Bon Marche Parking Garage


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Ugly Coverup (15KB)

Download the PDF to see a photo essay of the Bon Marche Parking Garage. The photographs were taken by Nic Lehoux who generously donated the images to Docomomo WEWA. Download PDF (1.6M) »

In the late 1950s, the population of Seattle was growing and the number of car owners was increasing. Responding to the increased demand for parking in downtown, the Utah Construction Company (from San Francisco) built the nine-story, 1,250-car garage (1601 3rd Avenue) in 1959-1960, for its subsidiary, the Sierra Corporation. Parking had become a business in Seattle and other cities in the 1950s and 1960s. With competition from suburban shopping malls, downtown department stores and merchants wanted to draw customers by providing parking in close proximity to their businesses. The self-parking garage on 3rd Avenue between Stewart and Pine Streets was built to accommodate the Bon Marche Department Store (a City of Seattle landmark), located across 3rd Avenue. There were other parking garages in Seattle at the time, but the Bon Marche parking garage was unique for its circular ramp design. At the time, only one other existed in the country—a garage of the same design in San Francisco (Downtown Center Garage) was built in 1955 by the same company.

George A. Gore, President of the Circular Ramp Garage Co. which operated both the Seattle and San Francisco garages, was an inventor who came up with the design. He worked with prominent San Francisco architect, George Applegarth, who drew up plans for the structures. Applegarth was an ‘Ecole des Beaux-Arts trained architect who was a prolific designer of residences and commercial and public buildings in the Bay Area. He is best known for his design of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and for San Francisco’s largest mansion, the Spreckels Mansion (a City of San Francisco landmark). The pioneering garage structure in San Francisco was followed by the one in Seattle, and later by other garages in Oakland and Los Angeles.

The old Bon Marche parking garage is endangered because the owner, Avalon Holdings of Portland, Oregon, altered its facade as part of its development of a new hotel and condominium project adjacent to the west. References in local newspapers have quoted the owner referring to the parking garage as “an eyesore.”

Avalon Holdings no longer owns the property to the west. The luxury condo/hotel project is stalled and remains a big hole in the ground. Altering the facade of the Bon Marche parking garage by partially covering it up has adversely affected the structure’s original architectural and engineering features.

Docomomo WEWA was contacted about the issue in early 2006 by a few concerned citizens. We researched the status of the project with the Seattle Department of Planning and Development and researched the history of the structure. We sent a letter to Avalon Holdings providing the company some background history on the significance of the garage and offering alternatives to permanently the facade to make it look more like a traditional building. Given the significance of the parking garage’s design and history, a better solution for treatment of the garage is to alter the storefronts to make the spaces more attractive for retail tenants. Improvements and repairs could be made to the upper levels without changing the essential character of the garage. In our letter to the owner, we urged the company to reconsider altering the facade of the parking garage.

The Bon Marche parking garage represents a significant aspect of Seattle’s architectural history and may be eligible for local landmark status. The garage design is a product of its time, and its design and engineering were revolutionary in the 1950s. The beauty of the structure comes in its honest representation of its function. Its unique cast-in-place concrete form anticipated many of the later structures of Seattle’s Century 21 Exposition of 1962—the Monorail, the Key Arena, and the Space Needle—which have become icons in the cityscape.

During the summer and fall of 2006, representatives from Docomomo WEWA met with Avalon Holdings and Sienna Architects to discuss plans for the garage. We were pleased to hear that there were no longer plans to permanently alter the facade by making it appear as a traditional building with punched windows. However, the project developer planned to install a screen on the facade. We urged the developer not to make any changes that would compromise the integrity of the upper stories on the exterior. Unfortunately, the screens have been applied to the structure, covering the architectural and engineering features. The screens appear reversible--we hope they will be removed in the future to once again reveal the intrinsic beauty of the garage.

1960. Puget Sound Regional Archives, Washington State Archives
Art Hupy. UW Special Collections.
1960. Puget Sound Regional Archives, Washington State Archives