Last weekend I discovered Seattle’s Gas Works Park. By accident. And ended up on a tour through the derelict gasworks – led by the park’s designer, Richard Haag. The structures are fenced off, so I got the impression this was an unusual privilege. Fortunately my camera’s battery wasn’t completely exhausted, though I was torn between taking photos and listening to Haag recount his efforts several decades ago to convince the city that the industrial site could be bioremediated. Among his persuasive arguments: growing a nice crop of tomatoes in what was thought to be dead soil.
A former refinery that converted oil and coal to gas, the plant became obsolete in the 1950s, leaving the ground beneath saturated with tar and aromatic hydrocarbons. It was one of the first toxic industrial sites to be successfully reclaimed for public use through bioremediation (although it is still monitored, and intermittent cleanup efforts continue).
My first reaction was WTF?!? How could I know nothing about this extraordinary place? I am so impressed with the city of Seattle (and Haag) for maintaining the towers in their rusty steampunk glory, instead of leveling them, as the original plans for the site demanded. Out of 1400 such gasification plants once operating across the US, this is the largest remnant left standing.
From the park outside, the gasworks now resemble a gigantic modern sculpture with a fashionably distressed patina. The unreal blue-green of the Seattle grass contrasts so strongly with the red rust that it stings the eyes. But in among the towers, the scene is ghostly. Blackberries twine lushly through the iron girders, obviously undaunted by any lingering contamination in the soil. Small piles of bleached bones, perhaps from rodents or birds, litter the ruins. Only a few dangling loops of slender T1 cable, probably from a security system, betray that the Internet Age has supplanted the Industrial.
Although the refinery is barely over 100 years old (and despite its rivets and cogs, not properly “steampunk” at all), rain and benign neglect have left it seemingly ancient, like a half-exposed fossil. I hope these images capture its aura of timeless decay.