Among the hundreds of digitized records we have available that represent documents, maps, and photographs from our collection, I’ve recently discovered a bounty of photographs documenting local transit projects that have brought me great joy. Series 1147 includes several photographs of people, places, and activities, many of which are related to Metro transit from the 1970s-1990s. But among many of the photographs documenting buildings and the landscape of major transit thoroughfares in downtown Seattle, it’s the photographs of transit history that is right under our feet that I’ve found most captivating.
Traveling around King County, you may have noticed a lot of public art out there. There are great examples on sidewalks, office building plazas, parks, waterfronts, and more. If you’ve ever been down into the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel among the hustle of commuters, did you notice the murals and decorative elements of the floral tiles on the walls at Westlake or the structural arch tubing at the above-ground entrance to the former Convention Place Station? The Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel started bus service through the tunnel just over 30 years ago, back in the Fall of 1990. Moving through the tunnel to get to the bus (and now just the light rail), it’s easy to pass on by the art and architectural design of each station that runs through the downtown corridor. These sometimes-hidden gems, are the product of more than 30 artworks that were commissioned from 25 artists during the planning and building phase for the tunnel back in the 1980s. The concepts and design for the art and architecture of each station are a response to the neighborhoods each station exists within. From northeast downtown to the south in the International District, the original footprint of the tunnel system was 5 stations:
Convention Place–>Westlake–>University Street–>Pioneer Square–>International District.
While I’m still going through the photographs we have of the public art installed throughout the five stations in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, I want to call out a few photographs that I’ve identified so far at two of the original five stations. Let’s take a look at the former station to the northern end of downtown:
Formerly situated at 9th Ave and Pine Street in front of the Paramount Theatre to greet travelers and commuters heading into the tunnel to go north to the U District or south to the International District and beyond, the Convention Place Station was the northern starting point to go underground and travel the length of the downtown area in a matter of minutes. Named for its proximity to the Washington State Convention Center, the station existed and operated bus travel in this space until its closure in 2018. Today, transit riders traveling south in the tunnel are arriving from the Capitol Hill Station situated up on Broadway East between East Olive Way and East Denny Way in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
While in operation as a tunnel station, this open-air station featured art and architecture with Alice Adams and Jack Mackie as the lead artists and architect Robert Jones as the station designer. One of the most prominent artworks at this station was the dual marquee entrance that met travelers going in and out of the southside of the station plaza at surface street level to pop over to the Paramount or elsewhere into downtown. Designed by artist Alice Adams, the dual marquee design pictured below included metal and neon tubing inspired by the Paramount Theatre marquee across the street and NYC’s Chrysler Building.
From the former Convention Place Station, let’s move on down to the next station on the tunnel route to stop in at Westlake Station.
Located between 4th and 6th Ave on Pine Street, the station continues to serve travelers and commuters in the Westlake Center and Westlake Park area. With Jack Mackie as the lead artist and architect Brent Carlson as the station designer, the station art and design are characteristic of the Westlake shopping hub and gathering place of the Westlake Park plaza that surround the surface streets of the station.
One artwork that you might have missed buzzing through the station are the terra-cotta tiles that line the south wall of the station. The tiles are relief designs of roots and vines evocative of Westlake Park just above on the surface. Below is artist Jack Mackie developing the relief style of one of the terra-cotta tiles that would eventually go onto the entire garden wall.
And at the busy platform of transit riders idling for the next light rail to come or hustling by to the next destination on the surface streets, this Roger Shimomura mural is just one of the murals representing the public that moves about the city and surrounding areas each day. Other murals at Westlake Station not pictured here are by Fay Jones and Gene Gentry McMahon.
The above artworks and artists are certainly not the only public art to be enjoyed or reminisced throughout the tunnel’s history. I’m only just discovering all these public art photos and in time I hope that the tour can continue on down through the tunnel. Thanks for joining me on this brief trip!
Want to learn more?
If you’d like to learn more about the public art in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, the following articles were very helpful in gathering details for this post. The articles cover much more about the opening of the transit tunnel and the artists and intent involved in the art and design of each tunnel station.
- ‘Art-itecture’ of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, Your guide to the tunnel’s built-in public art By King County Metro
- Bus service begins in downtown Seattle transit tunnel on September 15, 1990. By Walt Crowley, HistoryLink.org, September 15th, 2000
Other resources to learn more about the tunnel construction and design:
- Scenes from the late 1980s: Looking back at the construction of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, by Jill Anderson, Bytes and Boxes, March 21st, 2019
- Tunnel Visions — Bus Labyrinth Beneath Seattle Spawns Gallery by Karen Mathieson, Seattle Times, September 12th, 1990
- Currents; In Commuter Tunnel, Art at Every Stop by Patricia Leigh Brown, New York Times, October 4th, 1990