For more than 15 years, a prime block of publicly owned real estate in booming downtown Seattle has sat vacant, a literal hole in the ground, directly across from City Hall.
Now, just as work begins to finally turn that blight into an asset, another prime block of publicly owned real estate in booming downtown Seattle
King County is shuttering its downtown Administration Building, leaving vacant an architectural imbroglio of an office building that has been controversial since it first opened a half century ago.
The building that once held the assessor and recorder’s offices, various licensing departments and the county’s business operations has aroused lots of loathing but also some admiration for its architecturally daring (or foolhardy) ornamented exterior featuring a diamond pattern interspersed with hundreds of hexagonal windows.
“It may be the ugliest building in downtown Seattle,” former Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis once said.
“The ugliest building in the world,” former County Executive Ron Sims, not to be one-upped, said as he proposed tearing it down 15 years ago.
It incites “deep excitement or disgust,” the Pacific Coast Architecture Database writes. “The building is outstanding, and should not be demolished without a reasoned discussion about its merits.”
Kitty-corner from the county-owned Administration Building is the longtime Seattle-owned hole in the ground, occupying the entire block between Third and Fourth avenues across from City Hall, which has sat vacant since the city’s old public safety building was torn down in 2005.
The city has long planned a public plaza on the site, with development above, but has been foiled by recession, political scandal, feuds with developers and inertia. The city sold the block to a developer in 2020. Construction finally began this month on a 57-story tower with 422 condos, retail on the ground level and a public plaza.
The county Administration Building, occupying the block between Fourth and Fifth avenues and James and Jefferson streets, has been mostly vacant for the last two years since the COVID pandemic sent office workers home. But there are no plans to bring them back. And the county now plans to build a hybrid fence-hedge around the aging building.
The few remaining employees will be moved and the building fully closed by the end of the year, Cameron Satterfield, a spokesperson for King County Facilities Management, said.
The county says the building, which cost $7 million to build when it opened in 1971, is expensive to upkeep and is no longer necessary with thousands of county employees now working, at least part time, from their homes.
“King County is moving toward a hybrid workplace in the wake of COVID,” Satterfield said. “Employees who can work remotely most or all of the time no longer need assigned space in a county building, and so this seemed like an ideal opportunity to reduce our physical footprint and avoid costly updates to the Administration Building.”
Satterfield said the county was converting several thousand square feet of office space across multiple other buildings into flex space that remote workers can use, and that services formerly available at the Administration Building are now available online, by email or by phone.
In 2019, the county estimated that work to maintain and upgrade the building would total more than $80 million, according to Aaron Bert, deputy director of the county’s Facilities Management Division. The county assessor’s office values the land underneath the building at about $62 million and the building at about $25 million.
No decision has been made on whether the building will be sold, torn down, leased or repurposed in some way, Bert said.
“The building will be secured and a fence erected around the majority of the building,” Bert said. “Parts of the fence will be a green fence that will incorporate plants and vines.”
A spokesperson said a request for proposals for the fence would go out in a few months.
Dubbed the waffle-iron building at its ribbon-cutting, the Administration Building has long provoked strong opinions. At nine stories, previously housing about 600 employees, the squat, hulking cube has been criticized for lacking human scale and not fitting in with its downtown environment.
The three-story concrete pedestal beneath the iconic diamond latticework has no windows and few doors, giving pedestrians nothing to interact with.
“Its architectural elements create huge, blank walls of rough concrete facing the surrounding streets, breaking sight-lines and creating a foreboding atmosphere,” a University of Washington Department of Urban Planning studio, seeking to revitalize the area around the downtown courthouse, wrote in 2020.
“A bewildering image for county government,” Sally B. Woodbridge and Roger Montgomery wrote in “A Guide to Architecture in Washington State,” “the building overpowers its neighbors in this architectural zoo that comprises Seattle’s civic center.”
The building was designed by the now-defunct Seattle architecture firm Harmon, Pray and Detrich, which also designed notable local buildings including the Seattle Labor Temple, the UW’s Sieg Hall, and the Employment Security and Highways Licenses buildings on the Capitol campus in Olympia.
A building, the firm wrote, must be functional, economical to maintain and “pleasant, orderly, interesting and expressive of its purpose.”
In 1971, just weeks before the Administration Building opened, Seattle Times arts writer John Voorhees, in a piece about public art, lauded the building while hinting at the polarized reaction to it.
“A building like the new King County Administration Building which is a piece of public art in itself, like it or not, and the only kind of public art it requires is greenery,” Voorhees wrote.
If a purpose of art is to arouse feeling, the Administration Building, regardless of its alleged homeliness, has been undeniably successful as an objet, if perhaps less so as a building.
In 2007, just after Sims called it the ugliest building on the planet as he sought to tear it down and replace it with an office tower, the Seattle P-I’s architecture critic heaped on even more opprobrium.
“The county building’s Fourth Avenue side presents the most forlorn, demoralizing and frightening entry plaza of any public building in greater Seattle,” Lawrence Cheek wrote. “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”
The building’s entry, Cheek wrote, conjures the image of “a gigantic and faceless government bureaucracy” and leaves visitors “emotionally prepped for bureaucrats to either scold or ignore you.”
The morning sun glints off the building’s faceted paneling, a scattershot mosaic of light and shadow.
The building’s “tectonic exterior is as interesting as it is challenging, a jarring visual artifact that just might deserve a second look,” wrote Paige Wagoner Claassen, an architectural historian.
In a midcentury architectural era dominated by boxy, even bland, glass and steel modernism, the building is distinctive for its nontraditional ornamentation, said Alan Michelson, head of the UW’s Built Environments Library.
“Part of the measure of a building, I think, is its ability to excite, or, like any work of art, its ability to create some sort of response in the viewer,” said Michelson, who also runs the Pacific Coast Architecture Database. “These kinds of buildings are ones that we need to take a close look at. They may not appeal to standard tastes in architecture, or the current tastes in architecture, but we don’t know how people in the future might view it.”