Above it all

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.

At dusk. The observation deck is just below the pyramidal section. Image by Christopher S Maloney licensed via Creative Commons.

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.

A building a-building. 1913. Image licensed via Wikimedia Commons.

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. 

The steely-eyed missile men I work with. Around the ring starting at the left are Walter, John, Michael, Glen, Kirk and Mike. Chris had wandered off around to the other side at this moment.

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.    

Detail of the Hoge lions. If you click to see more of the image, the building we work in is just visible -- the top of it anyway -- at the top edge of the photo left of center, beyond the old white-capped Post Office building.

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.

Looking north on Second to the Space Needle. Click to search for window washers.

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 Yesler Building at 400 Yesler, named for Henry, whose last name was...say it with me now...

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.

A lot has changed in this view over the years. Looking southeast from Smith Tower.

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.

The ridge before the bridge. If you click to enlarge, you can see the ridge already under attack along what was called Fourteenth Street in 1891. Look for Mikado Street between Lane and Charles. Mikado eventually became Dearborn when the hill was finally removed.

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?

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16 Responses to “Above it all”


  1. 1 Invisible Mikey May 8, 2010 at 07:47

    You put this one together well, and I like the historical photos and variety. I also share your enjoyment of high views. I have to admit that all towers, the Smith, Coit in San Francisco and the lamented World Trade Center just look like big penises to me from the exterior. I’m happy to be a sperm inside one, but don’t like the look from the outside.

    • 2 jstwndrng May 8, 2010 at 19:16

      I’ll have to Google the Coit. That’s not the “pyramid” building, is it? Interesting, your idea of the throngs of workers inside these tumescent shafts being the germ or seed of someone’s future increase, usually not their own, alas.

  2. 4 leatherhead109 May 8, 2010 at 14:24

    Really, really enjoyed this Matt. Especially the photo of those needing sunlight. The pic of the Smith Tower is fantastic. Loved the whole thing.

    • 5 jstwndrng May 8, 2010 at 21:42

      Thanks Ben. Yeah, that’s a pretty good photo of the guys. They’re really an appreciative bunch. They were fascinated by so many aspects of the adventure, it was fun to be with them up there.

  3. 6 Kip May 9, 2010 at 06:02

    I don’t think I’ve been in the Smith Tower either. Another thing I must change! I have heard that to really see ones city, approach it as a tourist. It is sad to think that so many people churn through their daily lives not realizing the history of the very town in which, in some cases, they were born and raised! I am guilty of that. I don’t think I could tell you what to see and where to go in Boise, although I’ve been here 21 years now. May hap it is time to change that!

    • 7 jstwndrng May 9, 2010 at 19:19

      Better get started on that Kipper. We’ll certainly be comin’ to visit sooner or later, and I’ll want to ask you whom the streets are named after. And even if you don’t know, you still probably have plenty of your own personal Boise stories. Here’s mine: You have one of the coolest used bookshops in the west, too, if it’s still there. Parnassus Books. Jeff and I looked in on it when we visited in the late ’90s, and years later I called the lady up and asked if she still had that hardback copy of Paul Bowles’ “Let It Come Down” for $22 and I told her about where in her shop — eye level opposite the front door — she might find it. She told me to hold on a moment, came back to the phone and said “Fortunately for you, and sadly for me, I still have it.”

  4. 8 Ben May 9, 2010 at 09:32

    Several years ago I read an article about a couple that owned or rented the apartment at the top, in the cone. It came with several photos of life in the “Smith” Tower, including one I remember well with the couple dining in the glass bubble at the very pinnacle of the tower. So cool. I don’t think I ‘d like to travel down through the building like that just to get the little bag of hardware for fixing the doorknob that I accidentally left on the seat in the car. (Maybe I’m being ignorant. Do people that live like that have cars on location? Do they need to go to the hardware store?)

    But to have a view like that for dinner! My luck, I’d get vertigo and end up slamming my face into the glass, spilling the escargo and scaring some seagull half out of its wits.

