The new 50-story office tower planned for the site of Rainier Square in downtown Seattle has all the makings of an instant icon — maybe the only office tower ever built to look like a Nancy Sinatra go-go boot.
It is a wild design for one of the most prominent sites in downtown, a building that makes the exuberant public library look downright tame. At a construction cost of a half-billion dollars or more, it will be a demonstration of the city’s economic vigor. But one of the best things about it is that it shows architecture can correct past mistakes. The new building will wipe out the shopping arcade at the base of the Rainier Tower — something that has been a long time coming.
Few today probably remember the building that once stood on the site, the White-Henry-Stuart, or the public controversy that attended its demolition 40 years ago. I personally remember seeing the building only a few times, craning my neck out the car window as my parents took the family on our annual pilgrimage from Spokane to the Space Needle. But the building lives on in photos, and what a majestic thing it was.
It stood 10 or 11 stories, depending on street elevation — actually three office buildings joined by a unified brick and terra-cotta façade running the length of Fourth Avenue between Union and University. Designed to the highest standard of 1908, the ornate White-Henry-Stuart was a signature building for a booming time in the city — part of a grand, never-finished scheme for a harmonious set of commercial buildings on the 11-acre downtown tract owned by the University of Washington. We can get an idea of what it looked like from the near-mirror-image Cobb Building, still standing across the street at Fourth and University. The Cobb and its twin seemingly formed a gateway on Fourth Avenue to the center of town – and it certainly made an impression on this kid every visit to the city.
The entire block was leveled starting in 1974, after a year-long battle between university regents and arts-and-culture organizations – sensitivity toward historic preservation was something new. To be fair, the Rainier Tower that went up at the southeast corner of the block is one of the most memorable Seattle buildings of the period, because of the tapered brandy-snifter base that seems to pop up out of its plaza.
It was as if the rest of the block, where the striking White-Henry-Stuart once stood, was designed to make Rainier Tower seem more interesting by being so deliberately nondescript. The low-rise Rainier Square ranks among the dullest, blandest, least-imaginative urban shopping arcades ever built. On the inside it is a rather quiet three-story galleria — stroll the corridors at midday and beat the crowds. Several stores sit vacant. Seattle traded the White-Henry-Stuart for this?
Rainier Tower will survive the redesign while Rainier Square will go the way of an obsolete strip mall. The new 50-story tower that will take its place may strike some as outré, the same way the Rainier Tower startled Seattle in the ‘70s. The building that will rise next door is even more irregular, with a convex curve toward Fifth Avenue that suggests a foot, a divot at the corner of Fourth and University that suggests a heel, and subtle sculpting of the glass walls that suggest this boot was made for walking.
Developer Wright Runstad and architectural firm NBBJ say they designed the building that way to protect the view of the Rainier Tower from Fifth Avenue. Good as far as it goes, though a new 15-story hotel planned at Fourth and University will rise so high that it will spoil the view from Fourth Avenue. UW regents approved the development deal last week; groundbreaking may occur within three years.
The new tower will be a signature building for the skyline, just as the White-Henry-Stuart was in its day, a building that makes a bold statement about the Seattle of the present. Forty years after a most unfortunate demolition, Seattle will finally get something worthy of the site.