Atlantic Cities

Visions of the Seattle That Could Have Been

Visions of the Seattle That Could Have Been
Seattle Museum of History and Industry

Seattle's burgeoning South Lake Union neighborhood is ground zero for urban renewal fueled by high-tech companies and related fortunes. Once an enclave of laundries, shipyards and warehouses, the current boom is driven by an expanding Amazon, Paul Allen's real estate arm Vulcan, bio-tech research, and the nearby headquarters of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

A debated district re-zone is slated to allow more and taller high-rises, a transportation corridor to make the neighborhood more accessible (for decades, the problem was known not-so-fondly as "the Mercer Mess"), and South Lake Union's new trolley line, affectionately called the SLUT.

In late December the city unveiled the new Museum of History and Industry which moved into the historic Naval Reserve Armory on the lake. It features touch screens, interactive exhibits, and a fleet of historic ships moored at its doorstep. The museum's "new" home is active and engaging. Its curators have cherry-picked their collection to display artifacts that keep the place from feeling cluttered and dark.

The museum faces forward while embracing the past. One of the museum's story lines is how Seattle, home of Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks, has innovated its way to the 21st century, fitting for a place with "industry" as part of its title.

The museum¹s exhibits not only focus on the Seattle that was, but ask visitors to think about the city that might have been. It presents history and alternative history and honors the roads not taken. One display is called "What If Seattle Had Built These Projects?" and features images of various aborted schemes. There are skyscrapers, parks, transportation systems and stadiums that made it as far as the drawing boards, but never happened. It's a kind of urban dreamscape.

For example, there¹s a massive building proposed in 1926 to replace the city's iconic Pike Place Market. The complex extends from First Avenue to the waterfront, and cars travel underneath a wing of the building. Seattle's major tourist attraction and ground-zero for its culinary culture might well have been obliterated by a single high rise, and this scheme was decades before activists "saveda" the Market in the early 1970s.

The Willima Boyes monorail, proposed for the Duwamish Valley circa 1911. Courtesy of MOHAI

There's the proposed William H. Boyes monorail system in the Duwamish Valley from 1911, five decades before Seattle built its mass transit demonstration project, the Alweg Monorail, which still runs between downtown and Seattle Center. There¹s the never-built 1995­96 South Lake Union "Seattle Commons" project, which would have been the public park and  centerpiece of the neighborhood that is now MOHAI's home. There¹s the Bogue Plan of 1912, which would have built a Seattle civic center worthy of Old Europe. It was defeated at the polls. There¹s also a sketch of a proposed floating stadium in Elliott Bay dating from 1963. If that had been built, we might have had seasick Seahawks.

One realizes that for every building, stadium, bridge, civic center and massive development that been built, there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, that never got off the doodle pad. Some were bullets dodged, others opportunities lost.

A city is dynamic, not static. History is an ever-changing story, and that story is even richer and more complex if you look at the what ifs. Could we have built a better city? What if we hadn¹t bulldozed the hills or filled in the wetlands? What if we had approved mass transit in 1970 when a mere $400 million in local bonds would have bought us a $1.3 billion game-changing regional transit system financed by the feds. Forty years later, we¹re still in the early phases of building light rail, and it cost $2.6 billion just to get from downtown to the airport.

Seattle's newest museum, reinvented for a new century, is a place that welcomes not just those interested in the past, but in the alternative universes of a city undergoing a constant re-imagining. A great city is the result not of a single plan, but of collective, multi-generational brainstorming. The new museum is now a vital place to imagine a future of infinite possibilities.

A version of this story previously appeared in the January, 2013 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Keywords: Seattle, Museum, Industry

Knute Berger’s new book is Space Needle, the Spirit of Seattle, a 50th anniversary history of the Seattle icon and its impact. He is also a columnist for, Editor-at-Large of Seattle Magazine, and author of the regional bestseller, Pugetopolis. He’s attended eight world’s fairs in eight countries. He lives in Seattle. All posts »

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