You relax in an oak chair, taking in the Corinthian columns and Alaskan marble. An attendant asks if you would like to purchase a cigar then proceeds to shine your shoes. You relax, refresh and head out to face the rest of your day.
This doesn’t sound much like your typical public restroom.
Today, the term public restroom evokes images of cramped stalls, cold steel, sullied surfaces, unpleasant smells and concrete floors littered with toilet paper — a place to flee as soon as possible or avoid altogether.
But in 1909, when Seattle’s lavish underground bathroom opened beneath Pioneer Square, public perception of public restrooms, then called “comfort stations,” was much more favorable than it is today.
“The man of travels will find nowhere in the Eastern hemisphere a sub-surface public comfort station equal in character to that which has recently been completed in the downtown district of Seattle; and in the United States there are very few that will be found equal to it,” read a 1910 magazine article in The Pacific Builder and Engineer.
The pergola still standing on First Avenue and Yesler Way, which was renovated in 1972 and again in 2002 after a truck crashed into it, is a remnant of the underground restrooms. It was part of an integrated design by Julian Everett to shelter two descending stairways and ventilate the restrooms via hollow columns.
Separate anterooms for men and women, where users were greeted by attendants, featured armchairs, terrazzo floors, brass foot rests,
toiletries and cigars. A shoe shine cost 10 cents; an individual towel and soap, 2 cents. The facility offered both paid and free toilets, 47 in all, and typically served 5,000 people per day.
For a moment in history, it was believed to be the world’s most luxurious underground toilet.
Initially, public restrooms in the United States were created to curb growing concern over sanitation and disease in overcrowded urban areas following the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century. By the early, 20th century, public restrooms had become common.
But as more and more building codes required businesses to include indoor restrooms, and as roads and transportation expanded, urban public facilities began declining.
“Suddenly all your restrooms were on highways,” said Carol McCreary, co-founder of the Portland group Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human.
The Pioneer Square underground restroom closed in the ’50s, and by the ’70s and ’80s, public restrooms were shutting down in droves and becoming targets for vandalism and illegal activity.
According to a report by Relief Works, a Portland group that conducted an extensive study in 2006 of Portland’s public restrooms, perception began shifting to “dangerous and unhygienic.”
Cities have often struggled with the best approach for providing public restrooms. A recent trend has been automated public toilets. Seattle installed five self-cleaning toilets in 2004, a move that went sour when they became hot spots for drug use and prostitution, and the city resorted to selling them on eBay. Now, Seattle is preparing for a $90,000 Portland Loo for Pioneer Square. If the city goes through with it, users can bet they won’t be getting cigars or shoe-shines while they wait.