My friend Pedro, who is in the hospitality industry, shares my love of old Seattle buildings and makes it a point to occasionally go into one to see if he can get someone to show him around. He has a knack for it. Last week he and I met up at the Arctic Building to see if we could wrangle us a little tour of the splendid domed banquet room. It was a coincidence that he suggested this building, as I happened to have just used photos of the walruses on the exterior of the building for the first post in the Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt.
I chuffed up Cherry on my lunch hour and found Pedro in the lobby already engaged in convivial conversation with Stephen, a concierge and bellman for the hotel that now indwells the building. Stephen has been in Seattle for about a decade. He loves Seattle history and was happy to show us around his little corner of the city’s architectural heritage. There were no trap doors or ghost stories (at least not on this tour), so I haven’t got much to tell you that you couldn’t learn quickly elsewhere, but it was fun to be shown around by someone who understood why we cared about an old place like this.
In a nutshell, the Arctic Building was commissioned in 1916 by the exclusive Arctic Club, whose members were among the lucky few prospectors who returned from Alaska after the Klondike Gold Rush with pay dirt and were thus instantly rich. It was designed by A. Warren Gould, built by James Moses and finished in 1917. The clubmembers had been meeting two blocks south in the Morrison Hotel when they had a falling out with the owner of that property. They had their own place built at Third and Cherry on the site of the old Seattle Theater, which happens to be where the even older Rainier Club had once met. Leaving the Morrison, the Arctics “surreptitiously” removed the bar and took it with them to their new headquarters, so the story goes, by hoisting it out a window.
The club, founded as a businessmen’s club for men with connections to Alaska or Klondike Gold, was in existence until 1971. After that the building went through a number of afterlives and was eventually bought by the City of Seattle, which had been leasing space in it and owns a number of buildings in the vicinity. As you can well imagine, however, the city government hasn’t needed so much square footage of late, and they sold it in 2005 to a national hotel chain that has done some tasteful restoration and now runs it as the Arctic Club Hotel.
That purloined bar is not the one that is in the lobby now, striking as the existing bar is. Among the things that are original to the place is the clock at the north wall of the domed banquet room, as is the dome itself (it should go without saying). Stephen took us to see this room and I got a good look at this clock, which has two small carved walruses flanking it and is topped by the cryptic symbol of the club — two circles united by a cross.
Stephen also showed us one of the guest rooms on the second floor overlooking Third Avenue. Pedro surmised that the room must have originally been part of the club’s library, pointing out the open book motif in the molding around the high ceilings. Photographs of northwest Indians by Edward Curtis, older brother of Asahel Curtis, hung over the bed. Stephen was very into Curtis’ work and took us to another room on the third floor where there was a portrait of the photographer as a young man. We discussed the fact that while Curtis was regarded as rather a swashbuckling cowboy photographer there is evidence to suggest he was a poser, a little high on his own public image. And a dandy. I’m merely passing on what I heard. Anyway, his photographs of First Nations peoples are very evocative.
All over the walls and pillars around the second-floor lobby (Cherry Street) entrance are autographed photos of the early club members, none of whom looked like the kind of chaps who would steal a bar. After we perused them, Stephen got someone to open the locked glass cabinets behind the counter in the lobby and let us examine up close one of the very old beaver felt tophats on display there.
If you get a chance to go in, say hi to Stephen and drop my name. It will gain you nothing except perhaps a smile of recognition. But you could ask Stephen if he would show you around and I bet he would do it based on your interest in the old edifice alone.