Who’s Watching You?
A DOWNTOWN MENAGERIE IN STONE AND TERRA-COTTA
This urban safari showcases the many animals that adorn downtown buildings.
1.8 miles, one way
Western Avenue and Blanchard Street
Columbia Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues
A pair of binoculars will enhance your viewing of some of the features on this walk. An optional side trip adds three-quarters of a mile.
Do you ever have the feeling that you are being watched when you stroll through downtown Seattle? You are probably right. Hundreds of eyes peer out from buildings tracking your actions. These observers are neither human nor electronic. Instead, a bestiary of animals watches you. A tour of the urban core reveals a veritable Noah’s Ark’s worth of carved and molded beasts stalking your every step.
Animal and human ornamentation peaked between 1890 and 1940 in the heyday of terra-cotta cladding in Seattle. Terra-cotta is a kind of brick made by pressing moist clay into a plaster mold. After firing, a glaze is applied, which can be any color or texture. Architects turned to terra-cotta following Seattle’s Great Fire of 1889 because it is fireproof and lighter than stone. In addition, molded terra-cotta can be mass produced easily and more cheaply than carving the same feature out of stone. The main producers were local businesses, including Northern Clay Company and Denny-Renton Clay and Coal Company, and two from out of state, Northwestern Terra Cotta and Gladding, McBean, and Company.
Terra-cotta is not the only medium used in downtown animals and figures; many are formed from stone. Part of what makes these carvings enchanting is that they have weathered over time, and formerly crisp features have changed and given the faces more character.
This walk passes by lions, eagles, dolphins, walruses, and a duck, as well as a few rather odd-looking humans. Some are well known, but many are seldom noticed and a few can best be appreciated with binoculars. Just like going on a Serengeti safari, you will need good instincts and stout shoes, though you may also want an ORCA pass and a coffee mug.
Start on the northwest corner of Western Avenue and Blanchard Street, across the street from the Union Stables Building (2200 Western Avenue).
1 Walk down any street of stores, and you will find symbolic clues to what happens (or happened) behind the facades. Perhaps it’s a neon cocktail glass for a tavern, granite columns for a bank, or a giant cross for a church. In 1910, when the Union Stables opened, probably the simplest way to figure out what happened in the building was the scent of horses, but failing that, a passerby’s quick glance at the top of the brick structure would reveal a horse head, a sure sign of an equine line of business.
Union Stables is one of the few remaining buildings from the era when actual horses provided much of the horsepower in Seattle. Horses pulled street trolleys, fire engines, carts, and wagons for businesses and individuals. According to Polk’s Seattle City Directory, at least 17 public livery, sale, and boarding stables dotted the urban landscape in 1890, with a peak of 37 in 1910. Western Avenue was one of the equine centers with 7 livery stables located on the street in 1905. With the rise of the automobile as the primary means of transportation, however, only 3 stables remained in the city by 1928.
As horses became less important to everyday life, the Union Stables Building took on a new life. On December 18, 1923, the Seattle police confiscated more than $25,000 worth of high-grade booze in “one of the biggest liquor raids” in Seattle during Prohibition. Acting on a mysterious tip, policemen pounded down a heavily padlocked door in the back of the stables and found a room packed floor to ceiling with 230 cases of liquor. Most were labeled with the addresses of prominent Seattle citizens. In 2015, adaptive reuse preserved the Union Stables’ structural interiors, which are now used for office space.
Walk east on Blanchard one block to 1st Avenue, turn right, and walk one block to Lenora Street. Turn left, and walk up the south side of Lenora to 2nd Avenue. Note the terra-cotta on the Cristalla Condominium Building (2033 2nd Avenue) on the southwest corner.
2 One look at the terra-cotta motifs on the former Crystal Pool Natatorium, and you should know what once went on within this building. Covering the walls are mermaids, gaping dolphins, shells, and fantastic fish, along with a chimera-like beast sporting wings, a lion’s head, and a fish tail. In 1914, B. Marcus Priteca designed the natatorium, which featured a 260,000-gallon saltwater pool and stands for 1,500 spectators. Each day, pumps brought a new supply of water from Elliott Bay and sent it through filters to massive boilers that heated the water. Crystal Pool quickly became a popular destination for Seattleites.
The building could also be turned into a venue for boxing matches by draining the pool, covering it, and erecting a ring. Bouts were held regularly through the 1930s. By the end of the decade, fewer and fewer people were using the natatorium, and in 1943, the Bethel Temple purchased the property and converted the pool area to a sanctuary. Bethel stayed until 1999. The new building, the Cristalla, went up in 2003, within the shell of the former natatorium.
