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Chapter 8 – Stylish Seattle

How stylish is Seattle? Not very, according to many newcomers. They’ve said that Seattle is behind the times – not just a season or two – but years behind.  A New York Times fashion writer once skewered the Rainy City, describing Seattle as “a Prada-free zone.”

For years, outsiders have kidded about the time difference between the two coasts.  The question they asked was: “What time is it in Seattle when it’s 9:30 in New York?” The answer: “It’s 1939.”  They’ve said that, when the world ends, Seattle will have an additional six more weeks.

Certainly it’s no secret that some of the most up-to-the-minute fashions from Paris and the East Coast seldom, if ever, reach the shores of Puget Sound. This, of course, is not exactly something the locals care about or shed tears over.

Yet, for a style-come-lately city, Seattle, oddly enough, still has managed to spawn some of this country’s hottest fashion trends. It was in Prada-less Seattle that one of this nation’s hottest fashion retailers – Nordstrom – had its humble beginnings.

Fashion

Nordstrom opened in the early days of the Twentieth Century as Wallen & Nordstrom, a Seattle shoe store. A Swedish-American family that arrived during the Gold Rush years, the Nordstroms proved far better at merchandizing than prospecting. They were able to buy off Mr. Wallen, eventually moving from high fashion footwear into fashion-forward apparel. Part of the reason for the Nordstroms’ success was the store’s single-minded dedication to the rule that “the customer is always right.”

If the shoe pinches, take it back. The neck stretches? Take it back. No questions asked. There was a tradition of cheerful customer service, someone to listen sympathetically to every complaint.

Comedians made jokes about what you can take back to Nordstrom – anything from truck tires to failed sports teams. Customer service was not just good publicity; it became one of the store’s central attractions. The company now has stores in fashion malls across the nation. Some cities that once lacked a Nordstrom store – Spokane comes to mind — were willing to invest in parking garages, partly at public expense, to attract one. Nordstrom, as we’ve all heard, is finally about to launch a store in the Big Apple, up against the Bloomingdales and Lord & Taylors of the world.

If Nordstrom has occupied the high side of the fashion spectrum, there has been a countervailing trend. At the opposite end of the closet, Seattle can take credit – or blame – for grunge – the born-in-Seattle lumberjack style that took the country by storm in the 90s. In that decade, the nation not only rocked to the music of the youthful garage bands of Seattle, but also picked up the fashions popularized by young musicians: the plaid-shirt, the Gore-Tex jacket, the well-worn jeans.

The truth is that, at the time, grunge was nothing terribly different from the outfits Seattleites had been wearing to hike and backpack along mountain trails for decades. The casual athletic style once hailed as “grunge” is still worn around town. It’s readily available in outlets, in athletic supply emporiums and in vintage clothing stores – shops that often attract surprisingly upscale clientele.

During the 1990s, several Hollywood movies were set and filmed in Seattle (“Singles” and “Sleepless in Seattle” among them). Movie stars brought here for on-location scenes quickly discovered the wealth of vintage shops and helped make the look famous on the national scene for – oh, say – at least 15 minutes.

Northwest Chic

The city’s most enduring casual styles owe much to home-grown outfitters, names like Eddie Bauer, Filson and the dean of them all — Recreational Equipment Inc. or, as it’s more commonly known, REI (pronounced ARR-EE-EYE). The enterprise is a customer-owned cooperative, founded in the thirties by a group of Seattle outdoorsmen who found it difficult to get the equipment they needed to climb mountains. Many of the mountaineers relied on mail order. Eventually they hit on the idea of joining forces and buying in quantity. They then formed a cooperative. The idea quickly caught on and the REI cooperative is now one of the largest customer-owned stores in the world.

REI not only stocks outdoor equipment –kayaks and paddles, backpacks and mountain tents – but also casual clothing and accessories.  The store offers everything from freeze-dried soups to backpacks for the family dog.  Some of the apparel is so shabby chic that it appeals to people who will never take it farther into the wild than the nearest South Lake Union bar.

And here’s a distinctly Seattle twist: People are proud of their REI membership number (lower numbers corresponding to earlier enrollment dates). How prized is a low REI number? A dear friend once rankled when she married and learned that she would have to give up her low REI number. In those unenlightened days, she had no choice but to take her husband’s (higher) account number. There is a happy ending, however. The woman, an accomplished outdoorswoman, eventually was elected chair of the REI board. By then, the rule that a wife had to take her husband’s account number had been discarded.

REI first opened in an unadorned warehouse on Capitol Hill. So popular did the cooperative become that it quickly outgrew its Spartan digs and kept expanding into adjacent spaces. It grew into a labyrinth of adjacent stores, connected by passageways that came dangerously close to being condemned as hazardous.

