So Ominous, So Alluring

Whats up with the ZymoGenetics building?

The smokestacks poke the horizon over Eastlake Avenue, rising above tall green windows encased in a stoic, stone-colored brick foundation. In front of the hulking edifice is a sleek silver sign: ZymoGenetics. Probably not a toy factory.

This building looks like the headquarters of a Bond villain, the kind of place where a nosy journalist would disappear from a tour for asking too many questions. Light struggles to penetrate the massive, foreboding windows, while those six suspicious smokestacks tower above, concealing missiles aimed at strategic targets in Pyongyang or Portland (so long, Pok Pok!). One imagines Men in Black surrounding the building and watching awestruck as it transforms into a spaceship and blasts off into space.

No upstanding company uses the letter Z in its name (you heard me, Zillow). What are you doing in there, ZymoGenetics? According to PR materials, ZymoGenetics, “a subsidiary of Bristol-Meyers Squibb,” makes “therapeutic proteins.” But don’t get the idea that ZymoGenetics is a one-protein company. They also manufacture “microbial and mammalian based proteins to support toxicology studies and early-stage clinical trials.”

Over the course of two months, I emailed several requests for a tour of Zymo-G that went unanswered. Finally, in mid-June, I received a response from Bristol-Myers Squibb’s director of Corporate Communications & Community Affairs, Frederick J. Egenolf:


Thank you for your interest in the art collection at Bristol-Myers Squibb’s ZymoGenetics R&D subsidiary. Company policy requires all media to be escorted by Public Affairs. Since we do not have a Public Affairs representative in Seattle and this request is unrelated to our core business, we are unable to fulfill your request for a tour.


ZymoGenetics is a prominent biotech company that appears to engage in various positive activities, including the development of drugs for cancer, autoimmune diseases and viral infections. Their innovative work on hepatitis C was central to their acquisition by Bristol-Meyers Squibb in 2010. But still.

There’s not much to learn by Fox Mulder-ing around the building at one in the morning. Through the cracks between shades drawn over opaque windows, sinister details are visible: white lab coats, metal trays, beakers, syringes, a detergent called Tergazyme. One office contains some sort of trophy (“Most Unholy Genetic Modification 2012”?).

Around back, a hidden pier with a floating sidewalk stretches underneath Fairview Avenue, its entrance secured by a metal gate and barbed wire. Kayaks and paddles and life preservers wait on the pier, but none appear used. This must be where ZymoGenetics doses the Seattle water supply and/or surreptitiously exits the building under the cover of darkness. As I peered into darkened windows, snapping pictures and eyeing the lone security guard, I realized I was the one being creepy.

Turns out ZymoGenetics has not existed since the dawn of time as a temple to an ancient alien civilization. Rather, its history begins in 1912, when Seattle City Light built a small hydro house, called the Power House, on the southeast shore of Lake Union. Turning its turbines with water piped by gravity down from Volunteer Park, it served an immediate power need while plans for a larger, adjacent steam plant were finalized. That steam plant is now ZymoGenetics.

Starting in 1914, the building was constructed in three phases and generated electricity for the city for more than half a century. In 1987, after years of disuse, it was decommissioned. Not surprisingly, developers wanted to convert the old steam plant into condominiums, but that plan fell through. ZymoGenetics purchased the complex in 1993 and has allegedly been producing proteins ever since.

The adjacent hydro house is now Irwin’s Cafe. They produce sandwiches.

Both buildings were designed by Daniel Huntington, Seattle city architect from 1911 to 1925, who’s also responsible for the Tuscany Apartments on First Hill, the Fremont Library and the DAR Rainier Chapter House on Capitol Hill. It was not originally intended to raise the hair on the back of my neck; instead, like Walter Gropius’ iconic Fagus Factory in Germany, the steam plant was a testament to the technological idealism of the early 1900s. Today you and I rely on new smartphone features to give us that reassurance.

Once I knocked on the front door, not in a Michael Moore way, but as a friendly neighbor, though I was prepared to dash past company henchmen and into the heart of truth. Instead, the receptionist inside handed me a business card with an email address and sent me on my way. As I walked back to my car, I could feel the eyes of a sniper watching me, waiting for permission to take the shot. “Let him go,” a middle-management guy probably said as he tracked me on a closed-circuit screen deep inside the building’s 11th underground level. “Keep me informed if he shows up again.”

I recently discovered that a company across from ZymoGenetics offers seaplane tours. Perhaps with a bribe, a parachute and some luck, I can get real answers. Tell my mom and dad I love them.

Photo by Dan Paulus