(Interviewed by Vaun Raymond at Gasworks Park, Seattle, WA, 10/9/08)

Well, this – here on the north end of Lake Union, this really wasn’t much of a lake in the Indian days, when the Indians would trap salmon here, from this promontory.  But of course there was cedar trees here that marched down to the lake and bullrushes and the red wing blackbirds and all of that.  But as Wallingford began to develop, and logs were sawn down at Yesler’s Mill and drug through this shallow water, and started to build up there and way up.  The trees were cut here. 

For a while this was the city dump.  And the Olmsted Office came to Seattle, and they picked this as a possible site for a park, a potential park.  And in 1906, the Washington Gas Company began the manufacture of synthetic gas on this site.  And there were actually at least three gas manufacturing plants in Seattle.  But this one had a railroad connection behind it, and the water, and it flourished.  And they manufactured synthetic gas here from coal, which was brought in by railroad from Bellingham and probably Black Diamond, perhaps, I’ve forgotten.  And they heated that, superheated in these big tower-like things we see behind us here, and they would throw oxygen and water in there and, almost an explosive situation, and it would drive the synthetic gas out. 

So that went on from 1906 to 1936.  And by that time the government locks had been built, and ocean-going oil ships could come in here.  And so they switched the whole manufactory, from ships that would berth, tie up right here, unload the oil – bunker oil, crude oil, and then that was used.  They still used coal, though, to heat the compressors and exhausters and run – it was the main power source.  So that happened from ’36, and during the wartime, the plant was - somehow the Navy had some priorities here.  That story has never been told, I don’t think.  And the fact was that they were after tuleyn and ethalene and more explosive elements in the synthetic gas. 

So then in 1956, twenty years later, the plant just shut down overnight, because we had learned to mine or extract natural gas and to pipe it in, into Seattle.  But the history of Seattle – this was the main source of energy for the city for – and at first it was used for lighting, street lighting.  And then as they developed the technique better and had more lines, they advertised gas for heating and cooking.  And, so this was a going concern.  And this was not just in Seattle.  In the United States there were over 15,000 gas manufacturing plants.  And in the world, I don’t know if anyone knows how many, but in all of industrialized world, this was a major source of energy from steam – taking us from wood, steam, natural gas, to electricity.  So it has a very interesting history that way. 

It was a very polluting industry, a smokestack industry.  And the people that lived downwind from this, the Wallingford people were the ones that – the work force came down the hill from Wallingford.  And they ran three shifts a day of workers.  And nearly everything you see here is in duplicate, because they could not afford – they didn’t have much resource to conserve gas for, some, any – well, the plant has to be – part of it had to be shut down and cleaned every so often.  And so every system is duplicated so that they could continue to manufacture gas.  I think they sent it as far south as Tukwila and maybe as far north as Edmunds. 

So, the plant sat here from 1956, and there’s twenty acres of land here and this obsolete plant, sitting here, and some people, Victor Steinbrueck was one of them, an architect – Steinbrueck Park is named after him – and other people decided, why don’t we try to buy that site from the gas company and to convert it and build a park there?  So the city began to make purchases on the site, to buy the site, and I was a young professor at the University of Washington in ’63, and that’s the year – it was very much this plant – this site was in the news then because that’s when the city began to make the first of ten yearly payments.  I think it was one hundred twenty six thousand dollars for ten years.

So I gave this as a sketch problem to landscape architecture students across the country.  There were thirteen schools, and I remember, and I received a hundred and thirty solutions.  And the strange thing is, was that no one, not one student saved any of the buildings on the site. 

So, then in 1969, I was commissioned to do studies of this site, to see if it could be successfully be turned into a public park.  So I very early decided that I would try to save the building that’s right behind me, the big, the one big tower.  That would be the icon of the park.  And as I examined this site more carefully, and I used to come down here with a sleeping bag and sleep around on this site in these deserted buildings.  Then I decided, hmm, maybe I can save the big one and the one behind it.

So the word got out that I was – my plans were moving in that direction of – toward recycling and all hell broke loose.  People didn’t like that idea.   They said it’s ugly, it’s dirty, it’s dangerous, it reminds us of our grubby industrial, grimy, the pollution, the toxic air and now soot.  Get rid of it. 

But, as you know, in the late ‘60s, we’d just gone through the whole civil rights and the city was – the country was very much in turmoil and the flower children and all that came along.  So I had some allies from the very beginning. 

The most wonderful thing was I had three years from the time I signed the contract in late ’69 until 1973.  That’s when the city occupied the site.  That was the last payment.  So, it’s not very often you get three years to educate the client as to what you’re trying to do, you know.  So I was very fortunate that way. 

And I had a philosopher on my team, and I had a wonderful chemist and an engineer.  And the philosopher told me that there was no way that I could take plans of this place down to City Hall and convince anyone that there was some worth, some value to these totemic iron structures.  And he was so right on.  He said you should develop a site on the office.  So we took a building that was over there, on the east shore, the blacksmith shop, and we converted that to our landscape architectural design office.  And we invited the public down.  It was like a continuous open house.  And that’s how we – I had such good public input and turned public opinion around, because we used that building as a demonstration of how you could take the sow’s ear and convert it to a silk purse, if you will. 

