Friday, October 16, 2009
The Crystal Pool and Beyond: 95 Years at 2nd & Lenora
When I first moved into the neighborhood many years ago, I had no idea that the church up the street with the strange, aging facade had such a long and storied history to it. But I gradually heard random things about how it had once been a large saltwater swimming pool, a boxing venue and one of Seattle's favorite gathering spots. Most accounts agree that it was begun in 1914, subsequently finished in 1915, and constructed in the ornate Italian Renaissance style by architect B. Marcus Priteca, who went on to design the Coliseum Theater and the grandstand at Longacres Racetrack, among many other things. As Seattle's largest saltwater pool, it enjoyed immediate success. Here's a shot of the interior:
Although officially dubbed the Crystal Pool, it also billed itself as a "natatorium," which is, according to my sources, basically just a fancier name for swimming pool. Apparently, its water was pumped directly from Elliott Bay, filtered, heated and chlorinated. Well, chlorinated saltwater sounds a little rough on the hair, but hey, it was a different time. People valued their hair in a different way back then, I guess.
In 1917, after just a few years in operation, the Crystal Pool began hosting boxing cards. The staff found that if they drained and covered the pool and brought in additional seating, they had room for a crowd of at least 2,000, making it one of Seattle's larger sports venues. In addition to boxing and swimming, it became a popular place to roller skate. Outside of sports and recreation, it also hosted larger gatherings, such as conventions. There is not much photographic evidence of such assemblies, but the most infamous still survives:
Yep, that's exactly what you think it is: a 1923 Klan meeting right here in easygoing, liberal Seattle. My only guess as to the formidable KKK presence here would be that they were strongly opposed to Asian immigration. Wherever the situation called for hatred and ignorance, the Klan was there.
The Crystal Pool remained one of Seattle's most prominent venues for over 20 years. It survived the darkest days of the Great Depression only to close in the late thirties. For several years, it stood vacant before becoming the Bethel Temple, a Pentecostal Church in 1943-44. The pool was filled in, covered over with flooring and pews were brought in to seat the congregation. The only image I've been able to find of those early days is this postcard:
There's almost no difference in appearance between the pool and the church. And yes, that does look like the Star of David out front.
The Bethel Temple remained in the neighborhood for nearly 60 years. In the eighties and nineties, it increased its community outreach toward the homeless and otherwise behaved like a very good neighbor. But strangely enough, although it was fairly involved in solving Belltown's more pressing problems, it never really seemed like it was part of the neighborhood. It was like everything else had evolved past it.
By the late nineties, there were all kinds of contradictory rumors about the church being sold to condo developers or that the Bethel was filing for historic building status to protect itself from those same developers. At the time, Belltown real estate was very hot and condos were going up everywhere. Well, the developers were finally able to entice the Bethel Temple to sell. Perhaps the most important factor in the sale was the promise to preserve the building's original terracotta facades. The only problem was that by the time construction began in 2003, the real estate market had cooled quite a bit. The developers, Murray Franklyn, had to scale back their ambitious plans for the new building; the proposed seven-level underground parking garage was limited to two levels (with several levels added above-ground), the proposed 220 units were cut to 188 (later revised to 191) and a proposed 60,000 sq. feet of office space was completely nixed.
I never took a single picture of the Bethel Temple while it was operating. There never seemed any reason for it. It was a non-descript building that didn't seem to be standing up too well to the drumbeat of time. When I moved into the neighborhood in 1990, the signature dome in front of the building was gone. The exterior had also suffered quite a bit of damage. I can find absolutely no online photographs of the Bethel from any of its nearly 60 years of operation, but I was able to find one taken during its demolition:
That's how I remember it - minus all the destruction, of course. Some days, I walk over to 2nd & Lenora and I'm still shocked at what's happened over there.
The Cristalla was begun in 2003 and finished by 2005. I watched it go up, hoping that the new structure would give a nod to the ghosts of the past. I'm afraid that hasn't happened. The new tower has three different parts: the original, street-level exterior, restored and enhanced:
Then there's a transitional area that was supposed to be the office space; together those first two parts look like this:
They seem to blend very well, but the traditional and the postmodern clash in everything that happens above those two lower levels. Here's what it ends up looking like:
What we have is a building at odds with itself. The lower and upper levels simply don't go with each other. Although I can see what architects Weber + Thompson were trying to get at (tradition blending harmoniously with postmodernism, raising the eye upward, etc.), the results are dubious. We're stuck with this eyesore for the duration. I understand that the building's lobbby and interiors are quite elegant, but a lot of good that does us shlubs who never get to cross the threshold.
And speaking of eyesores, let's talk about a side of the Cristalla that they'd rather not have you see - their south wall. You'd think that a place asking hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit would inspire someone around there to spruce up their southern exposure. But no. This is what it looks like:
It's just a gray cinder block wall, partially scrawled with the world's worst graffiti at the bottom. So far that graffiti has been there for at least a month. Wouldn't this be an ideal place for a mural - or anything besides this? And if you take a close look at the corner of the facade, you'll see this:
This is where the Cristalla was once joined with the run-down old Commodore Hotel. The Commodore was demolished in 2006; that's three years this shabbiness has been there. You'd think that somebody from the multi-million dollar condo building could apply $20 worth of plaster to improve things. The old Bethel Temple's exterior had its own problems as it aged, but nothing that was so pronounced. And they had a good excuse for not attending to those problems - they were broke. What's the Cristalla's excuse?
I've never been opposed to development. Recent projects like the YWCA, the Simons Senior Apartments and the Mosler Lofts are welcome additions to the neighborhood. The Cristalla clashes with the buildings around it and with itself. It might be a cool, pricey place to live, but it does nothing for Belltown.
Oh, and if you've got a spare $1.8 million, you can buy the steel-framed pergola on the corner:
It pays tribute to the pool's original dome. Think about it! Unless you buy it, it'll just stay empty and never live up to its potential as an unsuccessful restaurant.
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