Conveniently located between the State Capitol complex, just a few blocks to the southwest, and the center of downtown Olympia, to the northeast, the Olympia Greyhound Bus Depot was built as the hub for an extensive network of bus routes serving west and southwest Washington and providing links to Tacoma, Seattle, and the north Sound. Once a center of activity, the building remains Olympia’s Greyhound terminal today, but the network of bus routes has withered to service extending north and south along Interstate 5.
Beginning in the 1910s and 1920s, bus transportation developed as an essential component of intercity public transport as western Washington grew rapidly. The capital required for starting a bus line was relatively low, so the field initially attracted many small operators. In the areas already served by electric interurban railways, early bus lines often provided feeder service to interurban stations, and interurban operators began to add buses as an extension to their operations. However, in Olympia and southwestern Washington, which lacked interurbans, buses provided the first reliable intercity public transportation.
In the 1920s, even as bus service expanded, coordination of routes and economies of scale fostered consolidation in the industry. In 1922–23, the Seattle-based North Coast Transportation Company (which went by the name North Coast Lines) acquired the Thompson & Smith Transportation Company. This added bus routes south and west of Tacoma to North Coast’s already-expanding Puget Sound bus network and its system of interurban lines linking Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett, as well as Mount Vernon and Bellingham. The next year it began half-hourly service to Olympia and acquired and remodeled an Olympia building as a union bus station (one serving multiple intercity bus operators) for routes connecting to Aberdeen, Shelton, and other small cities and towns.
Although the expansion of intercity bus transportation slowed in the early 1930s, growth resumed after 1935. In 1936 North Coast Lines decided to construct a new terminal in Olympia, which had become the company’s hub for southwest Washington. Seattle architect Victor W. Voorhees (1876–1970) designed the one-story depot; Smith & Gunston of Seattle was the general contractor.
This reinforced-concrete North Coast Bus Depot, which opened in April 1937, consists of two unequal bays extending from 7th Avenue SE at the north to the alley at the south. The open-ended concourse bay accommodates buses, allowing side-loading to and from the narrower bay, the location of the passenger waiting area, ticket office, freight room and, originally, a lunch counter called the Senate Café. The narrower portion of the building extends slightly forward and features a cantilevered canopy with curved corners and a 1930s “streamline” art moderne motif. Aside from a small upward projection at the center of each building bay, the other primary architectural embellishments are simplified art moderne elements such as recessed reveals that create abstract pilasters at the end of the bays and spandrels on either side of the parapet projections. The choice of art moderne celebrated modernity and mobility and may also reflect the growing influence in the bus industry of Greyhound, which was using streamlined designs for most of its new terminals. The building also featured a tower with neon signs.
In 1947–48, Greyhound acquired the North Coast Lines, part of the consolidation of bus transportation that took place in the post–World War II era. Indeed, by the 1950s, few independent operators remained in the Northwest as the national carriers Greyhound and Trailways acquired and rationalized the remaining independent systems. Greyhound made no changes to the Olympia terminal other than the addition of a large illuminated sign over the entrance to the waiting room, removal of the original tower sign, and filling in of the openings in the wall of the concourse bay.
Intercity bus transportation remained stable and profitable until the early 1980s. However, the Bus Regulatory Reform Act of 1982 deregulated the industry and led to route reductions, fare cuts, labor unrest, and reduced cash flow. Bus companies cut unprofitable routes and generally limited their operations. In the late 1980s, Greyhound acquired the financially ailing Trailways leading to elimination of duplicate routes and facilities. Since that time, Greyhound has given up many of its older terminals and moved to leased spaces or smaller buildings. The large terminals in Tacoma and Seattle have both been demolished, and buildings that once served bus transit in cities such as Bellingham have been converted to other uses.
The Olympia terminal is protected as a contributing property in the Olympia Downtown Historic District; any building permit for proposed development of the property would be required to go through heritage review. While this protects the building, it does not require that it continue to serve as a bus terminal.
At present, the Olympia terminal remains the only older purpose-built bus terminal in the Puget Sound region still serving bus passenger transport. It is almost the only surviving evidence of the once robust bus network connecting Pacific Northwest cities and towns.