Westinghouse Warehouse (Seattle)

  • By Nick Rousso
  • Posted 3/31/2024
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22937
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Built in Seattle in 1939 in an industrial area south of Pioneer Square, the Westinghouse Warehouse at 1051 1st Avenue S provided ample space for its first tenant, the Westinghouse Electric Supply Company, to operate a distribution center for Westinghouse products. When financial turmoil in the 1970s forced Westinghouse to sell off its unprofitable home-appliance division, the warehouse was sold to Gerry Sportswear, a Colorado company that had helped outfit Jim Whittaker's team in 1963 for the first American ascent of Mount Everest. Gerry occupied the building until the mid-1990s, then sold it to outdoor-clothing manufacturer Bill Oseran of Seattle. The property changed hands again in 2003, and in 2007 the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) acquired it to serve as a field office for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement program. WSDOT determined that the warehouse qualified for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and in December 2022 the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation agreed. The building, in a dire state of disrepair, was razed in June 2023, some 84 years after it was built.

Railroad Ties

Less than four decades before the Westinghouse Warehouse building went up, the land on which it would stand was a watery maze of Puget Sound inlets and marshland, most of it submerged at high tide. Filling in these tidelands began in 1895 and accelerated in 1903 when the Great Northern Railway (GN) began digging a tunnel under Seattle and formalized plans for a majestic new passenger terminal near the tunnel's south portal at Washington Street. Much of the fill was transported from the Dearborn and Jackson street regrades, and still more came from a failed effort to build a canal from Puget Sound to the south end of Lake Washington. According to Kurt E. Armbruster's Orphan Road, a comprehensive history of Seattle's railroads from 1853 to 1911:

"South of King Street, the GN's half-mile by two-block-wide tideland parcel would soon be carpeted with a network of tracks, loading docks, and freight houses, 'giving the locality an appearance like that of Eastern railway centers.' Hard-working muckers and their clattering dredges were making fast work on the flats, and First Avenue South reached out well beyond the old King Street shoreline. On what had been only recently a waste of water and mud, a new commercial city was sprouting – large brick warehouses, factories, and new industries along the margins of the flats as far south as Georgetown" (Orphan Road, 224). 

The area grew rapidly in the early 1900s as two more transcontinental railroads, the Union Pacific and the Milwaukee Road, reached Seattle, joining the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific and reinforcing the city's standing as a leading West Coast trade and shipping center. The Oregon-Washington Railroad & Navigation Company (OWRC), a subsidiary of the Union Pacific, entered Seattle in 1910. "As railroad companies competed for tideland real estate south of S Dearborn Street for the development of additional trackage and freight warehouse buildings, OWRC had claimed most of the land along First Avenue S" (Lentz and Tavel, 16). 

About 92 percent of the tidelands had been filled in by 1917, and the flats became Seattle's industrial heart. Growth stalled during the Great Depression, when a "Hooverville" sprang to life in an abandoned shipbuilding yard south of Pioneer Square. Hundreds of men (and a handful of women) lived in a shantytown "where the unemployed picked their own mayor, enforced their own rules and tweaked the establishment" (Anderson). But commerce picked up again in the late 1930s, and in April 1939, the Union Pacific and the OWRC announced plans to build a spacious warehouse and display room at the northwest corner of 1st Avenue S and Connecticut Street and assign a long-term lease to the Westinghouse Electric Supply Company (a division of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company). It was designed by the railroad's resident construction engineer, Sam Murray, and built by the J. W. Bailey Company, a busy Seattle general contractor. 

Design and Construction

Little is known about architect Sam Murray. According to a report prepared for WSDOT by consultants Corey Lentz and January Tavel, "Research did not reveal substantial information about S. Murray ... Review of historical newspaper archives did not result in any references for S. Murray as an employee of the [OWRC]. Additionally, Murray is not listed as an architect or engineer in the Pacific Coast Architecture Database ... As a result, the nature and extent of Murrays engineering and/or architectural design work could not be determined" (Lentz and Tavel, 40). However, Murray surely was up to date on architectural trends – his design for the warehouse borrowed elements from Art Moderne and Streamline Moderne, concepts that were considered cutting-edge in the 1930s. 

