ARCHITECT SUSAN TILLACK ON BLOCK 41

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.

“There is a new sinuous steel stair alongside the original wooden ramp that was used by horse-drawn carriages.”

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.

static1.squarespace-3.png

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. 

ARCHITECT JIM GRAHAM ON BLOCK 41

Block 41’s lead architect Jim Graham of the firm Graham Baba credits a trifecta of influences for shaping his design vision.  As an architecture student, studying abroad in both Paris and Copenhagen allowed him to soak up the best of elegant old and edgy new architecture.   And oh yes, his father was an architect.

But it is in Graham’s work on Seattle projects – notably the St. Ignatius Chapel at Seattle University,  when he was part of Olson Sundberg, and the 2015 Starbuck’s Reserve Roastery® and Tasting Room  with his own firm– that his style has reached its full fruition.  Graham’s bold vernacular choices infuse a crisp new energy into the pedigreed patina of tradition. 

In Block 41, Graham was tasked with repurposing a 1927 industrial building, a former carriage garage and ice warehouse among other things, into a flexible exciting event space embellished with several handcrafted sculptural pieces.  These are deftly integrated into a skillful design that breathes fresh life into the building while preserving historical elements of its past.

 

WHY DID YOU AGREE TO TAKE ON BLOCK 41?

I love doing new stuff but old buildings are my passion.  Not a strict period restoration but a respectful repurposing.  Now this tired little building that once served as an ice warehouse gets to find new relevance, new life.

Through adaptive reuse, old buildings can provide the framework for new design especially in an urban setting. Buildings must adapt to survive.  Block 41 celebrates that survival.

 

WHAT IS YOUR APPROACH TO BLOCK 41’S DESIGN?

We are leveraging the existing building’s character by exposing its bones – for example, the heroic dimension of its beams.  We are providing clarity to the structure so that it becomes a better space.

 

interior-stairwell-wip-1.png

"

I appreciate its simplicity and its textures. And the materials that were originally used to build it – it has lots of honest wood which is reflective of how Seattle sees itself. 

HOW DOES BLOCK 41 CONNECT TO YOUR OTHER WORK?

 Block 41 is similar to my other projects as a study in form and light. The tones of wood and steel create a tactile realm allowing the manipulation of light so you feel the form of the building. Using these natural materials in their natural state we are showing both the mark of time and the mark of the human hand.  

 

WHAT MAKES BLOCK 41 A GREAT EVENT SPACE?

The character of the building, the age of the building, the rawness of the building are all assets for an event venue.  We have stripped the building back and applied design elements in a conscious but judicious way so the building becomes an ideal envelope for events. It is the ideal background space that comes alive with people at each unique event.

 

WHAT WAS A CHALLENGE IN THE BLOCK 41 PROJECT?

The building needed new connectivity between the two floors.  We had to create a vertical relationship that would serve as a dialogue between the old rough materials and the clean new spaces.  We needed an ADA compliant elevator and a new stairway. There is an existing wooden ramp full of textures where horses gained purchase as they pulled wagons across it.  A new black steel stairway slices through it and floats above it.  The sinuous stairway creates new textural shadows that play across the concrete walls.

The building required a seismic upgrade to bring it up to current code.  Instead of letting the engineers do the work and trying to decorate around that, we integrated the upgrades into the design with subtle material connections.  The seismic reinforcements added large raw steel elements, so we made black steel the new language for the building.

 

WHAT DO YOU FIND APPEALING ABOUT THE BLOCK 41 BUILDING?

I appreciate its simplicity and its textures. And the materials that were originally used to build it – it has lots of honest wood which is reflective of how Seattle sees itself. 

It was built by craftspeople for very utilitarian purposes.  There is something beautiful about that especially when you put in a dialogue with the new and how it plays against the old. I love spaces that reveal themselves if you allow them to. Restraint is so powerful in design. We will detune the visual noise of the grain by painting it to accentuate the dialogue between the 2x6 boards with the structure.

The building has daylight streaming in on three sides. It has a courtyard so there all ready was an exterior space to dissolve the lines between outside and in.

 

IN WHAT WAYS DO YOU ENVISION BLOCK 41 BEING USED AS AN EVENT SPACE?

I see wonderful parties, weddings, fundraisers happening here as well as educational lectures and music performances happening here. In the lower entry space and the gallery of art will be for cocktails and mingling.  Then you head upstairs for dinner maybe with a guest speaker. There may be music and dancing afterwards.  I can see smaller intimate lectures downstairs and bigger events upstairs where there is a large light-filled room. Block 41 is all about gathering people. 

A HERITAGE OF HORSE-DRAWN WAGONS, ICEMEN AND POETRY

Block 41 first came to life in 1927 as a garage for the Kennedy Wagon Company which relocated from a building on nearby Battery Street.  Soon after being completed, however, the building was taken over by the Ice Delivery Company.

The ice distribution business was managed by a kindly sensitive ice man named Albert L. Ewing. “Bert”, as he was known, believed in paying it forward. In a meeting of the Northwest Association of Ice Industries in 1920, he boasted about his company’s profit sharing plan and how it helped with employee loyalty. Bert also was a poet who wrote heartfelt poems about his wife, Anna, known as “Tot”, and about his love of Seattle and the Northwest.  Some of his poems were recently compiled into a book by Bert’s grandson, Peter Cameron.  This collection of poems is aptly named “Musings of an Iceman”. Bert also was a dedicated gardener and outdoorsman. He was a longtime president of the Seattle Cactus Society and held a patent for an outdoor camping stove.

Block 41 has chosen to honor the spirit of this special Seattle ice man by dedicating our event spaces to his memory.  You can rent the Musings Gallery, the Ewing Theater or the Bert and Tot Ballroom.  Bert’s family members are happy about that and we think Bert would be too.