A Mid-century Motel Is Reimagined as a Boutique Destination

Civic Hotel is a newly remodeled boutique hotel located between the Seattle Space Needle and South Lake Union neighborhood. Built in 1962 for the Century 21 World’s Fair, the building has been reimagined with modern interiors and outdoor spaces in the spirit of jet travel and optimism, with a distinctly Seattle blend of technology and nature. Building on themes of lightness, speed, flight and connection with nature, the design is fresh and bright, stylish and relaxed.

The hotel had been badly renovated over several generations, masking the original bones of the architecture and turning inward from the noise of adjacent SR99/Aurora Avenue.

The hotel had been badly renovated over several generations, masking the original bones of the architecture and turning inward from the noise of adjacent SR99/Aurora Avenue. Therefore, the lobby was dark and disconnected from the city and the guestrooms. With the new tunnel that located the nearby highway underground, the owners were ready to create an indoor-outdoor experience on the lobby level where the new energy of the city and pedestrian activity could be brought to travelers and guests. The clients also desired a fresh and contemporary boutique hotel that drew from the original spirit of its mid-century modern architecture. “We honor Space Age optimism with our own spirit of innovation,” says Owner Neha Nariya. “We want people to join us as we build our own ‘world of tomorrow’.”

This vision resonated not only with me, but also with my partner, Jody Estes, who focused on the architecture of the Seattle World’s Fair in her doctoral program for Architectural History at the University of California, Berkeley. We are deeply interested in the history of mid-century modern housing and landscapes and how that era embodied optimism and embraced the future and technology. We welcomed the challenge of this project. “Ultimately, the spirit of the Century 21 Seattle World’s Fair was brought to life and modernized for our contemporary age,” explains Estes, who served as the project’s landscape designer.

Advantageous Street Location

Located on the corner of Harrison and Aurora Avenue North in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, the Civic Hotel’s site is at the nexus of the newly reconnected street grid, which had been cut in two in 1953 by Highway 99. Now with the highway underground, a more pedestrian corner at Harrison and Aurora Avenue positions the hotel as a northern gateway into the rapidly transforming neighborhood of South Lake Union.

BEFORE: The motel had been built in 1962 for the Century 21 World’s Fair. PHOTO: courtesy Wittman Estes Architecture+Landscape

To welcome guests and passersby, Wittman Estes Architecture+Landscape worked with Noble Neon on an iconic neon sign that is visible from southbound SR99. At the corner of Harrison Street and Aurora Avenue, a batu deck and façade-spanning accordion doors open the hotel to the sidewalk and look north toward Lower Queen Anne and the Gates Foundation, as well as the Space Needle.

Because of the building’s location, Wittman Estes focused on creating indoor-outdoor connections to beckon guests to experience the vitality of the neighborhood. Narrow linear plank carpet tiles in the event space lead to the accordion doors, making the interiors flow outside visually and functionally. The 1,200-square-foot batu deck includes built-in seating, which will be at a premium when a forthcoming coffee shop opens at the northeast corner of the lobby.

Wittman Estes renders “classic modernism in tactile materials,” allowing people to “experience the beauty of nature and history through architecture.” The transformed Civic Hotel now brings in sunlight, views and a new awareness of the vibrant South Lake Union neighborhood. Our team sought to stitch the urban fabric back together. We wanted the new design to be an icon at the entry to the South Lake Union neighborhood and also fit in with the surroundings.

Distinctive Levels

The lobby, which features a glass staircase with floating fir treads, provides guests with a new awareness of the outside.

The 27,433-square-foot Civic Hotel is 3 stories and comprises 52 guestrooms. Its three levels include the ground-level lobby and event space, second-floor guestrooms and gym, and third-floor guestrooms. (A rooftop Sky Lounge is planned for a future phase.)

Inspired by jet travel, the lobby features an Arrival area for incoming guests and Departure paths leading to the public spaces and outdoor deck. The new design allows the guest to have a new awareness of the outside, where the energy of the city can be experienced from the lobby. A new glass staircase with floating fir treads is a focal point of the lobby.

The 1,000-square-foot event space can be partitioned into smaller rooms with sliding panels.

PHOTOS: Nic Lehoux unless otherwise noted

About the Author

Matt Wittman, AIA, LEED AP
Matt Wittman, AIA, LEED AP, is the founder of Wittman Estes, an integrated design studio focused on bringing architecture and nature into a unified expression.

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