Lake Union History

Lake Union Steam Plant building turns 100

The Lake Union Steam Plant that now houses ZymoGenetics turns one hundred years old this year. It’s been called the monument on Lake Union, and its story is, well, monumental. It’s one of auspicious birth – built at the start of the electric age; heroic life – providing emergency power for the city; shocking death – discovery of toxic waste; and finally resurrection – the renovation into a modern biogenetics laboratory. It begins like many great stories with a prequel – the Hydro House.

Hydro House

Squeezed between ZymoGenetics and an old renovated warehouse the gnome-like structure of the Hydro House on Eastlake Avenue is easy to miss and a delight to find. It was built in response to a young city’s growing energy needs and to a possible failure in the Cedar River dam.

Hydro House in 1912; notice 40" pipe being installed on left. Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives

Hydro House in 1912; notice 40″ pipe being installed on left. Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives

At the turn of the 19th century, electricity was changing people’s lives in ways analogous to today’s technological revolution. As with information technology, Seattle took a leading role in electrical power. The first light bulb in Seattle, also the first west of the Rockies, “flickered to life” in just 1886, according to a HistoryLink essay. Some twenty years later, in 1905, the Cedar River Falls hydroelectric facility became “the nation’s first municipally owned hydro project,” according to Seattle City Light.

The early users of electricity, industry and commerce provided steady growth for the utility. But by the end of the first decade, a new market was opening – the home. No sooner were additional generators planned for the Cedar River station than it was apparent even more would be needed.

“The support given the municipal plant by the Seattle citizens was so enthusiastic that it became necessary to plan extensions almost as soon as service began,” a 1931 City of Seattle Department of Lighting Annual Report notes in its history section.

By 1910 city engineers decided to just tap all the energy potential of the Cedar River site by means of a large concrete dam. But there was a risk involved with the dam, a potential failure of one of the dam’s reservoir walls. To provide enough power to the city while resolving that issue, Seattle needed a back-up power source and planned for a coal-fed steam plant on the south end of Lake Union.

In 1911 voters approved financing for the initial phase of the Steam Plant. Yet it too couldn’t be built fast enough. Since actual power from the Steam Plant was still a few years away, the possibility of building a small hydro facility on the site was re-introduced. The idea for a hydro project on Lake Union had first been raised in January 1902 to power city street lights. But its funding instead went toward the much larger Cedar River Falls hydro electric project.

Now the timing was right. The Hydro House was quickly built and put into service by 1912 for a cost of about $30,000.

The Hydro House was innovative. It used the latent power of the Volunteer Park Reservoir. Overflow water propelled by gravity fell through a 40-inch pipe some 3,400 feet long with a drop of 412 feet to generate 1,500 kilowatts of power. Technically it was the city’s second electrical generating facility.

In reality, “the unit was too small to be a real factor in supplying the rapidly increasing demand but it was the first auxiliary power source for the City,” again according to the 1931 report, “and paid for itself many times over during its first three years as a standby plant in emergency.”

The Hydro House as it is today viewed from Eastlake Avenue.

The Hydro House as it is today viewed from Eastlake Avenue.

The Hydro House, originally called the Power House, is now a local landmark structure. In 1987 architect, preservationist and former Eastlake Community Council board member Susan Boyle nominated both it and the adjacent Steam Plant for landmark status in a well-researched, 15-page, single-spaced, typed nomination form.

The building was designed by Daniel Riggs Huntington, the City Architect from 1911-1925, who also designed many other still-standing historic structures. The Fremont Library, also a Huntington design, bears a familial resemblance to the Hydro House. Both are Mission Revival Style structures. Although, “the Lake Union Power House was a contradictory hybrid,” notes Boyle, “a new building type [electrical] clothed in an old style.”

Boyle describes the Hydro House as “a single story, wood and concrete frame structure with a basement level below the grade of Eastlake Avenue. The primary elevation is the east one on Eastlake Avenue (original drawings show no indication of Fairview Avenue, which was built later on pilings). The building is stucco-clad, clay tile, gable-roofed structure, with its ridge running parallel to the street.”

She notes that there are two small concrete towers on the structure that originally contained cross arms for transmission lines.

“The original roof towers clearly expressed the use of the building and the simple symmetrical arrangements of elements spoke of its utility, but the building’s size and style gave it a domestic character.”

A window outlook sat squarely on the roof ridge, for visually monitoring those early transmission lines. The thick north and south concrete walls of the Hydro House rise to form low roof parapets that were likely “designed to serve as fire walls to separate the Power House from neighboring buildings.”