Streamline Moderne was seen as a forward-looking antidote to the Great Depression. "Streamline design evolved from both the public's demand for a simpler, cleaner, less ornamented style, and the desire of industrial designers and manufacturers to create an original, national modern style that looked to the future, not the past" (Canipe). Henry Dreyfuss, who designed the famed 20th Century Limited streamlined locomotive that linked New York and Los Angeles in the 1930s, said that "streamlining is the first new and uniquely American approach that the public could associate with progress and a better life" ("The Graceful Lines ..."). Murray's design for the warehouse, including the building's white exterior, drew from streamline concepts that "favored muted colors or metallic hues, although white was a particular favorite as it implied hygiene through cleanness" (Canipe). 

"The design of the Westinghouse Warehouse subtlety (sic) adapted the characteristics of the Art Moderne/Streamline Moderne styles, as appropriate to its utilitarian function. The influence of these styles is exhibited by the buildings smooth stucco exterior, the horizontal emphasis of its fenestration – balanced on the east and south facades by the placement of windows set flush to the buildings exterior within repeating vertical recessions – the employment of glass block and steel window sashes, the minimal molding of embedded columns around the primary and secondary entrances, and the aeronautical-inspired rounded projecting awnings over its east façade entrances and originally constructed over the south façade loading dock" (Lentz and Tavel, 41). 

Railroad officials solicited bids from 18 different general contractors before awarding the project to the J. W. Bailey Company of Seattle. Founded by Joseph W. Bailey Sr. in 1929, the company was adept at submitting winning bids for projects both large and small. In 1935 it won the right to build an Indian hospital on the Colville Reservation at Nespelem in Okanogan County, in 1937 it built Paramount Picture Corporation's Seattle headquarters at 1st Avenue and Battery Street, and in 1938 it submitted low bids to construct barracks at Fort Lewis and an army hospital at McChord Field. It also built the Art Deco-inspired Graybar Building in Seattle's Pioneer Square, which was still standing in 2024, home to King County government's print shop. 

The Westinghouse Warehouse was a rather straightforward project that took less than four months to complete. "The building was constructed primarily of reinforced concrete, with thick wood structural members and a wood roof structure on its upper floor. The building also had a largely open floor plan for both its first and second floors, with office space concentrated along the buildings eastern side" (Lentz and Tavel, 42). The original plan called for it to be completed in 90 working days, and Bailey came very close to hitting the target. In late September 1939, the Westinghouse Electric Supply Co. invited the public to an open house to show off its new home. 

Westinghouse Electric Supply Company

The late 1930s were halcyon days for Westinghouse. Founded in 1886 by inventor George H. Westinghouse (1846-1914), the company focused originally on railroad and electric-power technologies before turning its attention in the twentieth century to radio (and later television) technologies, military and defense manufacturing, and most visible to the layman, electric-appliance retailing. In February 1939, Westinghouse executive W. H. Thompson told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that "despite extra shifts at our plant we are now 25 per cent behind on our orders. Judging from the present outlook, the anticipated increase of from 25 to 40 per cent in national electrical appliance sales seems assured" ("Westinghouse Executive Forecasts ..."). Each winter in Seattle, hundreds of regional Westinghouse sales representatives gathered at the New Washington Hotel for a preview of the company's products, which by the early 1940s included radios, washers and dryers, stoves, refrigerators, air-conditioning units, fans, water heaters, and vacuum cleaners. 

A distribution subsidiary of the Westinghouse Electric Company, the Westinghouse Electric Supply Co., had been housed in a building at 558 1st Avenue S before moving to the new warehouse in September 1939. By the mid-1940s the building was serving as the supply company's North Pacific District headquarters, and in 1949 the warehouse was expanded to accommodate ever-increasing demand. Originally constructed as a two-story, 58,492-square-foot warehouse, measuring approximately 200 feet long and 100 feet deep, the warehouse was lengthened with a 100-foot-long addition on its north end. In 1951, this addition was altered at its northwest corner to accommodate the construction of a new rail spur. The Westinghouse Electric Supply Co. occupied the warehouse until 1959, when it moved operations to an office and warehouse building at 2233 6th Avenue S. Westinghouse's appliance sales and lamp divisions then took over the warehouse and stayed until 1975, using the building as a retail appliance store and service center.

Westinghouse's fortunes nosedived in the 1970s under chief executive Donald "Mr. Automation" Burnham (1915-2005). Its consumer-appliance division had lost considerable market share to General Electric, and the company was hurt by "the high inflation of the early 1970s ... Wall Street analysts continued to downgrade the company, despite the fact that in April 1974 it received an order for twelve nuclear power systems from France's state-run nuclear power agency, with options for four more units – the largest single order for nuclear equipment in history. One analyst told the New York Times that Burnham's decision to continue manufacturing appliances was 'greeted with horror.' Later that year Westinghouse stock dropped to $8 a share from a high of $55 several years earlier. In late 1974, it sold its appliance business to White Consolidated Industries, leaving a field it had helped to pioneer" (Company Profile).

