Pacific Science Center wants public input on plans for iconic courtyard, pools

21 July 2023

Earlier this year, the Pacific Science Center angered local historic preservationists when they floated the idea of partially filling in the reflecting pools in the courtyard of the 1962 landmark with soil to create a meadow or a wetland. Management of the non-profit organization is now revisiting this controversial project, and is seeking community input before coming up with a revised plan.

Everyone agrees that the big reflecting pools in the Pacific Science Center courtyard at Seattle Center are aging. They have also been leaking water, and the Science Center says the entire pool system needs millions of dollars in repairs.

The pools, arches, and other elements of the courtyard, which is one of the most elegant public spaces in the Pacific Northwest, were designed along with the Science Center buildings by Seattle-born Japanese-American architect Minoru Yamasaki for the 1962 World’s Fair and designated a City of Seattle landmark in 2010. Yamasaki went on to also design the World Trade Center and a number of other buildings around the United States.

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In February, Pacific Science Center staff and consultants made a presentation to the Landmarks Preservation Board about some options they were considering for major work to the courtyard – ranging from restoring the pools to their original condition but with beefier infrastructure (and possible rainwater collection), all the way up to filling in half the pools with soil to create a simulated natural meadow environment. Because the complex is a city landmark, the preservation board has to approve any changes in advance.

The February presentation included some very elaborate illustrations, including a few which realistically depicted soil and plants where there’s been mostly water for the past 61 years.

Many historic preservation-minded folks – including a certain KIRO Newsradio resident historian – were not shy about expressing the opinion that anything other than restoration of the pools and courtyard was a bad idea. It was a big dust-up, and in the aftermath, the Science Center stayed pretty mum about the whole thing.

Last week, the Pacific Science Center media relations person contacted KIRO Newsradio and offered the opportunity to interview Mädchen Petrie, vice president of finance and operations for the organization who is serving as the main point person for what they’re calling the ‘courtyard project’.

Petrie said that in hindsight, the Science Center could have taken a different approach with the visuals they used in that February presentation to the Landmarks Preservation Board.

“I think there are definitely some things that I would do differently,” Petrie told KIRO Newsradio. “I think that when it comes to the sort of design software that you have today, I think some of those images really made it look like we were a lot further along in the process than we are.

“You have some fancy software that makes it look like, wow, you have a full-fledged design when really they were kind of sketches and ideas,” Petrie continued.

Petrie said the Science Center has now launched a community engagement process to explore a range of options for the courtyard and the pools. This will include one-on-one interviews, meetings, focus groups, and an online survey.

The biggest objection to the project as outlined in February was the idea of making any modifications to the pools that do anything to alter the original look and feel of Yamasaki’s original design.

Eugenia Woo works for the preservation group Historic Seattle. She told KIRO Newsradio via email late Thursday that she has been in dialog recently with the Science Center about the courtyard and the process is now underway.

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“They told us that they hear the concerns of the preservation community,” Woo wrote. “[So] it will be interesting to see how they address these concerns.”

Which is a good point, because it is hard to imagine what a compromise between the original Yamasaki design of the pools and a faux meadow or wetland could look like. Either way, the public process now underway will hopefully lead to a solution the entire community can support; the Pacific Science Center is among that handful of local non-profits that seem to enjoy almost universal regard for its programs, and that pretty much everyone wants to see thrive and succeed.

Petrie said that sometime in the next few months, after taking in all the feedback and input they’re collecting, Science Center staff and consultants will likely go back to the Landmarks Preservation Board to present a revised plan. She doesn’t know yet if the public will get a look at the revised plan before the presentation is made to the Landmarks Board.

Before that time, Petrie seemed sincere in her desire to hear concerns from anyone with an interest in speaking up on behalf of the historic elements of the courtyard.

“We’re in this information-gathering phase right now, we want to have a conversation with folks,” Petrie said. “So if anyone is interested in learning more about the project and wants to hear where we’re at, and would be interested in having that dialogue before we go back to Landmarks, we are open to that.

“We would love to hear those voices ahead of the landmarks meeting,” Petrie added.

And either way, Petrie sees a silver lining – and let’s hope it’s a lining that doesn’t leak – in all the hubbub that was generated back in February.

“I am happy at how much it has activated the community,” Petrie said. “People are following and caring about this, this architecture in this space.”

That people care so much, Petrie said, can be a great thing when it comes to securing the financial support necessary to make big capital investments in beloved cultural infrastructure.

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“And that is great for us when we get to the funding stage to be able to point out, ‘Look how much people care about and love the space, look how important this is,’” Petrie said.

For more information or to participate in the Pacific Science Center courtyard project survey, click here.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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