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Seattle Public Utilities Vault Preserves City’s Infrastructure History

On the 47th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower lies a treasure trove of history, but it’s not what one might expect. It’s the Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) Engineering Records Center, known as the “Vault.” Under the charge of Supervisor Geoffrey Brown and his team of experts, the Vault is more than just a repository. It serves as a living chronicle and an invaluable resource for the vital infrastructure that supports Seattle’s communities.

Man standing at desk with large document.
Seattle Public Utilities Engineering Records Center supervisor Geoffrey Brown.

“Our purpose is to archive engineering records that represent the utilities and roadways in use by the public,” says Brown. These records include original documents detailing the placement of neighborhoods, pipes, bridges, and pump stations, and myriad other details. “Researchers can metaphorically pull the slider back through time to see the evolution of our city’s infrastructure,” he adds.

The Vault’s origins trace back to the beginnings of the Seattle Engineering Department in 1873, and the creation of SPU. At that time services such as Drainage and Wastewater, Transportation, and Solid Waste, fell under the Engineering Department, while Drinking Water constituted the Water Department. In 1997, the two departments unified to create Seattle Public Utilities and the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT). Consequently, a need was identified to have a dedicated space for safeguarding and consolidating over a century’s worth of crucial engineering records.

“We have original drawings for projects like the Cedar River Pipeline’s wood stave pipes, the Volunteer Park water tower, the Denny Regrades, the West Seattle Bridge, and the Madison Bus Rapid Transit project,” Brown says, highlighting the significance of the thousands of artefacts in the Vault.

Drawn engineering schematic.
1983 Exterior of the Volunteer Park Standpipe.

Among the notable collections are the “Street Grade Profiles,” which document the original steepness of Seattle’s hillsides from the late 1800s and 1900s, and their subsequent changes. “These beautiful old hand-drawn, linen-backed scrolls range from two to 125 feet in length,” Brown says. “They contain enough data to reconstruct Seattle’s hills to their original grade, making them a pride of the Vault.”

Drawn diagram of a street.
1902 Yesler Way Street Grade Profile.

Brown, along with fellow “Vaultarians” Sandra Youssef, Jennafer Prongos, and Dean Huber, works to make these documents accessible. “In July 2022, we launched Seattle Digital Infrastructure Records (SeaDIR), a digital platform that allows public access to our digitized records from home,” Brown explains. The database boasts over 410,000 scanned artifacts and has more than 1,335 users.

Group of people smiling standing at a table with engineering records.
Seattle Public Utilities’ “Vaultarians” Geoffrey Brown, Sandra Youssef, Jennafer Prongos, and Dean Huber.

The Vault’s clientele varies from SPU engineering survey teams to private homeowners and engineering students, presenting a range of unique challenges. Brown recalled retrieving 28 boxes of original documents during the 2020 West Seattle Bridge shutdown, aiding repair efforts in collaboration with SDOT engineers and City Attorney’s office representatives. “We’re not directly on the front lines, but our information enables front line staff to do their work,” he elaborates.

“When the Mercer Island Pipeline sprung a leak that same year, I received a call at home from an engineering supervisor seeking pipe drawings to find where the leak could be,” Brown remembers. “I didn’t own a car at the time, so I hopped on my bike and rode to the Vault as quickly as possible to scan a 70-year-old blueprint!”

Engineering schematic of a bridge.
Cover of the 1980 West Seattle Freeway Bridge Replacement plans.

This customer service and openness is what sets the SPU Vault apart. “We’re one of the only public utilities in the nation that treats records this way,” said Brown. “We welcome anyone interested in our work to visit us at the Vault and register on SeaDIR.”

The Vault is open to the public Monday through Thursday from 8:00 A.M. to 3:30 P.M. on the 47th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower. For more information and for SeaDIR access, visit the SPU Vault website.