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The Pioneer Square neighborhood in the southwest corner of Downtown Seattle was once the heart of the city. The city’s Seattle’s founders settled there in 1852. The early structures in the neighborhood were mostly wooden, and nearly all burned in the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. By the end of 1890, dozens of brick and stone buildings had been erected in their stead; to this day, the architectural character of the neighborhood derives from these late 19th century buildings, mostly examples of Richardsonian Romanesque. The neighborhood takes its name from a small triangular plaza near the corner of First Avenue and Yesler Way, originally known as Pioneer Place. One of the prominent features of this plaza is the Pioneer Square Pergola which was erected in 1909.
The iron pergola was originally built as a stop for the Yesler and James Street Cable Car Company. When built, this waiting shelter was the most lavish of its kind west of the Mississippi with ornamental iron columns, wrought iron ornamentation and a large underground restroom. The pergola was designed by Seattle architect Julian Everett. In 1910, the weekly Seattle publication Pacific Builder and Engineer printed this description of the pergola:
“The canopy is a combination of cast-iron posts with ornamental bent iron brackets, cornice and ridge line. A total of 65,000 pounds of iron work is used on the job. The supporting columns, of Corinthian design, each weigh about 500 pounds. The ventilating columns, of which there are four, each weigh 2,000 pounds; these columns also carry fixtures for four lights each. The entire roof of the canopy is covered with wire glass, which was installed by the Westlake Sheet Metal Works.“
The ventilating columns ventilated luxurious public toilets build below ground level underneath the pergola. This historic “comfort station” (now sealed over), known by some as the “Queen Mary of the Johns,” was also built in 1909. This was indisputably the nation’s most elaborately appointed underground rest room, with white-tiled walls, terrazzo floor, brass fixtures, and marble stalls. The toilets were closed after World War II.
Today the Victorian-style structure serves a more recreational purpose by providing shade for visitors to one of the city’s most popular public places. A 1972 restoration returned the Iron Pergola to its former elegance, and it remains one of the most memorable features of this historic area. Along with the plaza itself, the Pioneer Square Pergola is a National Historic Landmark.
Being in such a prominent position on the corner of a busy city intersection has proved perilous for the Pergola. On January 15, 2001, the Pergola collapsed when a truck struck it around 5:45 a.m. The Pergola was fully restored at a cost of approximately $3.5 million, with the City of Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation receiving an award for the work. In September 2008, there was nearly a repeat. Fortunately, a bollard installed after the 2001 accident prevented damage to the Pergola. That, though, was not the end of the incidents. A year ago, on April 12, 2012 to be precise, there was almost an exact repeat of the 2001 incident. This time the damage was limited to the Southwest corner of the canopy. To avoid another repeat, the Parks department planned to install a structural post at the southwest corner which is anchored into a room below the pergola. The existing protective bollard, which was anchored into the sidewalk, sheared off in the accident. Hopefully, this will help to preserve this wonderful landmark.