Victor Steinbrueck in Conversation (1980)

  • By Doug Honig
  • Posted 3/05/2021
  • Essay 21196
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In the spring of 1980, journalist Doug Honig interviewed Seattle architect and preservationist Victor Steinbrueck for the Seattle Sun newspaper. Honig's interview appeared in the May 14, 1980 issue and is reprinted here with permission from Sun editor Carol Ostrom.

"A Conscience of the Movement"

In prefacing his interview with Victor Steinbrueck (1911-1985), Honig wrote: "Steinbrueck's vision of saving Seattle's past comes from no textbook. Born in 1911, Steinbrueck grew up in Auburn and Georgetown and graduated from Franklin High and the University of Washington. He helped design Yesler Terrace, Seattle's first public housing project, before joining the UW faculty in 1946. He won a city-sponsored design contest with his plan for redeveloping Pioneer Square in 1954 and was a leading proponent of establishing an historic preservation commission for the area. A founder of Friends of the Market in the mid-'60s, Steinbrueck was an initiator of the successful 1971 initiative that scuttled city plans for massive redevelopment of the Market, and has been an unrelenting foe of plans for redeveloping Westlake Mall in its present form. He is currently collaborating on the design of Market Park for the Pike Place Urban Renewal Project. In recognition of National Historic Preservation Week, the Sun checked in with Steinbrueck, not only Seattle's best-known preservationist, but a conscience of the movement" ("Planning For Lovers ...").

Seattle Sun: How did your passion for historic preservation develop?
Steinbrueck: Not in any blinding flash. Architectural history, as I have studied it, came from the East Coast and stopped in Chicago. It was taken for granted that the older stuff out here wasn't important, that it was all blah. I began to suspect it wasn't true. I found I could learn a lot from old buildings to help in my own work -- even obvious stuff such as covering entrances for protection from the rain. So I started having my architecture students do theory projects by examining local neighborhoods, in contrast with the typical projects at imaginary sites. Consequently, I became much more interested in common buildings.

Seattle Sun: Why did you become an activist architect?
Steinbrueck: I was raised with a fair amount of social consciousness. My father was an active union member, a machinist with the railroads and then the shipyards. My middle name is Eugene -- after Eugene Debs. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood with kids from low-income families as playmates. I always had this feeling that workers were being exploited. I felt that by designing better places to live, I could help people have better lives. I had been involved in political campaigns and other activities during the Depression, but always separate from my architecture. Then in the late '50s I became concerned about the outrageous locations where highways were being built -- through parks and neighborhoods. I felt I had a responsibility to be involved in areas such as this where I had experience, like a doctor would have responsibility for acting during a plague. 

We saw the downtown business interests girding up for the Market deal as early as 1959. In fighting against the freeways, the bridges, the loss of buildings, we had been too late. The plans were prepared in secret, so you wouldn't know what was to be demolished until you saw the wreckers. We felt that if we got involved early, this time we could build an understanding of the urban values that needed preserving.

In politics I've learned to first study an issue carefully and be sure I'm right, then never give up. These urban struggles are an educational process for the public. Often I've felt that we might lose an issue, but that fighting it might help win, or even avoid, the next issue. Right now, the large-scale projects being done will change the face of downtown. They are produced and approved without public visibility. The developers suddenly present a full-blown model, and there is no chance for modification except through warfare. The environmental impact process helps, but it's done by an advocate of the project and with each project considered separately. Alternatives and overall relationships are not really considered. To me, it's chaos!

Seattle Sun: So, what is your alternative?
Steinbrueck: Comprehensive planning -- a planning process conducted by professionals that democratically involves all parties concerned. The city needs to set priorities for what sorts of activities should happen where. We need an overall process that coordinates transportation, housing, energy, retail uses, and office development, and that presents the public with choices. I don't mean a rigid plan, but rather a flexible concept of the kind of city we want to have. If, for example, First Avenue is recognized as a necessary part of the city, then we don't allow things that modify it drastically. 

Look at transportation. With the number of cars people could be expected to drive to all these new offices, I would guess they won't be able to get off the freeway – the traffic will be too jammed. The lack of planning may force us into one thing that we need, which is mass transit. During the ferry strike I noticed thousands of walk-ons – people getting by without automobiles. But I don't think you should wait for disaster to force you to do the right thing.

Seattle Sun: What kind of architecture would you favor for downtown?
Steinbrueck: I'd suggest for our philosophy something Lewis Mumford said: "Plan for lovers and friends." We should design places that are attractive, comfortable, and pleasant for people living and working there. The barefaced concrete, glass, and hard material skins and ordinary shapes of the new buildings downtown don't do much for us. They seem designed for maintenance purposes mainly and with little regard for the people working there or the passer-by.

