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.
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.
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