APRIL 2006 – NO. 5
The Butler Garage
The modern ruins of Seattle's Butler Hotel.
|Each Add. Hr
|Maximum to 6:30
Every day, the cars roll in ...
The Butler Garage is a masterpiece gone mad, an artist's canvas that started out as one thing and became another, and another, until finally, it has been overworked, over-thought, and stored away for historians to decide whether or not it is art or accident. It is a montage gone mess, an hypothesis gone wrong. Indeed, the old building has been refurbished so many times that to say it is one thing, is also to say that it is possible to swim in the same river twice.
The Butler is well hidden in Seattle's historical district; only the city's rich urban lords and perhaps a few ambitious serfs know the existence of the secret garage. And if not for the wide rectangular entrance that swallows cars like krill and the thick black letters painted into the bricks boasting its name, one might hardly know it was there at all.
But this can't possibly be true ....
For the Butler's strong features — a strong frame, an angular structure, sharp corners, scruffy looks, ruddy-red brick cheeks — woo passing pedestrians, tempting them to look back over their shoulders with suspicion, perhaps even caution. It's as though the Butler is some mysterious and handsome stranger watching them from the shadows.
It is the bricks that make the make Butler so inexplicable — the weight of them together make the infrastructure of wood and nail moot. Minus the gravitational constraints of its original skeleton, the building can now lean and dip, crawl and pant, breathe and live a life of its own. The Butler resonates, every day shaking free of the moment at hand — growing older, changing the world around it like the smallest raindrop changes all things in the universe.
Shortly before the turn of the century, when Seattle was growing one lumber mill and one fish pulled from the sea, steamed-and-canned at a time, the Butler building served as a fabulous hotel. After the "49ers" had quarried their gold from Alaska's frontier, they traveled south again and used the building to enjoy a luxurious few days' escape from dirt and squalor. Back then, the young city was the first real metropolis, before The Bay Area; in fact, it was a concrete oasis — manna in a mat desert of evergreens and moss. On their way to San Francisco, the "49ers" used the Butler Hotel as their last chance to spend money before heading to the abject seclusion of Oregon and Northern California.
And why not?
In its glory days, the Butler Hotel had boasted everything a tired, weary exploiter might desire: curtained windows, mattressed beds, feathered pillows, electric lights, a fully stocked bar, toilets, bathtubs, room service, sassy maids ... and let's not forget the "seamstresses."
The Butler was built by men who had been run out of the thinning timberline. They built the "jewel in the City's crown," says Seattle historian Don Duncan. "Its lavish Rose Room featured magnificent cuisine in an atmosphere of top recording orchestras, cut-glass chandeliers, thick imported carpets and sterling silver." It hosted movie and theater people, generals and presidents. But now the original architects, bricklayers, and carpenters are restless in their graves.
Hanging from the dusty beams are crumbled wads of electrical wiring. Rats play in them; they use the wads of wire as wild play structures — they run, and jump, and frolic with delight when, at the end of each night, the Butler's old yellow lights are turned off.
Along the interior brick walls, running at their bases, there are tiny mountain ranges of dusty cement. They have been elevated to great heights, give or take a few magnitudes. Freed from bondage, tiny grains of sand fall from the groves of bricks to create a monument dedicated to time and attrition. When cars flash by, the mountains ebb into soft, rolling hills — like the Badlands of Montana, or the prairies of the Dakotas.
A year is to a day
what a day
is to a moment.
Caught sinking away like some lost artifact, The Butler is mired between two lost centuries. It was near the end of the gold rush, during the time that the city was becoming more and more a seaport that a great fire broke out. While Seattle's first fire engine, "Always Ready," stood by, the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 had already leveled 33 blocks of the new city's business center; stores, outfitters, banks, and hotels were burned back down to their foundations. The catastrophe was most likely caused by one of any number of farm animals, as with the famous cow who tipped over a hot bucket of glue and set fire to Chicago, a famed moment in Holstein history. Though, in Seattle, it might very well have been caused by renegade clams playing with matches. (I could tell you that it was in fact caused by water poured on a bucket of hot glue and turpentine, but it's not as much fun.)
After the fire, brilliant civil engineers decided it more prudent to build on top of the ruins than to tear them down. Some streets wound up being as much as 32 feet above the ground floors of the surrounding buildings, and people had to use ladders to climb up or down to cross them. Many bridges and elevated sidewalks sprang up, and at street level, new entryways were cut into fourth and fifth stories.
