By Ron van der Veen with Susan Jones
Photography by Nathanael van der Veen

A view of the viaduct in silhouette.

In my previous post about the demise of Seattle’s notorious viaduct, I tried to revel in its undoing. But, honestly, after rereading the article, I came away a bit unfulfilled. I felt my limited literary chops didn’t adequately express my disdain for what I referred to as “a hideous monster that sucked the soul out of Seattle.” I asked ARCADE’s managing editor, Erin Kendig, for another shot at it. 

After scouring Thesarus.com for better deleterious (found that one there!) adjectives concerning SR 99, I happened to run into Susan Jones, the founder of atelierjones LLC.* She has truly been an architectural pioneer in Seattle. While the rest of us espoused the importance of vibrant city dwelling in the 1990s and 2000s, at the same time commuting from our cute, single-family neighborhoods, she was living it. From 1991 to 2015 Susan’s family resided in the iconic Hillclimb Court on Western Avenue. Designed in the early 1980s by Olson/Walker Architects, it is still one of my favorite urban housing projects in Seattle. More importantly for this article, it faces the viaduct.

I asked Susan if she would meet me later to share her thoughts on living next to the viaduct for over two decades:

Ron: Let’s meet to talk more about this in the next two weeks. I want to give you time to think about your exper—

Susan: Shush! Ron, do you hear that? 

Ron: Hear what? 

Susan: That’s right! You don’t hear that hideous monster anymore! Like you said, ding dong the witch is dead! A new peace has come over downtown Seattle for the first time in seven decades!

Ron: Wow, you have a great point there. Let’s talk a bit about your experience living in Hillclimb next to the viaduct. Such a vital building in our architectural history. You lived on the west side, didn’t you? 

Susan: “Live” might be a stretch. And it has nothing to do with the design. You are right about its iconic nature. But it was next to that dang viaduct. Let’s start with the noise. It became a way of life. The thundering ramp-up started at 4 a.m. with the first wave of commuters.

Ron: That is early! 

Susan: Yes! I used to tell incredulous friends that the viaduct was just like having an ocean outside your door—really, just white noise! So lovely. Just like the sands of Big Sur. And usually, right around 10 p.m., when the traffic finally calmed down, I could almost convince myself that I actually did live by the sea … sort of. 

Ron: You must have a vivid imagination …

Susan: Just as my family started to get used to the strange late-evening calm, we’d be interrupted by an alcohol-induced, excitable, hyper-crowded car screaming down the almost quiet road (Yes, 2 a.m. was actually, really, mostly silent, except for those screaming last-callers)!! It was typically around 4 a.m. when I could really start getting some sleep, but then the early bird special started again.

Ron: That sounds a bit rough, especially with children. You had mentioned something to me years ago about the grime of the viaduct. I had never really considered that before.

Susan: The filth! Not just dirt. Not just pollution. Imagine a mother of two worrying about all of those diesel particles lodging deep down in the beautiful newborn lungs of her children.

Because of the tire grit, we could honestly never open our windows despite being just 200 yards from the ancient, beautiful arc of water that Princess Angeline made her home on for decades. And I don’t mean just grit—that is too nice of a word. I mean the kind of greasy, black fibers that would lodge in between the once-good window seals and accrue over years in your window frames, down to the floor, onto walls. And that is if you never, ever opened your windows, EVER!

Ron: What about the views? You have to admit you had some of the best views in Seattle.

Susan: Some folks in our building had the good sense (and the deep pockets) to live above the viaduct’s top level. The problem was we didn’t. It was the courtyard that really sold us. Seemed simple and beautiful enough. Semipublic space for small kids to ride small bikes, play kid soccer and baseball. Moms and dads sharing glasses of wine in the terrace watching their five-year-olds wobble around on training wheels. That kind of thing. All good, urban community living.

The problem started when we looked west. What we saw was mainly a wall colored a kind of brown/green that can only be described as “pock-marked moldy old concrete” above our eye level. It was like being smacked in the head, over and over again, with the relentless rush of the cars and cement. And the smacking continued on our lower deck, except here we could actually see the cars, the trucks, the sirens, the crotch-rocket motorcycles screaming as we woke up to feed our babies during the night. Between the top deck on our foreheads, and the lower deck on our necks, I thought of it as a guillotine!

Ron: So Susan, I feel like you are really getting at the emotions I tried to express in my previous post, but on such a great visceral level. I am getting the impression you didn’t participate in many of the viaduct memorial celebration events last month.

Susan: (She doubles up laughing, then stops, looks very seriously into my eyes, which turned out to be a bit intimidating). Ron, you know me. I am usually a very sensible, amiable, and open-minded person, but that monster got to me. The viaduct being dead might be the greatest personal urbanistic milestone in my life! Now, just get that sucker down! 

How does one put a dollar value on children’s lungs, or the 15 years of lost sleep, or the oozing grime, or not even being able to open a window? 

I just have a deep gratitude to all who worked so diligently to get the thing down. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! Just get the thing down.

Ron: Wow, this has been amazing, Susan! I didn’t even have to buy you a drink or lunch to get all of this great information. You just basically wrote the article for me! 

 

Susan left our encounter whistling something I initially couldn’t make out. Then it hit me: It was Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead …

*Though Susan’s contribution to this article is undisputed, Ron was not able to confirm that his encounter with her actually occurred exactly as noted. 


On top of living urbanistically; espousing deep sentiments and ideas during chance encounters along a much quieter Western Avenue; raising kids; and leading the architectural firm atelierjones LLC, Susan Jones, FAIA, occasionally teaches architecture at the University of Washington Department of Architecture.

Ron van der Veen, FAIA, is ARCADE’s long time Side Yard correspondent. He scours the design professions to expose their idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies with usually self-deprecating humor. He is also a principal at NAC Architecture and disdains most large urban megastructure projects designed primarily by engineers.

Nathanael van der Veen, Ron’s son, has provided photography for both this post and Ron’s previous tirade about the viaduct. He is studying photography at the University of Washington and is on the UW Boxing team.


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