An inset entryway was changed shortly after construction. “A pair of panel doors with a glass transom was originally set into the front opening at the east elevation to provide a small covered entry,” writes Boyle. “This was changed in 1914 when the doors were moved forward to their present location on the face of the building.”

Other changes include “the removal of grillwork and installation of windows at the two dormers and gable ends. When the building ceased to operate as a generating plant, the cross arms and exterior wires were removed. But for these changes, the exterior of the Power House today is original.”
As for the interior, only the original concrete walls and roof trusses remain.
Comparing the design of the Hydro House with the neighboring Steam Plant “clearly suggests the revolutionary character of the later building.”

The Hydro House was quickly eclipsed when the initial phase of the Steam Plant was completed in 1914. The Hydro House’s main floor, formerly a storage area (with the generators in the basement), became a lunch and locker room for Seattle City Light steam plant employees. And its loft became a darkroom for the city’s Engineering Department staff photographers.

The Hydro House continued to serve as an emergency back-up power source for some 18 years. In 1932 it was finally shut down entirely. Its generators were said to have been sold to a Christian radio station in Ecuador calling itself “The Voice of the Andes.”

“The only remnant of power generation within the Power House,” writes Boyle, “is a braced concrete pier in the basement that once supported the turbines.” Another remnant exists outside, beneath Fairview Avenue, amidst the pilings and partially submerged in Lake Union’s shallow waters, the large outflow pipe of the generators.

Hydro House today viewed from Fairview Avenue. Sketch by Karen Berry.

Hydro House today viewed from Fairview Avenue. Sketch by Karen Berry.

Today the Hydro House has a new life, owned by ZymoGenetics, and leased out as a restaurant to The Great Northwest Soup Company. In this way it still functions as it once did as a lunchroom to employees in the larger building. The restaurant is open to the public Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. While enjoying a breakfast or lunch at the Hydro House, you can look up to see those original roof trusses and also wander outside onto a modern patio for a view of Lake Union.

Next: “Life of a Steam Plant.”

A version of this article was first published in the Eastlake News, the Eastlake Community Council’s newsletter.

Down home Seattle soul lives at Voula’s Offshore Café

When I first came to the Northwest in the ‘70s, after growing up on the East Coast and going to school in California, I noticed that this corner of the U.S. stood out for its great breakfast places. I became familiar with the culinary delights of omelets stuffed with a multitude of ingredients accompanied by piles of hash browns, stacks of toast and coffee cups that never stayed empty for long.

I speculated it was all about the natural resources economy of the region. About the need for a hearty breakfast before going out to run chainsaws, heave fishing nets or herd cattle. All the logger’s and rancher’s breakfasts listed on the menus were a pretty good clue.

It was definitely the case with his place, says Sikey Vlahos, owner of Voula’s Offshore Café, located just off Lake Union at 658 NE Northlake Way.

Voula's entrance

Voula’s entrance

“This place was supported by fishermen and the people who worked on the boats. They needed hearty meals, to escape to a restaurant to get good food.”

The fishing industry is not the force on the lake that it once was and many older landmarks have shut down under pressure from higher rents. But Voula’s continues to attract a steady clientele from local residents, the university and a still active business community on the Lake. In a Seattle that is rapidly gentrifying Voula’s remains a genuine expression of traditional Seattle soul, a down home diner serving ample, tasty breakfasts and lunches in a friendly setting rich with recollections of local history.

Voula's mural

Voula’s mural

There’s the mural that covers the entire east wall of the front dining room. Depicting Portage Bay circa 1957, it was done by an artist named Gene Buck who needed a place to stay. The restaurant, just opened two years as Rose’s, had a room off to the side. So as a trade Buck spent his evenings painting the still bright image centered on University Bridge.

And there’s a piece of the original SLO-MO-SHUN IV hanging on the wall. The history-making hydroplane was built by Anchor Jensen of Jensen Motorboats, still just down the street from Voula’s on Boat Street.

Piece of the demolished SO-MO-SHUN IV

Piece of the demolished SO-MO-SHUN IV

Hydroplane historian Fred Farley tells the story: “In the early hours of June 26, 1950, an event transpired that caught the racing world by surprise. An Unlimited Class hydroplane with the unlikely name of SLO-MO-SHUN IV set a mile straightaway record of 160.323 miles per hour on Lake Washington near Sand Point, which raised the former standard by nearly 19 miles per hour . . . SLO-MO-SHUN IV was not the first Unlimited hydroplane to ‘prop-ride’ on a semi-submerged propeller. But she was the first to reap championship results in the application of the concept . . . For the next twenty years, boats had to pretty much use a SLO-MO-type of design to be competitive.”

