In the opinion of the survey, this property appears to meet the criteria of the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Ordinance.
This five story commercial building was constructed in 1963-64 as the new headquarters for The Washington Natural Gas Company. This building was historically known as the Blue Flame Building because of the 26-foot-tall blue neon gas flame that rotated atop the building for nearly four decades. The neon flame weighed two tons and contained 660 light bulbs and 180 neon tubes. It symbolized the company and served as its primary sign at this location from 1964 until 2000. (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Oct. 24, 2001).
The Washington Natural Gas Company moved into the building at 815 Mercer Street (the building address has been changed to 850 Republican) on March 28, 1964, from its former offices at 1507 Fourth Avenue, where it was located for 33 years. The new building cost $3,335, 000 to construct. Upon moving into the building in 1964, company president, William P. Woods, reported that the 101,020 square foot structure was designed for the later addition of three floors. (The additional stories were never constructed.) The building originally housed 300 employees and served as the base for 200 additional field personnel (Seattle Daily Times, March 29, 1964, p. 99).
The site was originally marsh land on the south shore of Lake Union. It was purchased by The Washington Natural Gas Company in 1906 and filled in 1907. The building was constructed on 321 tapered pilings, 24 feet long and supporting reinforced concrete beams at grade, two reinforced concrete central cores, and 24 concrete columns. The main level featured a reinforced concrete floor with glass and masonry curtain walls. The three upper floors were constructed of pre-stressed concrete with precast concrete walls supported by columns and a reinforced-concrete central core. The lower level was an operating base and general offices occupied the four floors above. A penthouse housed mechanical equipment. Other interior features included 150-seat cafeteria and the Blue Flame Room, a 100-seat auditorium with a stage and kitchen. (Seattle Daily Times, March, 29, 1964, p.99.). The auditorium and cafeteria were separated by a wall which could be folded for large meetings or dinners. The company made these spaces available for use by non-profit organizations and community groups as evidenced by articles and advertisements in the Seattle Times between 1964 and the early 1980s (Seattle Daily Times, 1965-1984). An underground garage, accessed off of Ninth Ave. included ten repair stalls and wash and grease racks.
Further evidence of the company’s pride in its new headquarters was its commissioning of Seattle artist, Carol Bonner, to create a 10-foot high and 21-foot long glass tile mural that was installed on the first floor of its new headquarters. Symbolic of the gas that is emitted from the earth, the center tiles were blue and as they radiated out they became oranges and red like the heat emitted from gas. The company’s decision to spend $2,500 for this work of art was commended by the Seattle Arts Commission (Seattle Daily Times, May 31, 1964, p. 40).
The building architect was John Graham & Co. and the general contractor was Cawdrey & Vemo, Inc. The building took more than a year to construct. (Seattle Daily Times, March 29, 1964, p. 99).
Architect John Graham Jr., (1908 – 1991) was born and raised in Seattle. He attended the Moran Military Academy and then Queen Anne High School, graduating in 1925. He began his formal architectural education at the University of Washington in 1926, and then transferred to Yale, where he received his Bachelor’s degreein architecture in 1931. Due to the Depression, Graham worked in the retail business before joining his father’s architectural practice as a partner in 1937. Business was booming for the firm and at the age of 30, Graham Jr. opened a branch office in New York City with engineer William Painter as a partner.
During the late 1930s, Graham focused his work on designing retail spaces. With the outbreak of WWII, the New York office closed and Graham turned to the design of war housing, developing several large FHA housing projects including Suburban Heights (1944) and Sunny Brook (1942) in the suburbs of Washington DC, and Edgewater Park (1939) in Seattle.
During this time, Graham Sr. had begun transferring the practice to his son, and officially retired from active practice in 1946. After his father’s retirement, John Graham Jr. changed the name of the firm to John Graham & Company and began to design large shopping malls, a new concept at the time. By 1949, the firm employed thirty-two draftsmen, designers, structural, mechanical and electrical engineers. Among the more noteworthy projects were Northgate Shopping Center in Seattle (1950), Capitol Court in Milwaukee (1957), and Northshore Mall in Peabody, Massachusetts (1958). The firm went on to specialize in multi-million dollar regional shopping centers and designed over seventy throughout the country. They also designed a variety of schools, churches and factory buildings.
