Why did Seattle turn manhole covers into art?

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We, in our 20’s and 30’s, took over the city from the old men who were sitting in the Rainier Club playing dominoes all day.

By Paula Wissel

Garth Edwards, "Untitled"There are thousands of manhole covers on the streets of Seattle.  Some of them, 115 to be exact, are official works of art. Artists are commissioned by the city to create them. It’s one of those little quirks that set the city apart.

Why the city decided to decorate these “personnel hatch covers,” as the city now refers to them, harks back to a time when the city was full of creative energy and lots of city activists were looking for ways to improve the quality of urban life.

 

A Seattle signature

Nancy Blum, "City Light, City Bright"Nearly every day, I walk over one of these manhole art works. It’s in the crosswalk at 3rd and Cedar in Belltown and is called “City Light, City Bright.”  It always makes me smile.

When I called up the artist, Nancy Blum, who lives in Philadelphia now, she said the purpose of the decorated covers is to lift your spirit.

“The hatch cover art is just a magical contribution that the city of Seattle gives to its residents.  It’s so serendipitous to be able to look down and see something where you expect to just see function to actually see artwork,” she said.

Betsy Best-Spadaro, "Water Ring"She says just talking about it makes her nostalgic for the city.

Printmaker Betsy Best-Spadaro, who designed a manhole cover in 2001 called “Water Ring,” also sees the hatch covers as something that gives Seattle a unique feel.

“I think it says that we value art in everyday life, to take these obscure aspects of urban life and make them beautiful,” she said.

 

Seattle’s renaissance period

So where did this idea come from, to create public art that would be walked and driven over and, probably, not even noticed by a lot of Seattle residents?

The hatch cover art program began in 1976 and was part of something much larger. 

Paul Schell with "Seattle Grid" by Anne Knight. Photo courtesy of Paul SchellPaul Schell, who later became mayor, was the head of the city’s Department of Community Development at the time. When I talk with him at his home on Whidbey Island, he sounds a little wistful about the atmosphere in city government then.  He says it was a time when anything seemed possible.

 “We, in our 20’s and 30’s, took over the city from the old men who were sitting in the Rainier Club playing dominoes all day,” he said.

He said coming off of protests against the Viet Nam War and other social movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s there was a desire to try new things.

“It was a time in the city when there was a lot happening. I mean it was everything from historic preservation to stopping freeways to saving Pioneer Square. And we’d just come off of saving Pike Place Market and finding ways to rebuild it with urban renewal funds,” he said.

You have to remember that vendors throwing fish at the market and outdoor cafes were novel concepts then, he added.

Public art became a major focus of Schell’s department. They were looking for ways for the public to engage in art and art to engage the public. He said it was being “argued about and discussed and bandied about” at the time.

 

Life is in the details

Nathan Jackson, "Untitled"One day, a member of the Seattle Arts Commission, Jacquetta Blanchett, returned from Florence, Italy with an idea. She was enchanted by the manhole covers in Italy and thought Seattle should try something similar.  

Paul Schell ran with it. 

He remembered an architect friend telling him that if you do enough little things right the whole picture will be more beautiful. The manhole cover art project seemed perfect.

“We were looking for ways to embellish the details and to bring a sense of fun to the city,” he said.

 

Debate over the arts

Bhy Kracke Gift Program brouchure, courtesy of Paul SchellThe manhole cover art project is just one of the projects begun during the 1970’s that remain in place today.

The city’s “1 Percent For Art” program started then.  It requires municipal building projects to include public art.

A “gifts to the city”program, called The Bhy Kracke Gift Program was also launched. The idea was to make it easy for people to donate park benches, street clocks and drinking fountains for public spaces.

Not everyone was thrilled with the city’s focus on the arts.

In a letter to the editor at the time, one woman said:

“I can’t believe the City of Seattle finds such ridiculous ways to waste money. This latest idea of decorating all the manhole covers in the streets of Seattle with fancy maps and designs is the most stupid idea I have ever heard of. Who has the time to stop while walking across a street or driving on it to look at a decorated manhole cover?”

But now, 36 years later, the manhole covers have melded into the fabric of the city, seen as part of our everyday infrastructure. Paul Schell, who’s retired now, thinks city leaders would do well to remember the little things as they are faced with every tightening budgets.

“If we just do the basics, don’t do the things that make you smile then we’ve lost it. It speaks to our spirit and our soul,” he said.

 

No map available

So, would you like to take a tour of the manhole cover art?  Good luck. There is no list or map of where they are.

When I ask Rury Yampolsky, who heads the city’s public art program about it, she explains that, after an artist designs a hatch cover and the foundry casts it, it becomes the property of Seattle City Light or Seattle Public Utilities.

The covers are stored in utility warehouses and used or moved around as needed, just like the regular manhole covers.

But, maybe that’s part of the beauty of them. You come across them by accident. Hopefully, when you do, they brighten your day.

 

 

Manhole art from around the world