  5. 9 Ben May 9, 2010 at 09:39

    To tell the truth, the view would be nice, but I’d be thinking about fire all the time, and what some ninny might leave on the office hot plate…..End up wandering the entire building at night with a flashlight looking for incipient fires. Ignorance in such a case would be blissful.

  6. 10 jstwndrng May 9, 2010 at 19:28

    Ben, it’s interesting. You may (or may not) be referencing an article in a magazine that I think is called Seattle Home Lifestyles. That article and its photos are displayed on the wall in the Chinese Room, which is just below that famed abode on the 35th floor. The tenant has to ride up to the 35th floor, get off in the Chinese Room and then walk up a flight of stairs to their apartment. There is a kids bike on the landing, which you can see from outside on the observation deck if you turn around and look in one of the windows. I heard the tenant referred to as the “mistress” of our celebrated glass guy, Chihuly, but who knows. If you google around, there is also a persistent rumor that “a crazy old lady” lives up there. There may have been some truth to that at one time (certainly it was no longer true when the article I saw was written). The story was that the woman was the daughter of a friend of Smith’s, and Smith promised his friend that he would provide for the girl after he died, and so the woman had a lifetime’s lodging in the pyramid. But I must here again invoke Herodotus’ phrase “I don’t know if this is true, but it is what they say.”

    • 11 Ben May 9, 2010 at 19:39

      No doubt the article is one and the same. Looked very intriguing. I would love to wander up there to the “pyramid” as you call it. I dare say, coincidences never end. I have worked for several years with a young fireman who goes by the surname, “Chihuly”. That’s rather odd. How many “Chihuly” families can there be?
      Recently while my friend Chad was up from the Seattle area, we went a’wanderin’ among the old buildings in downtown Fairbanks. This was strictly from a fireman’s point of view as we bore into the depths of the old buildings on 2nd street in order to find hidden structural dangers. When in Seattle, it nags at me to do the same there. Its turns up all kinds of fascinating things.

  7. 12 Louis May 12, 2010 at 13:02

    I loved this post! Thanks, Matt. I had no idea that the Smith Tower had an observation deck. I would´ve gone up it a whack of times had I known! Well, now I have something new to do when I come home to visit. I really enjoyed the tour, especially that pic of 2nd Ave. with the Space Needle right at the end. As a friend of mine once said, “Those who move slowly and pay attention are rewarded.”

  8. 13 jstwndrng May 12, 2010 at 13:40

    Louis,
    I hope your homeward trek will be soon. I’ll go up again, this time with the Graflex, so let me know. That shot up second is not my favorite…it feels cramped, makes me nervous, but I know how you love-wanna-marry-it-love the Space Needle. Your friend is wise, whoever he/she is.

    How many whacks make up a crillion?

  9. 14 Louis May 19, 2010 at 15:48

    Here´s another message/email post I already answered. In my head.

    Many months ago, Sonia and I were out shopping, and she said to me in portugenglish, “I love sapatos (shoes)! To which I replied, “Why don’t you marry sapatos?” Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when I was eating some kind of salted potato-based food snack, and I said, “I love these chips.” And Sonia replied, “Why don’t you marry those chips?” I would marry the space needle if I could…eh, maybe not..

    I still think that shot is a fine shot. All those cold steel structures act as a frame for what’s really important in that shot – Eddie Carlson’s cocktail napkin-drawing-come-to-life.

    231 quintillion whacks make up a crillion.

    • 15 jstwndrng May 21, 2010 at 09:18

      I dunno, I think you’ve probably married well already, and the Needle is kind of a stiff dancer (although I hear she spins elegantly).

      Thanks for the affirmation. I’m liking that photo a lot better now.

      I tried doing some algebra, called on my best memories of Griffiths’ class, but I couldn’t “solve for w”.

      231qw = 1c
      qw = 1c/231
      w = 1c/231/q

      I think we’d need more data.

  10. 16 Louis May 21, 2010 at 10:02

    Oh, no need for more data. You can just trust me on the number of whacks it takes to make up a crillion. I have to go now. I just remembered something I forgot.


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