Seattle Now & Then: The Ice Arena

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: The Mercer Arts Arena’s last hurrah was the exposure of the building’s four original front door Gargoyles. Two were saved and removed. (Courtesy: Museum of History and Industry, and its Post-Intelligencer Collection)
NOW: With its new building on the Ice Arena’s old site, the Seattle Opera will have room for offices, storage, scene assembly, practice and whatever else beckons.
This would probably be from the 1950s with considerable confidence if I had retained the “expert” status I had in high school on the names and years for all American-made autos. Surely some smart reader who has not let this aptitude slip will be able to name the year here from such a crowd of cars.

Jean Sherrard’s and my plans to photographically repeat the inside of Seattle Center’s Mercer Arts Arena (originally the Ice Arena) were interrupted by the recent decision to tear it down.  The arena would seat about 5000 – when not flooded for skating.  It was dedicated in 1928, and so by antiquarian standards did not qualify as “antique.”   And yet in its mere 89 years, the Arena did manage to live within two skins.

This 1927 aerial shows the Civic Auditorium and Arena completed (more or less) and the Civic Field a work-in-early-progress. (Courtesy Ron Edge)  CLICK CLICK to ENLARGE

The birthday suit of concrete dated from 1927 and showed some “Minimal Romanesque” ornaments like arched windows, decorative trim, and four gargoyles that faced Mercer Street above the Arena’s entrance.  These adornments were subdued with Century 21’s architect Paul Thiry’s 1961-2 wrapping (also minimal) with bricks.  They were laid for a modern polish thought more fitting for the “forward thrusting” Fair.  The changes of course were not necessary for the Fair’s performers using the arena like Lawrence Welk, the Century 21 Horse Show, the Mormon Pageant, the Ringling Bros and Shrine Circuses, and the Ice Follies, to name a few.

David and Louisa Denny with their first two daughters.

The immigrant history for the future Seattle Center began in the 1850s with pioneers David & Louisa Denny. By the 1870s the young couple had nurtured a garden to feed their growing family and also much of Seattle.  Beginning in the late 1920s Seattle’s Civic Center grew atop this garden. Its three largest structures, a sports field with covered bleachers, the Arena and the Auditorium – all of them labeled as civic – were bunched south of Mercer Street in what were formerly the Denny’s garden acres.

The Ice Arena on the right, the Civic Auditorium at the center, and Civic Field mostly hidden in the athletic pit beyond the wall on the north side of Harrison Street. (Note the man on the far right who appears to be looking at the lack of action on the field through a hole in the wall. Fourth Avenue is in the foreground.  The PACIFIC published text for the above photo (the clip) is included below, just above Jean’s question “Anything to ad lads?”   We put it there in anticipation of his question.  (Courtesy, Municipal Archive)

The Center’s larger parts had all been nurtured from a modest grant bequeathed in the early 1880s when the Denny’s were still tending their gardens.  The gift to the city was made by a gregarious bar owner named James Osborne. Over nearly a half-century this spirits’-borne endowment gathered a cash pile high enough to raise what the public house owner had wished for, a public hall owned by the public.  The bonus legacy of the Arena was fitted with a floor for the center’s many “Ice Events.” These included amateur and professional hockey, gala ice shows, and extended hours of public skating like that recorded in this week’s featured photograph. Of course, there were skates to rent, instruction to be had, and organ music to accompany nearly a half-year of public gliding.   At the start the floor was frozen five months a year.

The Arena offered skates for rental and expert help for the fitting. Courtesy The Times

The recent razing of the Arena did not raise much commotion.  In his KIRO radio commentary, Feliks Banel, the station’s zestful historian, quote’s Seattle historian David Rash characterization of the Arena as something of an “orphan.”  Rash points out what many others have sensed since Century 21, that the mix of the Arena’s uses – for the most part pop concerts and for the Seattle Opera convenient practice space – with storage – the Arena has had “no built-in constituency of regular users or devoted fans to speak up for it.”  Banel notes, “It’s been offline for so many years.”

The Seattle Times caption for this reads, “Civic Arena, Skating for Charity – Verna Miles, left, of the Connaught Club, Vancouver, B.C., and Gloria Patrick, daughter of Frank Patrick, president of Pacific Coast Hockey League, in a skating number at the ice carnival given at Civic Arena last night for benefit of Children’s Orthopedic Hospital.


Let me provide a close-up detail from the ‘Now’ photo – above the arm of the yellow tractor, a last glimpse of the original seating:

Last view of the last arena seats

Anything to add, lads?  Coitenly and silly too, Jean.

First published in The Times on November 14, 1993.

THEN: Looking west from the southwest corner of 6th Ave. N. and Mercer St. to the trolley barn and yards for the (renamed in 1919) Seattle Municipal Railway in 1936. (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)

THEN: This portrait of the Seattle Gas Company’s storage tank dates from the spring of 1907, which explains its somewhat steeper topography. Between 1908 and 1911, both Republican Street, here on the right, and 9th Avenue N. were lowered to a grade close to that of Westlake Avenue, which is behind the photographer.