As part of its exit from the home-appliance field, Westinghouse sold the warehouse to the Gerry Sportswear Company in 1975. 

Gerry Sportswear

Although Gerry Sportswear was founded in Colorado by a native of New York, the company had close ties to Washington's mountaineering community. Founder Gerry Cunningham (1922-2010) met brothers Jim and Lou Whittaker at Camp Hale, Colorado, where the Whittakers were assigned in the 1950s to teach skiing and mountaineering to Special Forces troops in the U.S. Army. Cunningham, an avid skier and outdoorsman, aspired to a career making light-weight mountain equipment. "At Camp Hale, Gerry made connections with the community of outdoor enthusiasts that would help him establish his business. He met the Whittaker twins from Seattle, who later managed REI and took some Gerry equipment to the top of Mount Everest ... Gerry's initial product line catered to climbers, and their list of friends and customers included such mountaineering notables as Barry Bishop, Tom Hornbein, Lute Jerstad, Willi Unsoeld, Fred Ayers, Dick Irvin, Ed and Dolores LaChapelle, and almost the entire 1953 K2 Expedition ... The Himalayan tent was used by Jim Whittaker's expedition on the first American ascent of Mount Everest in 1963. When they discovered that their non-Gerry jackets weren't windproof, a dozen Gerry parkas were flown in by helicopter" (Johnson). 

Cunningham grew his company with a series of innovations – developing state-of-the-art tents, packs, clothing, carabiners, a revolutionary spring-loaded drawstring clamp, and even a popular baby carrier called the Gerry Kiddie Carrier. He retired in 1971, selling Gerry Sportswear when he decided the business had become "too big and no fun" (Johnson). Its new owners, Colorado Outdoor Sports Industries, purchased the Westinghouse Warehouse in 1975 to serve as a "cut and sew" facility for much of Gerry's product line ("On the Block ..."). The company then moved its headquarters to Seattle in the mid-1980s, and in 1995 the Gerry Sportswear line and the warehouse were acquired by a local owner, Jeff Anderson. According to a 1996 Seattle Post-Intelligencer report, "Gerry's products are made by contractors. Down jackets and vests are generally made in Seattle, fleece garments are produced elsewhere in the United States, and outerwear made of waterproof breathable fibers is produced abroad" ("Clothing Firm's Future ..."). 

Anderson had ambitious expansion plans for Gerry Sportswear. Within two years of buying the company, he had acquired Western-wear labels Tempco and Comfy; Demere, a ski-sweater label; and Roffe, a Seattle ski-apparel company founded by Sam Roffe in the 1960s. In March 1997, Anderson announced plans to acquire Mambosok Inc., a Seattle manufacturer of a "crazy hat" called the Mambosok – a fabric tube open on both ends, with an elastic headband and an adjustable drawstring, already "a well-established brand name in the snowboard and youth-oriented market" ("Acquisition Gives Floppy Hat ..."). Anderson simultaneously announced plans to move Gerry Sportswear to suburban Mercer Island by the end of 1997, though it is unclear if that happened. Gerry products were still being made in the Westinghouse Warehouse in 1999, and the building had a new owner, Bill Oseran of Seattle. 

A commercial-real-estate developer and owner of Down Products Inc., Oseran made headlines in 1993 when he secured a contract to manufacture the uniforms worn by U.S. athletes and official delegates to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. "If you covet a spectacular insulated jacket on an American downhiller," wrote the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "it was produced at Down Products, a clothing contractor with a factory a couple of blocks south of the Kingdome" ("Seattle Companies Win ..."). Oseran's company "made the uniforms worn at the opening ceremony, the jackets shown off during medal awards, even the headbands that keep ears warm. Down Products made 470 uniform sets for athletes, eight items in each set. An additional 300 sets, two garments each, were made for U.S. officials and sponsors" ("Seattle Companies Win ..."). 

Gerry Sportswear and Down Products Inc. apparently shared the Westinghouse Warehouse for a few years. King County records indicate that Oseran purchased the building in 1994. In 2003, he sold it to MSI Triangle LLC, and four years later the building was acquired by WSDOT for use as a field office for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement program.  