The hydroplane broke to pieces in an accident on the Detroit River in 1956. Heartbroken owner Stan Sayres died three weeks later. But the memory of this piece of Seattle heritage lives on as part of a hydroplane display on the rear dining room wall.

One of two paintings by Chihuly

One of two paintings by Chihuly

A catacorner wall reflects another famous Seattle connection with two paintings by Dale Chihuly celebrating Voula’s. Chihuly’s Lake Union glass blowing shop is a nearby neighbor and Chihuly was another Voula’s regular when he lived there in the 1980s.

Voula’s has yet a further claim to fame. In 2007 Guy Fieri of the Food Network made the restaurant one of the original features for his show, “Diner’s Drive-ins and Dives.” The crew came in for a two-day filming session. The Voula’s episode still repeats and has made the restaurant an attraction for tour operators.

“It doubled our business,” Sikey said. “We had to expand.”

Guy Fieri's book features Voula's

Guy Fieri’s book features Voula’s

Despite all the fame and attention Voula’s remains totally down to Earth. It is the good old neighborhood gathering spot with many daily regulars. A bulletin board full of friendly messages, a wall of pictures of customers’ children, even a shelf of toy cars donated by customers – originally for kids to play with, are all evidence of how much a community place this is.

Sikey and his mom, Voula, took over the place in 1984. Then the Offshore Café, they added Voula’s name, and it has stuck ever since. Voula herself is officially retired, but she is often in providing a warm, Greek-style greeting. The other day when I was in for breakfast she led the house in a rendition of “Happy Birthday” for a customer.

The entire family migrated from Greece in 1971 when Sikey was 7. Dad worked as a tailor. Voula started working at the Little Cheerful Café, which is now the Portage Bay Café at University Motor Inn. In 1983 the owner sold the Little Cheerful.

“My mom was upset she wasn’t offered it,” Sikey says. “So she started looking for restaurant to buy, and she bought this one.”

Recently Voula’s expanded again. A classic diner where mounds of hashbrowns cook on open flat stoves behind the counter, the café has now added a much larger rear kitchen in a space that was formerly Tony’s Coffee warehouse.

“We have five times the kitchen that we had,” Sikey says.

The menu “all started with the classic American breakfast,” he notes. Creative weekly specials are offered and become regulars if popular enough. As you might expect, there’s a lot of Greek influence in the menu, like one of my favorites, the Freagy Greagy omelet with feta, spinach, Greek sausage and onions. Voula’s does a lot of its own meat and fish smoking. One of their signature dishes, the Pinata Benedict, features their own smoked pork, though I like to switch that out with their smoked salmon.

New buildings are popping up around Voula’s North Lake location. The university is slowly devouring the neighborhood. Will Voula’s survive or be swept up in the development wave as have so many classic Seattle institutions? Fortunately, no.

“We own this place,” Sikey says. “We’re in control of our own destiny. With the huge investment we just did that is not in the foreseeable future. This block is owned by three different families. We are all on the same page.”

What is the toughest part of running Voula’s?   “Working 12 hours a day for 6 days a week. Sometime it’s seven,” Sikey says.

And the best?

“It makes me happy to see people eat a meal and make a comment such as ‘the best thing I’ve ever had’ or ‘that was extremely delicious.’ It gives me great gratification to make people happy.”

The family has indeed made this Lake Union tradition a place of happiness. Next time you’re hankering for a classic Seattle breakfast diner experience try out Voula’s Offshore Café. You’ll be happy you did.

 

Historic Virginia-V steam ferry cruise and seaplane centennial celebration

Ride the historic Virginia-V steam ferry and enjoy a narrated history of Lake Union by local historian Jules James as part of the Center for Wooden Boats Festival July 4th-6th. The boat ride includes a special display celebrating the seaplanes’ centennial this year.

FF4

Did you know Lake Union is the location for the first flights of the Boeing Company’s first three models: the B & W, the Model C and the B-1? All three were water flyers. The B-1 flying boat accumulated more miles flown than any other aircraft in America from 1920 to 1925.

The one-hour history cruise is offered Saturday, July 5, and Sunday, July 6, at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m.

Book your passage. Tickets may be purchased online or aboard the Virginia-V. Adult tickets are $10, kids under 11, $5, and a family of 4, $20.  Free for children under 5, but each must have a ticket.

