Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Emerald City


The first time I set my eyes on Seattle I was smitten. It was not merely an infatuation, no I was in deep passionate love with it. My family had made the trip from California in a bright red plymouth station wagon that had huge tailfins and featured the last row of seating facing backwards.  That is where I sat, so I saw everything from Oakland to Seattle backwards. By the time the "Trees of Mystery" appeared, it was actually disappearing.  I could cry out to stop, but it was always too late. Yeah, that wagon was perfect for my dad.  He finished each day of travel evaluating the "time" we were making. If he had his way we would have packed sandwiches and peed in a coffee can on each trip.

We were actually headed for the 1962 Century 21 Worlds Fair. Now, being the first worlds fair in the US since the end of World War II, expectations were high, and it turned out to be a spectacular success. It featured John Graham's "take that sputnik!" Space Needle, the sleek alweg monorail, and a slew of inventive architecture.  Every day we were there was sunny and the views of Mount Rainier were amazing. To a six year old kid that already knew he wanted to be an architect, it was pretty intoxicating. When we left the fair and headed for home, I knew I was destined to return.

It took about 18 years, but I was true to my word. I now had my architectural degree and was ready to become the Frank Lloyd Wright of the Pacific Northwest. On my way there I experienced Mt. Saint Helen's eruption and I guess I should have taken that as a warning. I arrived only to quickly learn that there were already some amazing architects there. In fact, no one really was waiting for me. They were well into the development of "the Northwest Style" and I stood in awe of the homes that Ralph Anderson was designing. I loved Fred Bassetti's fusion of scale with northwest materials. I tried to figure out which way Yamasaki's Rainer Bank building was going to fall (it hasn't!) And I gasped at concrete as a finish when Olson and Walker redefined northwest urban living in their masterpiece Pike and Virginia condominiums just above the original Starbucks at the Pike Place Market.

Seattle was an exciting place to be. It was time when the Mt. Hood floating bridge just disappeared one morning. It was when whack jobs committed suicide by driving all the way through ferry boats into the Puget Sound. Gary Larsen was living there and drawing his "Far Side" cartoons. It was also a time when you could watch the pure class of Lenny Wilken's guiding Downtown Freddie Brown and Jack Sikma as they won game after game at the Kingdome.

It was a time when the best advice came from Ivar Haglund to just "Keep Clam". Ivar hosted a kids show, owned a slew of restaurants, bought the fireworks for us each year, and flew his big fish kite above the Smith Tower (in defiance of Seattle's flag law where only the American flag was allowed to fly). Ivar just flew whatever he wanted and paid his fines to charity.

I got my first job in architecture at a big firm and hated it. In retrospect the only thing job number one did for me was provide the venue to meet my future spouse, and make me realize that after five years in college, I really knew almost nothing about my chosen profession. The other consolation prize was that I also met lots of great (and some not so great - but interesting) people. When job number two came along (at a firm on Lake Union that did condos), I was pretty humble and finally ready to really learn. Although small, it had both architects and engineers and everyone was willing to teach "the kid" the tricks of the trade. I loved it.

Since I had almost no money I discovered Seattle as a pauper. I enjoyed its parks and its views. I rode my bicycle pretty much everywhere. Sometimes I'd ride for days at a time. I hiked the cascades, and I rode the ferry boats. If my wallet was full I'd go skiing. If not, there was always volleyball games with friends at Green Lake and a free concert or play in Volunteer Park.

Now when I return as the "out of town expert" I move comfortably on the other end of the economic scale. While I have enjoyed both ends, the hotels are better if you bring lots of money. I like The Sorrento, The Inn at the Market, and The Alexis, but all the chains are there too. That said, aside from the magnificent Fairmont Olympic, I think the boutique hotels are better. Nowadays, The Watertown, the refurbished University Inn, and the Hotel 1000 have joined the top ten lists. The local Silver Cloud chain has a very nice moderately priced hotel at Lake Union as well. Of course for funk, there is the Hotel Max or the Edgewater (the temporary over water hotel built for the fair...) where along with Steve Goodman you can still "fish from your window".

So after seeing it from both sides, here is what I suggest for a visitor. First off, assume it will rain. If it does, it won't be a big deal, since "you expected it". If it doesn't, you will smugly tell everyone back home "gee it never rained while I was there!"

Plan to stay downtown or perhaps in the lovely and very walkable Queen Anne neighborhood. If you rent a car, leave it at the hotel as much as possible and walk.  Walk to "The Market" (locals refer to the Pike Place Market as just "the Market") and enjoy the fish mongers as they yell and toss fresh Alaskan Salmon over their shoulders. Enjoy the fresh flowers, drink coffee, and buy some crafts or fresh honey. The market is a sensory overload. It is noisy. It is smelly. It is a dazzling array of colors all set above a spectacular view of the Puget Sound. Come Saturday and watch the parade of rich "East Side Ladies" arriving in their euro wheels to go to Sur La Table and "pick up a little something".

