Interiors Awards 2015: Historic Restoration

Photography by Benjamin Benschneider and Doug Scott

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King Street Station
Designer: ZGF Architects 
Client: City of Seattle Department of Transportation
Location: Seattle

“The quiet attention to craft and material with this project is especially refreshing. It’s a meticulous rebirth that provides complex modernization without sacrificing historic accuracy and refinement. This renovation skillfully reaffirms the importance of the landmark structure while integrating modern infrastructure.” -Jury

Although Seattle’s King Street Station was completed in 1906—in an era of grandly ambitious railway stations—and was designed by the architect of New York’s Grand Central Station with a clock tower resembling Venice’s famed Campanile di San Marco, Amtrak passengers passing through in recent decades would have been hard-pressed to find much to stop and marvel at. 

“A lot of the detail and texture and historic character had been stripped,” recalls Tim Williams, principal at ZGF Architects, the firm behind the $55 million renovation. During a mid-20th century renovation, intricate ceiling plasterwork was masked by a dropped ceiling and fluorescent lighting. Marble columns and mosaic tile floors had also been covered, the glazed terra-cotta roof had been replaced with asphalt shingles, and an outdoor plaza was being used as an employee parking lot. And that’s saying nothing of the leaky roof. “Deferred maintenance is the gentle term,” Williams adds.

King Street Station continued to operate through the years, though, as its prominence as a civic structure faded. In March 2008, the City of Seattle purchased the landmark building from Burlington Northern Railway Company for $10. In 2010, ZGF began working with the City of Seattle Department of Transportation to restore the station.

ZGF’s challenges included returning King Street Station’s original Beaux-Arts glamour, as well as upgrading its structure so that the unreinforced masonry building could withstand future earthquakes. However, the solutions to these challenges were sometimes at odds with one another. “The structural solution was a unique and not-optimal solution: We had to drag forces so we could preserve spaces without adding sheer walls and columns,” Williams explains. “It took a lot of gymnastics to make that happen, but thankfully the brick masonry was in good shape.”

Indeed, some 1,500 tons of steel were added to the station’s structure, including the 12-story clock tower and perimeter walls, and the construction crews needed to proceed without destroying the existing terrazzo floors and other wall finishes. “They were very creative about how they installed the steel,” says Trevina Wang, King Street Station project manager for the Seattle Department of Transportation. “Sometimes they only had inches to weld in between the finish fabric and steel.”

The gymnastics weren’t just structural, either. Amtrak maintained regular train service during the entire renovation. “There was a period in which it was difficult with the construction crew and passengers going in and out,” Wang adds. “But we tried to keep everyone informed, so people were excited to see something was finally happening.”

Historic details in the station, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, now closely resemble their original state thanks to a diligent search for appropriate materials, some serendipity, and careful craftsmanship. For example, the glass tiles forming the tower’s peak had to be replaced, but new glass would not have matched the purple oxidized look of the original tiles. The team received a call from a farmer with a barn full of oxidized glass tiles he was looking to sell. Similarly, for granite needed to replace a balustrade, the construction team found a match in the granite foundation of a former building nearby. Ornamental plaster ceilings and halls, terrazzo and mosaic tile floors, and operable windows were all restored or replaced. In addition to the Interiors Award, this station is also a recipient of a 2014 AIA Institute Honor Award for Architecture.

Achieving LEED Platinum, King Street Station relies on a geothermal heat pump with 75 wells. And an added bonus for the business of the station: 30,000 square feet of new leasable retail space was created on the second and third floors. But it is the restored elegance of the station that is attracting attention: “The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” Wang says. “Amtrak’s passengers are telling them they feel so much more relaxed. Everybody is smiling. It’s a very different place than it used to be.”