Seattle Sun: How do you now assess your preservation work?
Steinbrueck: I appreciate that a lot of historic buildings have been saved and that Pioneer Square has acquired a cultural flavor. But I wanted to retain not just buildings, but a place for the people already there and using it. I especially wanted to keep residential accommodations downtown for the native "urban nomads," the Skid Roaders. But single people were always forced out of the area in order to exploit the properties. The single-room-occupancy hotels they lived in simply couldn't bring the same financial return as offices and boutiques.

The Market is still the most colorful people place in the city, but it has been upgraded to where most marginal businesses have lost out, as well as being overrun with crafts merchants. The Mint Dollar Tavern, for example, became the Mint Restaurant with a fancy menu; junk stores were replaced by antique shops. The urban renewal project paid a lot of people to go out of business. The weaker businesses took their relocation payments and just folded up. We need to keep the real character of the Market – as a place related to the lives of local people. A different quality comes from catering to the superficiality of tourism. If it goes too far, the Market will become a completely phony place. It's like fixing up your home for visitors, instead of for your family.

The people who opposed us – downtown developers, banks, property owners, city officials and bureaucrats – later became in charge of urban renewal. Some have been good, conscientious people, but it reminds me of a South American revolution where the same police stay on to administer it.

Seattle Sun: How do you see decision being made downtown?
Steinbrueck: Mostly by large developers such as Weyerhaeuser who have been making money as their sole goal and maybe to do some good for the city. Aided and abetted by City Hall, partly because any development sounds good. Building new buildings means business and financial return for investors and the construction industry, and increased city taxes. But I'm really very concerned about they city's lack of long-range considerations.

I'm not a lover of high-rises – I think they're inhuman. I'd like to see a building limit of six stories, or about 60 feet. It's possible to walk up six floors, and it's a reasonable height you can comprehend; anything above that becomes towering. A city should be a friendly place to walk around, to explore, to observe, and to mingle with people from all walks of life. You should be able to see necessary human activities, people actually producing things – like in the Market, where you see real farmers, people cutting meat, maybe baking. The experience of the city as a community is what I'm most concerned about, and I want the architecture and open spaces to accommodate these things. Of course, there would have to be free public transportation: it's the most economic, efficient way to get around. I'd like to see the city as available to everyone as a village used to be.

Seattle Sun: Why fight to save marginal areas?
Steinbrueck: Because they serve a strata of society that needs to be accommodated. The kind of things that happen on First Avenue, for example, are not available or don't take place anywhere else in the city. Frederick & Nelson and Nordstrom serve a segment of society in their lifestyle. So does First Avenue. It's still the hangout, the living room for urban nomads, Indians, and people working in hard-labor jobs. When the new waterfront projects wipe out First Avenue as their social area, no one knows where they'll go. It's our economic and social system that produces the people on Skid Road. And if I were down and out, I'd have to go there, too. Society has a responsibility for Skid Road – we can't just sweep those people under the rug.

Seattle Sun: You've talked mostly of downtown. What have you seen happening in the city overall?
Steinbrueck: The weakening of neighborhoods – the loss of a sense of community. As boys, my brother and I explored the city a lot by bicycle and streetcar. I remember Seattle as being much more neighborhood oriented. Our area of Georgetown, which is now industrial, had an active retail center, with grocery stores and small department stores, and nearby South Park was almost like another town, centered around a school, playfield, and its own shopping center. I don't recall much community organization, but there was more sociability. People were on foot more, so they were more likely to say hello when they passed. Neighborhoods had a small-town quality; my family was acquainted with a lot of people and I knew what was going here and there. Now community councils are drawing some people together, but mainly in defense against various outrages.

The loss of schools especially hurts. In my own neighborhood (Eastlake), I'd like to see Seward School, which has been slated for closure, used for general community activities. It could be kept open with extra rooms rented out to a lawyer and an architect, a printing press, maybe three or four artists, and a real-estate firm. It would be educational not only for the children, but also for adults to see different kinds of people than themselves.

Seattle Sun: What does the future hold for Seattle?
Steinbrueck: Development pressures won't be as localized. I'm afraid the residential area of the Cascade community will be wiped out, though some expensive apartments may move in. I believe neighborhoods such as First Hill, the Central Area, Fremont, and Wallingford will become much higher density and higher cost because of their convenient location and relatively cheap existing single-family houses.

Seattle is being recognized as one of America's most livable cities, but I have a feeling it used to be a more comfortable place for a person to be with more opportunities for life. In the guise of development and economic expansion, we're fast wiping out the human qualities that have made the city livable. A reporter once asked me during the Market fight, "Do you dream often?" I think you have to. I think things are getting so bad that when all the planned projects become a reality, there will be a reaction. People – and even politicians and developers – will see the need for comprehensive planning. Then we'll have some positive political movement with broader people participation.


Doug Honig, "Planning For Lovers And Friends: Victor Steinbrueck On A Livable Seattle," Seattle Sun, May 14, 1980, p. 8.

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