Structural beauty in all its forms has always been compelling to Susan Tillack, Block 41’s managing architect for the Seattle architecture firm Graham Baba. As a former assistant editor at the prestigious Oxford University Press and Grove Press, she helped enhance the structural beauty of language. With Block 41, she helped transform the structural beauty of a 1927 former ice warehouse into a chic contemporary event venue.
A trip to Paris years ago awakened her to the structural beauty of preserved architecture. Horrified by the destruction of older buildings back home in the U.S., she decided to pursue a masters degree in historic building preservation. But along the way she became more interested in the adaptive reuse of buildings, instead of a strict restoration. That led her to a degree in architecture and work with Graham Baba, a firm noted for making old buildings fresh and new while preserving the patina of their past.
In Block 41, the shell of the 1927 building with its original brick walls, wood beams and concrete floors was cleaned up and received structural and technological updates. But where possible it was left raw, with an interior space that now feels open and spacious. Pure natural tones and materials connect to the building’s provenance as an ice warehouse. A serene sense of balance throughout the two-story space seamlessly references Seattle’s past, present and future.
What is the difference between historical preservation and adaptive reuse of an old building?
The two are not at odds with each other. Preservation is more concerned with maintaining or restoring a building to its original state. There are reasons to do that for buildings that have played a significant role in American history. But most older buildings in the U.S. do not fall into that category.
Adaptive reuse is more about updating an existing building so it can continue to contribute to the fabric of a city. It can be more radically transformed than if you were strictly preserving it. While adaptive reuse celebrates the original charm and character of a building, at the same time it turns it into something economically viable and, often, stronger than it was before. You are making the building fresh - not just a relic of its time.
What did you like most about the Block 41 project?
Overall, I loved being able to give new life to this building and transform it from a dank warren of dark rooms to a vibrant space for events with a gallery supportive of local artists.
There are some really cool significant moves in the building. There is a new sinuous steel stair alongside the original wooden ramp that was used by horse-drawn carriages. And there is a new steel-clad elevator that sits like an object in space. These will make a big difference with how the building feels, how you can move through it and what you can do in the building.
What features make Block 41 unique as an event venue?
I keep hearkening back to the stairs. It is one of the unique things about the entrance. It will allow people to float over the old wood ramp when ascending the stairs. The staircase itself is expressed as a piece of steel that is bent and folded. There is nothing else like it that I am aware of in Seattle.
Another unusual feature is the outdoor courtyard. So few places in downtown Seattle have an outdoor amenity. We worked with a landscape architect to design it with a deck and canopy. The building has a large glass garage-style door that opens out to it -- it can be closed when it rains while still letting in natural light and diminishing the barrier between inside and outside.
What was your vision for Block 41?
The vision was to let the building speak for itself - to restrain from touching it too much while making some insertions that are clearly new so you can distinguish between old and new. The addition of those new pieces is very powerful.
It is a big space but we wanted to have some spaces within it that felt more intimate. We wanted to be able to accommodate a crowd but not feel cavernous for smaller groups.
What are some of the vintage character highlights of the building?
The original ramp has big divots from the ice truck wheels and horses hooves. It is all solid wood - probably Douglas fir given the era. The wooden columns have ragged edges from the horses chewing on them. We are not trying to hide details like these. We are celebrating them.
What is an ideal use of Block 41?
I see it being used for wedding banquets, corporate presentations, corporate retreats and many other types of events. There are so few downtown venues and even fewer that have the cool character that Block 41 has. People don’t want just a convention room
How was Block 41 modernized as an event venue?
Aside from building in prep kitchens and restrooms, as an event venue, it also needed to function acoustically and climatically. So those aspects were added. We also had a theatrical lighting designer and an IT consultant on the project. Block 41 is fully wired and up to speed.