Pioneer Square

Pioneer Square marks Seattle's original downtown, dating back to 1852. Rebuilt after the devastating "Great Fire" of 1889, the district is characterized by late nineteenth century brick and stone buildings and one of the nation's best surviving collections of Romanesque Revival style urban architecture. Established as both a National historic district and a local preservation district in 1970, Pioneer Square is protected by an ordinance and design guidelines focused on preserving its unique historic and architectural character, assuring the sensitive rehabilitation of buildings, promoting development of residential uses for all income levels, and enhancing the district's economic climate for residents, employers, workers, and visitors. This section reviews Pioneer Square's history; answers to frequently asked questions; Pioneer Square Preservation Board guidelines, printable PDF application form, schedule and agenda.


In 1852 the area that is known today as Pioneer Square was chosen by the first permanent white settlers as the location of their new city because it was the only flat area along the deep, protected harbor on Elliott Bay. The following year Henry Yesler began operating a steam sawmill near where Yesler Way and First Avenue South intersect today. Logs from the wooded hillsides were skidded down to Yesler's sawmill and wharf. Business activity grew up near the mill, primarily along Commercial Street (now First Avenue South).

On June 6, 1889, fire destroyed 25 blocks of mostly wood buildings in the City's central core. Fortunately, the great fire occurred at a time when the local economy was strong, therefore rebuilding began almost immediately. Determined not to be vulnerable to another blaze, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance that required buildings to be constructed of fire-resistant brick and stone. Because much of the city had been built on boggy, marshy ground, the area was filled, street levels were raised, and the area now known as Seattle's underground was created.

The architectural styles for the rebuilt district were modeled after the then popular Richardsonian Romanesque buildings in Chicago and on the East Coast. Characteristics of this style include a heavy masonry base, use of the Roman arch, and varied architectural details on each floor. The brief reconstruction period (almost the entire are was rebuilt within two years), and the fact that only a handful of architects designed most of the buildings resulted in a remarkably harmonious architectural character.

Pioneer Square hit its heyday during the Alaska Gold Rush, which started in July, 1897. Unfortunately, this period of prosperity was short lived as the district began a rapid and steady decline soon after the turn of the century when the business district began to move northward along Second Avenue. Pioneer Square became a honky-tonk district of taverns, entertainment houses and bawdy hotels. This relatively seedy atmosphere characterized Pioneer Square up until the 1970s. Faced with virtually no pressure for redevelopment, the district's remarkable stand of turn-of-the-century buildings remained.

By the 1960s a City plan called for the construction of a ring road around the downtown that would have required razing many of the district's historic buildings. At about this time, visionary architect Ralph Anderson moved his office to Pioneer Square and began to restore buildings in the neighborhood. Esteemed architect and professor of architecture and historic preservation Victor Steinbrueck conducted an inventory of the area's buildings, which documented a collection of architecturally significant structures from the Richardsonian Romansque period unparalleled across the nation. Due to this important work, citizens, preservationists, and City officials came to recognize the historic significance and commercial potential of the district.

In 1970, through the efforts of a solid grass-roots movement, Pioneer Square was designated a national historic district, and in May of that same year, established as Seattle's first preservation district. A special review board, the Pioneer Square Preservation Board, was created and guidelines were developed to preserve the area's architectural and historic character and to assure sensitive restoration of buildings for economically viable purposes.

In 1973, a larger area was set aside to protect Pioneer Square from traffic and development pressures associated with the Kingdome (now demolished and being replaced with a new football/soccer stadium). In 1987 the district boundaries were increased again, so that the district currently encompasses approximately 88 acres.

Pioneer Square Preservation Board

2015 Agendas and Minutes

2015 Meeting Schedule

January 7, 2015 | Agenda | Minutes

January 21, 2015 | Agenda | Minutes

February 4, 2015 | Agenda | Minutes

February 18, 2015 | Agenda | Minutes

March 4, 2015 | Agenda | Minutes

March 18, 2015 | Agenda | Minutes

April 1, 2015 | Agenda | Minutes

April 15, 2015 | Agenda | Minutes

April 22, 2015 |  Agenda | Work Session

May 6, 2015 | Agenda | Minutes

May 13, 2015 ARC | Agenda

May 20, 2015 | Agenda | Minutes

June 3, 2015 | Agenda | Minutes

June 17, 2015 | Agenda | Minutes

July 1, 2015 | Agenda | Minutes

July 8 2015 Rescheduled Meeting |ARC | Minutes

July 15, 2015 | Agenda | Minutes

August 5, 2015 | Agenda | Minutes

August 19, 2015 | Agenda | Minutes

September 2, 2015 | Agenda | Minutes

September 16, 2015 | Agenda |

October 7, 2015 | Agenda |

October 8, 2015 | Agenda | Work Session

» Pioneer Square Preservation Board Agendas and Minutes prior to 2015

District Boundary Map

Pioneer Square Historical District map

Making Changes in the District

Pioneer Square Preservation District
Making Changes to a building in the Pioneer Square Preservation District

What must be reviewed and approved by the Board?

