Joyce Irish has seen a lot of things get built in her lifetime in Seattle. She’s also outlived a good number of them, including the first SR 520 floating bridge and the Kingdome. But the rapid change in the city where she has lived for most of her life is perhaps most uniquely illustrated by the Spheres going up on Amazon’s downtown campus.
Irish, 97, was born in Seattle in 1920, had not been downtown in 10 years, and health problems had kept her close to her Shoreline, Wash., senior living facility for 15 months. But the avid reader and consumer of daily news was well aware of the Spheres — the three glass-enclosed domes that will serve as a plant-filled perk for employees of the tech giant — and she really wanted to see them in person.
“I’ve read everything they’ve had in the paper about the thing. I just thought it was unique,” Irish told GeekWire. “I’ve just always followed construction work — it fascinates me.”
That fascination came from watching and hearing about the work of her husband, Marvin, a longtime iron worker who had a hand in such projects as Washington’s Grand Coulee Dam, which was completed in 1942. Along the way he worked on the Monorail and marveled at the rise of the Space Needle. He changed lights atop the TV towers on Queen Anne and helped construct giant sliding doors at the Boeing plant.
The couple was married for 57 years, until Marvin passed away in 1996 at the age of 76. They had two children and three grandchildren. One of those grandkids, Brian Thompson, is extra close to his grandmother and is the reason her desire to see the Spheres in person turned into much more.
“She’s just never felt like an old person to me,” Thompson said about his mother’s mother. “My grandma was always up to speed, in tune with what’s going on. She can have a conversation about any viable topic you want to get into. She’s very opinionated.”
Thompson, 52, owns Seattle Printworks, a print shop on 9th Avenue North just a few blocks from the Spheres, and he’s watched Amazon “just kind of blow up” around his business, like many in the South Lake Union neighborhood.
Thompson, who tries to talk to his grandmother every day and sees her about twice a week, fondly recalls spending time with his grandparents as a kid and learning the value of hard work. He was always impressed by the impeccable condition of their house and yard. Thompson said Marvin Irish would come home every night and discuss his day with his wife. And Joyce has missed that conversation, Thompson said, and learning about unique jobs and job sites, since her husband passed away.
“She has an interest in how things are built,” Thompson said, adding that his grandmother could tell someone how the Aurora Bridge, over Seattle’s Lake Union, went up in the early 1930s.
That enthusiasm for having witnessed the construction of iconic structures is tempered just a little bit when it comes to growing and changing Seattle.
“I don’t like the way they have taken down a lot of things — that’s history,” Irish said. “I like to keep a little of the past.”
But Thompson said Irish kept telling him she really wanted to see the outside of the Spheres, so he got it in his head recently that he would try to get his grandmother access to the site. He wrote to the architect and the construction company without hearing back.
After visiting the site on Lenora Street between 6th and 7th Avenues and “pestering” workers, as he said, someone finally handed him a business card for an Amazon public relations rep. So Thompson set an email.
I have been circling the block of the Amazon Sphere to trying and figure out how to get my 97 year old grandmother inside. She reads about it, in the paper, and that’s all she talks about. In just the last 25 years we have done hot air balloons, snowmobiles, Seaplane rides, etc. I am the grandson and would love to see if you can make this happen.
Clearly impressed by the adventures Thompson and Irish had already undertaken, Amazon replied after a couple weeks and said, “Come on down.”
Irish, who said she used to be downtown all the time 30 years ago to shop the stores “before the malls came in,” was initially surprised to find that the Spheres were in the heart of the city among high rises and not at Seattle Center. She couldn’t believe the height of the Doppler and Day 1 towers that stretched overhead.
Irish and Thompson ended up spending about an hour-and-a-half inside the Spheres on a private tour. Justin Schroeder, an Amazon horticulturalist who serves as program manager for the project, showed them around, and they learned about the exotic plant species that will make a home there. They peered through the high glass panels at blue skies.
“The imagination that people have put into that … It’s just amazing,” Irish said. “I don’t garden, I have too many allergies. But I sure appreciate other people’s efforts.”
Her grandson said being in the domes was simply “outrageous” and he was thankful for the chance to make it happen for a woman who has seemingly seen it all.
“It was fun for me because it’s nice to do something like that, that she couldn’t ever take on by herself,” Thompson said. “It’s something to experience. You can’t describe it, and pictures don’t do it justice.”
Looking at an official Amazon hard hat and construction vest from her visit, now resting on a table at home, Irish reflected on who else might get a kick out of the Spheres. “I look at it and I think, ‘Well, [Marvin] I hope you know about it.”