Thursday, September 17, 2009

If You Build It, It Will Be Built: 40 (or so) Years of Belltown Architecture

When comparing Belltown with our good neighbors downtown, our buildings are rather puny and unimpressive. But that doesn't mean we can't have a look at what we've got, good or bad, right? You bet! OK, so here's an interesting factoid: for well over a decade, one of the the tallest buildings in Belltown was barely even in Belltown. Here it is:

That's right, the Denny Building (built in 1963) at 6th & Blanchard is right on the border between Belltown and the Denny Neutral Zone (DNZ), also known as the sinisterly-named Denny Triangle. For a long time, that's all we had, but then along came:

This decade was about many things, but for Belltown, it was when modern architecture established itself in the neighborhood. See, there are lots of very old buildings all over the place - "very old" meaning dating from the early 20th century - but there was never anything large to define the look of the neighborhood. Halfway through the decade, that began to change. Let's take a very non-comprehensive sampling of the me-decade's achievements:

The awesome and iconic Darth Vader Building at 4th & Blanchard.

The so-called Rollerball Building at 4th & Vine. I gave it that name, by the way.

The Grandview Condos at 3rd and Blanchard.

The Royal Crest Condos, just a block away at 3rd & Lenora.

So that's just a taste of the seventies. You have some awesome things, some not-so-awesome things and a lot of beige.

This decade was about one thing only: finding new and innovative ways to make things look ugly. Here are some examples:

The Qwest Building at 2nd & Lenora, also known as the Borg Building. I also made that name up. You're welcome.

The Soviet-esque Warwick Hotel at 4th & Lenora.

The structurally-unsound looking Blanchard Plaza at 6th & Blanchard, right across the street from the Denny Building.

As gray as Seattle's skies for 10 months of the year, it's the Continental Place at 1st & Blanchard. Until recently, this was Belltown's tallest condo tower.

Can you feel a downward trend developing? I sure can. Let's keep going.

I'm not sure whether the nineties were ever about anything, but there was a lot of construction going on in Belltown. Unfortunately, most of it was not good:

The fairly awful Fountain Court at 4th & Battery; an entire city block with absolutely zero retail on it. All you have is apartments going clear to the sidewalk. After this was built, they revised zoning codes to require retail space in all new developments.

Belltown Court at 2nd & Battery. This place was so poorly constructed that it spent something like three years wrapped in scaffolding. And out of those three years, it was wrapped in white plastic for about a year. Well, at least it houses some very good restaurants. They all share a restroom.

And speaking of scaffolding, it's Belltown's favorite scaffold-encased eyesore, the McGuire. It calls 2nd & Wall home.

I guess you can say that the nineties gave off a good deal of heat, but very little light. Or is that the other way around?

Guess what? This decade is almost over. Amen to that. The good news is that things are starting to look nicer. Observe:

This is the YWCA Building at 3rd & Lenora, right across the street from the Royal Crest. Although the block is pretty terrible, the building has some nice neo-Art Deco lines.

This is the almost-completed Escala at 4th & Virginia. It has just wrestled the title of "tallest condo tower in Belltown" away from the Continental Place. I still haven't decided whether this building is ugly or not. I think we can all agree that it's very big.

This is the Gallery at 2nd & Broad. I'm a fan of the semi-constructed look. Hey, if you've got a few hundred grand jinling around in your pockets, they're auctioning off units here.

This is my favorite new addition, the Mosler Lofts at 3rd & Clay. Yes, I like the its semi-constructed look, but I really dig its overall design. Sure, it's in a bit of a no-man's-land, but that doesn't diminish its impact. If I wasn't impoverished, I'd live there.

So there you have it, a superficial overview of Belltown's architecture. I think you'll agree that by and large, the eighties and nineties were not good. But if current trends continue, we may actually see some iconic structures emerge in the coming years. This neighborhood deserves it. I mean, it's put up with a lot of ugly buildings for a long time. It deserves something on par with the excellent Darth Vader Building, doesn't it? This is when you're supposed to say: "Yes, it does!"

Read more of Hideous Belltown!


Lydia said...

I think Escala qualifies as ugly. Maybe even hideous.

Jerry Gropp Architect AIA PS said...

Belltown was even worse a long time ago. The City of Seattle once sent me down to design a Tenement into compliance. JG

Igor Keller said...

I bet it was my building!

Cale said...

It's too bad they don't allow street level apartments anymore. We have a lovely lofted studio facing Wall at the aforementioned Fountain Court. I love the convenience and satisfaction of being able to walk out onto the street from the front door. I agree the building is in design limbo, but the quality of life is very high.

Vulcan said...

I am a particularly enthusiastic fan of the Denny Building. Not only is it good quality mid century design, but it is one of the very few buildings downtown that actually has a real setback from the street and has the finest landscaping of any building in town by far! I wish landscaping like this was encouraged around more buildings. Only the hideous Qwest Building behind Olive 8 has any significant landscaping in town.

Sarah said...

I'm going to have to disagree with your classification of Continental Place as ugly. I'm an architect who used to have an apartment that looked directly at Continental Place and I would advocate that it's one of the best highrises in Seattle. The cut away corners inside the concrete structure cause the silhouette to shapeshift as one experiences the building from different angles. The non-planar glazing reflects different pieces of the sky so that during the sunset the building dances in a continual play of light and color. Not sure if its dynamic nature was a design intention or just a happy accident. Admittedly the building doesn't look like much at first glance, but if one observes it over the coarse of one of those endless summer sunsets it will reveal its magic.

Igor Keller said...

You know, Sarah, I'm actually neutral about the CP. I have a view of it out my kitchen window and, although it doesn't impress me, it also doesn't horrify me. It's relentless grayness can get a little depressing mid-winter, though.

Jim said...

My parents rented a space on the 23rd floor of the Continental Place some years ago when their house was being remodeled. I thought it had a nice, understated elegance then and have grown to like the exterior since. The sunsets one witnesses there are unbelievable.

Anonymous said...

What about the Wall Street Tower building turned apartments?