The Metropole Mystery

As an investigator my insatiable curiosity is something of a professional asset. The rest of the time it can be frustrating. Have you noticed how many little mysteries present themselves in the course of a day, especially living in the city? For example, why does that one car have approximately ten thousand toys glued on it? What led to that decision and then the impressively painstaking followthrough? We may never know. But that kills me. I want to know why.

I was walking in Pioneer Square, on my way back to work from my habitual coffee-lunch spot. I passed this giant, gorgeous mural on a building I’d never noticed before. It’s this bright, graffiti-style underwater scene, but there’s a sign sticking right out of the middle of it. For Kabobs. But you can’t read the whole thing because only half of it protrudes beyond the plywood.

the mysterious sign

mysterious sign

Of course I could not get this sign out of my head. Why did someone leave a sign poking out of the middle of their mural? So I investigated. Apparently the mural was painted by a local artist called Jeff “Weirdo” Jacobson. He has a sufficiently weird website with his extensive portfolio of art. You can watch a video of him painting the mural (amazing) but I couldn’t find anything that might help to explain the sign. I found an article in the Seattle PI which mentioned that the mural was painted on the Metropole Building. When I read this I kind of got the sense that the Metropole was another of those things that I should probably know about but did not.

This building is old. It’s rooted in Seattle’s history. There’s some argument about when it was actually built but it is supposedly one of the only buildings to survive the Great Seattle Fire. If you feel like I did initially and sort of vaguely do not care what that fire was—I will tell you anyway. It was a giant fire. It destroyed basically all of downtown. It changed the zoning codes of downtown and allowed for the streets to be rebuilt in a way that made slightly more sense than they had before (it’s still a mess). The city was rebuilt on top of the old one, making the streets as much as twenty feet higher than they were. It’s why there is an underground city that you can take a tour of. I didn’t know any of this before but I learned it all because I suddenly cared about the Metropole Building and it’s story.

I found out that it has weathered more than one fire. In May of 2007, at a little past midnight, someone reported black smoking coming from the venerable old building. According to the report a fire had started in a storage room and damaged much of the interior. The building was boarded up as a temporary measure until the money from insurance could be used to renovate and reopen. But that haphazardly placed plywood  is still up. For eight years the owner of the building has been in a protracted lawsuit with the insurance company. So the hastily placed plywood, with a little hole cut for the Kabob sign to poke through, is still there.

Then, a few years ago, the building was covered in posters for the Seattle soccer team, the Sounders, in an attempt to use some of the wasted space and make a little money back for the owner of the empty building. However, as an article in The New Pioneer Square pointed out, public advertising is regulated in the historic neighborhood. And the posters were sort of… neon yellow. Which makes sense for the Sounders, but not so much for the culture of the Square. According to the article the building manager agreed to take down the posters and was amenable to the idea of using the space for some public benefit. The article closes with a poll: given the choice, what would you choose to do with the space? The options are “Boards + security fence,” “Random art,” “Posters,” or “Painted mural or other large scale art.” At this point, I suppose the outcome of the poll is clear.

Weirdo crowdfunded his mural project and it is still there today. When I walked past it my curiosity was piqued and I knew there had to be some sort of story behind the odd little sign in the mural. I had no idea just how much history was behind such a small, odd thing. The whole history of Seattle was hiding behind one little sign. A story of two fires, the birth of a city and countless people. That is what’s beautiful to me about life and storytelling. Every step you take you are surrounded by stories in every direction. Every building has a history, every person has a life, and every single thing around you has a story. With open eyes and a little digging there’s no limit to what you can uncover, all the little dramas hidden behind mundane life. And those are the stories I intend to tell.

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