Changing City Landscapes: How A Historic Seattle Power Station Became an Arts-Industrial Wonderland
BY NANCY GOHRING // COLOR PHOTOS BY TIM KLEIN
Seattleites know Gas Works Park as a great place to fly a kite and the prime spot in town to watch Fourth of July fireworks (for those who have the patience to lay claim to a patch of grass early in the day).
Just last year added to the National Register of Historic Places, the park juts out into Lake Union at the heart of the city. Climbing the hill to stand on the giant sundial — artfully crafted from bits of glass, ceramic, and stone — families use the shadows of their bodies to tell the time. From that vantage, the skyline fans out below, with the Space Needle on one end and tiny, picturesque houseboats on the near shore.
The before-and-after transformation, from historical industrial hub to sprawling green space. Photo courtesy of PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection, Museum of History & Industry.
A ONE-OF-A-KIND WONDERLAND
At first glance, the park doesn't look quite so idyllic, though. Smack in the middle loom giant, hulking, rusted towers: all that remains of the last gasification plant in the U.S. Is it a park or a decaying industrial site? Thanks to the vision of landscape architect Richard Haag, Gas Works Park is a bit of both.
"There's no question. Hands down it's an incredibly unique park. It's a one-of-a-kind, world-class site," says Allyson Brooks, Washington's State Historic Preservation Officer.
The industrial landscape is now an arresting backdrop for sunny-day destinations. Photo courtesy of Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History & Industry.
One-of-a-kind is right. Tilt your head back and gaze up at six giant tanks grouped together — two stretching as far as 80 feet into the air — all interconnected by zigzagging pipes, draped in metal staircases, and topped off with smoke stacks. Despite the barbed-wire–topped fence, a couple of the towers sport graffiti. Blackberry plants grow up the walls of some sections, snaking their way skyward. Nearby, a covered pavilion crisscrossed with leftover pipes and tanks — brightly painted red, orange, and blue — invites exploration.
The now eye-catching works were once used to convert coal, and later oil to gas, which powered lights, hot water tanks, and other appliances for tens of thousands of people in the region. At one point, there were thousands such plants in the U.S. Gas Works Park hosts the only one left standing.
An original pump house building, refashioned into a family-friendly “play barn.” Photo courtesy of Museum of History & Industry.
Given that discussion of what to do with the site started in 1962 when the City of Seattle acquired it after the plant had shut down, many people strolling through the park may have no idea just how groundbreaking Gas Works Parks is. When the city ultimately decided to turn it into a public place, most people assumed that the structures would be removed.
"What was unique in this situation was a landscape architect convincing a city that an industrial site could be reused as an open space," Brooks says.
No longer needed for oil production, the unique sculptural setting just begs to be Instagrammed.
That's just what Haag did. He explored every nook and cranny of the site, and the idea slowly came to him to keep some of the structures of the old plant. "I had no rock outcroppings and no sacred trees. Not much there except these wonderful iron totemic structures. The more I was around there, the more I bonded with those things. And I thought, ‘Yup, I've got to save them,’" Haag explains in a recently recorded oral history project.
Initially, it seemed most everyone in the city opposed the idea of retaining the structures, with both daily newspapers coming out against the plan. But Haag finally won over the community.
AN INDUSTRIAL HERITAGE
The iconic Lake Union spot is perfect for a stroll, kite-flying, or a breezy steampunk picnic.
While not everyone has always appreciated the equipment at Gas Works Park, it's historically important that the structures were left behind. "I don't think people always recognize the importance of our industrial heritage," Brooks says. “The idea of reusing and rehabbing historical buildings comes naturally, but reusing and rehabbing an industrial landscape isn't natural at all. People look at something like Gas Works and think, 'That needs to be cleaned up.’"
Fortunately, its value as-is has been cemented. "The idea of industrial site adaptation was profound, one which would be copied and reinterpreted over the next 30 years at a regional, national and international level, changing the perception of industrial sites to usable and unique spaces for public enjoyment," wrote Patricia Tusa Fels, an architect, in the application nominating Gas Works for listing in the Historic Registry.
Gas Works Park isn’t just a visual treat in itself; city skyline views are a stunning bonus.
Beyond inspiring other locales, Gas Works has played a unique role in its home city. After it was first opened in 1973, it became a popular site for outdoor concerts, as well as political protests. For a time, it was the launching site for the hundreds of naked bicyclers who famously join an annual nearby parade marking the summer solstice. Today, it's a destination park in the heart of the city.
While Seattleites have been appreciating Gas Works Park for 40 years, it took an unusual amount of time for it to be included on the National Register of Historic Places. The first nomination was submitted in 1990. "Nobody ever questioned the significance of the property," Brooks says. However, the National Park Service, which maintains the registry, wasn't used to listing sites whose designers are still alive. Haag is now 90 years old and he continues to work, lending his unique eye to the lucky few who manage to entice him to take on their residential projects.