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A Little Color Goes A Long Way: The Tile Work On Broadway

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

Photos by Lorn Fant

One intent of the old idea of urban renewal was to 'revitalize' an area. In the last half of the 20th century there are plenty of stories of urban renewal disasters. I feel, we, here on the Hill, are fortunate beneficiaries of a highly successful, but little remembered, decades old renewal project. Both subtle and overt it is still exerting a soothing influence on the folks walking the northern reaches of Broadway.

I'm thinking of the project undertaken in 1981 that gave us Jack Mackie's Dance Steps, the broadening of the sidewalks, stylish lampposts, plant hangers and that strip of colorful tile work on our sidewalks. Now, Mr. Mackie's Dance Steps can in no way be characterized as 'little remembered' nor 'forgotten.' A simple or brief mention of them will usually elicit the comment 'Oh, I love Capitol Hill' even if you've not even said 'Seattle.'

Yet, it has been my experience, that asking someone how they feel about the tile work along Broadway they will commonly respond with 'What tiles?' Yet, as soon as I describe them or show a picture of them folk usually exclaim 'Oh yes! I love those!' They are a deeply ingrained yet rarely front-of-the-mind icon of Capitol Hill.

Very few people, off the top of their heads, know the origins of those tiles and the Dance Steps. They were gifted to us during a time that has a lot of similarities to what we’re going through now. As well as to an earlier time. The tiles and Dance Steps were installed during a renewal project in 1981 We were going through a recession at that time. The neighborhood felt like it could soon fall into ruin but hadn't yet. Unemployment in Washington State stood at 13%. A decade earlier in 1971 when that famous billboard, "Will the Last Person Leaving SEATTLE — Turn Out the Lights" unemployment stood at 10%.

April 16, 1971. Courtesy Seattle Times

In August of 2020, we stood at 8.5% unemployed down a bit from an earlier 15.4%. Those are just a few factors, a few indicators of our economic trends. It certainly does indicate our doubts, our worries for the future. I think it also indicates a turning point for a better albeit very different future. Just like how our now is very different from the future seen then.

I was looking into the origins of those tiles for a little project of my own; Tote bags to raise funds for CHHS and to put more Food From the Hill in my belly. I wasn't having much luck with the common internet searches. Then a mention of the shortcomings of my search to a friend, CHHS president Tom Heuser, brought results I would not have imagined. Tom had a memory of stumbling across an old Seattle Times article that discussed the original renewal project. He found that article in his archives. Which is no small feat considering that one can not simply lick a finger and thumb their way through stacks of paper, as I am accustomed to doing, in this digital age of ours. I was astonished when I read the article Tom forwarded to me.

Seattle Times, Sept 22, 1981.

The article, pictured above, gives a very detailed account of the renewal project when it was about halfway through its completion. Right about that point of any project where the neighbors begin to doubt the value of the outcome and just want the dang thing to be finished. So, here were the answers to my questions about the origins of the tiles. Yet, was there more to know? The article mentioned the architectural firm that drew up the plans for the project as well as mentioning the designer: Makers of Seattle and John Owen. A quick internet searched showed Makers is still around. I shot off an inquiry to them and a few days later I'm talking to John Owen on the phone!

John Owen via

Gobsmacked! That's the emotion I was feeling while talking with Mr. Owen. There is a tenor that I have great affection for in the journalism I've encountered in Seattle. It's more personal. It has a diction like that I use with folk around chips and salsa. It's loaded with color, quips, and anecdotes that lend a theater to the subject; bounding it beyond just a formal analysis and report. 'Jackhammers tap out Broadway Lullaby' is an excellent example. My conversation with Mr. Owen raised that ante, for me, to an 'I'm all in!' level. This story, this history, still alive and vibrant in our neighborhood deserves a more thorough telling. But until I herd those cats into a corral let me relay a few of the anecdotes that were relayed to me:

  • Brainstorming sessions led to the creation of Jack Mackie's Dance Steps as well as the strip of tiles.

  • The tile patterns are based on ancient patterns.

  • There are at least 5 different patterns. As best as I can recall counting and Mr. Owen thinks that's about right. Perhaps I need to go back out and count them all.

  • Mr. Owen's original color ideas were black, brown, and ivory. Further brainstorming led to the choice of blue, brown, and ivory. This then led to a delay because the tile maker was facing a shortage of cobalt for the blue tiles.

  • The contractor's workmen had trouble replicating the tile patterns into the sidewalk. In those days you didn't get tiles in pre-arranged patterns. You got them in strips of single colors which then had to be arranged by hand. Our senior neighborhood ladies rescued those workmen. With decades of knitting, quilting, and crafting at hand they were able to show those guys how to get those tiles placed right. Thank you ladies! We're still enjoying your helping hand.

It's a testament to this city and our neighborhood that a renewal project could be undertaken during economic times like those that existed in 1981. It's a testament to our city and neighborhood planners' creativity to think that having a nicer looking place to walk and shop could improve our life and times. Very often I hear and read how things used to be so much better. How our city, our neighborhood has been ruined by such and such. My answer? Yes, it is very different than it used to be. But it is still one of the best, coolest neighborhoods to live in the entire country. All because of some tiles in the sidewalk, you say? No, but 40 years of adding a little color, of grounding one's sight in a very specific geographic place those tiles have accomplished something few government projects could even begin to aspire too.

Update: It just so happens that CHHS vice-president Rob Ketcherside had the original engineering record for the tiles in his own archives, which he promptly sent to me after he learned I had written this story.

From Seattle Public Utilities Records Vault

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