The following changes require a Certificate of Approval to be issued by the Board and the Director of the Department of Neighborhoods before the City will issue any permits:

  • Any change to the outside of any building or structure.
  • Installation of any new sign or change to any existing sign.
  • Installation of a new awning or canopy.
  • Any change to an interior that affects the exterior.
  • New addition, construction, and/or remodel.
  • Proposed new principal use of any structure, or space and any change of use after initial approval.
  • Any change in a public right-of-way or other public spaces, including parks and sidewalks.
  • Demolition of any building or structure.
  • Exterior painting

The Board must determine that the alterations are consistent with Seattle Municipal Code for Pioneer Square, District Rules and the Secretary of Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation in order to issue the Certificate of Approval. 

Application for Certificate of Approval

To apply for a Certificate of Approval, please follow the instructions on this form:

District Guidelines, Ordinance, and Standards

National Register Nomination

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What does being in the Pioneer Square Preservation District mean to business owners like me?

In contrast to the high-rise buildings and streets in other downtown districts, Pioneer Square is characterized by lower brick and stone buildings, tree-lined streets and avenues, cobblestone parks, and diverse street-level retail establishments and restaurants, all contributing to the neighborhood's warm and intimate feel. Pioneer Square exists as we find it today through the efforts of visionary architects, community leaders, and City officials who, in the late 1960s and 1970s fought to save the historic buildings from eminent demolition in the name of urban renewal. During that period, several beloved buildings were destroyed, prompting the grassroots movement that created Pioneer Square as Seattle's first preservation district. Today, property and business owners benefit from the tourists and shoppers attracted to Pioneer Square by the neighborhood's historic and architectural character. This unique character is protected through the Pioneer Square Preservation Board's implementation of use and design guidelines that were established to preserve the district's special appeal.

2. What kinds of changes require approval?

Any new business or service must be reviewed and approved by the Pioneer Square Preservation Board and Department of Neighborhoods Director before any other permits will be issued by the City. Any of the following changes in the appearance of a building also must be approved: any change to exterior of any structure, a new sign or a change to an existing sign, new construction, demolition of any structure, and any change in the public rights-of-way including public spaces such as parks and sidewalks. See the Rules for the Pioneer Square Preservation District for detailed design guidance.

3. I want to put up a new sign. What requirements must it meet?

The Pioneer Square Preservation Board has enacted guidelines to ensure that the architectural character of the district is not loss through undue proliferation of signs, that signs do not impede visibility into and out of street-level businesses, and that signs are installed in a manner that does not damage historic building fabric. The Rules for the Pioneer Square Preservation District outline requirements for all signage visible from building exteriors. If you plan to add or alter a sign in Pioneer Square, please contact the Department of Neighborhood's Historic Preservation Program as early as possible so we can explain the review and approval process and recommend next steps. You can reach us at (206) 684-0227.

4. How do I get approval to make a change in the appearance of the exterior of my building?

Before making make any change to the exterior of a structure in the district, the Department of Neighborhood's Historic Preservation Program as early as possible so we can explain the review and approval process and recommend next steps. To get your project reviewed and approved by the Pioneer Square Preservation Board, you need to submit an application for Certificate of Approval. (See Instructions for Applying for a Certificate of Approval in the Pioneer Square Preservation District.) If your proposal includes design changes, you will be asked to present your application to the Architectural Review Committee before presenting your plans to the full Pioneer Square Preservation Board. The Architectural Review Committee will help you sort out any unresolved issues regarding your proposal and will make a recommendation to the full Board. Environmental review is generally required for large projects and usually consists of review of an environmental checklist. Upon approval of your proposal, the Board recommends that a Certificate of Approval be authorized by the Director of the Department of Neighborhoods.

5. What is the Pioneer Square Preservation Board and how does it make decisions?

The Board reviews applications for Certificates of Approval for changes of use and exterior architectural alterations in the district and recommends approval, approval with conditions, or denial to the Director of the Department of Neighborhoods, who makes final decisions concerning applications. The Board may also make recommendations to the Mayor, the City Council, and any public or private agencies concerning land use and social issues in the District.The Board bases its decisions on the standards established in the District Ordinance (SMC 23.66), Rules for the Pioneer Square Preservation District and the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation. Contact the Department of Neigborhood's Historic Preservation Program at (206) 684-0227 for a paper copy of these documents.

6. Who is on the Pioneer Square Preservation Board?

The Board consists of nine members appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by Seattle City Council. Each member fills a specific position on the Board, representing property owners, retail business owners, human services providers, architects, historians, attorneys, and one at-large representative. At least one Board member must be a resident of Pioneer Square.

7. When is the next District Board meeting?

The Board meets on the first and third Wednesday of each month starting at 9:00 a.m.. Architectural Review Committee meetings are held on an as-needed basis, usually one week prior to the full Board meeting, also starting at 9:00 a.m. Once an applicant has submitted a complete application, the Pioneer Square Preservation Board Coordinator schedules specific times for applicants to present their proposals to the full Board and Architectural Review Committee as necessary. All meetings are open to the public.