Brick wall with assortment of paintings
Photographing Public Art,  Street art,  Travel galleries,  Washington State

Gallery: the street art of Pioneer Square

Pioneer Square was once the heart of Seattle, home to the city’s first permanent white settlers. But in 1889 their wooden buildings burned in the Great Fire of Seattle, to be replaced by imposing brick and stone ones in the then-fashionable Romanesque Revival style of urban architecture. At the same time the city’s streets were raised several metres to combat problems of sanitation and flooding.

This reconstruction happened very quickly, as the fledgling city was quite affluent and could afford to rebuild. This, plus the fact that only a handful of architects designed most of the buildings, resulted in an extraordinarily harmonious appearance.

The area thrived during the 1890s gold rush, when thousands of would-be miners headed to Alaska. Many passed through Seattle and boarded their ships here in Pioneer Square. But this era of prosperity was short-lived, and soon the district was in decline as the city centre moved northwards. It rapidly turned into an area of seedy taverns and bawdy hotels. A positive result of this was that the 1890s buildings remained relatively intact and unchanged.

They were threatened with demolition in the 1960s, when a ring road was to be routed through here, but thankfully campaigners were successful in blocking the plans. Local architects recognised the value of the old buildings and started to restore them; businesses began to move back into the area; and Pioneer Square gradually became the vibrant district it is today.

The old network of streets still lies beneath and is a popular tourist draw. We considered visiting, but changed our minds and decided instead to spend our time exploring the area’s architectural details and street art.

Chief Seattle

There were a number of totem poles and totem-pole-inspired pieces. We also saw the monument to Chief Seattle or Chief Sealth (the latter is a more accurate Anglicisation of his name). He was the leader of the Suquamish tribe in the mid nineteenth century and has become famous for a speech he is popularly supposed to have made which emphasises the importance of the environment and man’s connection to it:

‘Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.’

Chief Sealth was an important trading partner for Doc Maynard, who established the trading post on the Puget Sound. This was to grow to become a great city, named for its founder’s friend – Seattle.

Street art

So join me on an exploration of Pioneer Square’s street and public art, in a belated contribution to the Photographing Public Art challenge.

I visited Seattle in 2017


  • Julie

    I love Seattle — thank you for sharing the wood pieces. I am hoping we go there towards the end of the year. My husband has some family there. Plus I think we’re ready to take our soon-to-be one-year old travelling.

  • rosalieann37

    I’ve been to Seattle twice – most recently in 2011 and before that I spent two weeks there taking a class in 1994. (I have also spend weeks in the Chicago area taking classes – usually in January) I only went to Pioneer square on the first trip. I took three photos of which only one is available now. This is what I wrote about it at the time:

    Pioneer Square, Seattle’s oldest neighborhood, is now a historic district. This was the home of the original “Skid Road,” a term born when timber was slid down Yesler Way to a steam-powered mill on the waterfront.

    There’s twenty city blocks of historic buildings, over thirty galleries, a retail sector (expensive antiques to handmade toys, but especially books), most of the web development companies and it is the center of Seattle’s nightlife. Smith Tower, which overlooks the square, was the tallest building west of the Mississippi when it was completed in 1914.

    Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park is a small museum recalling the crazed days a century ago when rough-and-ready gold-seekers converged on Pioneer Square on their way to the Yukon.

  • mtncorg

    Alas, the homeless have taken over and its vibe is not so great today, much like further south in the Rose City. It used to the center of town, then very rundown. Gentrification happened and now ….

    • Sarah Wilkie

      That’s a shame. It’s only four years since we were there but I guess that’s long enough for it to have changed. It’s the way of cities to be continually evolving, with waves of improvement and decline it seems.

  • maristravels

    I only spent a night there enroute from Vancouver to Hawaii, many years ago, so I can’t comment on the city really. I remember we had a gorgeous meal there and ventured just a few streets down from the hotel – which wasn’t one of the better ones at that time. I have since been told that Seattle and Chicago are somewhat similar in that they were built by a few architects after a near total destruction of the city and the buildings that resulted changed the city forever. Would you think so?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I haven’t been to Chicago so I can’t really compare. I was supposed to go in September 2020 but you can imagine what happened to those plans! Now hoping for 2022 …

    • maristravels

      You’ll love Chicago when you do get there. If they still run them, try and book a tour with the volunteer ‘real Chicago’ natives, one of whom will be your guide for a day or half a day and take you to places the tours don’t and many that aren’t mentioned in the guide books. The one we had managed to get us a backstage tour of the Chicago Theatre and the Nederlander Theatre and helped us get good seats for The Comedy Store one night. We booked her through the Tourist Board before we left as we’d been told about this service (it’s free by the way, but you buy them lunch).

      • Sarah Wilkie

        Thanks for the suggestion, it does sound like just the sort of thing I’d enjoy. But I’m going for a Virtual Tourist meeting hosted by a local member and I believe he has some ‘secret’ places in mind to show us, as well as the big sights 😀 He’s also a very keen photographer and is planning a walk just for the photographers among us, to show us some different angles and locations!

  • Anonymous

    Your post makes me homesick for Seattle. My first husband and I went to Seattle every three weeks to see his mom. We did take the Underground tours, But I don’t have any pictures of the great city, so I’m loving yours!

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