As architects, we like to think of buildings as essentially stable—once completed to our design, we expect them to remain unchanged works of art. Yet I was reminded recently by a comment from one of my students just how often buildings are changed.
I was taking students in my “Seattle Architecture” class on a walking tour in Pioneer Square and the lower part of downtown, when one of the students remarked, “It’s a historic district, so I thought all the buildings would be like they were originally, but instead, almost every building has been altered!” The student was right, of course. Making Pioneer Square a historic district in 1970 protected the buildings from demolition; however, most of these buildings reveal an evolution over the previous 80 years, and many show alterations during the past 40 years, as they have been adaptively reused.
One example is the two-tone building at the southeast corner of S. Jackson Street and Occidental Avenue S.—the building now known as the Washington Shoe Building. The brick of the lower four floors is an orangey red, while the upper two floors are maroon. The combination seems quite unusual—why would anyone make such an odd choice?
In fact, it wasn’t always this way. Before the exterior was cleaned in 2000, the building appeared monochromatic. Only with the cleaning did the color difference appear. The explanation is found in its history.
The original building was a project of John M. Frink, who, by the early 1880s, was a partner in a foundry and machine shop located at Jackson and what is now Occidental. That facility was destroyed by the 1889 fire and reconstructed at another location. During 1891–92, Frink went forward with the construction of a four-story wholesale warehouse on the vacant site. Designed by architects Boone & Willcox, the building featured load-bearing exterior masonry (brick trimmed with stone) and a heavy-timber interior frame typical of post-fire construction.
By 1901, the primary occupant of the structure was the Washington Shoe Company—they would remain as tenants for eight decades. The company name was painted on the north and west façades, above the third-floor windows, and the building came to be called the Washington Shoe Building. It retained the name even after it was acquired by Sam Israel in the mid-1940s.
Fortuitously located, the building was expanded upward with two additional floors in 1912. Although similar to the original, the brick walls and arched window openings by Blackwell & Baker were more restrained than those of the lower floors. By 1936, with the building no longer used for manufacturing, the storefronts facing the streets were “modernized” with the addition of Art Deco stone facings and black tiles.
In the late 1990s, the building owners, the Samis Land Company, commissioned architects Ron Wright & Associates to update the building, with parking in the basement, retail uses on the first floor and office tenants above, while restoring the exterior in accordance to the guidelines of the Pioneer Square Historic District. The interior was completely upgraded with new systems as well as seismic bracing designed by structural engineers Coughlin Porter Lundeen. In fact, Ron Wright recalls that they had just finished securing the new steel moment frame in place on February 28, 2001—the day of the Nisqually Earthquake!
Puget Sound Masonry was entrusted with the restoration of the exterior. The signage was protected, but otherwise the brick was cleaned. When the cleaning began, it was a complete surprise to everyone that what had appeared to be monochromatic brick turned out to include two colors beneath the years of accumulated grime.
We can only speculate about what must have happened. In 1912, when Blackwell & Baker designed the addition, the 1892 building must already have been severely discolored. That was a time when coal was commonly used for heating, and the building was adjacent to the rail yards with dozens of coal-burning steam engines passing by daily. Rather than matching the original, the architects and owners chose a brick closer to the color in 1912. Even if the color was not quite a perfect match, within a few years, the building soon presented a unified appearance—and it continued to do so for more than 80 years thereafter!
Today, in the right light, especially when the afternoon sun falls on the west side of the building, the color variance is quite apparent. The difference may be a mystery to most observers—just part of the quirkiness that defines Pioneer Square.