OK Hotel offers shades of Seattle's musical past

Road Journals Blog—When I travel, especially in cities, I'm always searching for echoes of the past. That's what I call the small things—the shadow of a vintage ad, for example, painted on an old brick wall—that give you a feel for how a place once was.

Sometimes the echoes are hard to hear, and Seattle's OK Hotel is a case in point.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct still towers over the neighborhood ... for now. | Matthew Berggren/Flickr

I recently was in Seattle to report for VIA on how the city has changed in the 20 years since the grunge anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit" debuted on April 17, 1991, at the Pioneer Square venue. I'd already watched a grainy, amateur video of the song's first public performance by Kurt Cobain and his two Nirvana bandmates (see below), and I wanted to see for myself where this momentous event in the histories of both Seattle and rock music had taken place.

Standing in front of what used to be the OK Hotel, I was hard-pressed to hear an echo of the past.  Though the 1917 brick building has a rich history, including as a scruffy performance venue beginning in 1988, it closed in 2001 when it and many other Pioneer Square structures were damaged during the Nisqually earthquake. Since then, the once-funky building—originally a workingman's hotel—has been totally renovated. Today it's a good-looking apartment building with nice art and free Wi-Fi in the lobby.

The noisy, grimy two-level Alaskan Way Viaduct that looms over the OK Hotel, and that for years has walled off the neighborhood from the waterfront, may soon be a thing of the past. The southern mile of the elevated highway, south of Pioneer Square, is now being razed, and the rest of it will eventually come down. Voters have approved a tunnel to replace the viaduct, but in the ever-contentious world of Seattle urban planning it's not yet a done deal.

Was I disappointed to not hear a faint echo of what it must have been like at the OK Hotel 20 years earlier, when Cobain launched into "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and the room erupted into a sweaty frenzy of jumping, dancing, and moshing fans? Sure, I guess so. But I also know that no city can survive unless it evolves, and Seattle certainly is doing that with style.

Christopher Hall wrote the cover story on Seattle for VIA's May/June 2011 issue.

This blog post was first published in May 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.