Walk two blocks south on 2nd Avenue to Stewart Street. Turn left, and walk east two blocks to the east side of 4th Avenue. Turn right, and cross to the south side of Olive Way. Turn left, and walk down Olive about half a block until you are directly across the street from the entrance to the triangle-shaped Times Square Building (414 Olive).
3 Animals also appear on buildings to project a symbolic trait, as exemplified by the Times Square Building. Constructed in 1915, when five daily papers provided the news of the fast-growing metropolis, the goal of the new building was to highlight the importance of the Seattle Times, the city’s largest daily paper. Not only did the architects, Bebb & Gould, design the paper’s headquarters to tower over the nearby structures, they also embellished it with two of the most classic symbols of power—nobility and authority. Look up to find 18 eagles and the heads of 61 lions. Clearly, passersby should think that the Seattle Times of the early 20th century was both a force to be reckoned with and one imbued with great American values.
And in case anyone didn’t know what the Times did, above the main entrance on Olive Way is a terra-cotta triptych illustrating newspaper production. On the left, two allegorical figures gather the news of the world via an elaborate wire network. The central panel illustrates a newspaper office with printer, linotype operator, and pressman. On the right is a newsboy carrying his papers flanked by a man and woman reading the finished product.
The Times remained at this location from 1916 until 1932. The building name derived in part from its wedge-shaped resemblance to the New York Times’s headquarters, which rose above the Big Apple’s Times Square.
Continue east on Olive Way to 5th Avenue, turn right, or south, and walk two blocks on 5th Avenue to Pike Street and Banana Republic (500 Pike Street).
4 Now the site of a Banana Republic store, this terra-cotta clad structure started as one of the world’s first grand movie palaces. When the Coliseum Theater (whose name is emblazoned high on the building on both 5th and Pike) opened on January 8, 1916, general admission was 15 cents with reserved loge seating going for 50 cents. An advertisement in the Seattle Times lured patrons with a 2,149-pipe organ, 2,400 extra-wide seats, and air that was “pre-heated and moistened in winter or ice cooled in summer.”
Natatorium architect B. Marcus Priteca designed the Coliseum. Best known as a theater architect, Priteca did work with the Pantages theater chain from California to Canada. His other Seattle projects included the Admiral Theater (West Seattle), Congregation Bikur Cholim (now Langston Hughes Cultural Center), and Longacres Racetrack (demolished).
As Priteca did with the natatorium and many of his theaters, he combined a wealth of classical details, from urns to acanthus leaves to oxen heads, 47 of which stare out from the facade. The use of these skulls, known as bucranium, has a long history as an architectural feature. An early way to appease Roman and Greek gods had been to sacrifice animals, lop off their heads, decorate them with garlands of fruit and flowers, and hang the heads from the gods’ temples. Eventually, the real sacrifice gave way to the allusive motif.
In 1990, the Coliseum closed, a victim of the expansion of the multiplex theater. Two years later, Banana Republic signed a long-term lease and renovated the building, which opened in 1994. Although closed to the public, the building’s original balcony still exists.
Walk east two blocks on Pike to 7th Avenue. Turn right on 7th, walk one block south to Union Street, and turn left to the entrance of ACT Theater (700 Union Street).
5 Eagles were another commonly used symbol of strength, courage, and dignity, as can be seen on what was originally Aerie No. 1 for the Fraternal Order of Eagles. It is now known as Kreielsheimer Place, home to A Contemporary Theatre (ACT). The Eagles organization started in Seattle when a group of theater managers got together in 1898 and formed the “Seattle Order of Good Things.” Two years later, they became the FOE, with the goals of “promoting peace, prosperity, gladness, and hope.” Apparently a picture of an eagle on a wall led to the new name.
Designed by Henry Bittman and Harold Adams and completed in 1925, the building features more than 20 eagles on the exterior. The largest of the eagles, in the tympanum above the main door on Union Street, was an “unprecedented achievement” according to a City of Seattle Landmarks Designation report. The terra-cotta bird was cast in a single piece at a cost of $2,100. Additional eagles inside the building grace paintings and door fixtures.
Aerie No. 1 originally contained 81 apartments, a lounge, a library, parlors for members’ wives, and an auditorium that could seat 4,000. In the 1960s, performers included the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and the Grateful Dead. Martin Luther King Jr. also spoke here in November 1961 during his only visit to Seattle. Along with the Paramount Theater, the Eagles Building was saved from destruction by concerns voiced by the arts organization Allied Arts and aided by a $3 million pledge from the Seattle City Council, which led to ACT moving in and renovating the structure.
