Walking tour will highlight past, future of Alaskan Way Viaduct

By Ron Paananen, P.E., Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Replacement Program Administrator

It’s easy to miss driving by at 40 miles per hour, but there it stands, at the north end of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a red-brick reminder that it doesn’t pay to cut corners.

In fact, engineers building the viaduct in the 1950s found that cutting corners can be pretty expensive – about $50,000, actually.

A bit of historical explanation is in order. 

Back in the 1950s, as the viaduct began to take shape along the downtown Seattle waterfront, engineers discovered a problem: the corner of Belltown’s Empire Laundry Building stood directly in the structure’s path. Rather than shave off the building’s corner – which would have cost the hefty sum of $50,000 – engineers improvised by incorporating the building into the guardrail. The results are still visible today to the south of the Battery Street Tunnel, with the corner of the building – now home to condominiums – protruding through the rail. 

It’s one of the few times you’ll see a building in the right of way, and one of many tidbits from the viaduct’s past that we’ll be exploring at a historical walking tour on Saturday, Aug. 21. I’ll be leading the tour, along with historical preservationist Mimi Sheridan and other viaduct experts.

We’ll depart from the Washington Street Boat Landing (Alaskan Way S. and S. Washington Street) at 10 a.m. Over the course of two hours, my colleagues and I will dust off stories from the viaduct’s past – like that of the Empire Laundry Building – to bring to life the people and places that helped define the structure and the downtown waterfront. We’ll make stops at various points of interest along the waterfront before wrapping up near the Pike Street Hillclimb. Topics include the changing transportation needs of Seattle, the important role of the viaduct in the growth of downtown, and our plans to replace the vulnerable structure.

The event is part of the Museum of History and Industry’s (MOHAI) “Summer History Tours” series.  Tickets are $15 for MOHAI members or $20 for the general public, and can be purchased in advance at www.brownpapertickets.org or by calling 1-800-838-3006. Tickets will also be available for purchase at the beginning of the tour, provided it doesn’t sell out in advance. The neighborhood is well served by transit, and parking is available nearby under the viaduct.

This will be a fun way to take a look back, but it’s worth noting that we’ve come a long way since the 1950s. As we begin replacing the viaduct, we’re taking every precaution to protect the public’s investment and make sure we build something that people will be proud of 50 years from now. 

Which means no improvising. And, of course, no cutting corners.