On Monday, the Seattle City Council authorized the landmarking of two more structures: one in Capitol Hill and another downtown. The buildings represent two distinctly different architectural periods and purposes. On one end is the Asian Art Museum, a building constructed to serve as a cultural institution for the masses. On the other is the Maritime Building, which was built to serve the burgeoning commissions industry in Seattle. The vote on landmarking was unanimous.

New Landmark: Asian Art Museum

The Asian Art Museum has finally been landmarked after a two-decade long effort. The museum was formally designated as a city landmark on June 21, 1989 by the Landmarks Preservation Board, but it wasn’t until Monday’s vote by the Seattle City Council that specific controls were imposed on the landmark. Part of the landmarking process involves negotiating with the property owner over the type controls that will be imposed on the property. The museum is located in middle of the Olmsted-designed Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill.

The preservation controls will apply to much of the building covering the exterior facade, including the roof, and building interior, such as the first floor, corridors, classic gallery, and library. Preservation controls will also apply to surrounding landscape area to keep the grounds in line with the Hoggson Plan of 1933. However, given that the building is a living museum, there are many exceptions to the preservation controls for exhibits as well as minor installations and maintenance of other site and building features.

The building is significant for a variety of reasons, which is why it earned five separate designation merits under the landmarking criteria. The building is connected to Carl F. Gould, a well-known local architect in his time, who was commissioned to design the building. Constructed in 1933 as the first museum in America using the “Art Moderne” style, which is a Late Art Deco design, the building was ranked a masterpiece in its architectural category.

A recent image of the Asian Art Museum main facade. (City of Seattle)
A recent image of the Asian Art Museum main facade. (City of Seattle)

The Asian Art Museum is undergoing renovation and expansion to facilitate more space for exhibits. Expansion was somewhat controversial given that it would impact some of the landscape of Volunteer Park. Some preservationists believed that expansion would further impair the Olmsted-designed park, which is historic in its own right.

New Landmark: Maritime Building

The Maritime Building pre-renovation. (City of Seattle)
The Maritime Building pre-renovation. (City of Seattle)

The Maritime Building (911 Western Avenue), situated between Western Avenue and Alaskan Way Viaduct, has also been formally landmarked. The building was constructed in 1909 and designed by architect Edwin W. Houghton. The early occupants tended to be light industrial businesses, though use of the building has changed over time. The design of the building is somewhat reflective of the early occupants having been set in the Eclectic Commercial style. The building generally lacks architectural ornamentation. Instead, the building has simple designs that repeat through vertical and horizontal lines. This is highly accentuated through the windows, for instance.

The Maritime Building under renovation and expansion.
The Maritime Building under renovation and expansion.

The building was nominated and landmarked on the basis that “it embodies the distinctive visible characteristics of an architectural style, or period, or a method of construction.” The preservation controls will apply to the exterior of the building only. An addition to the building is underway, which will result in three more stories above the historic portions of the structure. The addition will provide approximately 48,350 square feet of new office on top of the existing building square footage. The interior of the building will be renovated as part of the overall construction work.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for promoting sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He advocates for smart policies, regulations, and implementation programs that enhance urban environments by committing to quality design, accommodating growth, providing a diversity of housing choices, and adequately providing public services. Stephen primarily writes about land use and transportation issues.


  1. P.S. One other point: the square footage being added in the proposed expansion is equivalent to less than half of one of those 8 floors downtown. Why do we go up against the art museum when so many other causes might seem worthier? We wouldn’t, if there weren’t huge problems with this expansion project from the standpoint of environmental and financial sustainability. We are taking climate action by working to protect the park.

  2. As a member of Protect Volunteer Park, the group opposing the taking of parkland for the museum expansion, I offer a different urbanist perspective. The landmark designation itself is routine, old business which is now being completed in order to gain tax credits for the expansion project. The museum expansion is not approved as the article suggests. It needs the City Council to change the zoning code to create a specific exemption for Asian Art Museum from the zone’s bulk and parking requirements. This change is tied to a renegotiation of SAM’s lease agreement which is still being considered at City Hall.

    Transportation at the Asian Art Museum looks distinctly suburban. Free parking is offered at public expense in a city park. The location is minimally served by transit, being the terminus of the #10 bus route, and outside the designated urban village.

    SAM hopes to increase museum visitors by 54% with the expansion. Contrary to SAM’s claim of ample parking supply (based on counting cars in November), we have documented a parking shortage in nice weather which will lead to overflow of parking demand into the residential neighborhood, which is currently zoned single-family and should be expected to gain increased residential density. See our parking study:

    SAM has other potential expansion space which is much more urban, creating an interesting microcosm in which to study urban policy. SAM’s downtown building was built with a large City of Seattle subsidy in the form of a bond guarantee which is still in place. It is very well served by paid parking facilities and also transit, including Link and the future 1st Ave. streetcar past the front door.

    8 floors of SAM’s building were intended as museum expansion space which was temporarily leased to private businesses connected with the families of SAM trustees, in order to finance the construction. Unfortunately one of those trustee families operated a massive fraud at Washington Mutual, leading to the bank’s closure and a shortfall in SAM’s lease revenue which impeded SAM’s ability to finance its share of the the Asian Art Museum seismic retrofit (without expansion) which the voters approved in a park levy. The space is currently leased to Nordstrom. SAM management claims the downtown expansion space cannot be used because SAM needs the lease revenue, which is not being shared with the city.

    SAM uses the Asian Art Museum building under extremely generous terms, receiving free use of the building (owned and maintained by the City), the aforementioned free parking, and a $200,000/year operating subsidy out of the Parks Department budget. Those terms were set down in 1933 and tied to specific public benefits: the museum to be free of charge, 4 days per week. However over time SAM has persuaded City Hall to remove this public benefit while keeping the generous lease terms still in place.

    The museum expansion was approved by the Murray administration as a backroom deal which did not follow the Parks Dept.’s public involvement policy, nor its equity policies which require expanded facilities to be in traditionally underserved areas in urban villages. Privatization of park facilities has been a priority of the Murray administration: see also the long term lease of the city’s Lake Washington marinas to a private operator with the public receiving only 3% of revenues. It will be interesting to see how the new administration addresses these open space and privatization questions. We hope for a change in policy toward financial responsibility and the preservation of green space in Seattle parks, which is all the more necessary and irreplaceable as Seattle grows. The Olmsteds specifically wrote about the psychological benefits of green space in a densifying city, and how those benefits are ruined by visually dominant buildings. For more, see the Olmsted exhibit atop the Volunteer Park water tower which is well worth reading.

    • The expansion project requires a Certificate of Approval from the landmarks board. This was considered separately from the designation and preservation controls discussed here, and approved with two dissenting votes.

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