HISTORY IN PERSPECTIVE | Power Control Center II: New information on 157 Roy St.

What a difference a month of digging in municipal and newspaper archives can do to our understanding of our urban history and our historic buildings.

Last month, I reported on the Power Control Center (157 Roy St.) in Uptown, just east of the Metropolitan Market. Since then, new discoveries have cast refreshing light on the massively powerful 1963 design by the firm of Harmon Pray & Detrich.

This research shows the value of digging deeper and makes this distinctive building more significant in our city and neighborhood history than we previously thought.

Myths dispelled

The most important discovery relates to the description last month of the window on the western side of the octagon that incorrectly suggested, “The building may not have been well protected against nuclear fallout, but the window actually lies outside a second set of lead-lined concrete panels that form the southern wall of a room on whose freestanding, curved wall pin lights followed the flow of electricity anywhere in the city.”

Truth to tell, last month’s article recognized that a window in a bomb shelter was a nutty idea. On the other hand, thinking that anyone would have built a massive set of concrete panels inside another one was just plain wrong.

Not challenging the idea of a bomb shelter built above ground may have been intellectual dishonest, but it was based on the city’s Historic Site Survey completed in 2000, which reported that Power Control Center was “designed to be protected from nuclear fallout….”

Files at the city’s Department of Planning and Development revealed that the second set of concrete panels inside the building formed the exterior walls of the original octagon and that the exterior walls we now see on the southern façade are part of a 1985 addition.

Embarrassingly, that discovery led to the Wikipedia definition that “an octagon is an eight-sided polygon,” with equal sides and internal angles always measuring 135 degrees. What a no-brainer!

So architects Harmon, Pray & Detrich did, indeed, design the western portion of the Power Control Center as windowless octagon whose concrete walls may have been intended to protect the crew monitoring the flow of Seattle’s electricity from radiation in the event of a nuclear bomb.

The hesitancy about the center having been built as a bomb shelter comes from finding out that the 12-inch-thick concrete walls are not lined with lead — another urban myth exploded — and could prove with more digging that City Light never intended the building to protect its workers from radiation! Architecturally distinctive buildings as unique as this one may simply generate their own myths.

The expansion

Whatever City Light’s original need for a Power Control Center, it no longer existed by the 1980s. So, in 1985, the utility enlarged the Power Control Center and converted it to an Emergency Operations Response Center. Microfiche records from 1985 document the addition as the work of Harthorne. Hager.Gross.

To add more space, the firm stretched the octagon, added some small offices and closet spaces on the south side of the main floor and outfitted the much-larger basement with redundant telephone, air conditioning, heating and electricity-generating capacities.

The embarrassingly misinterpreted window is part of the expansion. It is an isosceles trapezoid and fills most of a recessed bay between the old and new panels of the western façade.

Knowing that the southern side of the 1963 octagon was extended and enclosed in 1985 forced further scrutiny of photographs and permit history. One image of the western edge of the site revealed that the set of 34 triangular stone panels now on the site, once extended all the way to the sidewalk and that the decorative wall actually wrapped around the corner of the lot to the north, forming a U-shaped space enclosing a small garden or a place to hide garbage.

Our research also took us to Seattle Times files (Jan. 29, 1963) that show workmen of the Miles Construction Co. lowering a concrete panel into place and proving that the panels were cast off-site and that the decorative stone veneer of each panel received careful factory attention.

The photograph of the panel going into place revealed that each of the eight sides of the building consisted of three 4-ton panels, measuring about 4 feet wide by 18 feet tall.

Modern vs. brutal style

Since last month, we have been told that we incorrectly attributed the Modern style to the building. Brutalism has been urged as a better choice, but research into what constitutes a brutal-style building points to more trouble.

In English, “brutal” means “savagely violent,” but as an architectural style, the meaning comes from the French “brut,” meaning “raw.” A brutal-style building is constructed of raw concrete, with nearly invisible aggregate and with no decorative elements.

The concrete panels of the Power Control Center are its dominant features, but Harmon Pray & Detrich added colorful zigzag spandrels below all the windows and sought decorative relief from raw concrete in large, polished stones of the veneer.

For the time being, we’ll stick with the more forgiving Modern style, of which Brutalism is a subset.

Up until now, the significance of the Power Control Center as a city landmark lay in its distinctive design, in its importance in the history of Seattle’s electrical power generation and distribution fight with Puget Power and in the importance of electricity in Queen Anne’s growth as a streetcar suburb.
Now we can add the amazing respect the architects of the 1985 addition showed the original design and, perhaps, the evolution of disaster planning in the nuclear age.

MICHAEL HERSCHENSOHN is president of the Queen Anne Historical Society (qahistory.org). To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.