Try Cracking This One

Seattle’s Federal Reserve Branch Bank

By Jeffrey Karl Ochsner

In July 1949, when the Seattle Times published a photograph of the two-story vault in the basement of Seattle’s new Federal Reserve Bank, the first words of the caption, “Try Cracking This One,” called attention to its impenetrability. Providing 5,000 square-feet of secure space, the vault was enclosed by a thick layer of “steelcrete,” concrete reinforced with steel mesh, strong enough to survive any disaster or attack. Although hidden from public view thereafter, the vault, and the building that houses it, remind us of the Federal Reserve’s significance as one of the stabilizing institutions of the American economy in the early years of the Cold War. In fact, scholars have sometimes described the architecture projects from the period as “Cold War modernism,” reflecting the anxieties of the time and America’s wish to project an image of strength and stability. Although neither the architect nor the client described the building in precisely these terms, simplicity and solidity are primary visual characteristics of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Seattle Branch Bank building.

When the bank’s design began in 1947, its architect, the firm Naramore, Bain, Brady & Johanson (predecessor to today’s NBBJ), was just over three years old but already rising to prominence. In fact, a rendering of the bank design appeared in the Western Edition of Architectural Record in December 1949. As one of the first new buildings constructed in downtown Seattle after 1945, the Federal Reserve Bank drew local attention as well, with multiple articles in the papers during design and construction. When the bank moved into its new home in January 1951, stories in the Seattle Times described it as “luxurious,” “handsome,” and “impressive.”

Federal Reserve Bank Seattle NBBJ
Naramore, Bain, Brady & Johanson, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Seattle Branch Bank building; diagram including basement levels and highlighting the location of the vault below the south end of the building.  Drawing courtesy of atelierjones

As seen from Second Avenue the building is a simple, four-story, rectangular mass clad in limestone and without decorative detail. The only break from the rectangular form is the treatment of the columns at the second, third and fourth floors. Recessing the bays between the projecting columns was intended as a means of structural expression. As described in a January 1949 story in the Daily Journal of Commerce: “The exterior is without ornamentation, depending upon the vertical structural lines and openings of windows and doors for its architectural style.”

Compared to the modern curtain wall office buildings constructed in downtown Seattle after 1955, the Federal Reserve Bank may appear conservative. However, the design reflects the state of American architecture in the late 1940s, when architects were still learning to use the modernist vocabulary. When Naramore, Bain, Brady & Johanson designed Seattle’s Federal Reserve Bank, none of the canonical modern curtain wall buildings of the 1950s had yet been realized; Pietro Belluschi’s Equitable Building, Portland; Mies van der Rohe’s 860 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago; and SOM’s Lever House, New York, were several years in the future. For architects in the late 1940s seeking precedents for modernist urban buildings, the best example was the widely published Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building (PSFS Building) by Howe & Lescaze, completed in 1932. This building prominently features narrow, projecting vertical columns on the outside office tower walls. Considering PSFS may help explain why the Public Safety Building, the Federal Reserve Bank, and the UW Medical Center hospital — all designed by Naramore, Bain, Brady & Johanson between 1945 and the early 1950s — shared the motif of relatively narrow projecting vertical columns. Modernism had eliminated the use of historical elements to organize the composition of large building elevations. In the late 1940s, one approach many modern architects adopted was revealed or expressed structure.

Federal Reserve Bank Seattle
Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Seattle Branch Bank building basement, vault door to the primary receiving vault. Photo courtesy of The Johnson Partnership, Seattle

Today, the bank is the only surviving public building in downtown Seattle constructed between 1945 and 1965; the others — the Public Safety Building (1945–50), the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library (1956–59), and the Seattle Municipal Building (1959–61)—have all been replaced. Although the exterior of the Federal Reserve Bank remained largely unchanged for 65 years, the stone became badly stained, making it difficult to perceive the virtues of the design. Fortunately, in 2015 the new building owner, Martin Selig Real Estate, cleaned the exterior; its quality is again apparent. Seattle’s Federal Reserve Bank has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is protected by designation as a Seattle landmark. It is expected to be adaptively reused in the future.

Jeffrey Karl Ochsner is a professor in the Department of Architecture who currently serves as associate dean in the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington. The information presented in this article draws on research carried out collaboratively with independent scholar David A. Rash, a building science consultant with the Seattle office of Morrison Hershfield; The Johnson Partnership and atelierjones both assisted by providing illustrations.