Even newcomers know about the silver cans that couldn’t.
A decade ago, the City of Seattle ended its brief, expensive experiment with public toilets. Widely regarded as an urban necessity, the “self-cleaning” space johns were the kind of progressive pilot program that make this town great. Unfortunately, nosy folks couldn’t help but get their jimmies rustled by the idea that some people might be doing more than numbers one and two in there. Just a few years after they were installed, the city cancelled the contract, taking a bath on the machines themselves and a political hit for the failure.
It was not the first time that the city sunk big money into this kind of facility. Nor was it the first time that neighbors complained about people doing their business in the business district. Indeed, Seattle has a long, fraught history when it comes to providing places to relieve oneself—one that goes back further than most people realize, despite a very recognizable reminder.
The iron pergola in Pioneer Square is widely regarded as a historic treasure. In the heart of some of the most historic buildings in Seattle’s First Neighborhood, it’s a marker of a more dignified time in architecture, when new construction was ornate and built to last (it’s survived getting hit by a truck more than once and a Seahawks Superbowl “riot,” after all). The landmark sits prettily on a tiny plot of land, called Pioneer Place, that was set aside as public back when the City decided to straighten the streets in the 1880s, just before the Great Seattle Fire.
The bulk of historical documentation, including the material for landmarking the park and totem pole, focus on the pergola’s role as a significant piece of architecture that provided shelter for folks waiting for a cable car. However, they tend to mention only in passing, if at all, the objectively more interesting fact that the iron structure also signified the doorway to relief.
As the iron historical marker on the site notes, the pergola was built above a stairwell, which lead to the most glorious “comfort station” on the West Coast.
In 1906, the City of Seattle’s finance committee agreed to levy a tax on the Pioneer Place business district, designed to drum up revenues, including $12,000 to build the subterranean comfort station, which would serve both men and women and have both free and pay (i.e. nicer) toilets. According to a letter from members of the community the park board, the committee viewed it as “urgent.”
Not in my tiny park
The plan was widely rejected by business owners and neighbors alike. Between the start of the plan in 1906 and the official opening 1909—a period of endless issues with funding, political jockeying, and construction—letters to the editor poured in to the Seattle Times, then called the Seattle Daily Times, calling it a “scheme to ruin the appearance of the neighborhood.” Many wrote in to say that while they liked the idea of the comfort stations, other locations would be “more satisfactory.”
“By all means, put the comfort station somewhere else,” one druggist is quoted as saying in a 1909 article. “Pioneer Place is no location for it.”
It wasn’t just readers who opposed the plan; the Times itself rejected the idea, running numerous headlines calling it a “nuisance” and bolstering its view by publishing stories about how much people disliked it. L.H. Gray, a steamship owner, commended the Times for “protesting against” the comfort stations. He went on to say that “it was bad enough putting up unsightly benches around two corners of the little park, benches filled for the most part with loungers who sit and smoke and read the papers for hours every day.”
Meanwhile, other publications were more supportive. A letter from the Seattle Star, a pro-labor paper that ran until 1947, stated that the editors were “not in sympathy with those who oppose the erection of a comfort station,” adding that the beauty of the park would not be marred by the construction and that “those who object to it are urged to do so by selfish motives.”
Finally, after years of back-and-forth, the city council and park board came to an agreement. Builders broke ground in May of 1909, the same year of the planned Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, the world’s fair held in Seattle that year. This bothered some locals, who felt the city, which was in the process of regrading Belltown and paving the sidewalks, was already under too much construction. An unsigned editorial in the Times, ostensibly written by Alden J. Blethen, the Editor-in-Chief, voices the ire:
It would be alright in an ordinary year. We are not advocating for any policy of delay. But it seems absolutely idiotic that this year...that the administration of the city should allow the streets of the city and the few beauty spots of the city to be wrecked and ruined by contractors.
The pergola served multiple purposes. In addition to allowing cable car riders to wait out of the rain, the contractors also used it in the construction of the facility. Nonstructural, hollow beams helped ventilate the underground space.
By September, the comfort station had opened. Porters were hired to staff and maintain the place, which was cleaned daily and open mostly during business hours. That fall, the South Park Improvement Club drafted a resolution thanking the park board for their “forethought” in building it, and the city began to draft plans for additional stations on Westlake, Pike Place Market, and elsewhere.
Despite the initial resistance, the comfort station in Pioneer Place soon became a staple in the neighborhood. It might have helped that it was beautiful. History Link describes the comfort station as “indisputably the nation’s most elaborately appointed underground restroom,” noting that it featured “white-tiled walls, terrazzo floor, brass fixtures, and marble stalls.” Men could have a cigar. Women could freshen up.
Vendors would sell snacks and other items around it, creating a marketplace. As the population of the city exploded and the business district grew, it served workers, residents, and visitors alike. During the Great Depression, when many residents ended up living along the mudflats and in the Hooverville south of town, it was a necessary piece of infrastructure. Shipyard workers, travelers, and those transferring fishing boats all relied on the station.
It still posed challenges, though; much of what we now think of as Pioneer Square was initially tidal flats. The neighborhood was filled in by ambitious engineers, but the soft fill wasn’t always reliable for an underground location. The construction began to settle over the years, leading to flooding and other mechanical issues. The once-palatial potty slowly went to pot.
No restroom for the weary
The city finally closed the facility on January 1, 1943, citing excessive costs and wartime rationing. Contractors were brought in to determine whether or not the place could be rehabilitated; one was quoted as saying that, while it was run down, it was made of “good, old-fashioned construction” and could be repaired. The cost, though, was too much, and the city shuttered the comfort station, leaving open the possibility that it could, in the future, be reopened.
For more than 10 years after its closure, the potential reopening of the Pioneer Place comfort station hung over the city government like a spectre. Candidates running for office promised to re-open it, and concerned citizens wrote in on behalf of those left without a place to go. In a 1953 letter to the editor, one Pioneer Square neighbor lambasted the City’s priorities; the Woodland Park Zoo had just been built using public dollars, and included a “giraffe mansion,” even before the Zoo was sure they could get a giraffe.
“If our city can find $50,000 to build a giraffe house,” read the letter, “then we should be able to scrape together at least half as much to re-open this Pioneer Square comfort station for the hundreds of human beings who badly need such facilities.”
The city never did scrape together the capital, despite numerous surveys and reports ordered and reordered. It remained a topic of conversation and of budgetary hand-wringing for years, revisited with each new year’s fiscal outlook, but the political will just wasn’t there.
Eventually, the comfort station, once a gem of the West Coast (as much as a bathroom can be), was unceremoniously capped over. It was not replaced—not by a park restroom, a single stall, or even a portable can—leaving the visitors and residents of Pioneer Square without a reliable place to relieve themselves until the mid-2000s, when the infamous self-cleaning metal commodes were installed.
There’s still a degree of curiosity around the pergola comfort station, though. When the Pioneer Place park was renovated (and then re-renovated), it was literally a surface-level clean-up. Seattle Parks confirmed to Curbed Seattle that the bathroom is still there, just boarded up. As recently as 1999, the Underground Tour had looked into gaining access to the space to add it to their stops—but mostly because it’s a fascinating piece of weird Seattle history, not because restrooms are a human right.
This tiny triangle of land remains a prized pocket park in Pioneer Square; current construction happening all around it has done its best not to disturb the cobblestones, statues, and Totem pole. It’s also a frequent gathering place for people living outside—people who really could use a comfort station. But after the black eye that was the self-cleaning portables 10 years ago, few lawmakers have been interested in bringing up the idea again. Maybe once enough time has passed.