Monthly Archives: December 2014

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.

East Howe Steps Gateway Plaza Project: Connecting Capitol Hill, Eastlake and Lake Union

Everyone is cordially invited to learn more about this new public space in Eastlake that will unite the historic East Howe steps on Capitol Hill with a new path across Eastlake Avenue and down to Fairview Ave. and the Cheshiahud trail on Lake Union. Share visions of what might be, during a public open house on Thursday, December 11, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm in the TOPS Seward Alternative Public School library (located at 2500 Franklin Ave. E.). Two more open houses with different objectives are scheduled, so please put all three on your calendars. They are February 5 and March 19 also at TOPS, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Come ready to show your creative side, as we work together to create this vibrant new public plaza!

A group of dedicated Eastlake residents formed the Lake Union Neighborhood Council over 10 years ago for the sole purpose of working toward the creation of the East Howe Steps Gateway Plaza. Recently, with the support of the Eastlake Community Council, the Lake Union Neighborhood Council applied for and received a $25,000 grant from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.

The East Howe Steps selection committee, after a very crowded application process (9 applications), selected the Landscape Architect firm, HBB, who will eventually lead the neighborhood to the design of The East Howe Steps Gateway Plaza.

This innovative community project will—among many other things—complete the pedestrian connection between the Cheshiahud Loop Trail along Lake Union and 10th Avenue East on Capitol Hill, via the well-known East Howe Steps, which begin underneath Interstate 5, at the west edge of Colonnade Park. These well-used steps continue upward across Lakeview Boulevard and Broadway Avenue East to North Capitol Hill, near Saint Mark’s Cathedral, Volunteer Park, and the Seattle Preparatory Academy.

In this satellite view of E. Howe St. you can see where the public right of way would extend, between the dotted parallel lines, linking Fairview  Ave. and Eastlake Ave. A public plarea would be at the Fairview Ave. end.

In this satellite view of E. Howe St. you can see where the public right of way would extend, between the dotted parallel lines, linking Fairview Ave. and Eastlake Ave. A public plarea would be at the Fairview Ave. end.

The project will be built in the East Howe Street Right-of-Way, between Eastlake Avenue East and Fairview Avenue East, through what is currently the parking lot of the former Don Eduardo’s Mexican restaurant

HBB concepts

HBB concepts

The project will be built in the landing area where the East Howe Street Right-of-Way (ROW) meets the Fairview Avenue East ROW now public parking. The Lake Union Neighborhood Council has been working over the last 10 years with the City and the adjacent private property owners to develop the eastern 100 yards of the East Howe Steps as a pedestrian way between Fairview Avenue East and Eastlake Avenue East. Most of the costs of construction for this segment is being paid for by the adjacent private property owners. The East Howe Steps Gateway Plaza project will establish a broad public landing space south of 1910 Fairview Avenue East and will complete the link for Capitol Hill with the Cheshiahud loop trail.

Longtime Eastlake resident Brian Ramey has been working with his neighbors to complete the connection between Lake Union and Capitol Hill since the early-1980s, when he and other Eastlake residents convinced the City and the State Department of Transportation not to construct a proposed 1500-unit mini-warehouse building beneath the Interstate 5 freeway overpass, where Colonnade Park is now located.

Mr. Ramey subsequently conceived the idea of a public stairway and plaza that would reclaim and transform over 9000 square feet of city property in the specified section of the East Howe Street Right-of-Way (an area which is 30 feet wide and approximately 100 yards long, fanning out dramatically as it approaches Fairview Avenue East and the Cheshiahud Loop Trail), and has been working with private developers in pursuit of that goal.

More recently, he successfully sought the initial grant from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, and recruited a wide-ranging, volunteer Steering Committee of neighborhood residents to shepherd the project toward successful completion.

Seattle Parks Foundation is the fiscal agent for the East Howe Steps Gateway Plaza grant through the Lake Union Neighborhood Council, and has a web page devoted to helping the Lake Union Neighborhood Council raise the necessary funds to design and build the plaza.

The initial planning stage includes a six-month “visioning process,” coordinated and led by HBB Landscape Architecture, a Seattle firm selected from among nine applicants to design an approach to what will become a unique public space in the Eastlake neighborhood. HBB’s project manager is Juliet Vong, who will be assisted by HBB designer Arielle Farina Clark and Debi Frausto, a well-regarded public facilitator.

By next spring the visioning process based on input from residents of the Eastlake community, local businesses, and property owners will determine what design elements to include in the East Howe Steps Gateway Plaza Project.

Input will be gathered during three public events beginning with the Thursday, December 11“kick-off” open house from 6:30 to 8:30 pm, in the library of TOPS at Seward School located at 2500 Franklin Avenue East.

The Steering Committee is determined that the final result will be a fusion of great design and everyday functionality—a comfortable place for private contemplation as well as spirited public events; a strikingly beautiful addition to the Eastlake neighborhood that fits seamlessly with its rich history; and a memorable public space that can be enjoyed by all the residents of Eastlake on a year-round basis, at all times of day or night!

The Steering Committee envisions numerous forms of ongoing public outreach—a series of public events to solicit ideas and opinions from a broad segment of local residents; printed informational posters and flyers; notices and information on local blogs and websites; and features in both neighborhood and citywide press.

In addition, members of the Steering Committee will be available to answer questions at all three planned public forums, as will members of the HBB team and other interested parties, including representatives of the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.

Brian Ramey is the primary contact for The East Howe Steps Gateway Plaza Project. He can be reached at, via mail at 117 East Louisa Street #187, Seattle WA 98102 or phone: 206-271-4744

There’s also a website: and Facebook page: East Howe Steps.

By Tom Kipp, on behalf of the Project Steering Committee

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



Fountain ice

The Thanksgiving weekend cold snap created this icicled scene in the fountain at Chandlers Cove Sunday.  The succession of sunny cold days, unusual for Seattle, left a dusting of snow and ice all around the Lake.