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A ‘Brutal’ landmark? East Pine Substation the Central District’s unlikeliest candidate for preservation

Tuesday is the deadline for you to weigh in on what might seem to be one of the more unlikely candidates to become a neighborhood landmark — Seattle City Light’s Brutalist, brick-walled East Pine Substation.

The E Pine at 23rd Ave facility will go in front of the  Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board Wednesday “to determine the historic status of the property prior to a SCL proposal to increase the substation’s capacity, security and reliability for the surrounding Central Area, First Hill, and Capitol Hill neighborhoods,” according to the department’s nomination document (PDF) on the property.

The nomination document describes the era of City Light’s investment in architecturally significant infrastructure:

CHS reported on the landmarks process and planned expansion in November. City Light said the expansion project is in its early design phase on a project to make room for future equipment upgrades and build-outs including gate access and security as well as “seismic integrity” of the substation. A community comment period is expected to begin sometime later this year when the design reaches the “30%” milestone. Construction would begin in the second quarter of 2019 with completion expected sometime in 2020.

In determining if the expansion project will be subject to historical landmark controls, the board Wednesday will need to sort out if the 1967-built substation designed by Fred Bassetti & Company in the Brutalist style meets criteria for significant architectural value worthy of preservation.

The big brick walls could be one worthy element:

The structure also has a certain Brutal appeal:

One thing unlikely to be landmarked — the project’s over-budget cost:

From an architectural standpoint, the extra dollars were worth it:

Have the accolades stood the test of time? The landmarks board Wednesday will decide if the substation should move forward in the process to protect the city’s past investment in infrastructure that it believed added, at least architecturally, to its surrounding neighborhood.

To comment on the project, refer to the six designation standards and email erin.doherty@seattle.gov.

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11 thoughts on “A ‘Brutal’ landmark? East Pine Substation the Central District’s unlikeliest candidate for preservation

  1. Does anyone remember when there was a brick stairway to access the upper viewing area? One can still see the railings of the viewing area on the corner of pine and 22nd. I remember wandering up those stairs in the early nineties while in college only to find a bunch of crack pipe and and other gross people leavings. I can’t help but think maybe that’s why they were removed. Maybe for security reasons? Still, it’s one of the cooler looking substations I’ve seen. It sure beats ugly chain link fence or cinder block.

    • Was hoping to get time to add a few more bits of trivia about the station. Here’s more about the tower from the nomination report:

      Children’s Viewing Tower – Located on the northwest corner of the site, this 16’‐tall viewing tower was made up with a series of angled walls, planters, at five levels with connecting steps and landings set atop a sloped plant bed.  The drawing shows a display pedestal with a bronze plaque at the top level of the viewing tower.  This tower was surrounded by foundation planting and ground‐covers.  Due to vandalism, unsupervised activity, and unauthorized access into the switchyard, the viewing tower was closed in late 1976, and sometime after (date unknown), the open landings were filled in.  An SCL renovation and expansion of the switchyard undertaken in 2003, designed by architect Donn Hogan of HDR, resulted in the demolition of portions of the original perimeter walls and construction of new, similar masonry walls on the north and west sides of the expanded switchyard. The expansion required elimination of the play area, and removal of the observation tower base and infilling the former landings (Figures 42‐43, 104‐106, 109‐110, 114).

    • When I moved here in 1997 the viewing tower was at least partially open – you could walk up the steps and look over the yard. Some of the unfortunate “unsupervised activity” that ultimately got it completely bricked up was a neighborhood prostitute that like to take her clients up there for some privacy…. as well it being a nice out of the way place to do drugs.

      I’m not sure of the exact date when the door finally disappeared, but it was probably no more than a year or so later. If I’m recalling correctly they also removed some of the up lighting and covered the rest to prevent people from peeing on the lights at around the same time…

  2. If that’s the only way to keep them from expanding out to the sidewalk with some monolithic new wall, I’m all for it. The depth and variety of planting around it now are what make it bearable and help blend it with the neighborhood.

    • Agreed, the plants are great. I’m also concerned about the noise–as is there is a constant hum. My hope is that there won’t be an increase in volume.

  3. Sounds like the viewing tower was an early example of a safe site for injection etc. why not have a view while you’re high.

    • Once upon a time there was a view tower as a public amenity. Then the riff raff were allowed to take it over. Then it was closed to the public. It reminds me of the path at Lowell school and the green belts all over the city and the bbq and table at Summit Slope Park. Seattle is paying a huge price for taking in lost souls from all over the region and nation, and it is not just the tax dollars. While the homeless population drops across the nation, it explodes here. When are the citizens going to wake up, throw out the Council and close the door? Then maybe we would have the resources to lift up our existing residents that have fallen through the cracks in this tidal wave of gentrification and make it a livable city with vibrant public spaces once again.

  4. Hey jseattle,

    Thanks for this gem of a story…and, many others like it. Your hard work is greatly appreciated.