Walk one block west on Union to 6th Avenue and the Washington Athletic Club (WAC; 1325 6th Avenue).
6 For another example of eagles and ones on a much higher perch, look up to the top of the WAC, where massive birds wrap around the corners. Binoculars also reveal stylized human and animal masks running in horizontal rows on several floors of the building. Architect Sherwood Ford designed the building, like many others constructed in the late 1920s and early 1930s, in the Art Deco style, with a stepped-back tower, geometric designs, and stylized motifs.
Walk two blocks west to 4th Avenue, cross over to the west side of 4th, and turn left, or south. Walk most of the block to the Cobb Building (1301 4th Avenue). On the right is an alcove with a large terra-cotta head.
7 The Cobb Building was the first on the West Coast devoted exclusively to doctors and dentists. With its feather headdress, the head in this alcove is clearly not based on local Native Americans, though it was made by a local craftsman, Victor Schneider, who worked at the Denny-Renton Clay and Coal Company. (He also created the terra-cotta triptych on the Seattle Times Building.) The architects who designed the Cobb were the New York firm of Howells and Stokes, who also incorporated the same heads into the White-Henry-Stuart Block, which was destroyed to make way for the Rainier Tower across the street. To see additional heads at the top of the Cobb, cross to the east side of 4th.
The next section of the walk covers several blocks with no stops. Enjoy the interesting buildings, and keep your eyes open for details, such as the manhole cover on the northwest corner of 4th and Marion; it’s a map of Seattle.
Step 1: Decapitate an original head and ship it to New York. Only a handful of companies in the US are capable of high-volume terra-cotta production. Contractors on the Arctic Building renovation worked with Boston Valley, based in Orchard Park, NY.
Step 2: Produce high-quality drawings of the head.
Step 3: Hand-sculpt a mold eight percent larger than necessary to allow shrinkage as it dries. The mold consists of four or five pieces, which are assembled to create the head.
Step 4: Hand press clay into mold. The head is hollow and lightweight. The tusks are solid and bolted onto the head. Each mold can make between five and ten pieces.
Step 5: Let dry for a week. Hand glaze. Fire for five days.
“This process is essentially the same as it was 100 years ago,” said an employee at Boston Valley.
Total Cost: $6,000 to $7,000 for the first head; after the mold is made, $550 for each additional head.
Walk south on 4th to Cherry Street, turn right, or west, and walk down the north side of Cherry to the marble stairway at the former Arctic Club of Seattle Building—now a DoubleTree by Hilton (700 3rd Avenue).
8 Look up to see what are arguably the best-known animals in Seattle: the 27 walrus heads that adorn the Arctic Building. Designed by Augustus Warren Guild and opened in 1917, the building formerly housed the Arctic Club, a social gathering place for those who wanted to promote Alaska and its resources and perhaps to bandy about tales of the north. It became a hotel in 2008.
As so often happens with infamous beasts, the walruses are obscured by murky layers of misinformation. Rumor one: The tusks were made of ivory or marble. The reality: The original walruses consisted of three parts, all made of terra-cotta: a head and two tusks held in place by steel rods inserted into a bonding compound. Rumor two: An earthquake in 1949 rattled the heads so vigorously that tusks fell out. The reality: No walruses lost any teeth after the quake, but all of the tusks were replaced in 1982. Unfortunately, the grout used by the installers to hold the newly molded urethane tusks in place expanded when wet, which eventually cracked the heads. In 1997, 13 of the original 27 heads had to be replaced. All of the 1982 tusks remained.
The building’s color scheme derives from polychrome terra-cotta, which involves firing color directly into the clay and not painting it on. And, at one time, a terra-cotta polar bear stood at the building’s entrance though it disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
Continue west on Cherry Street to 2nd Avenue, and cross to the northwest corner. Across the street to the south is the Broderick Building (615 2nd Avenue).
9 In 1890, William Bailey, a native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, hired the architectural firm of Charles Willard Saunders and Edwin Walker Houghton to design one of the few all-sandstone commercial buildings in the city. The gray stone comes from the Tenino quarries 10 miles south of Olympia. Variously known as the Broderick Building, Bailey Building, and Harrisburg Block, the six-story structure was described as a “symphony in stone” when completed in 1892.
