Seattle’s historic Labor Temple is a symbol of solidarity

Belltown’s aromatic union hall has been a gathering spot and a home for workers since 1942.

DESPITE WHAT WILL be revealed herein as a rather obvious need, there is no such thing as a National Register of Historic Odors. But if there were, the politically charged air inside Seattle’s Labor Temple would be on it.

Not that this is the only historical cachet of the building that has long served as the home of Seattle’s historically defiant labor movement. The temple’s place on Seattle’s landmarks registry was ensured by the building’s brick exterior, brightened by that trademark red-neon sign, by its marble hallways and main meeting hall, perhaps even by the dark wood bar in the basement imbibery semi-affectionately known to regulars as “The Pit.”

But what really makes the throwback building at the corner of Clay Street and First Avenue unique is the air. Or to be more blunt, the infamous smell of the place — a curious miscegenation of old funk and new possibilities.

Many a union loyalist — most of whom approach this in good humor, but woe be the outsider who casts haughty aspersions — has taken a stab at describing the eau de Labor, which to this observer contains essences of disinfectant, cracking Naugahyde, mahogany and … other stuff.

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“It smells like a combination of a faint vestige of ancient cigarette smoke, Lysol, old carpet, guys and then a strange smell of something smoldering,” says one local labor leader, who asked that her name be withheld because she is not authorized to describe smells seven decades-plus in the making.

Close. But short by a few cigars.

“The hallways have a certain smell. They just do,” acknowledges longtime labor leader Steve Williamson, who plied the halls for years as executive director of the M.L. King County Labor Council. “It’s part like you’re going back to first grade, part old government…

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