Canal Substation: A Closer Look

About 40,000 neighbors in Seattle were recently in the dark due to a raccoon “de-energizing” the Canal Substation.  De-energizing is Seattle City Light’s way of saying something caused a loss of power in the electric grid.  RIP raccoon.

Until the power outage, I hadn’t thought much about our neighborhood substation.  It had simply been an odd colored government structure tucked in the southend of the neighborhood. I didn’t know how many residents relied on the substation, or the building’s backstory. What I’ve discovered since the outage is that these two Ballard blocks hold several secrets waiting to be discover!

Location & History:

Canal Substation is located on 8th Ave NW, taking up two city blocks between NW 46th Street & NW 45th Street. It’s on the north side of 45th, making it part of the West Woodland neighborhood, with Fremont across the street.  I still wish locals called this area the Ross neighborhood.  Keep the memory alive!

google map

Pink area is West Woodland, Ballard and grey area is Fremont.  Courtesy Google Maps.

The Puget Sound Power & Light Company constructed this transmission substation in 1928 as part of their private electric utility operations within the City of Seattle. It is the only transmission substation, of the original three constructed by Puget Sound Power & Light Company, still in existence and operation.  Today, Canal Substation is part of public powered Seattle City Light.  The previous owner, Puget Sound Power & Light, is doing business as Puget Sound Energy, providing electric and natural gas service throughout much of Western Washington.

With its mixture of Mission Revival and Neo-Classical Revival stylistic features, the architecturally distinctive Canal Substation is significant for its design and for its associations with the era of privately owned electric utilities in Seattle.  It also stands as a reminder of the evolution of Seattle City Light as the sole supplier of electric power in the area. The Canal Substation has been included on the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods list of Seattle Historical Sites.

1960 view - from Seattle city light FB page

The photo above of Canal Substation, with the Ballard Bridge in the background, is dated 1960 and courtesy Seattle City Light. An approximate current view of this same location, near the corner of 3rd Ave NW and NW 48th Street, can be found HERE.

Canal Substation Edible Landscape & Art: 

Noah-CL86.046.03a-g_CROPThe station had a major remodel in the mid 1980s and the large switch yard and adjacent building were painted in unusual colors for a substation – mostly pastels. As required by City of Seattle ordinance, 1 % of the cost was for art that was incorporated into the project.

Visit the substation after dark and you’ll see some of the “activities” happening inside through the softly glowing windows. Six back-lit silhouettes in the large upper-story windows are part of Barbara Noah’s artwork Forms of Power, created in 1986.

For Forms of Power, Noah painted images of allegories of power on windows made of sandblasted, multi-colored translucent Plexiglas. The hand signs of the game rock-paper-scissors, representing physical power, are painted on three orange windows. A pink window shows a couple about to kiss, symbolizing the power of love. A scientist conducting experiments represents the power of the mind. And in a green window, a blindfolded figure with outstretched arms, evoking traditional representations of justice, stands for the power of the law. This visual play subtly alludes to the factors that impact the daily lives in the homes and businesses that depend on the Canal Substation for power.

Sitework by GAYNOR plays off the art with striped paving evoking former rail lines, edible ‘hedgerows’, checkerboard of colorful ‘walkable’ herb groundcovers, delicate-to-dense ‘living’ fence, salvaged substation lightning arrester stands repurposed as benches, observation hill and interpretive signage. The project was completed in 1986, with approximately $220,000 spent for landscape and site improvements.

More information regarding the artistic aspects of the redesign available HERE.

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