There were many structures on the site, and a lot of them were very derelict and all.  So we made a survey of the ones that were structurally sound.  Kind of an interesting thing to me is that the wooden buildings were the best preserved.  And it turns out that that’s because of soot and rain makes a mild sulfuric acid and pickles the wood, whereas the steel buildings were much more rusted.

So, we made a model of the site, and we started trying to figure out what happened – what kind of open spaces would we get if we removed this building or that complex or whatever and so on.  Anyhow the word got out that we were planning to make a design – to have a design that saved quite a lot of the buildings.  So it was very controversial, as I mentioned, and the Park Department, we had a wonderful superintendent at the time, a man named Hans Thompson.  And he was wary but – cautious, but said “go ahead, it sounds good to me, but it’s going to be a really hard sell.” Well eventually the Park Department lost control in a way, and we had a public hearing, at which I presented these plans: the concept of preserving these buildings and recycling them.  And this was hotly contested, and yet the full City Council, after a week of deliberation, they voted unanimously for us to proceed with the plan of saving the buildings that we wanted to save. 

And then one thing happened was that some Boeing, ex-Boeing engineers were developing small portable pumps that would generate twenty nine thousand pounds of pressure per square inch.  So we found we could clean these structures of iron and so on without using chemicals.  And so that was a big plus.  But the main, the main breakthrough that we had was with the soil.  You see we saw – we could tell that nothing was growing here, and this plant had not been occupied from 1956 to 1970 when we started working on it.  And if you know Seattle, you know that the blackberries and the alders come in on any vacant lot.  So that was a clue that the soil was not conducive to plants. 

So, one plan had been launched before, and that was to cover the site with clay, to cap the entire site.  Well my chemist consultant, Richard Brooks, brought an elderly gentleman here to the site and we walked around and kicked around and he said, “Haig, you can get anything you want to growing here, just in a very short time.”   And I said, “Oh?”  ‘Cause I’d been doing research on – that the gas company, Shell Oil and so on had been doing, and he said, “Don’t look at their experiments.   The bacteria that will digest the hydrocarbon molecules that permeate this soil have been evolving since 1906.  So they are just lying in wait.  And they need – we need to till the soil to bring sunlight to it and oxygen to it.  And if we want, we should put down some compost, and till that in.”  And I said, “Oh, Mr. Leibotz (sp?), who’s going to believe us?”  And he said, “Make some demonstration plots.”  

So we did.  We made demonstration plots here, and I took soil to my greenhouse and made bench tests.  And sure enough, just within a few months, we had grass and legumes growing in that soil.  So that was a major breakthrough.  Because the city could not have afforded – and can you imagine what kind of a park this would have been with clay all over it? 

There were other threats.  There was one man who ran a campaign to become mayor, and his platform was that he would tear every structure down off the site.  That would be his first move, you know? 

So, one of our strategies was, of course, is that if we are wrong, and this is not accepted by the people, we can always remove these structures.  So it will just be a lesson learned by – throughout the years now I think this park – it’s the only one like it in the world.  There’s no other – out of fifteen thousand gas plants, this is the only one that has these structures remaining.  And I’ve checked it out.  There’s one in Melbourne and one in Berne, Switzerland and Copenhagen they saved one building, it was a gasometer or gas holding tank and they made, converted it to a small opera house.  But otherwise, this is it.  This is the last of an extinct species. 

So this was the first time in the history that an industrial site was converted into a park without complete demolition, destruction.  It’s unique.

When I get a new site, I always want to know, figure out, what is the most sacred thing about this site?  Well this site, without the buildings, there was nothing sacred about it.  It did have a shoreline, but it would have a shoreline with or without the buildings.  So I decided that this big tower, the one right behind me was the most sacred, the most iconic thing on this site, and that I would go down to the wire to save that structure.  Then as I got into it more, I thought, that’s kind of silly.  Why wouldn’t you save the one behind it?  You know, husband and wife?  And then you start thinking, wait a minute, there’s four more: those are the kids.  So, it would break up a family.  So I began to think bigger and bigger about saving more of these structures.  So you won’t find anything like this anywhere else in the world, where structures, these kind of industrial structures have been saved.  It was a first.  There are some parks now in the 1990s and so on that have followed this, the lead of this park, have followed this site, yeah. 

The park is purposely designed as a very open, spontaneous park.  And so you find all kinds of activities happening.  Just a moment ago there was a man playing a harp down here, and I heard some bongos earlier, and a kite was flying just off the hill, kite hill behind me.  And it’s a park where you got such an exhilarating sense of openness and light and air and space and the most incredible view of downtown Seattle, repeated and reflected in the lake.  But, imagine this site without these structures: just ballfields or just your usual athletic kind of feel.  It would be a nowhere kind of place. 

Coming along one day, I saw all these kites flying off the hill there.  So, I didn’t have time to stop.  The next time I – the next day the kites were there again.  So I stopped, I went up there and there was about thirty children there that are afflicted; they’re challenged, physically challenged children.  And I sat down and talked to their teachers, and they said that they brought the kids as – the last week of school, and they brought them from this special school, and they taught them and helped them make these kites out of visqueen.  So the kids had such a good time, they insisted on coming back the next day and that’s when I caught them.   And there was this one child that came over to me and – I may break up, telling this story – because this child was like all upper body, and came over and climbed up into my lap and looked up and then suddenly she threw herself out of my lap and rolled down the hill, and I said, “Oh my God!”  And that girl was laughing all the way!  God damn!  It’s really, yeah…


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