Graham had a reputation for correctly assessing a project's schedule, budget and feasibility, and this earned him the title "a businessman's architect." He was licensed to practice in ten states and was favored by many developers, corporations, and institutional clients. Among the over 1,000 projects by the firm is Washington Natural Gas Headquarters (1964), Olympic Hotel parking Garage (1965), the 42-story Bank of California Building, the Westin Towers (1969, 1982), 1600 Bell Plaza (1976) and the 44-story Wells Fargo Building in San Francisco (1966).
Graham’s most well-known project was the 600 ft. tall Space Needle for the Seattle World’s Fair. While the initial design was claimed by Graham and fellow architect Victor Steinbrueck, it was Graham’s firm that executed the final design.
Under Graham’s leadership the firm became one of the premiere commercial architectural firms in the United States. John Graham Jr. died in Seattle on January 29, 1991. (Credit: Credit: Houser, Michael, “John Graham, Jr.,” Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, http://www.dahp.wa.gov/learn-and-research/architect-biographies/john-graham-jr.)
This building’s design is indicative of the Brutalist style. The term Brutalism was coined in 1953 to describe the architectural work of a group of British architects. In its early phase, Brutalism was initially a design philosophy, not a style. The idea was to create an aesthetic based on the exposure of a building’s components: its frame, its sheathing, and its mechanical systems. Quickly however the term began to be applied to buildings that utilized monumental concrete forms and bulky massing. While the style appeared early in the Pacific Northwest, the best examples date to the late 1960s.
The term Brutalism is derived from the French word for rough concrete or “beton brut”. Brutalist structures have a heavy mass and scale. Broad surfaces are often interrupted by deep-shadow penetrations of the buildings mass; vertical slots may contrast with broad oblong openings or tall openings with horizontal slots, while “egg-crate” effects are also much employed. The exterior treatment, as the name suggests, is usually exposed concrete, which is left rough to show the wooden formwork. However some examples of brick and stucco can be found. Fixed windows are set deep into the walls and are often small in relation to the size of the structure. Other common features include the use of “Waffle” slabs for floor and roof systems. As the name implies this cast-in-place building system utilized continuous pour of concrete with a coffered underside to reduce the weight of the slab. Such slabs were often left exposed. (Credit: Houser, Michael, “Brutalism 1955-1980,” Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, http://www.dahp.wa.gov/styles/brutalism.)
In 1997, Washington Energy, the parent company of Washington Natural Gas, merged with Puget Power to form Puget Sound Energy and the Bellevue-based company sold the building at 815 Mercer to Vulcan, Inc. in 2001. (The rotating neon flame was donated to the Museum of History and Industry at that time). (Seattle P.I., June 3, 2008).
In 2005, UW Medicine moved into the building, which they renamed the Brotman Building, and in 2008 the building became part of a $180 million, 256,000 square foot UW Medical complex that spans most of the block bounded by Mercer and Republican streets, Eight Avenue North and Ninth Avenue North. This South Lake Union campus of the UW School of Medicine houses 1,250 employees in four buildings. The former Washington Natural Gas building houses four floors of biotechnology and medical research laboratories (Puget Sound Business Journal, June 3, 2008.)
R.L. Polk Company, “Polk’s City of Seattle Directory,” 1967.
Seattle Daily Times, “Gas Firm Completes Move to New Plant,” March, 29, 1964, p.99.
Seattle Daily Times, “Seattle Artist’s Mosaic Mural Shows Gas Company Symbol,” May 31, 1964, p.40.
Bill Virgin, “Landmark Neon Flame will Burn in Display at MOHAI”, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Oct 24, 2001.
Puget Sound Business Journal, “UW Medicine Opens South Lake Union Complex,” June 3, 2008.)
King County Property Record Card (1937-1972), Washington State Archives.
Michael Houser, “John Graham, Jr.,” Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation,” http://www.dahp.wa.gov/learn-and-research/architect-biographies/john-graham-jr .
Michael Houser, “Brutalism, 1955-1980,” Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, http://www.dahp.wa.gov/styles/brutalism.)