There’s something truly intriguing about urban decay. About the fact that something which was once considered useful and needed has faded into disuse and disrepair. It’s fascinating. When I moved to New York one of the places I wanted to visit the most was Roosevelt Island, where you could see the remains of a Small Pox Hospital and a city sanatorium. And, while the two were popular and widely used for years, today they simply sit as reminders of what once was.
Gas Works Park sitting on the edge of Lake Union in Seattle evokes a similar sense. Once the home of the Seattle Gas Light Company gasification plant, Gas Works Park is an eerie and beautiful reminder of a bygone era. Built in the early 1900s, and closed in the 1950s, the plant is the only standing coal gasification plant in the United States. Today the machinery is mostly fenced off, overgrown, and consumed by grass and ivy. Like any place where there’s decay it’s both hauntingly beautiful and magnificently creepy. It’s old and rusted and weird and bizarre.
In my opinion the people of Seattle were brilliant and forward thinking—the park opened in 1975—to turn this former hazardous site into public open space (just don’t hop in the water where some of the old outfall from the plant is happily sitting). Not only does it provide some extraordinary views of the Seattle and Lake Union, not only does it provide a quiet reprieve from the bustle of city life, but it wonderfully provides a pleasant park space, while still reminding visitors of the City’s history. On my Tuesday visit the park was scattered with people picnicking, enjoying a rest after long bike ride, children rolling down the hill and watching the seaplanes fly overhead. Had the people of Seattle simply torn down the plant, they might still have a nice, useful public space where visitors can do all the things I just mentioned, but they’d have allowed whole generation of Seattleites to forget a piece of history. Instead the plant will serve as a constant reminder of a way of life that no longer exists. And, historians and architects agree: Gas Works Park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.
Gas Works Park, I believe, serves as a shining example of how demolition is not always the answer, but rather the repurposing of buildings, facilities, and other structures can prove a valuable tool. By creating something new out of something old, you ensure that things are not lost and forgotten. You pave the way to improve the urban environment by adding amenities and resources that not only provide a function but true local character.