Don't stop with pergola; make Pioneer Square flush

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When an errant 18-wheel truck flattened Pioneer Square Park's 92-year-old pergola Jan. 15, it made us all realize how much this elegant piece of urban sculpture means to the city. Mayor Paul Schell immediately vowed that it would be restored, and not a word of dissent has been heard, for such an action is a public policy no-brainer.

But there's more to the issue than that. When it was built, the pergola was not just a stylish iron-and-glass civic adornment, it was part of a multifunctional work of public accommodation. It gave rain protection to people waiting for the cable cars that climbed Yesler Way and the trolleys that ran on First Avenue. It was also a public landmark, bringing a bit of Parisian flair to a fledgling city emerging from a rough adolescence.

What is less well known is that it also sheltered stairs leading down to grand subterranean restrooms that made up the greater part of the project. The pergola-restroom project was built in part to accommodate an influx of out-of-town visitors attending the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, the city's first big international fair. It was the work of architect Julian Everett, who practiced here between 1904 and 1922, and had also designed the Pilgrim Congregational Church and Temple de Hirsch.

Everett's public comfort station was remarkable. It had five rooms, 61 plumbing fixtures, louvered stall doors, cherrywood toilet seats, and steam heat. Customers using the six grand oak armchairs had their shoes shined for a dime, and soap and towels were available for 2 cents, or were included with access to pay stalls for a nickel. The income from these services paid for the attendants and janitorial services. Most of the facilities, however, were free.

Other features included Alaskan marble stalls, terrazzo floors, nickel-plated brass fixtures and white ceramic tile walls. The comfort station was well lit by glass lenses embedded in the sidewalk and park surface above, as well as by electricity. It was called "the most ornate in the western United States," served two million users a year, and was dubbed "the Queen Mary of the Johns."

In 1910, Pacific Builder and Engineer magazine boasted of its "perfect ventilation, abundance of light, and . . . cleanliness." The four matching cast-iron street lamps above functioned as ventilation chimneys for the restrooms below.

The restrooms were abandoned and sealed off some time in the 1950s, and were later penetrated by structural timbers inserted as part of a 1970s remodeling of the park. In the past few years, Underground Seattle tours has suggested minimally refurbishing the stairs and entrance so that its customers could take a peek at the semi-derelict washrooms. This is an interesting idea, but also a very limited one. Wouldn't it be far better to put the Queen Mary of the Johns back in working order so that it would be a functional monument and public amenity, and not just a private tourist curiosity?

Is the comfort station physically restorable to its original 1909 condition? Not entirely, but reasonably close. Les Tonkin, a restoration architect who is an expert on the restrooms' condition and history, thinks that many of the original fixtures can be refurbished and the others replaced. The architectural surfaces and finishes won't present any problem. "We do work like this all the time," he says. "It's not a big deal for us."

Is such a project politically feasible in a neighborhood famous for its diverse opinions? Seemingly so, since the Pioneer Square Neighborhood Plan states that "the need for permanent, safe, and accessible public restroom facilities is critical." It calls for "new public restrooms . . . staffed and maintained adequately 18 hours per day," and decrees that the "existing restroom facilities under Pioneer Place Park shall be restored." Having attendants on duty would create a double benefit since it would provide some welcome jobs in an area of above-average poverty and unemployment.

The park itself could also benefit from an overhaul. Its rough cobblestones, installed in the early 1970s as part of a park redesign, are neither friendly to pedestrians nor respectful of the past. Local historian Walt Crowley, author of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's guidebook to Seattle, calls them "absolutely faux," and says "there's no historical precedent for them."

This is confirmed by photos circa 1910. Clearly, when Seattle built its stylish pergola and grand comfort station, and put on an international expo, it was announcing that a once-rough frontier town was becoming a polished little city. The heavy rustic paving installed in Pioneer Square Park six decades later repudiates those earlier metropolitan aspirations.

The recently passed parks levy allocates nearly $900,000 for work on Pioneer Square Parks and Occidental Square Park. Given an attractive purpose and a compelling idea, it should be possible to raise private funds to supplement the public parks budget and the insurance reimbursement for the damaged pavilion.

The new century is a perfect time to fix the pergola, restore its restrooms and re-urbanize the park, to show that Seattle hasn't lost ground since 1909.

John Pastier is a design consultant and a frequent author of architectural criticism. He resides in Seattle.