In 1996, the REI board decided to build its flagship store just north of Seattle’s central business district. The result is a monument to Northwest chic, an almost mystic evocation of forests and mountains. The building walks a fine line between outdoorsy kitsch and inspired design. It makes use of such inspired architectural elements as ice axes used as handles on the massive front doors. The flagship’s three-story climbing tower is encased in glass – looking almost, but not quite, like a giant phallus covered with green warts.

The interior of the building, with its massive timbers and two-story stone fireplace, inevitably reminds shoppers of National Parks décor. The building occupies only part of its urban site. It hunkers down in a woodsy landscape, amidst waterfalls, native plants and a trail for trying out hiking boots and mountain bikes. If ever there was a temple to nature inside the city, this is it.

Downtown Architecture

While the REI Building stands as the epitome of understated Northwest architecture, Seattle’s downtown skyline offers textbook examples of most late 19th and 20th Century designs. In fact, downtown has become an unintentional architectural sampler.

Difficult as it is to believe when viewing the city impressive skyline today, the 42-story L. C.  Smith Tower, opened in 1914, stood as Seattle’s – and the West Coast’s — tallest building until the 1960s. Maybe for that reason, the tower is still a sentimental favorite of city dwellers. Some of the attraction may also stem from the fact that it is the last building in town that has kept manned elevators. Those elevators convey passengers to the classic tower that arrows toward the sky and to the Chinese Room, an observation and party room on the 37th floor. Above the Chinese Room, reached by a spiral staircase, are several tiny rooms and a private apartment once occupied by Jakk Corsaw, the artist who, as a University of Washington student, submitted the winning design for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s neon Globe.

One of the early controversies over Seattle skyscrapers concerned a building that few notice today: the 1410 Building, once known as the Seafirst Building, named for what was then the largest bank in the state. When the building was erected in the post-World’s Fair era of the 1970s, people said the large dark monolith was not only ugly, but also way over scale.

Critics derided it, nicknaming it “the box the Space Needle came in.” And, because the Needle and the Seafirst Building loomed as the two largest structures in the city, it seemed that could easily be the case.

Today the building’s 46 stories are dwarfed by skyscrapers. Its dark color merely serves as a backdrop, a complementary one at that, for the skyline around it.

Despite a permissive approach to architecture, Seattleites care passionately about the city’s man-made environment. Scarcely a sizeable building goes up but the populace expresses vocal opinions, pro and con, about each new addition to the cityscape. Most buildings are given folksy nicknames. They talk about the “Ban Roll-on Building,” with its dome-like upper stories; the angular, black-as-ebony Darth Vader Building; and the phallic Seattle Municipal Tower, home of Seattle governmental departments. The Municipal Tower is sometimes humorously referred to as “Fred Bassetti’s last erection” – a ribald but respectful reference to the building’s brilliant architect.

If the so-called Seafirst Building was controversial, then the building known as the Columbia Tower was a virtual lightning rod. Built in the 1980s by developer Martin Selig, the man who is responsible for much of Seattle’s modern skyline, is the tallest building in the city – 76 stories. When it was under construction, people protested its outsized profile. They said it would cast shadows over the entire central business district. They said it would turn the city into a concrete jungle. They even asked what would happen if it collapsed in an earthquake – highly unlikely, since it was built under strict earthquake building codes.

But once the tower was constructed, the controversy turned on whether Mr. Selig had a duty to provide observation space at the top of the building. Eventually, it was settled that he would reserve one small room on an upper floor for public access – but visitors would have to pay. The initial charge: $5. The fee pretty much discouraged visitors and eventually the observation room requirement was dropped. Nowadays most city dwellers know someone who can smuggle them into the Columbia Tower Club, the business-oriented private club that occupies the two top floors.

Restroom Vistas

One of the best reasons for women to visit the top floors of the Columbia Tower is the fabled Tower Club ladies room, possibly the best women’s restroom in the city. What makes it so great are its appointments: golden fixtures; classy louvered doors to the private stalls, each with its own basin; tasteful watercolors; ample mirrors and linen hand towels. And that’s not all. Each stall has an east-facing picture window, stretching from waist to ceiling.

The classy restroom has long been a favorite insider sight of Seattle, so much so that there is a plaque outside warning that men are not permitted in the women’s room.

My first visit to the fabled restroom came as soon as I heard whispers of its opulence and its to-die-for views. But the excursion took a little footwork.

At the time I was a newspaper columnist for the city’s largest paper, so I assumed all I had to do was call the office of developer Selig and ask his assistant, Molly, for a tour. She said, “Certainly.”

We made a date for later in the week. But when I arrived for the tour, she excused herself. She finally returned and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t take you there.”

“We made a date,” I protested.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s a private club and Martin thinks it’s not appropriate for those who are not members.”

