Seattle Now & Then: The Alaskan Way Viaduct, 1953

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN1: Fifty feet above the intersection of South Jackson Street and Alaskan Way on the viaduct’s top deck, amateur photographer Horace Sykes turned his camera toward a growing city. Cerulean blue skies augured an optimistic future. (Horace Sykes)
THEN 2: A repeat of the same scene, featuring a serendipitously red car in place of the jacketed women. The Smith Tower is dwarfed by the 2017 skyline, featuring the nearly completed 660-foot F-5 Tower at center.
NOW: Looking north from South Jackson Street and Alaskan Way on a rare sunny day in mid-December 2021, a viaduct-free waterfront bustles with construction amid the long process of rebuilding a divided city. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in The Seattle Times online on Jan. 27, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Jan. 30, 2022)

Points of view less towering without divisive Alaskan Way Viaduct
By Jean Sherrard

No one on the waterfront misses the clatter and roar of cars and trucks overhead. But nearing the third anniversary of the closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle residents still confess to mixed emotions.

Kate Conger, state Department of Highways staffer, opined in 1953 that the elevated speedway offered “a breathtaking view of Elliott Bay, the Olympics … and of Seattle’s towering skyline.” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer joined with hosannahs, proclaiming it “a royal necklace across the bosom of the Queen City.”

Yet over the decades, equally antiphonal voices cried for demolition. Paul Dorpat, in his encyclopedic book “Building Washington,” mourned that the viaduct “stretched a permanent cataract over the eye of the city.”

Truth be told, the prized, if fleeting, million-dollar views, available to rich and poor commuters alike, came at a price: a permanent concrete edifice dividing the city from its waterfront.

The initial vision for the double-deck structure, opened to traffic on April 4, 1953, emerged in the cash-strapped 1930s, but not until after World War II — and an exponentially expanding car culture — were plans finalized for a capacious roadway skirting the increasingly busy downtown core.

In its time, the 7,600-foot-long viaduct was an engineering marvel. Its twin 40-foot-wide roadways, each with three traffic lanes, comprised the single largest use of reinforced concrete (58,847 cubic yards, bolstered by nearly 8,000 tons of steel) in Seattle public-works history.

More than a decade before Interstate 5 carved its wide swath through our hourglass-shaped city, the viaduct served as the main north-south corridor, providing relief for tens of thousands of daily commuters. Today’s State Route 99 toll tunnel, which replaced the viaduct, allows for no less traffic but deprives photographers of a favorite perch.

Case in point: on April 3, 1953, Horace Sykes, longtime Seattle Camera Club member, strolled the speedway, opened to pedestrians for a day of traffic-free exploration. From this perch, Sykes snapped two dozen Kodachrome photos, most notably of two unidentified women in vivid, red jackets below the majestic Smith Tower, then still the tallest building in the west.

Before the viaduct’s demolition, I returned to that location several times, attempting to replicate Sykes’ dramatic panorama from moon-roofed cars, most recently in 2017 for our book “Seattle Now & Then: The Historic Hundred.”

I captured the post-viaduct “Now” photo with my 22-foot extension pole at the same spot but 30 feet lower — further evidence of picturesque loss. Looking north at a tangled waterfront under seemingly endless construction reveals the immense work ahead as our city once more reinvents itself.


In addition to our usual 360 degree video, we encourage you to take one more tour of the Viaduct on its last day. Jean and Clay made a final commute on Friday, Feb. 1st.

THEN 3: During the official dedication of the new State Route 99 tunnel on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019, Gov. Jay Inslee cuts a green ribbon to inaugurate the subterranean roadway. (Jean Sherrard)
THEN 4: Tunnel movers and shakers pose on Feb. 2, 2019, beneath Jackson Street to celebrate before traffic arrives. From left: Tayloe Washburn, Charles Knutson, Bob Donegan, Emily Mannetti, Kimberly Farley, Jared Smith and Sally Bagshaw. (Jean Sherrard)

For more photos from that last pedestrian weekend atop the Viaduct, please revisit a post we made shortly thereafter.

4 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The Alaskan Way Viaduct, 1953”

  1. Thx for the posting. I have to ask what happened to 1% for art in that hideous tunnel design? The primary school wall graphics are so lame. Look at the tunnel entrance done in the late 1930’s for the first floating bridge. That’s what can be done with concrete and sculptural talent. The tunnel is really ugly and a missed opportunity to do something worth looking at and enjoying.

    1. Agreed, I’d hoped they’d superimpose the views from the viaduct on the interior walls of the tunnel!

  2. Hi All–the “breathtaking views of Elliott Bay, the Olympics … and of Seattle’s towering skyline…. available to rich and poor commuters alike” is built into the heart of the new waterfront park. The Overlook Walk–a series of walkways, stairs, plazas, and overlooks that provide a key connection between the waterfront and Pike Place Market–will offer just such views that can be enjoyed for hours on end, and not just when whizzing by in a car. The Overlook Walk will be completed in 2024.

  3. With yesterday’s announcement that the temporary ferry dock pedestrian bridge will shut down on 3 Nov, the last remaining support post for the viaduct will soon be torn down. It is the one holding the temporary bridge up to the west of the current alignment of Alaskan Way.

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