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