Federal Building, Seattle, WA

Federal Building, Seattle, Washington

Building History

According to local tradition, the Federal Office Building in Seattle is located on the site where city founders A.A. Denny, William Bell, and C.D. Boren docked their boat after making initial surveys of Puget Sound and its harbors in 1851. On June 6, 1889, the Great Seattle Fire, which destroyed more than 64 acres of the commercial district, started in a cabinet shop at the site of the Federal Office Building.

Seattle rebuilt after the fire, and in 1897 its port became the "Gateway to Alaska" for steamships bearing prospectors bound for Alaska and the Klondike Gold Rush. The city's population burgeoned, and the federal government decided to consolidate the location of its services. In 1928, Congress approved more than $2 million for site acquisition and construction. Officials selected a site bounded by Madison and Marion streets and First and Western avenues. The building was designed between 1930 and 1931 by the office of James A. Wetmore, acting supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury Department. One of the earliest federal buildings in the Art Deco style of architecture, the building's design was a departure from the more traditional styles of Classical Revival and Beaux Arts Classicism and a step toward more modern architectural styles that were gaining popularity. However, the building retains conventional symmetrical massing and proportion.

Construction was completed in 1933 by the Murch Construction Company of St. Louis, Missouri. The building used substantial amounts of aluminum from smelters along the nearby Columbia River. It was the first building in Seattle designed specifically to house offices for the federal government. Among its first tenants were 52 federal agencies, the largest of which was the Department of the Treasury.

Today, the building is located among three significant historic areas: Pioneer Square, Pike Place Market, and the waterfront. The Jackson Federal Building, located across the street, was constructed from 1975 to 1976. In 1979, the Federal Office Building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.


The Federal Office Building is an exuberant example of Art Deco architecture. One of the earliest Modern styles, Art Deco architecture emphasizes verticality and is heavily ornamented with stylized, geometric motifs. The facade is stepped, with the outer portions rising from six stories to nine stories, while the central tower reaches eleven stories in height. The tower is topped by a ziggurat (stepped pyramid) with a flagpole at its apex. Corner towers rise slightly above the ridgeline.

The building is constructed of a steel frame encased in concrete for additional fire protection. The design is also notable for its use of aluminum, which was installed as cast spandrel panels between windows on the third through sixth floors. The panels, which depict either insignia of various federal agencies or decorative geometric designs, were one of the earliest substantial uses of aluminum on a West Coast building.

The building rests atop a granite foundation. Smooth terra cotta, which lends the appearance of stone, covers the first story and is punctuated by segmental-arch openings on the facade. The mid-section is clad in light red brick and is topped by elaborate stylized ornamentation executed in pale terra cotta.

On the facade, three centrally located entrances are articulated by vertical pale terra-cotta ornamentation that includes miniature ram and lion heads. A stylized eagle motif is centrally placed above the entrance, and bronze lanterns provide light. Two five-foot-tall, cast-bronze urns, which were relocated from the 1909 Alaskan-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, flank the entrance. They feature stylized geometric decorations.

Often, the rear elevations of buildings are less visible and therefore less ornamented, but because the rear of the Federal Office Building faces Western Avenue, an important thoroughfare, all elevations are extensively detailed. The building's cornerstone and two plaques commemorating the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 are located near where the fire began.

Interior public spaces are heavily ornamented with Art Deco materials and motifs. Access is gained through the First Avenue entrance into a vestibule with cast-bronze moldings and bronze-and-glass doors which lead to a public lobby and the post office. The public lobby floor is covered with dark red terra-cotta tile with cross strips and baseboards of Tokeen marble from Alaska. Walls are clad in light gray Wilkinson sandstone, and a coffered ceiling tops the space. Several original bronze, reverse-pyramid light fixtures remain in the lobby. A nearby elevator lobby has four elevators with original cast-bronze doors bearing floral Art Deco motifs.

At the north end of the vestibule is the U.S. Post Office, which is reached through an opening flanked by stained oak pilasters (attached columns). The postal lobby, which is nearly unchanged since building construction, is one of the most significant interior spaces. Two original postal service windows are cased in stained oak with simple scroll brackets and carved lintels. The floor is covered in polished, dark red, terra-cotta tile with a coved base molding. Stained oak, tongue-in-groove wainscot reaches a height of three feet around the perimeter of the postal lobby and is capped by a stained oak rail. Above the rail, plaster walls are finished in a heavily stippled texture. Plaster cove molding tops the walls and has a fruit-and-leaf design.

