When I arrived in Seattle in the 1980s, one of the ways I learned about the city was simply by wandering around. Taking informal “walking tours” was my way of trying to gain some understanding of an unfamiliar place. Seattle was famous for its downtown historic districts, so Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square, and the International District were some of the first areas I explored. Memories of those walks have faded, but there are unexpected architectural first encounters that I still recall—the interior atria in the Pioneer Building for example, or the Sullivanesque terra-cotta on the Corona Hotel. Another of those memorable experiences was seeing the Walthew Building, a project that seemed so anomalous—so out of place—that I could not imagine how it came to be built. Only later did I learn its peculiar history.
The City of Seattle created the Pioneer Square Preservation District and its review board in spring 1970. The impetus was to protect the existing historic fabric, prevent additional demolitions, review changes, and establish stability to foster continuing rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of the historic buildings. Yet, within just a few months, the board was faced with the review of an entirely new project: the Walthew Building, a commercial office block for Walthew, Warner & Keefe, a law firm that had acquired the Pioneer Square property in 1969 (before the historic district was approved). Their architect was Kenneth St. Clair Ripley (1910–1997), best known for his design of small, modern utilitarian buildings in the Puget Sound region.
The Walthew Building is a square (60 by 60 feet) five-story structure at the northwest corner of the intersection of Third Avenue South and South Washington Street. The upper four floors are office space; the first floor is parking. Because the west portion of the site was a parking lot, three sides of the building are visible. Each side features brick pilasters dividing regular bays of fixed, tilted, gold mirror glass windows, alternating with brick spandrels tilted the opposite direction. The brick, though red, is of a hue markedly different from that used in the area’s historical buildings. The Walthew Building presents a jarring contrast to its context, particularly the Graham Block (1890; now Washington Court Building), directly across Washington Street.
In the early 1970s, there were few reference documents available to help the board frame its evaluation; The Secretary of Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation would not be published until 1978, and the board had not yet adopted design guidelines for new construction. Nonetheless, when the architect and owner presented the Walthew project, the board objected that the design was incompatible with the character of the newly created historic district. Although there were three meetings in which the board reviewed the design, and the owner claimed to have tried to respond to the board's criticisms, the board recommended denial of a Certificate of Approval. At that time, decisions by the Pioneer Square Board were recommendations to the Planning Commission; the commission concurred, noting that both the board and the commission believed the Walthew facades and street level usage did not respect the integrity of the district. Unfortunately, the Seattle City Council did not agree and approved the design with only minor changes. The Walthew Building was completed in 1971.
Six years later, in a Seattle Times essay “Historic Preservation—Can It Be Preserved?” University of Washington professor emeritus and preservation advocate Victor Steinbrueck expressed "serious concerns" about the state of preservation in Seattle and pointed to the Walthew Building as indicative of several issues. Recollecting the effort to halt the project, he recalled city council member Wayne Larkin offering the opinion that “historical considerations should not interfere with business and construction interests”; then Steinbrueck added, “so the only completely new building in Pioneer Square stands as a small monument to the city's political inability to enforce its own preservation law.”
The Walthew Building has stood in Pioneer Square for 47 years. Soon after this article is published, the Walthew Building will be demolished. We should not forget it, however. The Walthew Building should remind us of the kind of development that might have occurred in Pioneer Square had it not been designated as Seattle's first historic district. In 2020, we will celebrate the Pioneer Square Preservation District’s first half century. We should all recognize the extraordinary stewardship that has protected this invaluable resource, and we should thank all who have contributed to its care—preservation board members, city staff, advocates, and others—for countless hours of continued vigilance so that we can all continue to enjoy this extraordinary place.