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The Viaduct: The Inspiration

Dominic Black

In our four–part series we are looking at the history and the meaning — yes, the meaning — of the concrete behemoth, the Alaskan Way Viaduct.


I moved to Seattle to live about three years ago, but before that I visited here every year for about ten years. And it always seemed to me that every single year I'd come here, I'd turn on the radio and hear news stories like these:

Various KUOW Staff: "The never–ending quest to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct inched forward this week. A new study says all options for replacing the viaduct would eventually generate more money than they would cost. But yesterday Governor Gregoire and state legislative leaders said the tunnel plan is dead – Maybe. Seventy percent of voters said no to a waterfront tunnel. So all eyes are now on the Governor. Christine Gregoire, Seattle Mayor Greg Nichols, King County Executive Ron Sims said a bored tunnel is the best option for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct."

So, lots of to–ing and fro–ing about what should be done with the Alaskan Way Viaduct. But what's always fascinated me is why it was built in the first place. Because after all, at some point in the dark benighted past, this thing must have seemed like a good idea. I mean, to me, it's fascinating to think that the viaduct, which nowaday is only ever spoken about as a problem, was once a solution. It was once a great idea. It used to be cool.

Even now it's an impressive structure. It's thick and it's chunky and it's hunkered down here along the waterfront. It's sort of plain speaking in a city where you don't often get a lot of plain speaking. But to really get a feel for it you have to walk on it, which is what I did with Ron Paananen. He's an engineer and he really gets the nuts and bolts of how a highway like this works. He's also the supervisor for the Viaduct and Seawall Replacement Project.

So here's what you find out when you take a walk with him on a Saturday morning on the echoey, lower deck of the viaduct: It's literally wearing out.

Paananen: "Especially in Washington state, especially where studded tires are allowed, the fine sand and cement get worn away and you get that texture on the surface where you can see the rocks and the pebbles, and occasionally the reinforcement."

Black: "Oh yeah, you can see there the steel rod, steel bar. It's really, probably not that safe any more."

Paananen: "The lanes are narrow. This curb and this railing do not meet modern safety standards. We've learned a lot about how vehicles respond when they hit curbs and railings and you'll notice the newer barriers look a lot different than this."

It's green. There's moss and there's weeds actually on the viaduct itself, and hubcaps and other bits and pieces that have fallen off the 110,000 vehicles that use it every day. It's filthy and it's —

Paananen: "It's utilitarian in its design but functions very well."

Black: "Utilitarian meaning ugly?"

Paananen: "Some people say its ugly. It's not a particularly attractive structure but built to the standards of its day in the 50s. And bridges at that time were generally built with the lowest cost in mind."

Before they started building, that cost for the viaduct was projected to be $6,287,398. The final bill for the work though was over $10 million. Not including the price of the off–ramps to downtown, which came later. Roughly a quarter came from the state, a quarter from the federal government and the rest — which was nearly $6 million — came from the City of Seattle.

And as we'll hear later in the series, at the time it probably seemed like money well spent. Seattle's always been a town where we like to make hay while the sun shines, and after a brief post–war slump, the sun was definitely peeking through the clouds in Seattle. And as the 1950s arrived, so did lots of work, lots of houses — and eventually lots and lots of cars.

Sullivan: "Well, everything's drive–thru."

Michael Sullivan's a writer and architectural historian.

Sullivan: "I mean suddenly, you know, everybody's living in the suburbs. The sort of repetitive efficiency that won World War II for the Americans. I mean, mass producing of military equipment and everything was converted over to the automobile and to housing in the suburbs. "

Chevrolet ad: "The magician sale at friendly Chevrolet."

Sullivan: "The great architectural innovation is that the front door disappears and the garage door takes over the front facade. The houses built after the war are distinguished by huge garage doors and huge picture windows."

Chevrolet ad: "See the clowns every afternoon with free balloons and candy for the kids at friendly Chevrolet."

To get your huge car for your huge garage though, you needed work. And for those best placed to enjoy the new economy jobs were in plentiful supply. Here's Lorraine McConaghy, the public historian at the Museum of History and Industry.

McConaghy: "The post–war recession was over, Seattle was growing, burgeoning. Employment at Boeing was going through the roof. In the GI– Bill–suburbs, both north and south of Seattle in the 1950s and 1960s, Rosie the Riveter had married the guy in uniform that she had fallen for and she had hung up her welding helmet and was home as a housewife in a bouffant hairdo, in a big skirt and high heels, on a linoleum floor."

If the GI Bill made a lot of these blooming suburbs possible it also made them inevitable. Because in order to get the zero–down payment loan at a low–interest rate and guaranteed by the government, you had to buy a new house. And most of those were in areas like Wedgewood, on what used to be agricultural land. Sprouting hand–in–hand with these new housing developments were shopping centers like Bellevue Square and Northgate, which had 2500 parking spaces when it opened in April 1950 — almost three years to the day before the viaduct itself was opened.

McConaghy: "That experience of automobility, so much a characteristic of that post–war period, where public transportation was something that many people scorned, and having your own car and going on road trips and seeing the world through your windshield was just so important."

Sullivan: "You wanted to build roadways that offered a view while moving that we just didn't have before that. So suddenly, you're up four or five stories, six stories. It gives you a really interesting perspective. Things are moving fast, you're looking into windows and on to signage and stuff. It's the midstep on the way to the Jetsons."

This is the fifties: the cold–war, Korean–War, McCarthyite, rock 'n' roll, space–age, man.

In Seattle, this fetish for the new lifestyle reached its own climax at the World's Fair of 1962 — a jewel box of a fair as it was called — that projected to Seattlites a glimmering vision of their city of the future with artificial islands in Elliott Bay and astonishing transport innovations.

Monorail promo: "The world's first urban monorail, yours to enjoy here and now."

The Alaskan Way was the herald of that future at the same time as making it possible.

The past isn't absolute though. It isn't black and white. There are those who are left out of the post–war boom. There are those who are excluded from the great economic explosion that happens in post–war Seattle. There are those for whom the carefree, drive–thru, suburban shoppers mall dream has an entirely different resonance. Jeffrey Sanders is assistant professor of history at Washington State University and the author of an upcoming book on the rise of community activism in Seattle.

Sanders: "More and more African–Americans and other ethnic minorities are moving to the West during this period and so there's also a lot of racial division. And if you think about who's moving out to the suburbs, who's driving on the viaduct out to the new northern suburbs or southern suburbs, those are going to be mainly middle–class white people. Directly subsidized by federal government programs like the GI Bill and mortgage programs that benefit mainly white, middle–class people."

Black: "Does that mean then that not the inner city but the inner part of the city becomes a concentration of African–American and immigrant populations?"

Sanders: "Absolutely."

These are the people most affected by later highway developments like I–5, as we'll hear later in the series.

In the next installment though, how to turn your plans for a viaduct from ink on paper to concrete on the ground. Concrete that I'm leaning against as I speak. And concrete that even an engineer, like the supervisor for the viaduct replacement project, Ron Paananen, finds it hard to love.

Black: "Do you like it?"

Paananen: "I love this job"

Black: "No, do you like the structure? Do you like the viaduct?"

Paananen: "Yeah, I like it for what it was built to do when it was built. I think it's passed its useful life and its time has come."

I'm Dominic Black for KUOW.

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