Of Eagles and Terra Cotta

Seeking eagles in the urban wild

Last week I posted an image of a rather fierce-looking eagle and asked for people to identify where it is. A few responded with some good ideas. The correct answer is the Camlin Hotel (1619 9th Ave.), built in 1926, and the filming location for The Baker Boys. The eagle isn’t the lone ornamentation. Joining her are an old man blowing wind (Aeolius?), lions, and a rather flexible fellow with splendid ears.

The Camlin eagle is by no means the lone eagle downtown. On a recent birding trip to Seattle’s central business district, I counted 118 eagles, including 2 griffins. Two carry the sun, many are abstract, several seem ready to soar, others to attack. Most possess formidable beaks and talons (as if that’s all that’s needed to convey eagleness), whereas one looks a bit guilty.

Nearly all of the urban eagle are molded terra cotta, a widely used building material in the city from the 1900s to 1940s. The reasons were several fold. It was cheaper and lighter than stone, easier to fashion into any desired shape, and fire proof. Plus, clay, its main ingredient, was easy to obtain, primarily by quarrying the city’s hillsides of beds deposited during the previous ice age. These clay layers are also why so many buildings and roads in King County were built with brick. (I plan to eventually write more about brick and terra cotta, so you’ll just have to wait for additional information.)

The most aquiliferous building—with 33 eagles—has a direct connections to the birds. Built in 1925 for the Fraternal Order of Eagles as their Aerie No. 1, the building features a rare full, three-dimensional eagle made out of terra cotta. (The Eagles started here as the “Seattle Order of Good Things.”) The single cast bird has been described as “an unprecedented achievement at the time.”

Dignified, elegant, graceful, majestic, and powerful, bald eagles represent attributes that many people stride toward. I think this is why they appear regularly on buildings; the owners saw the eagles as an advertisement, a shorthand way to convey a simple message: “We who work in this building possess the traits you admire in our national symbol.” Or so they hope we’ll think.

We in Seattle and this region can also experience live bald eagles. During the annual Christmas bird count, birders regularly find more than 50 balds in the city, illustrating a direct connection between us and them. Bald eagles may be impressively resilient but they also needed us to acknowledge our impacts. The rise in their population corresponded directly with the ban on DDT, rules to protect them, and restrictions on harmful industrial practices, such as pulp mills. With respect and honor, we can live together.

I remember my first bald in Seattle; my wife and I were walking around Green Lake, about a mile from our house, the morning of our first Thanksgiving living here, when one flapped over the water carrying a stick. It seemed a good omen for our choice to return to my hometown after being gone for 15 years. I subsequently located the nest and regularly stopped by as a pair of eagles gave birth, hunted in the lake, brought fish back to the nest, watched as one fish flopped out and fell 80 feet to the ground where crows instantly found it, and successfully launched their youngster. I detail this time in my book The Seattle Street Smart Naturalist. I have continued to be blessed by their presence and recently, the Green Lake eagles have found the tall Douglas firs surrounding our house; few more pleasant ways exist to awake than from an eagle’s early morning call.

Whether hunting over the water, being harassed by crows, or gazing out from a perch, the bald eagles of Seattle are a grace note in the urban world. And, if I can’t see those wild apparitions, then at least I can head downtown and enjoy their terra cotta cousins.

Upcoming virtual talks.

Feb 8 - 6pm - An exploration of Seattle’s Historic Shoreline, a benefit for Feet First.

Feb 11 - 6pm - An introduction to Seattle geology and the built environment, in cooperation with the Seattle Architecture Foundation and AIA Seattle.

Below is the photo that I’ll discuss in my next newsletter. Although superficially dull looking, this streambank contains evidence of two epic PNW geologic events: an eruption of Mt. Rainier 1,100 years ago and an earthquake that thrust the ground up 20 feet. Where is it?