Sunday, December 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kate Riley / Times staff columnist

Crowning the King

King Street Station breathes people.

One moment — inhale — the dingy lobby is crowded with jostling people either lining up to get on the train or just getting off. A few minutes later — exhale — the train pulls away, passengers pile into cars and taxis, and the lobby is almost empty.

One hundred years after it opened for business, the old depot's pulse is palpable with its comings and goings, hellos and goodbyes, beginnings and endings — and the rituals of each. Outside, Sound Transit boarded almost 1.2 million passengers in the first nine months of this year, juxtaposing the mundane function of commuting with the romance of train travel to points distant.

But as an entry to Seattle, a forward-looking city known for its beauty, sense of place and history, King Street Station is an embarrassment. Frankly, it's a dump, not at all befitting the multimodal transportation hub or the anchor for new development in the Pioneer Square and Sodo neighborhoods it has become.

The old depot is a shadow of its once glamorous self, smothered by a shroud of ill-conceived remodeling 40 years ago and not-so-benign neglect.

But that is about to change. Thanks to city of Seattle leadership, a long-stalled renovation is about to move forward. On Monday, the City Council voted to buy the building for $1 from Burlington Northern Sante Fe — a contribution of between $10 million and $14 million in market value.

Seattle residents have stepped up, too, recently approving Proposition 1, which provides $10 million for the station.

Into the depot itself, the state is putting another $3.6 million; Sound Transit, $4.1 million; South Downtown (Sodo) Foundation, $250,000; and the federal government, $8.6 million.

Additionally, the state is spending another $15 million so the station can accommodate more and longer trains.

That's all on top of about $10 million that Amtrak, which boarded 583,766 passengers at King Street in its last fiscal year, has spent and Sound Transit's $8.4 million investment in its platforms and access outside the depot. By the end of 2008, Sound Transit expects to add two more Everett-Seattle round trips and five more Seattle-Tacoma round trips.

Mayor Greg Nickels and council Transportation Committee Chairwoman Jan Drago are enthusiastic not only because of the depot's history, but also for its expanding role as the multimodal King Street Transportation Center.

"It should be the grand entry," says Drago, who lives in the neighborhood. "It is the biggest intermodal hub, not only in Seattle and King County, but in the whole Northwest."

She and others foresee adding capacity to accommodate a long-haul bus terminal, a bike station and maybe a revived trolley.

The renovated depot also will attract other investment, said Kevin Daniels, president of Nitze-Stagen. The firm is a partner in a planned $240 million project to build 1,000 condos and apartments on the large parking lot that sits between the station and Qwest Field. More density increases the need for better transit.

A few weeks ago, Amtrak station agent Marlene Koob found me standing against the south wall, trying to peek up behind the stained, 17-foot false ceiling that obscures the gloriously ornate original. Ten feet above the false ceiling, you can see where workmen 40 years ago gouged plaster from ornate medallions for sturdy hooks to suspend the ceiling. You kind of hope they felt guilty about what was described in a 1967 Seattle Times headline as a "facelift."

"Restrooms have been modernized and," the story reads, "marble walls have been overlaid with formica." That's right, marble walls overlaid with formica.

What were they thinking?

The King Street Station project's architect, Peter Watson of Otak Inc., describes the depot as having an Italian renaissance influence. The tower itself emulates the tower at the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy.

But the building's managers over the years did what they could to hide its elaborate ornamentation. The building was old-fashioned for an industry trying to compete with the sleekly modern airlines.

The day I met Koob, I was picking up my mother arriving on Amtrak's Empire Builder from Spokane. Turns out Koob is a railroad brat, like me. My dad, a retired Burlington Northern roadmaster, moved into a third-floor corner office in King Street Station shortly before the Seattle Mariners' inaugural season in the then-new Kingdome. That was when the clock in the depot's 242-foot tower still worked and before BNSF vacated the offices for good in the late 1990s.

Koob's grandfather, Albert, started working in King Street Station in 1913, retiring 43 years later as milk agent. He coordinated fresh dairy shipments into the city. Her dad, Ernest, retired in 1974 after 38 years in baggage and ticketing.

The old station, almost as dingy now as it was in the late 1970s, still evokes the excitement of beginnings for me — of a trip or a visit.

That is what has kept Koob reporting for work at the depot since 1972 — it sure wasn't the scenery.

"You love to see families taking off on the vacation they planned for all year," says Koob. "You love to see the kids come down and welcome Grandma and Grandpa in."

Ron Sheck remembers being dazzled when he arrived at the station in 1959 and ate at the restaurant, a young man traveling from San Francisco to Victoria. "It was just glorious," he remembers. "The food was pretty good, too."

Now it might be the one place in all of Coffee City where you can't buy a cup — not even out of a vending machine.

It's fitting that Sheck, someone who remembers the station's glory days, is the state Transportation Department's urban rail program manager coordinating the project. He also happens to be a published author and expert on depot restorations.

About $2.5 million worth of renovation has been done, courtesy of Amtrak. It gives a tantalizing sense of what the building can be again. In the compass room entry, large molds were made of existing ornamentation to replace what was ruined or missing. Mosaic tiles were carefully matched and restored. New light fixtures were made to resemble the originals. New wooden doors replaced the clunky metal ones. Restrooms in disturbing condition were remodeled, and new exterior canopies installed. In the larger lobby, large wood-cased windows that had been sheet-rocked over were restored, letting in more natural light to the lobby I remember as cave-like.

But that's just the start. The next phase will include a new roof with green glazed barrel tile manufactured by Ludiwici, the same Ohio company that supplied the tiles for the original roof in 1906. A 1950s addition that houses an immobile escalator will be excised and the grand staircase from Jackson Street will be restored. The tower will be fixed up and the once-again working clock will warn commuters how close they are cutting it. Work will be started to make the Jackson Street parking lot into a pedestrian plaza, a nice breather at an intersection flooded with traffic. My favorite part will be when that false lobby ceiling comes down.

Eventually, when there's more money, the depot's second and third floors might be habitable again for offices and retail space.

Won't that be something? The depot that has served this city for a century comes full circle, a restored historic building accommodating thoroughly modern and practical purposes, easing people in and out of the city.

It will be the old depot taking deeper breaths.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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