Significant Events

1851: Seattle founders land on Federal Office Building site

1889: Seattle Fire starts at Federal Office Building site

1931-1933: Federal Office Building constructed

1975-1976: Jackson Federal Building constructed

1979: Federal Office Building listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Building Facts

Location: 909 First Avenue

Architect: James A. Wetmore

Construction Dates: 1931-1933

Architectural Style: Art Deco

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Primary Materials: Red Brick and Terra Cotta

Prominent Features: Central tower with ziggurat; Art Deco ornamentation

Federal Building, Seattle, Washington


The Old Federal Office Building occupies a full block in Seattle's downtown waterfront neighborhood. The building's site slopes approximately 12' toward Puget Sound from the east to the west. Eight foot wide, concrete sidewalks surround the building which is set back an additional four feet from its property line. Granite curbs define planting strips and area-ways which serve as light-wells to basement windows. The primary east elevation is on First Avenue where three steps lead to the primary entry. Secondary entries to the first floor are located at First Avenue and Madison Street. On Marion Street, to the south, there is a handicap-accessible entry to the basement level. Two entries are provided to the basement from Western Avenue. The entries at the rear facade are placed symmetrically to the sides of a central, truck loading area.


The building is constructed with a "fireproof" structural steel frame encased in concrete, and concrete floor slabs. Exterior walls are faced with masonry. Interior walls are constructed of hollow-clay and hollow terra cotta tile faced with plaster. The 1991-1993 renovation included the installation of cast concrete shear walls at the interior of the building. A reinforced concrete foundation rests on 3,800 timber piles with reinforced concrete caps above the sub-surface waterline. The water table from nearby Elliott Bay has been measured at between one and two feet below the floor slab of the sub-basement.


The building is fifteen bays wide along the east facade, each bay reflecting the building's steel frame. It has nine stories in addition to a basement and sub-basement. These two sub-grade floor levels and the first floor cover the full footprint. Above the second floor there is a central mass formed on the front, and two wings which extend to the west to form a U-shaped building around a centrally-located light court. This massing continues through the fifth floor. At floors six, seven and eight, wings of the U-shape are dropped, and the building steps towards a tower. A narrow, five-bay wide symmetrical mass is placed at the center of the building at the eighth floor. The smaller, T-shaped ninth floor is three bays wide. Above it a central, symmetrical tower terminates the building at a stepped, pyramid shaped roof.


The exterior of the FOB is characterized by its distinctive stepped massing and by its materials. Materials include buff-colored terra cotta cladding, belt course and parapets, steel sash windows, cast aluminum spandrel panels, red brick facing above the first floor - the brick pattern is common bond with sixth course headers, and bronze doors, grilles and decorative elements. The terra cotta cladding of the exterior was called out in the original construction specifications to be Wilkeson sandstone, a local material, but as an economy measure, the contractor was allowed to substitute terra cotta for the sandstone. Terra cotta cladding and a light-grey granite base below the first floor water table trim carries around the sides and back of the building. Due to the sloping grade these materials clad the two-story exterior wall at the back. The granite is used as facing at the loading dock and basement garage entries at the center of the back side of the building. At the front facade, decorative terra cotta relief panels are contained within a cornice above the first floor. Bronze lanterns provide lighting at the primary entries with two 5' tall, bronze urns placed to the sides of the tripartite entry portal. Smooth, tan-colored terra cotta blocks are used at the first floor of this facade with voussoirs in the segmented arches above the three portals. The central spandrel panel above the center opening has the raised letters, "Federal Office Building" and floral ornamentation surrounds the name and second story windows above. The windows have terra cotta lintels with the central one accented with a raised, Art Deco-styled eagle. Additional signage is provided at Western Avenue above secondary entrances. Exterior windows are the original steel, single or double-hung, multi-paned, industrial type sash which have been refurbished, repainted and preserved. The windows are a finer scale in contrast to the heavier, solid masonry materials and the block form of the exterior massing.


The interior layout of the building is symmetrical and relatively simple. It has been further simplified with the 1993 comprehensive renovation which combined a number of smaller spaces into larger ones. Other changes to the original design include the covering and re-roofing of the stacked light court at the first floor and basement. Located to the west of the elevator lobby, this light court was originally glazed at two levels and provided natural light to a large workroom at the basement, and to the garage at the lower sub-basement.

The public elevator lobby is entered through a foyer at the center of the building. At each of the upper floors the elevator lobby connects to main, north-south, double-loaded corridors. A renovation completed in 1993 removed the original, secondary east-west corridors and smaller offices which were originally located off these corridors. The result was a large open space at each wing which anticipated the installation of modular office furniture systems. Tenant improvements for a number of agencies were completed; some improvements included constructed partitions.


