By Ron van der Veen
Photos by Nathanael van der Veen

The State Route 99 viaduct viewed from an adjacent building

… Ding dong the witch is dead
Which old witch?
Well, the wicked witch
Ding dong the wicked witch is dead …

I found myself humming this Wizard of Oz anthem over and over on January 11, 2019, the final day of the viaduct’s 65-year reign of terror on Seattle’s waterfront. For some, this day marked the end of a historic engineering achievement that significantly aided Seattle’s emergence as a world-class economic force. For others, this was the day their elevated, unobstructed, 50-miles-per-hour view of Mount Rainier died. And I am sure there was a vast demographic from West Seattle that panicked at the realization that their commute time into the Emerald City had just tripled. 

Yes, there are a lot of people who will miss the viaduct. But with all due respect: it was a hideous monster that sucked the soul out of Seattle from the day it was initially conceived in the early 1930s. Ding Dong, the witch is dead …

As I noted in an earlier ARCADE article about the 520 replacement bridge, great cities of the world like Seattle merit wonderful celebratory portals. After spending so much of my professional life within walking and listening distance of the viaduct, I owe the new Evergreen Floating Bridge a huge apology for calling it one of the least-designed overpasses in human history. The viaduct comes from the same sinister DNA and is even worse!

A King5 television story from early January describes how one of the great Pacific Northwest modernist architects, Paul Thiry, felt about the viaduct when it was being planned. According to the Historic American Engineering Record, in 1947 Thiry prophetically stated that the viaduct was “… a horrible thing to do to a city … Forget building the viaduct and build a tunnel under downtown instead.” During the overpass’s design review by the city planning commission, Mr. Thiry and numerous other civic leaders vehemently urged the state and city to build a tunnel, redevelop the waterfront, and save the city from “an unsightly structure along our very valuable waterfront.” A bit ironic, isn’t it?  

A view of the side of the State Route 99 viaduct

It is interesting to note that calls for the demolition of the viaduct came as early as the late 1960s. A commissioned study done in 1969 advocated again for the tunneling of Washington State Route 99 so the waterfront could be developed with parks and amenities. Variations on this theme persisted over the decades, promoted by a wide variety of stakeholders, and I imagine it doubled in price every time a proposal was considered. As one historian noted (also in the King5 story), this short innocuous stretch of highway has evoked "the strongest emotions—both positive and negative—of any roadway in the country."

Over a decade ago, as the Seattle Times reports, architect and civic activist Art Skolnik unbelievably filed multiple applications with the Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation to have the viaduct named to the National Register of Historic Places. Along the way, there have been other proposals to save all or remnants of the roadway as an homage to its place in Seattle History. I have always advocated treating it like the unified Germans' approach to the Berlin Wall: completely annihilating it and wiping it from our collective memory. 

In a few years from now, we will finally truly appreciate the alternative vision that urban planners and city advocates expressed in the late 1940s. All those who love the Seattle waterfront are already reaping the benefits of not listening to the shriek of traffic and breathing air free from the poison of 90,000 cars per day (though some traffic will return when Alaskan Way is expanded). One of the most picturesque urban waterfronts in the world will finally be visually connected to our great urban core. There will be parks, links to the water, habitat restoration, salmon run enhancement, a multitude of wonderful pedestrian centered spaces.  Sound almost too utopian? Think Emerald City!

As I walk along Western Avenue this afternoon with a now only temporarily obstructed view of Puget Sound I can actually hear myself humming a tune. It’s been a soul-sucking 65 years since a Seattleite could actually do that. Ding Dong, the witch is dead!


Ron van der Veen, FAIA, is a principal with NAC Architecture. He loves singing Wizard of Oz show tunes.

Nathanael van der Veen provided the images for this article. He is studying photography at the University of Washington.

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