Phyllis Lamphere Oral History, Part 3: The Washington State Convention & Trade Center

  • Posted 10/18/2013
  • Essay 10632

Phyllis Lamphere (1922-2018), a native Seattleite, was deeply involved in the city's civic life for more than 50 years. She served on the city council from 1967 to 1978, where she was instrumental in pushing through multiple reforms and worked on many of the most contentious issues of a contentious era. After an unsuccessful run for mayor in 1977, Lamphere went on to work for the federal government, and she later formed her own public-affairs consulting firm. Among many other achievements, she was a driving force behind the creation of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center and served on its board for more than 20 years. In July and August 2013, Lamphere was interviewed at her apartment in Seattle's Horizon House by intern Callan Carow. In these People's Histories, organized by topic, Lamphere recounts some of the important events of her career in politics and public service and provides an inside look at the workings of government and the life of an extraordinary woman.  Here she discusses her long involvement with the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, from its initial conception in 1980 through 2002.

Early Planning

I was appointed in 1980 by Governor John Spellman to the opening, initial board for the Washington State Convention & Trade Center. The legislation had been passed by the legislature and the governor was to appoint nine members, and I was one of them. They had to represent different parts of the state and different interests, and our charge was to plan, build, and operate.  Site it first -- find out the right place.

So we had I think most of the first year probably working on the site and the original plans. And there were three potential sites, we'd boiled it down to three potential sites. First, the decision was made that it should be in Seattle, as the largest metropolitan area. The three sites that were proposed -- a number of people were involved in this: the Visitors Bureau and the Downtown Association and the various art groups and so on -- were Seattle Center, the Kingdome lot, or a site over the freeway, which was owned by the State, but there was a piece of it that was resting on private land. A very small piece of private land, but it was critical to anchoring that structure and that was owned by a local developer. So we proceeded to hire architects -- we hired Richardson Associates to design it. We eventually hired the Paschen Company to construct it and this of course took a long time. To tell you how long, we ordered it in 1988, so it was eight years in the siting, planning, constructing, and so on.

Halfway through the design phase, our private partner went broke. So then we had to figure out how we'd fill the gap of financing, and our chair, who by that time was Jim Ellis, went to the State and got permission to issue certificates which were sort of like a bond which the State can issue, which can be used almost like a bond, but it is a mechanism for allowing you to sidestep all the requirements of bond limits. But they had to be paid back within a certain time.

Learning from Others' Mistakes

So then, the private partner had planned to have eight shops all along the escalator that was planned. The throughway was planned at the very outset at the insistence of the community. They did not want to close 8th Avenue because it's a thoroughfare for emergency vehicles and what have you. So where the private partner had planned to have shops along the escalator inside we then had to figure out what would go there.

I visited a number of convention centers in the United States and in the European countries to see how they allocated their space. I came back committed that that space should be used for meeting rooms, because what was happening in these large convention centers in Europe was that they found themselves short of meeting spaces. They had large convention floors, but not enough meeting areas, so that's what we decided to use where the stores had been built.

As a result, you had walls surrounding meeting rooms so it wasn't going to be open storefronts. We had these big bare walls, and that's when I promoted the idea of having an art gallery there. We had already established a wonderful art-advisory committee of art experts throughout the community, and I chaired that. And we had representatives from private collectors, from the city, state and county art commissions, and private curators. So we had an excellent group of experts to advise us.

Art for the People

Our first chore or task was to pick the artists that would do the four large contracts that were to be built into the construction of the convention center. The idea there is to get much more for your money if it's part of the initial construction plan. And we chose four artists. One was a bell artist, David Mahler, who collected a historic bell from each of the 39 counties in the state and hung them along the north side of the convention center in an outside corridor, where they could all be seen. They each had an identification plaque -- where it came from, what it was used for, and so on.

Buster Simpson designed Seattle George, which is this large sculpture out on the south side of the Convention Center out in the plaza. It is a large sculpture with templates that are formed in the shape of Chief Seattle's profile, all the way around in a circle. And then a blade, and the idea was it was on an architect's construction stand. It was to reflect George Washington as a surveyor. And so there was a tripod, and these forms, and then there was this blade, and as ivy grew around these templates of Chief Seattle, the blade would cut the ivy in the profile of George Washington. That never quite worked. But the profile you could still see. It also had other characteristics, like writing in the language of the Native Americans of the time, and the tripod, signifying George Washington's surveying and so on.

The third one was a sculptural floor and benches in the international meeting place, by a woman artist. The fourth one was an electronic sign collection in the same meeting place. So those four artists were chosen and interviewed, and they worked along with the construction.

When the other opportunity to form a gallery came forth, we called the same art committee together and decided how we were going to select, and again, we didn't have any money for that. We had the money only for those four projects. So we called together the art commissions and the private collectors and so forth, and said "will you help us," and they did. To make a long story not quite so long, it's been a hugely successful project.

We also formed an art foundation, which I chaired, so we could accept gifts from members of the community. And the collection drew its own following, it was so unique in the annals of the convention centers. I was not aware -- still am not -- of any convention center that has an open public art gallery besides ours. So that's pretty remarkable, and it's worth millions of dollars. One part of it rotates quarterly -- one floor. Our current committee interviews art institutions or associations who would like to display their art for a quarter year. It's a place where the women painters can have three months to show, or the metal workers can have three months to show. It's been a wonderful thing, both for maintaining the interest of the general public, and also for giving these artists an opportunity to display their work. So that's a project I'm extremely fond and proud of.

Making It Bigger

We did go on, and in 1995 we expanded the convention center across Pike Street and built an extension into the buildings that were planned by private developers underneath, so we bought the airspace into the development to extend the convention hall across Pike Street. We needed much more space for booths and displays of various industrial things. So that extension was completed, very complicated again because it was a public/private arrangement. We did not want to own the underpinnings, we just wanted to use the airspace up above. And so that was also very complicated and very successful.

And now, the convention center, in addition to extending across Pike Street, we also extended it to the corner of 7th and Pike, which had just been a sort of wasteland. We built a new lobby there -- a big lobby. Again, we worked with the private sector to build an office tower next to the lobby in space we weren't going to use. So that again was a very notable example of how we worked with public and private sectors together.

And finally, I will say that, as we speak, the convention center has been named a public facilities district, a PFD, which is an independent entity responsible for the owning and operating that whole facility. It's like the PFD for Safeco Field. That's a private entity. And so now that entity is considering expanding farther to the north, because this convention center has been so successful that there's a great demand for it. And, there's a great demand for opportunities to come to this beautiful part of the country.

I finished equipping the new expansion over Pike Street, finished installing all the art in that part of the current part of the expansion. And then my term was up finally in 2002. Those of us who came from the original group had hung in there all the time, retired in 2002. Having been appointed by four successive governors. So that was both a wonderful experience and wonderful opportunity and a wonderful outcome for a major project.

To go to Part 4, click "Next Feature."


Callan Carow interviews with Phyllis Lamphere, July and August 2013.

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