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Tuesday, April 25, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restoration work sends King Street Station on return trip to glory days

Seattle Times staff reporter

King Street Station turns 100


May 10 events

Noon: Panel of rail and transportation professionals discusses how King Street Station contributed to Seattle and its role in Seattle's future; City Hall, B. Landes Room, 600 Fourth Ave.

2 p.m.: Ceremony honoring those who have worked at the station; King Street Station, 303 S. Jackson St.

9 a.m. to 5 p.m., oral-history project on recollections of the station, Klondike Gold Rush museum, Cadillac Hotel Building, Second Avenue and South Jackson Street. To be interviewed, make an appointment by contacting Pat Bronson at 206-464-1212 or bronsonp@wsdot.wa.gov.

Other centennial events scheduled through July 1 are listed at www.kingstreetcentennial.org

If the clock staring out from the north face of King Street Station's 242-foot-tall tower is to be believed, time stands still in Seattle at about, oh, 6:20.

The four faces of the clock have been stuck in time for goodness knows how long, a measure of several decades of neglect that has plagued one of the city's true architectural gems.

A gem? Passengers who hop on Amtrak or Sound Transit's Sounder commuter trains in Seattle are more inclined to call King Street Station a dump.

But as passenger-train service is experiencing a revival, so, too, is King Street Station.

A long-overdue restoration project, which finally got going in 2003, is chugging along as the depot embarks upon a second century of service. King Street Station celebrates its 100th birthday on May 10.

A restored King Street Station, which could be completed by the end of 2007, has the potential to dazzle like it did in the old days.

"This once was a beautiful train station, and it looks like it's on its way to becoming one again," said Walter Grecula of Ballard, a retired electrical engineer for the railways and railroad historian.

The building's renaissance, however, hinges on its current owner, BNSF Railway, donating it to the city. Although it was BNSF's idea to hand over the building, the two sides continue to negotiate the details.

For BNSF, which transports freight, not passengers, and leases the station to Amtrak, the building is more of a liability than an asset. With BNSF out of the picture, the $16.8 million restoration project — paid for through federal, state and local money — could move forward faster.

A grand past

If nothing else, King Street Station is a survivor.

Built jointly by the now-defunct Great Northern Railway and Northern Pacific Railway, the depot supported a double-track tunnel that stretched more than 5,000 feet from Main Street to Virginia Street. Before King Street Station's debut in 1906, the station serving the two railways was a shedlike structure along the waterfront at the foot of Columbia Street.

The new depot, however, was something else. It was christened Union Station and renamed King Street Station in 1911.

In those days, train stations acted as front gates for a city and were designed to impress. That's less true today — and a good thing, too, otherwise Seattle's first impression might be that of a city that cares less.

The architects, who also designed Grand Central Terminal in New York City, patterned the station's tower after the campanile of St. Mark's Church in Venice. When the station opened in 1906, it was the tallest building in Seattle.

The interior radiated elegance, with high ornamental plaster ceilings, white Italian-marble columns, brass light sconces, chandeliers, inlaid mosaic glass tile trim, and a terrazzo and mosaic tile floor.

"The building has incredible bone structure," said Peter Watson, a principal with OTAK, an architecture firm consulting on the restoration with the state Department of Transportation. "It's just been neglected for so many years."

More trains pulling in

King Street Station's state of disrepair went relatively ignored until passenger-train service began reawakening about a decade ago.

In 1993, only six trains used the station each day.

Today, between Amtrak and the Sounder service, there are 26.

Amtrak runs 14 one-way trips a day, and is adding a Seattle-Portland round trip in July. The state transportation department projected in 2004 that the number of Amtrak passengers between Seattle and Portland would increase from 350,000 to 1.9 million in 2023.

Sound Transit plans to more than double the number of Sounder trips by the end of 2008. Sounder riders, however, do not have to pass through the historic building to catch their train; they board from a dedicated platform.

World War II-era photographs reveal the station in its heyday as a busy transportation hub with a newsstand, barber shop and restaurant. But as air travel became popular, passenger trains became passé.

The railways responded in the late 1950s and early '60s by remodeling King Street Station in the name of passenger convenience. Promoted as a "modernization," the utilitarian result leaves visitors today asking: "What were they thinking?"

The railways stripped the marble from the columns. They boarded up windows and replaced wood-and-glass doors with metal ones. They converted the open, airy waiting room into a claustrophobic maze of compartments, including one smack in the middle for storing luggage.

Covering the ceiling

Most nefarious of all, they covered the 45-foot-high, plaster ceiling, concealing it behind a dropped metal ceiling. The lower ceiling cut off the second-floor balcony, where carolers once serenaded passengers during the Christmas season. For good measure, the lookouts from the balcony to the main waiting room were sealed shut with concrete blocks.

Through gaps in the waiting-room ceiling, visitors to King Street Station can catch a peek at the fancy ceiling above it — and get an idea of what the golden era of Seattle train travel must have looked like.

"The good part of putting up that false ceiling is that it protected the original," said Ron Sheck, project manager for the state transportation department. "But believe me, we're going to have a party when it comes down."

Rebuilding a grand staircase leading to the waiting room from the South Jackson Street entrance also is in the plans.

Restoration has begun on the ground floor, at the South King Street entrance, with a new interior canopy erected and the "Compass Room" entry hall made over so it looks like it did in the old days.

Marble and glass tile, true to the original, have gone up. Glass globe shades for the replica brass light fixtures are expected to arrive any day. Throughout the station, daylight again is shining through windows. Entrance doors are wood and glass, just like in 1906, instead of metal.

A new green tile roof, similar to the original, promises to be striking from a distance. So will the pyramid peak of the tower, which will shine at night and finally rid itself of a microwave dish.

Most Seattleites, however, will take their greatest pleasure in knowing that the old clock is going to work again, its hands moving, its glass faces backlit.

"The tower is not a great beacon for the city, and we'd love for it to become one again," said Patrice Gillespie Smith, chief of staff for Seattle's Department of Transportation.

It's about time.

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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