Federal Reserve Bank (Seattle)

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 9/20/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8785

The building formally known as the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco -- Seattle Branch is located on 2nd Avenue between Madison and Spring streets in downtown Seattle. It housed the Seattle branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco for more than 50 years. Designed in 1949 by architect William Bain Sr. (1896-1985) of the firm NBBJ (Naramore, Bain, Brady and Johanson) in the Moderne style, the building's design conveys a sense permanence and security. Its austerity and visual weight, as well as its relatively short stature, stand out among the many Modern skyscrapers in the surrounding financial district.  The building gave the branch the room it needed to grow along with the needs of the banking industry in the Northwest. In February 2008 the branch closed when bank operations moved to a new building in Renton.

Federal Reserve System

The Federal Reserve system, formed by Congress in 1913, sought to provide stability to the banking and monetary systems of the United States. The devastating economic depressions of 1893 and 1907, along with a number of smaller ones in the latter half of the nineteenth century, spurred interest in forming a federal banking system that would help develop the American economy and help maintain its stability. Upon its formation in 1913, the Federal Reserve opened banks in each of the 12 districts. Each Reserve Bank handles currency for the United States Treasury and check clearing for member banks, as well as providing loans to banks and economic information to the Federal Reserve System's Board of Governors.

Some of the districts, such as New York, covered a relatively small area.  The Twelfth District of the Federal Reserve, headquartered in San Francisco, served the American West, (today it includes Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands), encompassing more than 30 percent of the country's land mass. The Twelfth District soon found that it would be difficult to serve the needs of its far-flung territory from one location. According to a 1951 article by University of Washington professor Howard H. Preston, "In 1917, with the war clouds gathering and increased agricultural, industrial, and commercial activity growing out of the war in Europe calling for the services of the Reserve banks," three branch banks opened in the Pacific Northwest. ("A Milestone in Washington State Federal Reserve Banking," 95) In addition to the Seattle branch, one opened in Spokane (which closed in 1938) and another in Portland.

The Seattle branch operated out of various rented spaces for its first 34 years. Upon one move, a worker noted that, "Moving for us was like discarding a suit of clothes which we have outgrown -- outgrown so badly that the coat can be buttoned only with the aid of a button hook, and the trousers end half-way between the knees and the shoe tops -- discarding it for a tailor-made of the latest design which drapes easily, but leaves no wrinkles" ("Seattle Branch Holds Open House," 1). As the Northwest's economy and population grew, so did demand for the branch's services.

A Sense of Security and Permanence

In 1949 the bank's directors in San Francisco authorized the construction of a branch building in Seattle. Architect William Bain Sr., of the firm NBBJ, designed the building in the Moderne style. Moderne architecture dated to the pre-war era and is related to Art Deco, except that it emphasizes horizontal lines and simpler exterior details. According to the Landmark Nomination prepared by BOLA Architecture + Planning, several federal buildings designed in this style featured, "classically inspired facades, a strong plinth, [and] horizontal massing," giving a sense of security and permanence, which is increased by the bank's thick, blast-resistant windows framed with granite (Landmark Nomination, 14). The exterior of the bank building is smooth, interrupted only by the window bays. Bain had designed other Moderne buildings, include the Bel Roy Apartments on Capitol Hill, though his later work followed post-war, Modern design principles, which emphasizes function and minimizes external decoration.

Unlike other bank buildings of its era, the Federal Reserve building did not seek to make its entrance welcoming to retail customers. Other than sales of United States Treasury bonds in its early years of operation, the bank did not serve the general public. As a result, it did not have an elaborate entryway or highly visible signage. A large percentage of the people who walked by it for years had no idea what occurred within its imposing walls.

Private banks in the area were well-informed about the bank's operations, however. During World War II the bank guaranteed loans made by local banks to local manufacturers, making it possible to bring production up to the levels needed to carry out the war. The bank cleared checks for its member banks, which included all nationally chartered banks and some state banks, along with some other types of financial institutions.

The bank also exchanged currency, removing worn out or damaged bills and coins and distributing newly minted currency from the Treasury. To hold the member deposits and the currency it handled, the bank had a two-story vault with thirty-inch-thick walls. The walls were made with steelcrete, "a network of sheets of heavy expanded metal and plain round reinforcing rods embedded and interlaced throughout practically the full thickness of the concrete" ("Seattle Branch Holds Open House," 2). It took 355 tons of steelcrete to form the walls of the vault, making it impervious to just about any human or natural assault.

The Federal Reserve chose the site for the building because of its proximity to the city's financial district. The Rialto Building, built in 1894, had to be demolished to make way for the new construction. Among its many tenants the Rialto had housed the Seattle Public Library from 1896 to 1899 and an early incarnation of Frederick & Nelson's department store.

Building the Bank

Construction by the Kuney Johnson Company began in the spring of 1950. In April city and bank officials held a building dedication ceremony. A copper box inserted into the cornerstone laid during the ceremony holds newspapers, pictures, coins, a map of Seattle, and historical information.  Several dignitaries spoke at the ceremony, including Acting Mayor David Levine, who called the Federal Reserve Bank, "The lifeblood of the community"  and C. E. Earhart, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, who said that the building was a, "testimony to the system's belief in the future of the Pacific Northwest" ("New Building is Dedicated").

The building rose six stories in the next eight months, four above-grade at 2nd  Avenue and two below. The main entrance on 2nd Avenue led to the teller lobby. Other floors held the 5,000-square-foot vault, offices, a cafeteria, a loading dock that could accommodate six armored cars at a time, and equipment for handling currency and checks. At its peak the branch could handle nine million checks in a day.

When the branch opened on January 2, 1951, it did not need all of the space in the 110,000-square-foot building. The Federal Bureau of Investigation occupied a portion of the offices for a time. But the bank's operations continued to grow and in 2004 the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco bought 10.8 acres on the former Longacres racetrack site in Renton for a new building. According to a press release, the bank needed the new space because, "it needed a new facility with a larger capacity to accommodate growth in cash services, state of the art operating systems, future expansion space, and a wider perimeter for security enhancements" ("Federal Reserve Bank ... Renton").

The Seattle Federal Reserve building closed its doors in February 2008. The building remains unoccupied as of fall 2008.

Sources: Howard H. Preston, "A Milestone in Washington State Federal Reserve Banking," Pacific Northwest Industry, January 1951, pp. 92-95; "Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco Holds Ceremonial Ground Breaking for New Seattle Branch Building in Renton," Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco website accessed September 19, 2008 (http://www.frbsf.org/news/releases/2005/0831.html); "Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Seattle Branch Fact Sheet," Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco website accessed September 19, 2008 (http://www.frbsf.org/news/releases/2008/factsheet.pdf); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Bain, William James Sr. (1896-1985)" (by Heather M. MacIntosh), "Seattle Public Library -- A Pictorial History of Times and Tomes Past -- Slide Show" (by Paul Dorpat), and " Frederick & Nelson opens its new store at 5th Avenue and Pine Street in Seattle on September 3, 1918," (by David Wilma) http://www.historylink.org (accessed September 19, 2008); "Landmark Nomination of the Federal Reserve Bank Seattle," BOLA Architecture + Planning, 320 Terry Avenue N, Seattle, WA 98109, May 2008; "New Building is Dedicated," The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 21, 1950, p. 11; "Seattle Branch Holds Open House," 12-L News, February 1951, Archives of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco; "Summary for 1015 2nd AVE / Parcel ID 0939000520," Department of Neighborhoods Historical Sites Database website accessed September 18, 2008 (web1.seattle.gov/dpd/historicalsite/QueryResult.aspx?ID=-283543027).

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