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The History Behind Seattle Architecture

May 29, 2023 By CityPASS

You can tell a lot about a city by looking at its architecture. A city with lots of old buildings might mean quaint and traditional, while a metropolis filled with high-rises looks to the future. Seattle architecture has both of these things, making it a bit of a unique case. It's rare for a young city to have such a diverse architectural history. Read on to break down the story of Seattle and how it's reflected in its architecture.

Brief Overview of Seattle’s Architecture History

Seattle’s architecture is full of history that has shaped the city into what it is today.

Seattle’s Architectural Influences

While the Seattle you are probably familiar with has only existed for just over a century, it was a century of incredible growth in human history and technological advancement. Seattle played an important role in these advancements as it is the home to the aircraft manufacturer Boeing, hosted the 1962 World's Fair, and helped facilitate the tech boom of the 21st century. When Seattle started growing near the turn of the 20th century, it erected many Neoclassical and Romanesque structures, some of which are still around. Today, it has embraced its reputation as a city of the future — reflected in its modern, steel architecture.

While Seattle features modern and traditional architecture, it also embraces a unique style of design original to the area, known as “Northwest Regional Style.” Due to the frequent rain and overcast weather, many homes embrace internal architecture like large windows and open floor plans to maximize the amount of light residents receive.

The Seattle Box is another popular design featured prominently throughout the city. Originally designed to help the growing population fit into the dense city during the early 20th century, these cute, square homes are still used by Seattle architecture firms today.

Pioneer Square and Historic Seattle

Seattle was first founded in 1852 in an area known as Pioneer Square. Because lumber was plentiful, most of Seattle's earliest buildings were made out of wood. This backfired in 1889 when most of the original buildings were lost to fire. Fortunately, the district was soon rebuilt, but this time with brick and stone. The buildings that popped up embodied the Richardsonian Romanesque style that was popular in many American cities to the east.

Pioneer Square remained largely the same while Seattle grew around it. Then in the 1960s, city officials considered demolishing some of its historic buildings. However, the community rose up to preserve it, and it was declared a national historic district in 1970. The Romanesque buildings that defined it still exist to this day and are protected by the Pioneer Square Preservation Board.

The Rise of the Skyscrapers

Pioneer Square may have been preserved, but the rest of Seattle didn't stand still. Since the time of the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1800s, the city began gathering attention and it was only a matter of time until it developed further.

Hoping to solidify the city’s reputation as a notable metropolis, L.C. Smith bought property on Second Avenue. In 1914, five years after its conception, the Smith Tower opened to the public, becoming the tallest building in Seattle. It would hold this title for almost 50 years until its replacement by the iconic Space Needle. Today, the Emerald City has 118 high-rises, but only the Space Needle and the Smith Tower were built before 1969.

Art Deco and Streamline Moderne

Something of an art revolution occurred after the first World War. Many cities across the U.S. adopted the bold and decadent style known as Art Deco. By taking influence from its existing architect, Seattle's Art Deco architecture resulted in a unique fusion that distinguished itself from the designs of other cities. Examples include Olympic Tower, the Federal Office Building, and the Seattle Tower.

Streamline Moderne is another common design featured in Seattle. Unlike the lavish embellishments of Art Deco, Streamline Moderne focuses on functionality, smoothness, and simplicity. While Streamline Moderne isn't as prevalent as Art Deco, you can still spot its features in Seattle landmarks like the Naval Reserve Armory.

Seattle Center and the Space Age

The 1950s and 1960s are largely remembered for the Space Race between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Since Seattle was the home of Boeing, it was an ideal place to celebrate the nation's technological advancements and aspirations. Thus, Seattle became the host of the 1962 World's Fair, which would define the city's public image for decades to come.

The most iconic architecture that came from the World's Fair was the Space Needle. This Seattle landmark might even be the first thing to come to mind when you think of the city. Conceptualized in 1959 and completed in 1962, it replaced Smith Tower as Seattle's tallest building. The World's Fair also produced KeyArena and the Pacific Science Center, which join the Space Needle in Seattle Center — the original location of the Fair.

Even today, this space continues to evolve and influence the architecture of the Emerald City. The smooth, circular, and metallic buildings you'll find in Seattle are descended from the futuristic look of the World's Fair. This includes the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP), which was designed by architect Frank Gehry and built in the year 2000.

Capitol Hill and Contemporary Architecture

As you can see, Seattle's architectural history is incredibly diverse, but the styles that define it aren't mutually exclusive. Just look at Capitol Hill. This neighborhood continues to be diverse both demographically and architecturally, featuring Neoclassical architecture alongside sleek, modern homes.

Seattle's reputation as the city of the future holds strong today. It continues to be a popular tech hub, and its futuristic tastes continue to influence new projects, such as the Seattle Public Library. Some historic buildings have been lost due to events such as the construction of the Interstate, but Seattle generally fights to protect its history with the help of organizations like the Seattle Architecture Foundation. Though the city cherishes its past, it's not afraid to look to the future. From Downtown to Lake City, Seattle's architecture lays bare its identity.

Don't Wait To Explore Seattle

There's so much more to Seattle's architecture scene, so why not come see it for yourself? With Seattle CityPASS® tickets, you can save on your visit to the largest city in the Pacific Northwest. Our tickets make it easy to get the most from your trip.

Seattle Lodging

To get the most out of your stay in Seattle, we recommend finding lodging near Seattle's top attractions. Use this map to find the right lodging for you:

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