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Published in The Seattle Times online on May 4, 2023
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on May 7, 2023
Will the rear pool of Seattle’s shrine to science become a meadow?
By Clay Eals
One of my indelible experiences as an 11-year-old at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair (yours, too, if you attended?) came on a mocked-up, old-time Western street inside the U.S. Science Pavilion.
The ruse was amusing but unsettling: Walking on a wooden ramp, I headed downhill. But adjacent storefronts slanted sharply forward, bending my mind to think I was climbing uphill.
This life-size optical illusion captivated local and international press. Even renowned British journalist and later TV host Alistair Cooke wrote that the exhibit produced “slight nausea” for visitors to the pavilion.
Inducing similar disorientation today is a plan hatched by the same elegant and beloved shrine to science, which, post-fair, was renamed the Pacific Science Center and is newly rebranded “PacSci.”
PacSci is posing scenarios to transform its rectangular rear pool, the one behind its 5 famous curved arches. Several preliminary schemes call for filling the 20,500-square-foot basin with — no illusion — a waterless meadow.
The rationale is to remedy massive water leaks plaguing PacSci’s 61-year-old pair of pools. “Patchwork” repairs cost $170,000 a year, and complete restoration would run a whopping $17 million, says Will Daugherty, PacSci president and CEO. The pools, he says, face “catastrophic failure.”
The meadow plan, he asserts, is grounded in respect for PacSci’s original architect, the late Minoru Yamasaki, and for Northwest-flavored science.
“We understand our responsibilities as stewards” for a “magical setting,” Daugherty says, and a replacement meadow could stopper a long-term financial drain while showcasing indigenous plantings. “Our community wants their science center to look to the future. Adding life to the courtyard will help us meet these community needs.”
A big hurdle is the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board, from which PacSci sought and received protective landmark status in 2009-10. In that context, PacSci holds prestige as one of only 5 structures among the city’s 400-plus official landmarks to have met all six of Seattle’s landmark criteria. Unsurprisingly, during a 100-minute PacSci briefing on Feb. 15, several landmarks-board members doubted they would approve meadow-izing the rear pool.
Nor are other preservationists keen on it. Eugenia Woo of Historic Seattle says the interplay of PacSci’s pools, buildings and arches is indispensable to its appeal. To plug the rear basin, she says, would be as preposterous as infilling the Lincoln Memorial’s reflecting pool in Washington D.C.
A meadow also could run afoul of already-disbursed state heritage capital grants that require PacSci to preserve its historic features, says Jay Baersten of the Washington State Historical Society. In addition, the plan has generated vigorous online debate.
We’ll see, but this is one plan that may end up all wet.
Thanks to Grace Kim , Tracy Sawan, David Peterson, Eugenia Woo, Jay Baersten, Erin Doherty and Heather Pihl for their invaluable help with this installment!
To see Clay Eals’ 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photos, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column.
Below are links to 5 Seattle landmark nomination documents from 2010, links to 2 online news articles, 8 additional photos, and, in chronological order, 6 more historical clips from The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and Washington Digital Newspapers, that were helpful in the preparation of this column.
Here are links to pdfs of the complete 2010 nomination of Pacific Science Center for Seattle landmark designation:
- The text document from Feb. 26, 2010
- The revised document from July 2, 2010, with graphics
- The first graphics supplement
- The second graphics supplement
- The third graphics supplement
Here are links to online stories in February 2023 on PacSci’s meadow proposal:
3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: rear reflecting pool at PacSci (Pacific Science Center), 1962”
The pools are a significant part of the Science Center’s design and reflect the grace of the arches and the vision of its architect, Yamasaki. They are integral to the entire site’s design. Science Center leadership: Please educate the public about this amazing work of Yamasaki, about him, and about the Science Center’s history related to the World’s Fair, instead of proposing this clumsy alteration that celebrates none of these things.
Surely the problem of the water loss can be solved without removing the pool of water! To find out more about Minoru Yamasaki’s fascinating life, I highly recommend reading the touching children’s book, Shapes, Lines, and Light My Grandfather’s American Journey, written and illustrated by his granddaughter, Katie Yamasaki. You will recognize many of his buildings.
I was an usher at the US Science Exhibit during the Fair and went on to become Executive Director of Pacific Science Center in 1972. I think it is appalling to even think about tinkering with Yamasaki’s masterpiece, just because of poor stewardship on the part of so called PACSY!!!
They have a fundamental responsibility to live up to their historic status representations and repair it properly!