Demolition of buildings on Century 21 Exposition/Seattle World's Fair site begins on November 12, 1958.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 3/20/2012
  • Essay 10013
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On November 12, 1958, demolition of existing structures on the future Seattle World's Fair grounds begins.  The first home to fall is a two-story, eight-room wood-frame house at 619 Nob Hill Avenue (future site of the Mercer Street Parking Garage).  The house dates from 1895.  Seattle real estate magnate Henry Broderick (1880-1975) releases the wrecking ball's first swing.  Broderick owes this honor to his singular role as a trustee of both the 1962 Seattle World's Fair and the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.

A Family House Toppled

Broderick performed his demolition duties in a pelting rainstorm.  The honorary swing smashed a window and part of a wall and was accomplished to applause. Broderick then clambered down from the 15-ton construction crane to join fellow dignitaries under a nearby awning. Musicians, also under cover, struck up a sprightly tune.  Professional construction workers, inured to Seattle's usual November weather, took over demolition work.

Despite the drippy weather, a large crowd gathered to watch the first building fall.  Among those watching was Charles Burkman, age 68, who had lived in the house from 1897 to 1948. Fighting back tears, Burkman told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that his father John Burkman had paid $1,300 for the house. The house, he said, had been "a member of the Burkman family for 60 years" (November 13, 1958, p. 3).  The clamshell claw toppled the home's brick chimney and began ripping through the roof.  "That roof cost me $600," Burkman added. "I put it on right just before I sold it."

Looking up at the first crane-smashed wall and window, Burkman continued: "That was my old bedroom. It was the warmest room in the house. The chimney ran through it. There was no band music when we moved into it. I've had enough."

Site Preparation for a World's Fair

The fair site had been selected in March 1956. From the beginning, fair organizers and civic center proponents planned for the site to serve as a civic center after the exposition. The land was part of David (1832-1903) and Louisa Boren Denny's (1827-1913) 1852 donation land claim.  The two-block section on which the Mercer Street parking garage would rise was part of Thomas Mercer's (1813-1898) claim. 

On November 6, 1956, Seattle voters approved a $7.5 million bond issue to fund the acquisition of land and new construction for the future civic center. On September 15, 1959, the federal government appropriated $9 million to fund land acquisition and construction of the United States Science Pavilion (which was transferred to the non-profit Pacific Science Center Foundation immediately after the fair).

In April and May of 1957, hundreds of individuals within the area slated for acquisition with Seattle bond monies received summonses informing them that their property was being condemned. Some of the property was bank-owned, and many properties had absentee landlords -- the children or grandchildren of the original homeowners.

The city and the state issued a series of calls for bids for buildings to be razed or moved.  Harold G. LaVelle Construction Company of Portland, Oregon was low bidder on one of the largest jobs, the demolition of Warren Avenue School.  LaVelle also cleared many other structures on the fair site.  McFarland House Wrecking, Overland Construction, Romano Incorporated, and Iversen Incorporated also demolished buildings on the exposition site.

By mid-July 1959 some 84 structures had been demolished, including duplexes, multiplexes, and commercial structures.  By late October 1959, 49 more had fallen, and by the end of December another 70 would go. 

Warren Avenue School

Warren Avenue School and its Mercer Playground filled two city blocks within the chosen world's fair site.  The school/playground blocks were bordered by Warren Avenue, 3rd Avenue N., Republican Street, and Harrison Street. 

Warren Avenue School opened in 1903. School enrollment peaked in 1929 at 734 pupils. Enrollment declined thereafter as the demographic makeup of the neighborhood evolved away from single-family units with children. In 1944, Warren Avenue School became home to a pioneering program for children with cerebral palsy, which operated within (but not integrated with) the larger school community.  Programs for blind and sight-impaired children were added a few years later, and later still a program for children with hearing impairment. 

Seattle Public Schools sold the property to the fair for $667,980. Programs housed in Warren Avenue School were relocated.  It was demolished on August 27, 1959.  The school block became the northern portion of the Washington State Coliseum (now KeyArena) site, and the playground block became the site of the International Fountain.