Nowadays the Kingdome that once anchored the south edge of downtown is only history. It was one of those stadiums built before commercial sponsors bought naming rights. It kind of looked like a big wart on a parking lot (some things don't change) and was promised to be one of those "wonders of the world" that would keep spectators warm and dry while for both baseball and football games. It did keep everyone warm and dry but had falling structural bits coming down and didn't really serve baseball or football all that well. It also had horrible acoustics (almost destroying an amazing Eagles/Linda Ronstadt concert). So after only 23 years it fell to the wrecking ball. It was replaced by the sorta retro, sorta roofed, sorta wierd, Safeco Field and the Seahawks new clam winged Qwest Field. So football is now played in its own home and baseball is played in its own home and spectators for both are once again cold and wet. Yes, the sports world is right again.

Adjacent to the stadiums is the genesis of Seattle: Pioneer Square. It has always been there and it has always had it own unique persona. It was the original "Skid Road" where logs from local forests were skidded over wooden planks to the mills and boats waiting at waters edge. When the wood stopped skidding the name took on its modern meaning. To this day the bums are still there every day. It is always a little strange to me to see yuppies and the homeless sharing Pioneer Square. It is where ancient taverns sit side by side with pricey boutiques and linen clad restaurants. Actually, what you see in Pioneer Square today is mainly the second story of most buildings as the City raised the street to avoid tidal flooding. So at one time it was possible to fall a full story off the street to the storefronts below. Amazingly, many of those original storefronts are still down there and visible on the "Underground Tour".

The International District is just east and north and of Pioneer Square and is a wonderful place to go for a Japanese or Chinese lunch.

With its location near farms and the sea, food is a big part of life in Seattle. It is a land of abundance. People demand to know the origin of their clams and mussels. So restaurants in Seattle are superb. It is impossible to be "on top" of the restaurant scene. There are the Classic's like Ray's Boat House at Shilshole (the sablefish in sake kasu keeps me coming back over and over), McCormick's Fish House, and The Dahlia Lounge. And, if you make a reservations 2-3 weeks in advance and bring a very nice nice suit, you can enjoy a visit to the legendary, if not almost impossible to drive to, Canlis.

More touristy (yet great) are all of the restaurants that are legacy to Ivar Haglund.  Of all of Ivar's restaurants I like the Salmon House on Lake Union best of all. There you will enjoy the best alder smoked salmon in the world, watch the lakeside patrons feed the gulls and watch and endless parade of yachts and sailboats heading from Lake Union to Portage Bay. You can sip your Manhattan style clam chowder and be served by one of Ivar's legendary waitresses. I'm conviced many of them have served me over and over for decades, yet they clearly still enjoy watching visitors from around the world find out how salmon should really taste. In most American cities kids "hate" seafood and limit thier intake to (gag) fishsticks. In Seattle, kids grow up loving seafood and are a bit cautious about too much intake of red meat.

But...if you do want a steak, you are in luck. Open your wallet and head for El Gaucho or the Metropolitan Grill. 

For casual fare, get a pizza by the slice at Pagliacci's or get the whole pie at the Northlake Tavern. This is where the Red Robin chain started so you can expect fine burgers (at Dicks or Kidd Valley).

Finally there is coffee and desert.  There are intersections in Seattle (I am not making this up) where there is a Starbucks on two or three corners. Yet locals seem to love Tully's. Me, I love the velvet foam lattes at any Uptown Espresso. Of course the classic place for coffee and desert is the B&O espresso on Capital Hill.  This place plays a cameo in like every movie ever shot in Seattle. It is yuppies, goth's, emo's, and old hippies all slam danced into rooms of red velvet kitsch.

Chocolate is also big in Seattle (mood altering foods become essential for locals in order to endure the rain and  titanium skies most of the year). The local favorite used to be Marshal Field's Frango's from the old Frederick and Nelson store downtown (now Nordstrom's flagship store). Now there is also the joys of Theo's and Oh! Of course the one that started it all is still there too - Dilletante.

Besides eating there are wonderful museum's (I like the old Seattle Art Museum - now home to the Seattle Art Museum's Asian Art collection) in Volunteer Park. There is the Experience Music Project (EMP). And don't forget the Woodland Park Zoo, or a visit to see the rhododendrons in the "U" arboretum (February to May).

In addition to fine art Seattle also has some great and some not so great public art. The great stuff (in my opinion) is all in the Fremont District. The best is probably the larger than life volkswagon bug eating troll that lives under the north abutment of the Highway 99 (Aurora North) bridge. The next best is the frozen-in-time commuters waiting in a bus shelter for the "Interurban" which will never show up. The commuters have been very affectionately adopted by the neighborhood and are typically festooned for nearly every holiday. One piece of lore is that the face of the self-proclaimed "Mayor of Fremont" who was vocally opposed to the piece has been immortalized on the face of what should be the dog whose head is seen poking between the legs of the riders. The worst public art is anything that involves rocks.  For a decade the City bought a lot of rocks disguised as art.       

The Seattle music scene runs the gamut from the blues to grunge to the Wilson sisters (Heart). It even lets the Valkyries take flight each year for its Wagner festival (if you think grunge was "out there.....").

For peace and quiet rent a bike and pedal the Burke Gilman Trail. Or watch the boats go up and down at the Hiram Chittendam locks. Or do what I did as a broke, fresh out of school architect, go people watch at Alki Beach, peruse the racks at REI, or walk on a ferry boat bound for anywhere at sunset and just enjoy the ride.

Roadboys Travels © 2008

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