Decline and Fall

The Westinghouse Warehouse was showing its age by the time WSDOT took ownership in 2007. In 2010, WSDOT commissioned SKANSKA USA Civil Northwest Inc. to modify the building's interior, and WSDOT office workers moved in that same year, occupying the building until 2022 as the viaduct came down and a tunnel was built to replace it. Meanwhile, WSDOT determined that the warehouse was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, citing its connections to Seattle's railroad history, its association with the development of Settle's tidelands, and its status as an exemplar of Streamline Moderne architecture. In 2022, the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation agreed.

In February 2023, WSDOT sought approval to have the warehouse demolished, stating in its request that, "During a recent survey, it was determined that the building is structurally unsafe and no longer occupied for use. The building will be demolished for safety reasons, and the site will be graveled and fenced" ("Request for Certificate ..."). Writing in the Daily Journal of Commerce, Brian Miller reported that the building's absence "will leave a vacant, roughly 4-acre strip between First and state Route 99 – i.e. the south tunnel portal – that has long been coveted by developers ... Some sort of park had been contemplated there, possibly atop a garage, along with offices and apartments" ("On the Block ..."). In June 2023, demolition crews leveled the warehouse, nearly 84 years after the Westinghouse Electric Supply Company first moved in. 


Kurt E. Armbruster, Orphan Road: The Railroad Comes to Seattle, 1852-1911 (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1999) 196, 234-236, 247; "Westinghouse Will Build Here," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 5, 1939, p. 1; "Seattle Firm Bids Low on Barracks," Ibid., December 2, 1938, p. 6; "Bids on Air Base Hospital Offered," Ibid., November 10, 1938, p. 18; "$75,000 Garage, Station Planned," Ibid., December 3, 1937, p. 1; "Seattle Firm Gets Hospital Contract," Ibid., February 19, 1935, p. 3; "New Westinghouse Line to be Shown," Ibid., January 22, 1941, p. 4; "Westinghouse Executive Forecasts Record Year," Ibid., February 14, 1939, p. 5; John Engstrom, "Seattle Companies Win Olympics Style Competition," Ibid., February 7, 1994, p. B-6; Bill Virgin, "Clothing Firm's Future Uncertain," Ibid., June 22, 1996, p. B-3; Yuan-Kwan Chan, "Acquisition Gives Floppy Hat New Headway," Ibid., July 22, 1997, p. C-1; Ross Anderson, "Gritty 'Old Seattle's' last stand: the 1930s," The Seattle Times, July 29, 2001 (www.seattletimes.com); "Electric Headquarters (photo)," Ibid., September 24, 1939, p. 29; "Westinghouse Building," Ibid., May 21, 1939, p. 32; Martha L. Canipe, "Streamline Moderne: Speeding into the Future!" University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Spring 2018, website accessed March 20, 2024 (https://gateway.uncg.edu/islandora/object/community%3A32358); Leon Whiteson, "The Graceful Lines of Streamline Moderne," Los Angeles Times, February 11, 1990, accessed March 20, 2024 (https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-02-11-re-632-story.html); Julie Johnson, "Gerry Cunningham (obituary)" accessed March 20, 2024 (https://pennys2pence.wordpress.com/letters-from-wwii-10th-mountain-division/); "Brief History of Seattle," City of Seattle archives website accessed March 20, 2024 (https://www.seattle.gov/cityarchives/seattle-facts/brief-history-of-seattle); "Company Profile, Westinghouse Electric Corporation – Information, Business Description, History, Background Information on Westinghouse Electric Corporation," Reference for Business website accessed March 27, 2024 (https://www.referenceforbusiness.com/history2/89/Westinghouse-Electric-Corporation.html); "Crews Start Tearing Down Old Warehouse Near T-Mobile Park," Daily Journal of Commerce, June 13, 2023 (URL); Brian Miller, "On the Block: What Will Become of WSDOT's 4 Acres in SoDo?" Ibid., January 5, 2023 (URL); "Westinghouse Electric Corporation [Science and Invention] Historical Marker," ExplorePAhistory.com website accessed March 28, 2024 (https://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-3A0); "Request for Certificate of Approval 1051 Building Demolition Project," Washington State Department of Transportation, February 2023, copy in possession of HistoryLink, Seattle: Corey Lentz and January Tavel, "Westinghouse Warehouse, 1051 1st Avenue S, Seattle, King County Washington DAHP Level II Mitigation Report," CSI consultants, report prepared for WSDOT, August 2023, copy in possession of HistoryLink, Seattle. 

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