Creative Re-Use

Although fair planners deemed Warren Avenue School unusable, several large structures on the fairground site were utilized during the fair.  These included:

  •  the Washington National Guard Armory (used as the Food Circus
  •  the Nile Shrine Temple (used as the members-only Club 21)
  • High School Memorial Stadium (the fair's Stadium
  • the Blue Spruce apartment building (used as the fair's Administration Building)
  • the Western Pacific Insurance building on the far west of the fair site (used as Fair Headquarters
  • the Veterans of Foreign Wars building (used as the fair's press headquarters)
  • the Civic Ice Arena (the fair's Arena)
  • the Civic Auditorium (extensively remodeled into the fair's Opera House)

All of the site's remaining structures faced the wrecking ball. About a dozen other buildings were initially excluded from the demolition schedule, in hopes that they might be used during the fair. Paul Thiry (1904-1993), who was the primary architect for the joint fair/civic center project, objected, pointing out that since the buildings were serviced by overhead power and telephone lines supported by poles, keeping them would complicate total site development.

After the Fall

Some of the existing trees on the site were spared, becoming part of the fairground landscaping. Other trees were saved from route clearing for construction of the Seattle Freeway (now I-5).  (The freeway right-of-way was being cleared concurrently with the fair site. The timing was coincidental, and resulted in a marked decline in Seattle's mature housing stock during the mid-twentieth century.)  Between 80 and 90 large tree specimens were removed from lots within the right-of-way portion that fell between E. (now NE) 75th Street and E. Howe Street. In March 1959 these were transported to the fairgrounds, stored, and eventually used in landscaping. 

Groundbreaking ceremonies at Century 21 Exposition were held on June 23, 1959. In early September 1960, the Seattle city council passed an ordinance vacating the streets running through the four-block United States Science Pavilion site. In May 1961, the city council voted to vacate the remaining streets running through the fair site, allowing fair officials to rename or remove them as suited the site plan.


King County Government Assessor Records Property Record Cards PS317-1-2, Puget Sound Regional Branch of Washington State Archives; Paula Becker and Alan J. Stein, The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World's Fair And Its Legacy (Seattle: Seattle Center Foundation, 2011); Seattle World's Fair 1962, Site and Building Development Division, Accession No. 83-12-1581, Preoperating Site Development, Box 7, Folders 51-65, Puget Sound Regional Branch of Washington State Archives; Seattle World's Fair 1962, Site and Building Development Division, Accession No. 83-12-1581, Preoperating Site Development, Box 5, Folders 30-41, Puget Sound Regional Branch of Washington State Archives; Charles Russell, "Pendulum Of Progress Starts Clearing Way For Fair," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 13, 1958, p. 3; Stub Nelson, "State To Buy More Land For Fair Site," Ibid., July 28, 1957, p. 1; "World's Fair Land Request Hearing Opens," Ibid., March 5, 1958, p.21; "Warren Ave. School Deal Complete," Ibid., October 22, 1958, p. 20; "Century 21 Obtains New Quarters," Ibid., December 18, 1958, p. 6; "Century 21 Seats 'Space Breaking'," Ibid., June 21, 1959, p. 27; "Century 21 'Blast Off' Set Today," Ibid., June 23, 1959, p. 3; "Cars, Rocket Blast Off '21' Building," Ibid., June 24, 1959, p. 11; Louis R. Guzzo, "Civic Center and World Fair Planned From Soup To Nuts," The Seattle Times, November 17, 1957, p. 17; "City to Study Expanded $47,000,000 Civic Center World-Fair Plan Quickly," Ibid., December 19, 1957, p. 19; "Suit May Delay Sale Of Land For Fair," Ibid., March 7, 1958, p. 33; "World-Fair Plans Get New Beginning," Ibid., July 7, 1958, p. 5; "1909 Fair Trustee To Begin Demolition For Civic Center," Ibid., November 11, 1958, p. 21; "Razing of Buildings on Fair Site Starts," Ibid., November 13, 1958, p. 37; Nile Thompson and Carolyn J. Marr, Built For Learning: Seattle Public Schools Histories, 1862-2000 (Seattle: Seattle School District No. 1, 2002), p. 298.
This essay was corrected on September 16, 2015.

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