“Fine. I’ll just get one of the members to take me,” I argued. The answer still was “no.” However, as a columnist, I had access to ink by the barrel: I could write about not seeing the fabled restroom. And write I did. The next morning, my phone rang off the hook with offers to take me to the club. I accepted an invitation to lunch the next day with Bob Morrow, an accountant friend.

Later that afternoon the phone rang. In one of those rare (for me) instances of ESP, I knew who it was before I picked up the receiver. The caller was Mr. Selig himself. He was calling from out of town, but as soon as he returned he promised to take me as his guest.

“Oh, thanks so much, Marty,” I said. “But I already have a lunch engagement for tomorrow. My accountant is taking me to lunch.”

Selig isn’t easily outmaneuvered. He managed to have the last laugh. When my lunch date and I entered the building’s state-of-the-art elevator, the electronic board was running a message – one of those that crawl across the bottom of the screen. It said, “Welcome, Jean Godden, to the Columbia Tower ladies room.” As if that weren’t overkill, the elevator, at that time, also had sound. A tinny electronic voice also welcomed me. The elevator greeting, of course, made the second column – the one that described the lavish creature comforts and matchless view from the skies over Seattle.

The experience of using that restroom still remains a royal thrill. Enthroned, you find yourself imagining you can see your entire kingdom stretched out all the way to the snowy mountains in the distance. Royalty couldn’t ask for a view more expansive.

EMP

Royal, however, is not the word anyone uses for the Experience Music Project, the structure designed by internationally-famed architect Frank Gehry. The exterior of the EMP, as it’s known to locals, is best described as a series of asymmetrical shapes, strong colors, and varying textures. It’s supposed to represent, in three dimensions, the experience of listening to rock music. And, in a way, I suppose it has accomplished that somewhat discordant goal.

The citizenry – usually up in arms about any slight requisition of public land for private goals – was uncharacteristically quiet about the fact that the building was plunked down at the base of the Space Needle on the grounds of the Seattle Center. Given the knee-jerk activism of the electorate, it’s odd that no one mounted a referendum campaign.

Perhaps that would have happened if they’d first seen detailed plans for the structure.

The rock museum realizes the dream of billionaire Paul Allen, co-founder with Bill Gates of Microsoft. Allen and his sister, Jody Allen Patton, worked with Gehry to produce the design, which actually works better inside than out.  The Sky Church, an unusual central room in the midst of the irregular shapes and odd angles, is an acoustical and electronically advanced venue with marked religious undertones.

The exterior, however, is another matter. It may take years, decades even, before the community comes to grips with Gehry’s vision. In the meantime, comedians are having fun with it.  After the Nisqually Earthquake in 2001, they joked that the EMP “was the only casualty.”

To some, the complex EMP structure is best viewed from a distance. Seen from viewpoints on Capitol Hill, it at least adds color and texture to the Seattle Center landscape. It looks almost as if the Space Needle had arrived in holiday wrapping and someone had forgotten to pick up the colorful paper.  Another more poetic observer had a similar thought. The poet said: “EMP looks as if the Space Needle has shed her clothes.”

The Central Library

If there are mixed reviews for the Experience Music Project, there continues to be almost unanimous praise for Seattle’s dazzling Central Library, unveiled on a spring morning in 2004. Critics, commenting on the structure, wore out the word “spectacular.” They said, in essence, it was the most important, most exhilarating building ever. Forget the Empire State, the U. S. Capitol and the Taj Mahal.

New York Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp trotted out a string of mega-metaphors, saying the building was nothing less than “a blazing chandelier to swing your dreams upon.” He dubbed it “the big Rock Candy Mountain.

Mind you that’s the same Herbert Muschamp who once referred to renowned architect Robert Venturi’s  Seattle Art Museum as “a rancid piece of work” and Gehry’s EMP as “something that crawled out of the sea, rolled over and died.”

The Central Library – Rem Koolhaus’ and Joshua Ramus’ structure (imagined as a mirrored Rainier finally come to town) – opened to throngs of dignitaries and tens of thousands of ordinary citizens. Seattle residents voiced superlatives, saying, over and over, that the new library is a dream come true, especially coming at a time when citizens were often overheard saying, “We voted for it and it never gets done.”

As Muschamp concluded : “If an American city can erect a civic project as brave as this one, the sun hasn’t set on the West.”

Down the block, the same Sunday that the Central Library opened, there was a signboard at the handsome, though seismically damaged, First Methodist Church, a building slated to be demolished rather than repaired. (Thanks to civic savors, the building was eventually repaired and renovated.) But on that library opening Sunday, the First Methodist signboard offered this thought: “A child is a living message to a time we cannot know.”

When I walked by the signboard that day, I was still lost in the vision of the Central Library, opening its doors to hordes of joyous Seattleites. I thought how right the sentiment. The Central Library, like one of our children, is a living message to the future. It’s the right message for Seattleites to rally around.

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