Past Present: Saving the Crystal Pool's heritage

By Steve Wilhelm, Staff Writer
Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle)
June 10, 2005

The Cristalla condominiums' combination of heritage preservation and new technologies has generated so much interest that every unit but one of the original 197 has sold, with the buyers including at least six people who worked on it.

The 240-foot, 23-story tower, just north of Pike Place Market, is notable for an array of reasons:

- Designers preserved the original façade of the "Crystal Pool" that once occupied the same site, incorporating many of the 1914 building's themes into the new structure.

- Cristalla is the first all-residential tower utilizing hanging glass curtain-wall construction throughout.

- It is the first residential tower to include air rights, which the developers bought for $1.2 million to protect buyers' views over Elliott Bay.

- The significant bulk of the nearly 15,000-square-foot floor plate of the upper floors, which is especially apparent directly in the somewhat monolithic appearance of the building from the west, will probably be impossible with proposed new city plans that would allow skinnier but taller towers of about 10,800 square feet.

But from Second Avenue, where the designers and builders focused most of their attention, the Cristalla is a successful effort to meld old and new.

At street level the distinguishing feature of the building is the detailing of the 40-foot high white terra cotta façade, an Italian Renaissance motif busy with mermaids, dolphins, sea snakes and vines, that stretches for 118 feet on Second Avenue, and another 110 feet on Lenora Street, on the north side of the building.

This façade is brought to street-level human scale with wood windows, and with a corner glass dome that replicated most of the major themes of the corner dome of the original building.

Above that Cristalla climbs in stages. The façade is topped with six stories of Italian limestone, capped with a classic detailed overhanging cornice, that almost perfectly match the color tones of the terra cotta below. Above that, sections of the building are surfaced with an aluminum composite of a similar whitish color, capped with a more modern cornice, which draws the eye upward to the rest of the building, which is surfaced with dark glass. Dark glass also surrounds the terra cotta façade, setting it off from the rest of the building's base.

"The idea was to create a layered pallet that would serve as a backdrop to the historical façade," said architect Blaine Weber, who bough a 22nd-floor unit for his family. "It starts at the base with a heavy and dense heritage structure, and it transitions to the top with a thoroughly modern curtain wall."

Neighborhood activists who opposed the first designs of the building as too massive, say they're somewhat mollified by the preservation of the façade and by the developer's decision to trim back the building's even-larger original planned footprint.

"Cristalla is an example of what projects look like in the bulk that zoning now allows, a testament to how much better it could look if towers could go taller and thinner," said Carolyn Geise, an architect who was on the Belltown Business Association at the time. "I think they did a good job of trying to retain the quality of the old building and retain the façade, and that gives the building great personality at the street level."

The project was developed by Cristalla LLC, an entity that includes several investors from the Murray Franklyn group of companies in Bellevue, which are best-known for developing high-end single-family homes. The group's experience partly accounts for another attribute of the tower: each unit was customizable by purchasers, something that many took advantage of, even blending two or three units together.

"People are able to pay a premium for location in a building that allows you to express yourself and suit your own purposes, not one an architect drew," said Leslie Williams, president of Williams Marketing Inc., which handled the building's marketing. She bought a unit as an investment.

Other amenities include a rooftop plaza, complete with dog park and gas fireplace; a weight room, sauna, media room, and a large and well-appointed party room.

With these amenities the building commanded the highest per-square-foot prices for a full condominium building during 2004, averaging above $500 per square foot, and in some cases up to $1,500 per square foot. The remaining unit, a top-of-the-building penthouse, is still available for about $2.6 million.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the building was preserving the terra cotta façade, during the demolition of the previous structure and the subsequent construction.

Built in 1915, the Crystal Pool was a warmed saltwater pool that catered to a belief, current at the time, that saltwater was beneficial to the health. The full-length pool featured an arched glass roof and bleachers for performances. It was designed by Martin Priteca, a well-known local architect who also designed the Coliseum Theater, now Seattle's downtown Banana Republic, and Tacoma's Pantages Theater, both of which are rich with classic motifs.

Later the building went through several iterations, becoming in turn an ice skating rink and then a boxing ring. During the 1930s it lay in disrepair, until in 1944 it was bought by the Bethany Temple, a church that operated the building, exterior mermaids and all, as a church until the developer bought the building three years ago. Over the decades a succession of owners kept the pool, as well as the massive steam-driven water pumps and heaters, covering both with a suspended floor.

Mark Glass, construction superintendent for the project, said the intricate process of preserving the 10,000 square feet of façade went smoothly despite the challenges. He also has bought one of the units.

Terra cotta is a fired ceramic brick often used for ornamental details early in the early 20th century. The trick facing the project managers was to stabilize the wall, which was 12 to 18 inches thick, while ripping out the pool below and the heavy machinery, and then digging down to create the final 40-foot basement.

To do this the contractors affixed a web of steel reinforcing bar to the back of the wall with 4,500 anchors, and then layered it in the inside with eight inches of a sprayed-on concrete material. This concrete wall was then stabilized by temporary steel tube braces, which fastened onto the street outside, and was then supported from below by a series of concrete and steel pillars, each up to 60 feet long, which were poured underneath. Later, damaged, pieces of the terra cotta were replaced with cast cement.

The preservation, which wasn't required by the city but was requested by neighborhood groups, cost about $2 million. But Williams figures the cost was probably recovered in the premium purchasers were willing to pay.

"It was one of those aspects of the building that made it unique, and set us apart from the competition," she said. "People loved that aspect of it, it made them feel it was part of the history of Seattle."

Architect Brian Brand, president of Baylis Architects in Bellevue, said he thinks that kind of respect for the past is a real plus for the building, and for the city.

"When you go to old European cities, even East Coast cities, you can walk through a city and see old and new blended together," he said. "If you keep changing a city and never hold onto parts of the past, you lose identity."