A proposal considered “fantastic” and “imaginative” could have resulted in the world’s first floating sports stadium, at the foot of West Harrison Street.
By David Eskenazi and Steve Rudman
As head of Howard S. Wright Construction Co., founded by his father, Howard S. Wright Sr., and uncle, George Schuchart Sr., in Port Townsend in 1885, Howard S. Wright Jr. made an astonishing impact on Seattle’s landscape. During a career that spanned the 1960s through the 1980s, Wright was involved in the construction of the Space Needle, 76-story Columbia Center, 50-story Seafirst Building, Washington Mutual Tower and Sheraton Hotel & Towers.
Add in a few other of his projects – Northgate Shopping Center, 1111 Third Avenue Building, Pacific Plaza Hotel and One Bellevue Center – and Wright, who died in September 1996, still his fingerprints all over the city’s skyline.
As a member of the Seattle Foundation, Evergreen Safety Council, Washington Business Roundtable, Seattle Opera Association, Seattle Arts Commission, Washington State Racing Commission, Lakeside School, University of Washington Development Fund and PONCHO, as well as an original partner in the group that brought the Seahawks to Seattle, Wright packed considerable civic clout.
But there was one project Wright backed that, while stunningly imaginative, failed to fly — killed off within a matter of months, in fact.
Early in 1963, flush with the success of the Century 21 Exhibition (World’s Fair), civic leaders committed themselves to bringing major professional sports, especially Major League Baseball and the National Football League, to the city. They lacked only a proper facility for a team or teams — Husky Stadium was not an option due to the University of Washington’s refusal to host pro sports, and Sicks’ Stadium was deemed too small and inadequate.
Dave Cohn, Chairman of the Board of Consolidated Restaurants and a major player in downtown politics, first proposed the idea of a domed stadium in 1950. For several years, Cohn’s idea gained no traction. But by the early 1960s, it became clear to Seattle business leaders that the construction of a dome was essential if Seattle hoped to be awarded an MLB or NFL franchise.
Question was, where to build it?
Then, as is the case today with Chris Hansen’s proposed basketball/hockey arena in Sodo, no site in the greater Seattle area suited everyone. All potential stadium locations within the city limits had problems, real or imagined.
Newspapers of the day spent countless column inches wrangling over the merits and demerits of each, most notably one at Fifth and Mercer, once the site of a baseball diamond called Recreation Park, and another at Fifth and Broad, roughly the site of where the Fisher Pavilion (another Wright project) stands today. State legislator Ray Olsen even introduced a detailed plan for a 50,000-seat stadium at that location.
There was talk, on and off as far back as 1938, of the city acquiring Fort Lawton’s 1,100 acres of rolling greensward, if the U.S. Army declared the site surplus as a military installation, which it seemed inclined to do. The fort had the space for all the parking a 60,000-seat stadium would need with room left for an 18-hole golf course and a scenic, shoreline park. The city could have acquired it for $1, but balked due to the enormous expense of upkeep.
No consensus could be reached on a location. Then, in early March, a group of Seattle business leaders, including Wright, who were keenly interested in obtaining an NFL franchise, came forth with the novel idea of constructing the world’s first floating stadium.
“In a city where householders row instead of mow and bridges float, it cannot be surprising that somebody would suggest playing football in a floating stadium,” opined columnist Georg N. Myers in The Seattle Times.
The construction of a floating athletic venue was not, as might be expected, considered delusional. Rather, it was seen as a legitimate answer to Seattle’s prayer for a big-time stadium. Dramatic enough to capture the attention of the public and officials, the proposed site met the optimum recommendation that a stadium should be near the metropolitan center and easy to reach.
Wright and the architects and engineers at his disposal envisioned a domed facility resting on pontoons in 70 to 90 feet of Elliott Bay water at the foot of West Harrison Street. If built, the stadium would seat 65,000-70,000 for football and 50,000 for baseball. Wright and his supporters penciled out the stadium to cost $22.4 million and said it would be financed by the a combination of private investment and the passage of a King County bond issue.
“Our people feel that our area desperately needs a stadium to keep sports in pace with other progress here,” engineer Brian Maither told The Seattle Post Intelligencer. “We checked a map to locate the center of Seattle’s population. But there was no land available in such an optimum spot. So we decided to go out on the water.
“The site is on property owned by the Great Northern Railway. Since we feel that it’s difficult to get private financing for such a project, we considered it the advantageous thing to do was incorporate a stadium with other city plans. Our proposal fits in with the city’s 10-year plan for the Century 21 Center and for the renovation of the waterfront. The stadium would be near the heart of the city, easy to get to. We have talked to various civic groups and officials and all heartily endorsed the plan.
“Mayor (Gordon) Clinton called it an excellent location and a fabulous idea. We have consulted with the City Council, Port Commission, City Planning Dept., City Engineer and the Army Corps of Engineers. All like the project. And let met add, the water-based structure would have no buoyancy problems. It is the same concept as a dry dock for a battleship.”
The Seattle Chamber of Commerce didn’t require any more convincing, enthusiastically endorsing construction in a statement it released March 5, 1963:
“The vision and imagination exhibited in this recently proposed floating stadium is to be commended. This is thoroughly in keeping with the 21st century outlook and the can-do attitude that has been part of our community thinking during recent years.”
“Think of it,” added architect Bjarne Ove with a touch of humor, ‘We’ll have the only football field in the country where we can work the bilge pumps when our team has the ball and let them run down hill.”
