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October 14, 1999

Sparking change in Columbia City Rectifier building

Journal staff reporter

Fifty years ago, the Columbia City neighborhood was home to the sound of clattering streetcars and the buzz of electricity. Power was channeled through City Light's rectifier building on Rainier Avenue. But for the past 30 years, the old building went unused and the neighborhood fell into decay.

Now, the rectifier building is getting a spark of new life -- as office space for two non-profit agencies.

City Light rectifier building
City Light's old rectifier building on Rainier Avenue once powered streetcars. Today it is becoming office space for two nonprofit agencies.
Photos by Lisa Lannigan
"We had noticed that it was just sitting there," said Nora Liu of HomeSight, a private non-profit community development agency. One of HomeSight's goals is to revitalize the Columbia community with new homes for first-time, income-eligible homeowners. One of its 75-unit projects is located a few blocks from the old rectifier building.

"In order for Columbia City to complete what's going on now, there needed to be more active stuff going on," Liu said.

Intrigued by the art deco style of curved corners and geometric design, and with the hopes of improving the look of the neglected neighborhood, HomeSight and Southeast Effective Development (SEED) purchased the building from City Light.

SEED just finished another project about a block north of the rectifier, the Columbia Hotel. Once a sore spot in the neighborhood, the renovated hotel now has new paint, a new interior and eight new apartments for low-income tenants. Buchanan General Contracting of Bellevue renovated the old hotel and is also the contractor for the rectifier building.

As with any non-profit in need of office space, HomeSight and SEED were up against a classic dilemma. "We had not very much of a budget and a tight schedule," Liu said.

In stepped Seattle architect John McLaren and contractor Buchanan, who were able to make it happen.

"What we tried to do there was keep the renovation very simple and respect the building," McLaren said. "There was a lot of economizing."

For McLaren, the project proved both a challenge and a treat. "There was a lot of challenge in just figuring out how you anchor new structure onto old concrete," he said. "There were just so many tricky things we needed to do."

The first problem they ran into came when they began to build the walls and roof for office space within the building's open corridor. "The walls had no footings," McLaren said. "They span from pilaster to pilaster... you [could] stick your hand under those walls if you wanted to."

The walls were well worth using, however. The rectifier building was constructed in 1941 to convert electricity from AC to DC for streetcars and some businesses. The walls between the pilasters had been poured in place six inches above the floor and built to withstand explosions.

"That was a surprise," McLaren said. "They wouldn't have borne the load of the structure and had to be underpinned."

Buchanan superintendent Kevin Englehardt said the hard, explosion-proof concrete was a challenge in itself. "[On a 60-pound jack] we were breaking bits," he said.

Fortunately, plans called for leaving most of the concrete in place. In the front of the building, rooms that served as bunkers for transformers were left as they were, with their high concrete walls and space "just right for a two-room office," McLaren said.

Prominently placed in the front corner of the building is a new, rounded window, which stays with the art deco style while giving the front office some extra light.

Two ceiling vents were converted into skylights, while others were left accessible for more skylights when funds are available.

The Columbia Hotel
The Columbia Hotel was renovated by SEED, one of the nonprofit agencies that is moving into the rectifier building.
"The concept was to... bring in as much natural light into the building as possible, with skylights," McLaren said. "That lets light filter into the interior."

The future of the building may also include a second floor. "We thought for a while about just building the shell now, but there just wasn't money to do that," McLaren said. "It's designed to accommodate a future elevator and stairs."

A second floor won't change the look of the building from the outside. McLaren said the concrete walls are about 23 feet high, enough to cover the second story as well as the new heating and air circulating units. "You won't see it," he said.

With the interior nearly finished and the outside cleaned, Liu said they are set move in to their new office in November. "I think it's a beautiful space," she said. "We're really pleased with it."

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