(click photos to enlarge)
This week we continue what we began last week, comparing early views from the Smith Tower with those Jean Sherrard “captured” on a recent visit to the tower’s observation platform. Last Sunday we looked east to First Hill, and now north over much of the business district to Lake Union.
In all directions we have cropped the “now” view considerably wider, especially on top in order to include the full height of the Columbia Center, still the tallest thing in Seattle. When nearly complete in 1985, the community’s best-known preservationist, U.W. Architect Victor Steinbrueck, described the Columbia Tower (as it was then called) as “a flat-out symbol of greed and egoism.” Take it or leave it, at 932 feet it makes the rest of Seattle’s high-rises look like middle management forever waiting for promotions.
There are scores of structures in this historical scene that survive, although, like Lake Union, you can no longer see them from the Smith Tower. We’ll point out the Central Building at 4th and Marion, bottom-center in the “then.” In the “now” it half hides behind the cream-white “milk carton” of the 23 story Pacific Building. More exposed are the Rainier Club and the recently saved First Methodist Church, both in part on the south side of Marion Street between 4th and 5th Avenues. They appear here between the Pacific Bldg. and the Columbia Center.
For a close-enough dating of the historical panorama I depended upon two missing structures. The sizeable Lincoln Hotel at the northwest corner of 4th and Madison (across 4th from the Carnegie Library, which can be seen at the center of the “then”) burned down on April 7, 1920. The tidied ruins of part of its foundation can be glimpsed left of center above the Central Building. The 4th Church Christ Scientist – now Town Hall at 8th and Seneca – was completed in 1922. Its splendid dome could be seen from the Smith Tower, but not here. This is too early – perhaps the summer of 1920 or 1921.
From the Tower’s observation deck, I shot a much wider angle of the Now. Here it is:
Anything to add, Paul? Oh Jean just a few photographs, mostly – ones looking north from the tower like those above. I’ll also attach an early Pacific feature – one from 1982, the year I started writing that weekly feature for The Times. We lean on an old friend who is now long passed, Lawton Gowey, for many of the pictures below. There are more, but these are what I could find this evening. (If you are timing this, it is now fifteen minutes after midnight, and I intend on being in bed by 2 a.m..)
THE SMITH TOWER
This feature first appeared in Pacific Magazine on June 20, 1982.
Before the mid-I960s, when the Seattle skyline began to sprout the modern American silhouette of glass, steel, and polymers, the city’s front face looked much as it did on the Fourth of July, 1914, the day the Smith Tower opened to its admiring public. At least for a while Seattle had distinguished itself with the tallest building outside of New York – or Chicago – or this side of the Mississippi. The building’s promoters boasted that one could tour its 42 stories and 600 offices, pass through any of its 1,432 steel doors to gaze at the unparalleled view through a few of its 2,314 bronze encased windows and still feel secure that the 500 foot high edifice stood secure on 1,276 concrete piles reaching 50 feet below to the bedrock.
After the skeleton of structural steel was topped off in February 1913, the terra-cotta skin began to steadily ascend its sides. The completed frame of the “monster structure acts as a guiding beacon to vessels in and out of Elliott Bay . . . The Queen City’s noblest monument of steel is declared by seasoned skippers to be by far the finest aid to navigation ever placed on Puget Sound . . .now Seattle would be better advertised than any place outside of New York,” wrote the Seattle Times.
The recurring comparison to New York extended to the building’s namesake Lyman C. Smith, a New Yorker but from upstate Syracuse. In the early 1890s Smith made what was then the largest purchase of Seattle property in the city’s history. It included the Second Avenue and Yesler Way site. By 1909 the armaments entrepreneur had beat his firearms into a typewriter fortune big enough to finance skyscrapers. During a 1909 visit, Smith unexpectedly met another eastern capitalist with similar ambitions. John Hoge was also in town scrutinizing his site at Second Avenue and Cherry Street, catty-corner to Seattle’s first skyscraper, the Alaska Building. Both Smith and Hoge had monumental plans for enhancing what was already being called the “Second Avenue Canyon.” Since each wished to build a little higher than the other, they coyly agreed that the Alaska’s 14 stories was “about the proper height.”
The dramatically different consequences of their will to build are apparent in the 1913 panorama of the Seattle skyline. The 18 stories of the Hoge are just left of center and left of the Alaska Building. Hoge began his construction in March 1911 and set a world record for speed of steel framing. The skeleton was up in 30 days. Later that year Smith started his tower. By the time the photographer from the firm of Webster and Stevens climbed the coal bunkers near the foot of King Street and sighted the tower’s newly completed frame, it was already a “beacon to the world.”
For all the Smith Tower’s steady grandeur there are plenty of ironies and oddities connected with its history. The darkest irony is the first. Smith decided to build a tower so high that there would be no danger of anyone, including Hoge, approaching it in his lifetime. Smith died before it was completed.
The building project was announced in 1910, only after Smith received the assurances of the city council that they would not move City Hall from its site at Third and Jefferson Street, a half-block from the proposed tower. Both Smith and Hoge were anxious to stabilize land values in the southern business district. They were ultimately unsuccessful. Already in 1910 it was the commercial fashion to move north and away from the “old city center.”
The building’s first superintendent, William Jackson, gave the tower its final topping in 1914 with an unplanned 20-foot flagpole from which the Stars and Stripes were waving for the Fourth of July opening. This is the same pole that years later flew another symbol for reasons more piscatorial than patriotic. Ivar Haglund, in 1976 the first local owner of the tower, insisted that the carp he was flying from the top of his tower was not a publicity stunt but an innocent public service for indicating the wet direction of Seattle’s weather. ‘
The city’s skyline, as it appeared above in the spring of 1982, was photographed from the Port of Seattle’s Pier 46, once the location of the old coal docks and now of containers. Orville Elden, a mechanic then for the American President Lines, the pier’s lessee, stands beside one of the cooling units that are regularly spaced between two rows of refrigerated containers. The composition like runway lights forms a line-of-sight that ends in the city’s new corporate center. The Hoge and Alaska Buildings, although dwarfed, are still visible to the left of the light pole. The lights pin point the spot where the Columbia Center’s 76 stories will eventually top off in 1984. The paired photographs above from 1982 and 1984 were scanned from Seattle Now and Then, Volume One, where this story was reprinted after first appearing in Pacific Magazine long ago.