Interior materials are typically of a higher quality in public areas and more modest in offices. In stair lobbies and corridors these include terrazzo floors with Tokeen marble from Alaska used for edging, base and wainscot, and plaster ceilings and walls. Terra cotta wainscot and door surrounds, and plaster coffered ceilings characterized the original Post Office Lobby, cable office, and courtroom. Only the post office remained after the 1993 renovation. At the upper floor corridors and lobbies, many of the original finishes have been retained and restored in the 1993 renovation with the exception of the ceilings. These have been lowered along the center of the corridor space to allow for new HVAC ducting, and indirect and recessed fluorescent lighting. In the renovated office spaces, ceilings have also been lowered. New finishes in offices and other rooms include carpet or vinyl flooring with resilient base, gypsum wallboard partitions, and acoustic ceiling tile in a suspended 2' x 4' grid.


Doors throughout the building were stained wood. Those off the first floor and upper floor main corridors originally had patterned glass panels and clear glass, operable transom windows. Many of these have been retained. In the corridors and some of the office spaces, doors have been refinished or replicated; some are painted or stained with an opaque finish. Within new offices the doors are new, flush-type, stained wood with narrow relight panels. Door hardware throughout the building is new and finished in brushed bronze.

Federal Building, Seattle, Washington

The significance of the Old Federal Office Building (FOB) is based on its history and its architecture. The building, located in Seattle's downtown waterfront neighborhood, is a landmark in the city's Central Business District. It was the first building specifically designed for federal offices in Seattle. The FOB was also one of the first Art Deco-styled federal buildings to be designed by the Office of the Supervising Architect of the Department of Treasury. The building's distinctive stepped massing, brick facades and Art Deco ornamentation are integral to Seattle's architectural character.

The site of the Federal Office Building itself is significant in the development of the city. The site is the location of earliest white settlement. Prominent Seattle citizen, A.A. Denny, claimed that it was where he and two other city founders, William Bell and C.D. Boren, first beached their canoe in the winter of 1851. Denny subsequently built the first white settler's cabin on the east side of Front Street (currently First Avenue), opposite the FOB site. The Denny Cabin Site has been placed on the Washington State Register of Historic Places. The site is also associated with the great Seattle Fire of 1889. The fire began across the street at the northeast corner of Front and Marion Streets. It destroyed over 64 acres and 58 blocks of the city's commercial center which were subsequently rebuilt with the fire-resistant masonry structures that characterize Seattle's Pioneer Square Historic District. In 1974, the Start of the Seattle Fire Site was placed on the State Register of Historic Places. Two plaques commemorating the event were placed at the northeast corner of the FOB.

The site was purchased by the federal government in 1929 for the purpose of constructing a Federal Office Building. Post Alley, which originally ran north-south and bisected the full 220' by 230' site into eastern and western halves, was vacated and the single, full block site created for the building.

The FOB was designed in 1930, and constructed in 1931-1933 for a budgeted cost of $2,375,000. The designer of record was James A. Wetmore, the Department of the Treasury's Supervising Architect. Wetmore, trained in law, had a prolific career with the federal government. He was the Supervising Architect for the Treasury Department from 1915 to 1933. During this time over, 2,000 buildings were designed in his office. Throughout his career, Wetmore encouraged the use of classically-derived styles for government buildings. The design of the Seattle FOB is a striking example of Moderne Art Deco architectural style. (Some have attributed the building's design to Louis A. Simon, who was the Superintendent of the Architectural Section of the Supervising Architect's Office from 1905 to 1933.) The contractor was Murch Construction Company of St. Louis. Murch Construction was also the general contractor for the New Federal (Solomon) Courthouse in Portland, Oregon, constructed in 1931-1933.

Regardless of the source of its design, the FOB is architecturally significant as a distinct departure from the more traditional, Neo-Classical style that typified federal buildings in the 19th and early part of the 20th century. Its form is conspicuous with a distinct stepped massing and facades. Architecturally, both Art Deco and Moderne styles of design are represented by the vertical emphasis of the nine story structure. In the design of the FOB, classical elements of facade composition--base, column and entablature--have been interpreted in a 20th century composition. Art Deco qualities of the design are enhanced by the cascading effect provided by light-colored terra cotta decoration applied as vertical fluting to the parapets atop the red brick-faced facades.

The FOB is also notable for the unusual, innovative way aluminum is used as a decorative construction material. Twenty-one tons of the material were cast into spandrel panels and installed between the windows on floors three through six. The panels, which depict the insignia of federal agencies or decorative geometric designs, were the first extensive installation of aluminum as a construction material on the West Coast. Due to the relatively close proximity of aluminum smelters, which were developed along Washington's Columbia River in the 1930's to utilize Bonneville Power Authority's hydro-generated electric power, the use of the material on the FOB is also expressive of the region's economic culture.

Description Architect
1931 1933 Original Construction James A. Wetmore & Louis A. Simon
1990 1993 Comprehensive Renovation of Building SERA Architects & KPFF Engineers
2006 2007 Elevator Refurbishment CNJA Architects
2006 2008 Tower Repairs Cornerstone Architectural Group
Last Reviewed: 2021-09-15