201LUWFposter

Jules James

Jules James

A Virtual Museum about Lake Union History

When Vaun Raymond was looking for a thesis project to complete his Masters in Digital Media at the University of Washington, he asked Dick Wagner, founder of The Wooden Boats Center, what, if he could do a museum about anything, would it be? Wagner responded, “Lake Union.”

Wagner’s answer literally launched Raymond’s Lake Union Virtual Museum; the first video project was shot in part from a boat on Lake Union.

The museum is a multi-media website combining text, photographs and videos to tell stories about Seattle’s unique urban lake.  Since its beginning in 2008, the website has grown to 52 pages with dozens of photos and 11 documentary videos on various aspects of the lake’s history.  The website can be found at www.lakeunionhistory.org.

 “It’s a museum you can visit from home,” said Raymond who was a guest speaker at a Sept. 17 Eastlake Community Council  public meeting on the history of Lake Union.

The discussion of the virtual turned surprisingly real as two of the featured subjects of the videos were in the audience. Richard Haag the architect for Gasworks Park was there and so was Jackie Swanson a descendant of John Cheshiahud, for whom the Lake Union Loop is named.

Hagg spoke about the controversy surrounding Gas Works development. When the city started discussing ideas for turning the site into a park in the 1970’s people just assumed that the old gas works plant would be removed. The plant which had converted coal and later oil into synthetic natural gas was shut down in 1956 with the introduction of new technologies for natural gas.

Richard Haag at Gas Works Park from video

Richard Haag at Gas Works Park from video

Haag came across the shuttered plant in 1958 when he moved to Seattle. “That place is magic,” he thought. “I want to work with that site.” Just over a decade later he would get his wish.

In 1969 Haag was hired by the city to do an analysis of the gas works property to determine how to turn it into a park. While doing the analysis he became convinced that the structures were the most sacred thing about the place, but keeping them would be another matter.

The park was originally going to be named for Myrtle Edwards. The park concept was being spearheaded by her family, but the family was adamantly against saving the structures and denounced the idea at public meetings. The sentiment from the family and many members of the public was, “Save that pile of junk?  What is going on here?”

Haag had a painting commissioned to show how the park might eventually look with the gas works and revealed it at a public hearing that over 700 people attended. That helped sway public opinion enough to let the project go forward.  The Edwards family withdrew the councilwoman’s name for the park. And instead the park, the first of its kind, became most known for, as Haag referred to them, its “industrial ruins.”

Jackie Swanson, a Native American, featured in the “First People” video was philosophical about her people’s history around the lake.  She noted her great grandmother had been born where Ivar’s Salmon House now stands, and her family’s roots in the Pacific Northwest go far back.  She described herself as Ancient Duwamish.

Jackie Swanson from video

Jackie Swanson from video

John Cheshiahud was one of the last Native Americans still living on the shores of Lake Union once white settlements had taken over. “What we got from Cheshiahud was always do our best,” she said.

John Cheshiahud was a master canoe carver. He carved a canoe for David Denny, and they became good friends learning each other’s language. Denny thought so highly of Cheshiahud that he ensured a burial spot for him at the Washelli Cemetery, even though the cemetery was segregated at the time.

“When you know the history of a place, the place becomes populated with the past,” noted Swanson.

More and more people are learning the history of Lake Union through Raymond’s project. Robert Onstad, Manager of Chandler’s restaurant, was also introduced at the meeting because he has set up a viewing room at Chandler’s that shows the videos as an option for patrons waiting for their table. It’s been much appreciated, he said.  “Guests want to know about what they’re seeing out their window.”

Besides “Gas Works” and “First People,” Raymond has also produced videos about Lake Union on “Boat Shops,” “Shipwrecks,” “Houseboats,” “World’s Fair (1909),” “Rowing,” “Seaplanes,” “Harbor Patrol,” and “Lake Union Drydock.”

What’s Raymond’s favorite? He declined to say in a phone interview, but he did mention that “Seaplanes” has turned out to be the most popular with over 86,000 YouTube views.

Being on the Internet the museum has a vast geographic distribution, he noted.  Recently a pilot association in Florida wanting to establish a seaplane business in their community asked Raymond if they could use the Seaplane video at community meetings. He said yes.

He also said yes when a design group in California wanted to use the Gas Works video for community education as they were planning to turn a similar abandoned structure into a park.

“People are looking at Lake Union as a model,” Raymond said, “and it’s neat to be able to contribute to that.”

This article first appeared in The Eastlake News, Winter 2013/14 issue.