The floating stadium was one of two new proposals to emerge in the early months of 1963. That January, a group called Pacific Raceways Inc. announced plans for a domed stadium to be used primarily for major league baseball. Pacific Raceways planned to enhance its stadium site with a golf course, swimming pool, motel, cocktail lounge, bowling alley and a landing strip for airplanes.
Raceways already owned the land on which it wanted to erect a dome, and had engaged in preliminary talks with Major League Baseball about the availability of a team. Its major advantage over the floating stadium: The Raceways site included 400 acres, mainly meaning no parking issues. Its major disadvantage: the 400 acres were in Kent, ultimately deemed too far away from the downtown corridor to gain widespread support.
As part of its floating stadium proposal, the Wright group called for an extension of the Monorail, built for the World’s Fair to link the Century 21 grounds (Seattle Center) to what is now Westlake Center, to run west from the Space Needle along Harrison street to the waterfront, where passengers would disembark and walk across a ramp into the stadium, much as foot passengers boarding a ferry.
As with all big-ticket projects, the stickiest obstacle was money. As architects and builders went about pursuing their proposal, they found that it was far easier to float the idea of a concrete bowl on the water than to drum up the cash to build it. So they sought a bond issue to jump-start it.
All three county commissioners, Scott Wallace, Ed Munro and John O’Brien, said they were willing to put a stadium bond issue on the 1964 ballot if they could be convinced there was a strong demand for such action.
“I’m heartily in accord,” said O’Brien, the former Seattle University basketball star who had ended a seven-year professional baseball career with the Seattle Rainiers three years earlier. “I have always advocated a stadium in the heart of the city.”
Seattle and King County officials were acquainted with the pitfalls of asking taxpayers to underwrite the construction of a multi-million dollar stadium on the contingency that a major league team could be lured. In 1960, despite a hurried and somewhat ramshackle campaign, and despite many other money measures on the ballot, a $15 million stadium-bond proposal almost got over the hump.
More than 146,000 voters, 48.3 percent of the electorate, favored the measure, but 60 percent was required for approval.
About a month after the Wright group proposed the floating stadium, the Seattle City Planning Commission issued a preliminary report advising against the project, contending that the waterfront site would present difficult access and parking problems.
“The project does pique the imagination and I shouldn’t like to discourage this type of thinking,” declared Planning Commisioner Gilbert H. Mandeville, also a structural engineer. “But undoubtedly, there are better locations for a major stadium in the Seattle-King County area. However, we still need more information with regard to off-street parking.”
“That staff report was a real blow to us,” Wright told The Times April 26. “Zoning in the proposed area would permit a stadium, but the zoning code would require at least 7,000 off-street parking spaces within a reasonable distance. Great Northern Railway, owner of the underwater lands involved, offered to assure us use of the area for a ‘token payment.’”
But the Wright group could not come up with 7,000 parking spaces that could be used on a consistent basis, The floating stadium, which one architect said, “could have become one of the great wonders of the country,” pretty much died right there.
But the debate over where to site a domed stadium hadn’t even heated up. Dozens of sites were considered over the next five years until finally, in July 1968, the first of two State Stadium Commissions appointed by Gov. Dan Evans recommended that the Seattle Center as the optimum location.
The commission settled on the Seattle Center after considering sites at Riverton (near Tukwila), South Park (also near Tukwila), Northup Way (Bellevue) and Fifth and Yesler (Seattle). For a couple of months, South Park, which had a 160-acre site, was considered the top location. A cost analysis determined that a domed facility could be constructed there for $42.5 million vs. $55.7 million at Yesler Way and $63.7 million at the Seattle Center. South Park also had more room for parking, the chief consideration when any site was considered.
Ultimately, though, the Seattle Center won out, primarily due to its location. The State Stadium Commission endorsed it in December 1968 – despite a blistering editorial in The Times, which said: “The Commission has come up with a masterstroke. It decided to put a huge traffic-jam producer in the middle of what is already the city’s worst traffic jam. In so doing, it has eliminated the possibility of creating a second traffic hassle in Seattle.”
Despite The Times’ rant, the Seattle Center was selected according to rules laid down by state legislation. But that didn’t make the site a popular choice. Thousands of citizens wanted another site. They were joined by thousands who wanted no stadium at all.
“The Seattle Center is the only place where a truly multi-purpose stadium can be built in King County,” declared Joe Gandy, chairman of the commission.
Echoing Gandy, Perry B. Johanson, chief architect of the stadium design team, declared that his group reached the conclusion that the Center was the only site in King County where a stadium could be built within the $40 million bond limitation and still meet the bond’s requirements for multi-purpose users.
“When the stadium is added to the Center, it will give the area a cultural and recreational complex that is second to none and available to all,” he said.
But King County voters still rejected the bond issue, forcing a second State Stadium Commission, appointed by Evans, to seek an alternate site. Ultimately, it recommended a plot near the King Street Station and voters approved the choice in December 1971.
By the time ground was broken for what became the King County Domed Stadium Nov. 2, 1972, the floating stadium in Elliott Bay, predicted to become “one of the wonders of the country,” had faded from memory, the same fate as the now-demolished Kingdome, whose backers famously predicted “would last a thousand years.” They missed by 976 years.
Many of the historic images published on Sportspress Northwest are provided by resident Northwest sports history aficionado David Eskenazi. Check out David’s Wayback Machine Archive. David can be reached at (206) 441-1900, or at firstname.lastname@example.org