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