, says the company, “Seattle is our hometown, and we want this beloved tradition to continue for many years.”
The three adult children of the late Bob James, who designed the star, say this was the outcome they wished for when they started a Save the Macy’s Star Facebook page.
“In a fast changing Seattle,” they posted, “we are not ready for it to disappear.”
Says Wendy James, “I was so anxious. I’m so happy and grateful. I really think a lot of people in Seattle will be thrilled.”
From the early 1950s until his retirement in 1985, Bob James was the in-house designer for the downtown Bon Marché, the original department store at that location before it became Macy’s.
That was a different era for the nation’s major department stores. They had the budget for a Bob James.
James, who died in 2011 at age 91, was responsible for other memorable designs at the store.
He put together the intricate, moving miniature-trains displays for the sidewalk windows during Christmas that even this year attract passersby. You can start and stop the trains by pressing on a window pad by hand.
James also designed the Toytropolis that took up most of the eighth floor during the holidays. That featured a hydraulic rocket ship with a nose that moved up and down, and kids could sit in it.
The idea for the star, James remembered in a Seattle Times 2007 story, came in the early 1950s when his boss returned from visiting the East Coast and talked about seeing a tree made of lights hanging from the side of a building.
“He said, ‘Can we do this?’” James remembered. “I worked with some artists and designed a tree to hang on the corner of the Bon.”
A few years later, the tree was gone and replaced by the first version of the star — “a wimpy little star,” James would remember.
A couple of years later, it was succeeded by the current star that measures 160 feet high, with a wingspan of 75 feet, 32 metal arms in lengths from 15 feet to 35 feet, 3,860 light bulbs and a 1,000-watt metal halide lamp in the middle.
For five decades it managed to withstand stormy, windy December nights. The only times it wasn’t lighted for the holidays was in 1973 during a brownout in which businesses were asked to cut back on electricity because of a lack of rain.
This past week, workers for Western Neon of Seattle were on the roof of the Macy’s building, continuing their work to get the star ready for the lighting ceremony at 5 p.m. Friday.
“Anything like that in a Pacific Northwest environment is going to be weathered,” says Dylan Neuwirth, creative director for the company. “Cold, wet, saltwater.”
Various metal parts had to be replaced, he says, or the star couldn’t go on the side of the building.
Andre Lucero, president of Western Neon, says he was impressed by James’ design.
“It’s a beautiful structure, a great concept. Simplistic yet complex,” he says.
Next year, at its Fourth Avenue South location, the company plans to make “an exact replica” of the star, using as much of the old star as it believes can hold up structurally.
Lucero says it’s the same concept as when the company restored the Rainier beer “R” sign for placement atop the old brewery along I-5.
“Probably the biggest changes will be the LED lights,” says Lucero. “It’s for energy consumption’s sake, and also because we can make them programmable for animation.”
Wendy James is happy her dad’s original design is being kept. She’s a painter and makes art from assembling collages of everyday items.
“As an artist, you just cringe when you imagine what somebody could do with existing art. I’m glad they’re using the structure that’s there,” she says.
The corporations came to save the historic star. But, really, a corporation created it, too.
Says Michael Lisicky, the Baltimore author of a number of books on department-store history, “That creativity in art form displays is part of an older American culture that’s going away across the country. These department stores played such roles in people’s lives. They created these traditions that were almost indispensable to a city.”
He sees irony in what has happened.
“Amazon is taking over what used to be such a retail heartbeat. Now that building has an electronic heartbeat,” says Lisicky.