From the intersection of Cherry and 2nd Avenue, walk two blocks south on 2nd to Yesler Way. Cross Yesler, turn right, and walk half a block to the red sandstone and brick Interurban Building (157 Yesler Way at Occidental Avenue S).
Originally known as the Seattle National Bank (1 on map), the building earned the name Interurban sometime after 1902, when the Tacoma Interurban (an electric railway that ran from Tacoma through the Green River valley to Seattle) terminated on this block. The train stopped running in 1928, but the name persisted. The building’s architect, John Parkinson, designed many schools in Seattle though he would achieve more fame in Los Angeles for buildings such as City Hall and Union Station. This Romanesque-style structure is unusual in Seattle for its use of the red Lyons Sandstone from Manitou Springs, Colorado.
The building has two entrances. To access the bank, customers originally entered at the corner of Yesler and Occidental Avenue S, where a massive lion’s head formed the keystone of the arch. It is unclear whether the toothy beast was supposed to intimidate or inspire you. Those who walked in the main entry on Yesler had an equally memorable encounter—grotesques, or faces, carved into the capitals on either side of the doors. Curiously, another face looms out from a sandstone medallion, about 20 feet up on the south edge of the Occidental side of the building. (I have not found any information about why the faces were carved or whether they were based on anyone in particular.)
If you want to see one more human face, and one that may be noticed even less often, walk three blocks south to S Jackson Street, turn right, and continue almost to 1st Avenue and a flight of stairs. Above the subterranean doorway (2 on map), sculptor John H. Geise chiseled a head into the sandstone. Geise lived in the basement apartment in the late 1960s.
Walk north on 1st Avenue to Cherry Street. Turn right, or east, to return to the northwest corner of 2nd and Cherry.
Others have called it imposing and architecturally advanced, but what most fail to note are the 78 grotesques covering the horizontal moldings on the third and fourth floors. To see them best, you will need binoculars. About 5 inches tall, the carvings include dragons, Vikings, bull- and pig-faced heads, and grimacing, elaborately mustachioed, and astonished faces. John Ruskin in Volume 3 of Modern Painters wrote: “A fine grotesque is the expression, in a moment, by a series of symbols thrown together in bold and fearless connection, of truths which it would have taken a long time to express in any verbal way, and of which the connection is left for the beholder to work out for himself….” Unfortunately, no contemporary documentation exists for why such figures adorn an office building in downtown Seattle.
Walk north one block on 2nd to Columbia Street, cross to the north side, turn right, and walk one half block up. Across the street is 215 Columbia.
10 One of Seattle’s stranger structures, the former Seattle Chamber of Commerce Building (1924) is modeled after twelfth-century churches in the Piedmont/Lombardy region of Italy. The multihued cast concrete is supposed to be reminiscent of medieval cut stone. (Cast stone was made to look like real stone and generally incorporated cement, sand, and gravel.) Architect Harlan Thomas, who had lived and traveled throughout Europe, brought his innovative, eclectic style to other buildings in Seattle, including the Sorrento Hotel and the Corner Market Building at Pike Place Market.
However, neither of those buildings incorporate the unusual elements of the Chamber Building. To the left of the front door is a panel depicting Native Americans, each minimally clad and performing “primitive” skills. Opposite is a panel in which a modern man demonstrates his own skills and fashion sense. Also note the small faces peering out of the unusually fluted columns and the winged lions flanking the archway. But to see the most fanciful array of creatures, look up to the frieze. The urban bestiary includes locals such as a duck, pelicans, mountain lions, bears, whales, and an eagle, as well as hippocamps (horses with fish tails) and gazelles.
As you may have noticed, most of these carvings and terra-cotta images are on Seattle’s older buildings. Several factors account for this. In particular, ornamentation and its allusions to Classical architecture helped provide an air of gravitas to a young city seeking to make a mark. In addition, Beaux Arts and Art Deco architecture, with their focus on elaborate details, were the popular style during the first half of the 1900s when many of these buildings were constructed.
Seattle also benefited from what we might now call a “local building” movement. The region’s abundant, glacially derived clay enabled local firms to develop factories that produced terra-cotta. The factories in turn worked with local artisans to craft the elaborate designs. The same idea applied with the local sandstone, which was most likely carved by people who lived in the region. This stands in contrast to much of the later architecture in downtown buildings, which relied on imported, typically unornamented stone. As happens so often as cities grow, the bigger Seattle became, the more it turned away from its local connections. The abundant carvings and terra-cotta forms on Seattle buildings are beautiful reminders of the city’s historic relationship to its surroundings.