When old buildings start changing ownership frequently, I start getting nervous. Seattle’s 1914 Smith Tower has been flipping a lot lately if you ask me, considering its age and its historical value. Certainly the building will not be torn down, nor do I believe that its observation deck will ever be closed — the view is too much of a civic treasure — but you never know, you just never know. And since I had never been up to that vantage point despite growing up across the lake and living in Seattle for most of my adult life, the observation deck has been on my “local adventures” list for several years.
For a while in my lifetime Seattle’s first skyscraper was owned by Seattle’s first clam chowder magnate, Ivar Haglund, who bought it for 1.8 million clams in 1976. Ivar is long gone, but I remember a fish-shaped windsock fluttering from the tower’s pinnacle in those days. Sometimes you still hear someone call it “Ivar’s Tower”.
The Samis Foundation bought it in 1996. Sam Israel, from whose name the foundation takes its own, is a story in himself, maybe for another time. Walton Street Capital bought Smith Tower in 2006, and because economic hard times have created a low occupancy rate for the old spire in recent years, Walton Street has recently talked about turning the whole thing into condominiums, and then more recently (I’m not quite certain of my facts here) of turning just the twelve floors of the tower below the famous Chinese Room into condominiums and leaving the rest as office space.
For years, every time I’ve looked up near the corner of Yesler and Second I’ve thought “I’ll hate myself if I wait so long that I lose my opportunity”. I mentioned this to my boss Michael last fall while we were out walking during lunch. He said it sounded like a good field trip for the development team, on the company’s nickel. Every once in a while the engineers get out of the building as a group and do something fun. We took the Seattle Underground Tour a few years back.
At the time Michael suggested the tower field trip, the observation deck had just closed for the winter (you could still visit it on weekends, but not weekdays), so I put a note in my Outlook Calendar and when April came I scheduled the trip. Click each photo to enlarge it.
Above is a photo I almost forgot to take because I was so enthralled by the 360-degree views. I really am fortunate to work with this crew. A little stiff in social situations, but they’re smart and funny. This is a good picture of them getting a collective rare dose of vitamin D.
The Hoge Building is one of my favorites. Lyman Cornelius Smith, of guns and typewriter manufacturing fame, and John D. Hoge built their buildings at roughly the same time (the Hoge Bldg went up first, in 1911) and I once heard a story to the effect that they had come to an agreement about how high each would be, but then Mr. Smith had the “tower” portion of his building added to his design on the huggermugger. Needless to say, Mr. Hoge was not amused. Or maybe he was. That’s how developers were in Seattle back then. As Herodotus was wont to disclaim, I don’t know if that story is true.
On a clear night, you might be able to see your friend flashing signals to you from the observation deck of the Space Needle. I don’t know. You could try it. The above view also shows two very recent edifices erected in the downtown, both on the west (left here) side of Second. The carpets in the WaMu Center, which was designed to house the overflow of personnel from Washington Mutual Bank’s nearby WaMu Tower, had barely finished offgassing before our favorite local lender folded up, and the building is now called the Russell Investments Center. Here it stands behind a building that is boringly named for its cross streets but that locals call the Ban Roll-On Building. Behind WaMu’s folly is a new one whose name is its address (yawn), the Fifteen Twenty-One Second Avenue Bldg. It is topped by the permanent crane that you see in action here, maybe for lowering the window washing scaffold.
The image above is of one of several buildings named after one of Seattle’s early movers and shakers. Movers and shakers could be a pun, I guess, because ol’ Hank moved a lot of timber and sold a lot of shakes for roofing the housing boom that the presence of his mill generated. I don’t know anything about the building. I just like it. It’s triangular and I like triangular buildings because triangular buildings mean odd-angled streets, and odd-angled streets mean interesting vistas for the pedestrian. And it’s all about the pedestrian. Or it should be. The street to the right of the Yesler Building is Yesler Way. It was the road that logging crews used to “skid” timber from the forested hills behind Seattle down to Henry Yesler’s mill on the waterfront. It became the infamous “Skid Road” celebrated in the classic 1951 book of the same name by Murray Morgan, which you should read no matter who you are or where you live. Today’s phrase “skid row” is derived from that name.
Let’s swing a little further south. The view above is looking southeast toward Beacon Hill. The Second Avenue Extension is the street approaching in the immediate foreground (receding, I should say, since it’s one-way south). Smith Tower sits at the junction between the street grid laid out by Doc Maynard, who sensibly oriented his streets on north-south and east-west axes, and the street grid laid out by Denny and Boren, who followed the angle of Elliott Bay. The main downtown streets, therefore, met at kinky, inconvenient angles. Doc Maynard was just a sweetie who ended up giving away (or losing) most of his property in an effort to pursuade visitors to settle here, while the latter men were powerful businessmen who managed to attract more commerce to their own neighborhoods. Evenually, Maynard’s old turf fell largely into disrepair and neglect, which made it easy for city leaders to bulldoze this extension of Second Avenue, linking it to Fourth Avenue at the angle (center) and meanwhile creating a whole ‘nuther slew of truncated angular buildings. I remember when most of these had watertowers on them, and if you click on the image and look closely you can still see the platforms for several of them.
King Street Station is here, of course, with its clock tower, and Union Station to the left of it across Fourth. Did you know that there were two stations because each railroad that came to town had to build its own infrastructure? I was surprised when I learned about that. It explains that spaghetti of rails in separate railyards south of downtown, which you can’t see in this view. What you can see here is the tracks disappearing under Washington Street in the lower left corner of the image as they enter the south entrance of the tunnel underneath the city. They emerge along the waterfront below the Pike Place Market (see “Two Pigeons”, the second photo here).
One final delight meets me as I study this view. There’s a green bridge visible in the far upper left of the photo. You can barely see it. Look for the yellowish Bush Hotel in Chinatown and follow the left edge of that building directly upwards in the image, and you’ll see where a wide street heads down curvingly from Beacon Hill right in front of the old hospital that Jeff once said looked like a Turkish fortress. That descending street becomes Twelfth Avenue. There’s a newer, more visible bridge crossing all the freeway ramps and there’s a harder-to-see one to the left, a dark green arched affair. See it? When I was a kid, Interstate 90 didn’t connect to I-5 as you see it doing here; it petered out just over the ridge in the Rainier Valley and came to a stoplight. You ended up on Dearborn, and Dearborn brought you the last mile into town beneath that old green bridge. You look at that bridge and you imagine that the first time a road traversed that stretch was when the bridge was built there. A reasonable assumption, but it’s not the case. Before there was a gap there for the Twelfth Avenue bridge to cross, the ridge continued across there from Beacon Hill.
That northern piece of the hill was a wall that isolated the city, and back when the industrious folk who made Seattle the success it is thought nothing of moving entire mountains if they were inconveniently located, they blasted through the ridge and created the gap that Dearborn now passes through and that Twelfth Avenue now must traverse by bridge.
Just thought you’d like to know.
I took plenty more photos, but that’s enough of a city-tour for today. What do you see here that sparks any memories for you?