Exterior image of hotel, space needle and air intake for tunnel visible in background

In Seattle, a 1960s Roadside Motel Gets a 21st-Century Update

At the Civic Hotel, architecture firm Wittman Estes adapts jet-age lodgings for a new generation of traveller, while holding on to some mid-century aesthetics.

Capitalizing on the surge of road trippers whizzing across America after World War II, Seattle’s Imperial 400 Motel was part of a nationwide chain that established hundreds of roadside motels in the 1960s. Designed to welcome car traffic when it opened in 1962—particularly visitors coming to Seattle for the Century 21 Exposition, which was the Space Needle’s raison d’être—the Imperial 400 turned inward over the years with a series of additions intended to buffer ever-increasing road noise. Now the hotel has reopened with an updated design by local firm Wittman Estes, and a new name: the Civic Hotel.

Located at the entrance to the recently opened State Route 99 tunnel, a major infrastructure project, which shifted traffic away from the now-demolished elevated viaduct along Seattle’s 

waterfront, the Civic Hotel took advantage of the reduced noise level with the redesign. “We wanted it to be an anchor in the neighborhood,” says Neha Nariya, who owns the hotel with her father, Vrajlal Nariya. “We’re right at the ‘hello/goodbye’ corner with the tunnel’s yellow ventilation stacks behind us.”

Capturing this ethos of arrival and departure, Wittman Estes’ jet-city design concept improvises on the building’s midcentury origins. The firm wanted to honor the hotel’s historic roots, but without building a period piece, says architect Matt Wittman. 

Hotel lobby interior
Matt Wittman, founding principal of Wittman Estes, says craft and tactile elements were crucial for creating a design that was inspired by the midcentury era, but not trapped in amber. He cites the glassed-in stairway and the reception desk (opposite), which was made of plywood by Sparrow Woodworks, as examples that welcome and engage visitors.

Stripping away layers of accretions, the light, bright revamped lobby centers on a new feature stairway, with glass railings allowing jetliner views out onto an expansive new ipe deck overlooking the streetscape below. “We were thinking  outwardly, at the city scale,” says Wittman. “Focusing on the new terrace helped build external connections, making the building more transparent and flexible.”

The 52 guest rooms have also been updated, with new custom plywood furniture that prioritizes durability. “Beauty without practicality is just a waste,” says Neha Nariya, conveying the Modernist spirit driving the design. Outside, a new neon sign caps the hotel, injecting a dash of retro-futurism that still manages to feel iconic.

Ultimately, Wittman and Neha Nariya embraced the building’s midcentury bones. “This era of building is easier to adapt for future use,” explains Wittman. “You can preserve the frame, while allowing nature, human use, and function to evolve the infill over time.” 

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