THEN: William O. McKay opened show rooms on Westlake in July of 1923. After fifty-seven years of selling Fords, the dealership turned to the cheaper and more efficient Subaru. Now reconstructed, the old Ford showroom awaits a new tenant.

THEN: We imagine that the photographer A.J. McDonald waited for one of his subjects, the cable car to Queen Anne Hill, to reach the intersection of Second Ave. N. and Aloha Street below him before snapping this panorama in the mid-1890s.

THEN: For his May Day, 1901 portrait of the Seattle City Council, the photographer, Anders Wilse, planted them, like additions to the landscape, on the lawn somewhere in the upper part of Kinnear Park. (Courtesy, Seattle Municipal Archives)

THEN: James P. Lee, Seattle’s busy public works photographer of the early 20th century, recorded this 1922 look north from near the west end of Denny Way on the bluff above the then-forming Elliott Way. (Courtesy Museum of History and Industry)



THEN: Pier 70 when it was still Pier 14, ca. 1901, brand new but not yet "polished." Courtesy, Lawton Gowey


THEN: Photographed in the late 1950s, the floating restaurant’s huge on deck hooligan got no competition as yet from the Space Needle (1962) in breaking the horizon.

THEN: Long thought to be an early footprint for West Seattle’s Admiral Theatre, this charming brick corner was actually far away on another Seattle Hill. Courtesy, Southwest Seattle Historical Society.

THEN: In 1913, or near to it, an unnamed photographer recorded this view southeast across the Lower Queen Anne corner of Denny Way and First Avenue North. Out of frame to the left, the northeast corner of this intersection was home then for the Burdett greenhouse and gardens. By its own claim, it offered plants of all sorts, “the largest and most complete stock to choose from in the state.” Courtesy, the Museum of North Idaho.

THEN: Like violence in a classic Greek play, the carnage suggested by this 1934 crash scene on the then new Aurora speedway was kept off stage, either behind the city’s official photographer, or in the county morgue. (Courtesy, Seattle Municipal Archive.)



When Ivar Haglund closed his aquarium on Pier 54 in 1956 he consoled those who wish it were not so with the reminder that one could always visit the Port of Seattle’s Frozen Fish Museum on the Port’s Spokane Street wharf.


Ice skating on what remained of the captive pools on the tideflats.


New skating rink for the Coliseum – minus the ice.


Bitter Lake skating, January 15, 1930.


Green Lake skating in 1903. South end with Woodland Park on the far shore.


Masthead for Diamond Ice and storage at the waterfront foot of Union Street.


Hopefully some of you will remember “Our Daily Sykes” the daily series of picturesque west coast Kodachromes snapped by Horace Sykes, a fire insurance claims adjuster and lecturer on fire safety. This subject, which he titled “Ice left after Columbia Cold Storage Fire, April 5, 1944.” is a rare instance of a work-related subject to be found among the thousands of mostly picturesque slides he left of the American West. You might, we hope, wish to find Sykes here again or for the first time. The daily series ran for 499 days. We stopped there so that we could later fulfill our promise for 500.


On the church towers clue, far right, this ice house was once somewhere in the Rainier Valley.


Union Ice Wagons (which, we suspect, means run exclusively by union teamsters, lined-up on Pike Street’s 200 block early in the 20th-Century. The numbers at the bottom may key to the drivers names, which, we assume (without seeing them) are written on the back of the original stiff-card professional photograph.   


While Puget Sound and much of the Pacific Northwest prepared for its Big Snow of 1916, these visitors to Juneau aboard the steamer North Western, were already ice-wrapped in Alaska. The date, January 25, 1916, is captioned on the face of the “real photo” postcard.


Another Frank Shaw 2&1/4 slide, this of the Pacific Science Center when it was ice-arrayed sometime in the 1960s.


Back in Wallingford. Ice at QFC aka the old Food Giant.   Ice Doors Open and . . .




Lighting ICE in my American Meter Machine studio in the late 1970s. It was a COOP with about a dozen artists with spaces on the top floor – at the southwest corner of Lake Union, across Westlake from the seaplanes.  CLICK TO ENLARGE


3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The Ice Arena”

  1. I saw your article in the Sea Times of 5/28/17 re the Seattle Ice Arena. My father John P. Lycette leased from the City of Seattle the Arena from about 1933 to 1949 for the ice skating, hockey, ice follies and ice capades and I have many memories about it. Look in the archives of the Sea Times, Sea PI, and Seattle Star about the hockey team. I have a picture taken with the Seattle Seahawk team at the arena with myself and my father in it.. I also looked at your web site and all the pictures, they were interesting to me since I have lived my entire 88 years in Seattle and I recognize many of the places. Jack Lycette 206 720 2128

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