The labyrinth below was capped and now the original lobby of the Butler is entirely underground — buried, in a manner of speaking, up to its knees in filth and soot, dirty rags, oily cracked awning, rotting wood, and layers of chipped lead based paint. Above the ground, around the place where the building's nostrils might be, roam the new smells of cotton candy, hot dogs, two-dollar beer, fish, pizza, vomit, and exhaust.
"Stand still you ever moving spheres of heaven," says Christopher Marlowe, "[So] That time may cease, and midnight never come." In reverence to Marlowe, there are tours of Underground Seattle for the savvy world traveler. After comparing and contrasting the Lamaist art and architecture of the Potala Palace in Tibet, a world traveler might find it desirable to pop across the Pacific and take in the sublime spectacle of building foundations under a sky of concrete. There are rats there as well, big ones, who store sweet morsels of offal in their chubby little cheeks and bring it underground through sewers and grates to eat in peace. But they only do this, of course, after tourists have finished browsing the dank ruins, taken many pictures, and bought many post cards to send to relatives in Tennessee and Wisconsin.
Once a valet told a writer who had worked at the garage for a time about a ghost in crusty overalls inspecting the building. The apparition had taken on the form of an old man. One hand clutched a spaded trowel that drooped longingly to his side, and the other a biscuit and some fruit wrapped in a handkerchief. As the lost soul wandered sadly through open space, he still minded the missing hallways, corners, doors and stairs. Every night, before finishing his lonely walk, he was said to visit the grand ballroom, where oil stains and tire marks now smear the checkered parquet floor. There, the old man stood alone, closing his eyes to imagine swanky couples dancing the night away; a ghost, imagining ghosts. A dream, dreaming a dream — and all the while, the Butler remains proud enough to change, despite the unwilling ghosts that haunt its past.
Today the building is but a ghostly impression of its former pretentious self.
"The leaves," says James Joyce, "lie thick upon the way of memories."
During the Butler's conversion into a 150-car parking garage, the private baths, fancy wall paper, and tiled floors were ripped like flesh away from the building's sticky ribs. Spaces that once lacked a view — closets, halls, kitchens — now share the long-hostage morning sun. Two-by-fours that once were hidden are now exposed, naked and embarrassed. Chunks of chalky-white drywall now cling like alien flowers to rusty, bent, 16-penny sinkers. Today, the Butler building is barely anything at all.
"Put the silver Jag between those posts and put the Porsche behind the other!" coaches a veteran valet. "That's right, you got it, ease it there! Nice and easy, nice and easy ...." He watches as the two cars pass with but an inch to spare. The rookie, young and Latin, has dreamed of jobs such as this since playing with hot wheels as a child. He parks the car with the same intensity as a physicist measuring plutonium.
"... just like prom night — eh, Slick?" Now, the pressure-treated two-by-fours serve only as markers for spaces between cars — a bearing, a target for lining up rear "five mile an hour" bumpers.
When your opportunity comes to explore the old building, you might wander about long enough to feel your own death closing in on you. This is true because inside, the building looks and feels more like the bloated innards of an animal than a parking garage. The supporting beams are the ribs; they run along the ceiling, bending and bowing as though the beast were sighing against its mighty chest. Occasionally the beams groan like one of Pioneer Square's tired old vagrants. The customers look up, craning their necks at the creaking bones while a valet plops into their driver's seat, gears up, and speeds away. This maneuver, done with a smooth and practiced proficiency, leaves the customers gazing at theirs car as did Jimmy Stewart at Katherine Hepburn in the movie, The Philadelphia Story.
Amongst the many young men who valet at the garage, there is one in particular who might, after the morning rush of opening car doors and speeding them away, casually light a cigarette and lean against the old building to watch the city go by. His eyes may search every passing soul that day — for a spark of life, a question, or an answer. The tourists, the bums, the hoodwinking legal eagles, the serfs, and the shabbily dressed multimillionaires who struck it rich in the dot-com and coffee boom and will soon retire to build hobby-shop airplanes and rocket ships might all saunter by him, shyly avoiding eye contact. Somehow, they must have known that he was searching, looking — and they wondered if, really, the young man, whose bright eyes seemed to see so much, so effortlessly — could actually know, or invent into them, every secret ever kept.
... every day, the cars roll out.
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