Learning to love the General Administration Building

THE OLYMPIANFebruary 8, 2012 

This coming Valentine’s Day it’s time to consider giving the General Administration building the appreciation it deserves.

The GA building, atop Columbia Street overlooking the City of Olympia, is a continual target for demolition and derision. People complain it’s too ugly, it can’t be rehabilitated to current standards, it’s not “green” enough, or it’s too expensive to fix.

But did you know that the General Administration building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places? That’s right. The national listing of the most important historic places in the United States. The GA building may not be the Angelina Jolie of historic buildings (more like the Ugly Betty), but there is a lot to appreciate. If we start with the concept that beauty is skin deep, then the building really has a lot going for it.

The GA building was built as a stone-and-masonry building from locally sourced natural materials. It was built to last. There are no prefabricated materials imported from other countries.

Upon entering the building, you are greeted by a magnificent lobby area with a panoramic glass-and-stone mosaic mural. The mural is a testament to the state and tells a vivid story of how we Washingtonians viewed ourselves at the midpoint of the 20th century. There is nothing like it in any other building on the Capitol Campus. It’s a beauty. The lobby welcomes you with green patterned terrazzo flooring and walls covered in light green terra cotta tile. The original postwar art deco signage carved in steel panel relief directs your path past an original streamlined information desk. But most stunning of all is the incredible mural.

There are other attractive features to the GA building. First and foremost, you can open the windows. How many public buildings anymore still have fresh air and free air conditioning? Its HVAC system may not be in the best condition, but systems can be replaced. What can’t be replaced is the ability to open a window and smell fresh air, especially in a temperate climate.

The building has sunlight that streams into offices (remember natural light in office buildings?) through windows that provide terrific views. Yes, there are employees deep in the middle of GA that aren’t able to partake of the views. But being in the middle of other state buildings, in a small cubicle with half walls, isn’t necessarily a fun alternative either.

The GA building has an incredibly unique feature in its “Hauserman” movable steel wall panels. These were designed to be moved around to create different interior spaces. The notion of interior architectural flexibility reflects a mid-20th century movement toward construction that could accommodate changing space and technology requirements.

The GA building is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places for its midcentury architectural style, its unique architectural components and for its role in the expansion of the Capitol Campus. It is one of the few examples of modern architecture in Olympia reflecting the distinctive characteristics of the International Style.

Aside from the building’s historic status and recognizing that it needs rehabilitation, including HVAC and seismic upgrades, I would argue with those advocating demolition to consider whether the cost of a new building, at the expense of a recognized historic building, is needed. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, two-thirds of the solid waste in our landfills consists of building debris. Even if the majority of building materials were to be recycled, it would still take a tremendous amount of energy to go through the recycling process. There is no recycling fairy.

So perhaps it’s time to reconsider our own “Ugly Betty,” recognize that even in buildings sometimes beauty is skin deep, and appreciate the nationally recognized historic building that we already have.

Allyson Brooks is a historic archaeologist for the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. She volunteers as a board member with the League of Women Voters of Thurston County, Temple Beth Hatfiloh, the Governor’s Mansion Foundation and Preservation Action. She has two girls, three dogs, a cat and one Gary. She can be reached at allysonlillian@gmail.com.

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