Another mid-century landmark?

Could the Century Building at 10 Harrison be Queen Anne’s next city landmark? The Queen Anne Historical Society believes it has both architectural and historical significance. Designed by Arne Bystrom and James Greco, the building is one of several distinctive Uptown mid-century modern buildings. With the Power Control Center at 157 Roy Street and perhaps all the surviving buildings of the 1962 World’s Fair, the Century Building documents the resistance of Pacific Northwest architects after World War II to the International Style and to the ahistorical purism its forms represent. The Seafirst Building opposite the public library on Fourth Avenue by the Seattle architectural firm NBBJ, is a good local example of the minimalist International Style. 

Hidden by trees, the Century Building shows the influence of the World’s Fair designers and underscores the strong spirit of Pacific Northwest regionalism. Like 157 Roy St. and the Post Office building at Republican Street and First Avenue North, the Century Building gives up a significant portion of its site to parking. This sacrifice of rentable space to the car documents the apparently unresolved tension between urban and suburban design and the impact of the automobile on mid-twentieth century architecture. 

After World War II, Seattle designers worked to avoid falling totally under the influence of the International Style. It is as if the tobacco leaf capitals of columns at the U. S. Capitol Building or the exquisitely delicate American floral patterns of Louis Sullivan’s late 19th c. skyscrapers somehow grew deeper roots in Seattle than elsewhere. It made no difference to Seattle’s renegades, Yamasaki, Lovett, Steinbrueck, Anderson or Bystrom that Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer were Bauhaus refugees from Nazism or that Philip Johnson had welcomed their work on the East Coast as the cutting edge of modern architecture. 

Architectural historians Grant Hildebrand and T. William Booth in their book about Arne Bystrom and Wendell Lovett, titled, “A Thriving Modernism,” point out that Seattle architects were paying close attention to influential American architects who were also rejecting the International Style canon. They see in the Century Building the influence of Louis Kahn and Paul Rudolph who are known for the creative use of pre- and post-stressed concrete and for the original massing that their experiments with concrete gave them. Hildebrand and Booth also tie the building to the massing of the 1903 Larkin Building in Buffalo by Frank Lloyd Wright, the quintessential American designer. The notable freestanding stair and elevator tower between the offices and the garage along with the projecting concrete beams acknowledge Louis Kahn’s Richards Building at the University of Pennsylvania, while the heavy concrete posts supporting them reflect the brutalism for which Rudolph is known. It is the relationship between the low rising garage and the high-rise office tied together though the elevator and stair structure that recall the Larkin Building. It is also the separate expression of the office block and the elevator/stair tower that echo the service/servant relationship of Kahn’s work at Penn.

The Century Building is a narrow four-story structure with nine bays on Queen Anne and four on Harrison. A driveway on the northern edge of the property accesses the upper floor of the 50-car garage that fills the eastern half of the property. Pre-stressed poured in place concrete beams figure prominently in the building’s distinctive façade that projects about three feet beyond the plane of the hollow yellow brick infill between relatively narrow windows that rise unbroken through four stories. Each bay is marked by a projecting concrete panel. 

“A Thriving Modernism,” nearly skips the Century Building. Rather, they document Bystrom’s phenomenal creations that borrowed the complicated designs of Norwegian stave churches to create modern buildings and wonder why he never did a commercial building. 

The Century Building belongs to ArtsFund an organization that raises money from corporations to support the operating costs of local arts organizations. Ownership of the building was transferred in 1997 by the Bank of America acting on behalf of the Kreielsheimer Foundation. That change in ownership along with the eventual relocation of Classic KING radio station to the building tells a tale of Pacific Northwest philanthropy that adds to the building’s cultural significance. The Century Building bears the stamp of the philanthropic heritage of the Kreielsheimer Foundation managed by trustee/attorney Donald L. Johnson, the Bullitt family and Artsfund, the charity led by Peter Donnelly and Dwight Gee, all of which reshaped how Seattle funds the arts. 

The Kreielsheimer Foundation was established in the late 1975 upon the death of Leo T. Kreielsheimer who left his estate to the arts and education in the Pacific Northwest. His wife Greye McCormick Kreielsheimer also left her estate to the foundation. The Kreielsheimer family had made their money in liquor and real estate. Following Prohibition, salmon canning in Alaska replaced the liquor. In the 1960s, the Kreielsheimers sold their canneries and invested in local real estate. In creating the foundation, the Kreielsheimers appointed their attorney Charles F. Osborn to serve as the individual trustee of the foundation and Seafirst Bank, later the Bank of America, the institutional trustee. Assets were held by the bank. If the two ever disagreed, the individual trustee prevailed. When Osborn died unexpectedly in 1992, his law partner Johnson, a Queen Anne High grad, managed the foundation until is 2000 closure. By then it had distributed over $100 million to arts and education in Washington and Alaska. Johnson and Osborn favored gifts to endowments that ensure the long-time survival of arts organizations. The foundation’s large gifts set precedents that encouraged other groups to fill the void left when it shut down. 

In 1992, the Bullitt family sold KING Broadcasting Company. The bulk of the money funded the Bullitt Foundation, dedicated to environmental conservation. The Bullitts honored their grandmother Harriet Overton Simpson (founder of the Seattle Symphony) and their mother Dorothy Simpson Bullitt (founder in 1948 of King Broadcasting) by retaining Classical KING from the sale and transferring its ownership to Beethoven, a non-profit owned by the Seattle Opera, Symphony and ArtsFund. Before becoming a publicly funded station in 2011, KING continued as a commercial business whose profits, if any, were shared by the owning organizations. Then on June 30, 1999, Johnson transferred the ownership of the Century Building to ArtsFund. In 2001, KING got a permanent home in the building.

There are solid architectural and historical reasons for seeking landmark status for the Century Building. The work preparing the nomination is ongoing. In the meantime, the Queen Anne Historical Society desperately seeks a small one-room office to store its archives and conduct occasional research projects.