Seattle Now & Then: The Northern Life (aka Seattle) Tower

(click to enlarge photos)

We pulled this maxim from "Northern Light" the 16-page in-house Christmas 1934 publication for Northern Light Insurance. It is shared below in toto after this week's primary feature and a visit with Jean to the neighborhood around the Seattle Tower as revealed in his photographs taken from the roof of its neighbor to the northwest, Benaroya Hall.

THEN: In the mere nine months between the laying of its cornerstone on June 6, 1928 to the April 5, 1929 celebration of its completion, architect A.H Albertson’s Art Deco Northern Life Tower at the southeast corner of Third Ave. and University Street became what many locals consider still the finest structure in Seattle. (Courtesy, Mark Ambler)
NOW: Jean explains. “Knowing that the vantage from which the 'Then" photo was taken no longer exists, I ventured by outside ladders onto the highest level of the Benaroya Hall rooftop. While my prospect is a hundred feet or so further northwest, my ‘repeat’ is still in line with the historical scene.”

In 1968 Seattle’s “black box” – aka the SeaFirst Tower – was topped off at 50 stories above Third Ave. and Madison Street.  Locals, who were either born here or came here before that introduction of the modern American skyline, will remember that our Central Business District once wore two crowns only, and both were distinguished.  Dedicated at an imagined 42 stories in 1914, the Smith Tower still reflects glowing sunsets from its skin of cream-colored terra-cotta tiles.  The Northern Life Tower, featured here, embraces the same sunsets with its already warm skin of blended face bricks.

The Smith Tower tops the horizon on the right, and the skyline's elegant addition, the Northern Life Tower, fills the scene's center in this look south on Third Avenue from Pike Street. (Courtesy Mark Ambler)

Here – two photos up – we  join Jean Sherrard on the highest roof of Benaroya Hall for a colorful point with his repeat of what is now called The Seattle Tower. During its construction in the late 1920s, Gladding McBean and Co., the local supplier of the tower’s face bricks, ran ads describing the “enthralling shaft of beauty” as a “monumental endorsement” of its factory’s work.  And the manufacturer made a folksy point.  The oft noted “graduated color” of Gladding’s contribution used bricks at the top of the tower that like snow on the nearby mountains were lighter than those used near the street.  Jean’s repeat is wonderfully revealing of the tower’s graduated color and its other mountainous allusion: the five steps this Art Deco prize takes to its pyramidal crown.

[click the mouse twice for the fine print in the clips below]

Laying the cornerstone to the growing tower on August 11, 1928. (Seattle Times)
Gladding and McBean's advert, here at the center, makes proud note of the part played by their "seeming millions of blended bricks" in the delicate coloring of the Northern Life Tower. (From the Seattle Times for Nov. 26, 1928.)
The Times returns with a full-page feature on Sept. 2, 1929 extolling the work of Gladding/McBean and their bricks.
April 4, 1929 - invitation to several weddings and a street party on Third Avenue in celebration of new pavement and a new and splendid landmark.

At home in its resplendent tower the insurance company advised, “Why not buy the best and at the same time build the West?”  On April 5, 1929 the new landmark took center stage for the grand party and parade produced for the reopening of then freshly paved Third Avenue.  From its open 4th floor plaza, “Seven marriages were performed simultaneously by Superior Court Judge Chester Batchelor . . . in full view of thousands.”  A half year later Albert and Mae Cadle, the least lucky of the seven couples, sued each other for divorce, which was granted to Mae because of cab driver Albert’s “lack of support.”  Their day of judgment was October 24, the day the crash began, and forever after known as Black Thursday.

Five days before Black Tuesday of Oct. 29, 1929, the young marrieds (top-left) might have asked for counseling from their broker and added to their streak of bad luck. (Seattle Times Oct. 24, 1929)
From The Times, February 14, 1929.


I’ll add in a few more views from the Benaroya rooftop, Paul, before I pop the question.

(Fine Jean, but let’s hope the readers also “pop” your thumbnail photographs to enlarge them.


Also, let me add a photo of my able rooftop assistant – whose name, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve misplaced.

My nimble aide-de-toit from Benaroya

Anything to add, Paul?

Lovely impressions from Benaroya’s green roof Jean.  Such a day!    We have, you know, been at this weekly stacking since 2008 and by now have a small horde of feature’s up for our beloved readers.   With the Northern Life Tower we return to a neighborhood that we have often visited before – for instance with the Pantages Theatre and Plymouth Congregational Church – and we will continue to exploit these links in these by now familiar surrounds.   We also encourage readers who like the play of key word searches to do it here using the search box (on top) to pursue related subjects like the Hollywood Tavern, the Brooklyn Building (sw corner of 2nd and University), Hall Wills parade on 4th (between University and Union), Denny Knoll and so on.   We’ll add now only three or four features and a few clippings (most of them from The Seattle Times) about the Northern Life Tower now known as The Seattle Tower. We will begin with a contribution again from Ron Edge – a in-house Christmas congratulations about the insurance company and its proud tower.  Thanks again Ron.


(Best to CLICK TWICE when coming upon big clippings like those below.)

At the top of its pictorial page for February 14, 1928, The Seattle Times puts side-by-side a rendering of the Northern Life's new tower, then beginning construction at the southeast corner of Third Avenue and University Street, and the Mackintosh mansion that formerly held the corner.
The Mackintosh mansion during its few years as home for the Bonney-Watson funeral Home. University Street is on the left and the clear-cut old University campus on Denny Knoll is on the left horizon.


(First appeared in Pacific, Jan. 24, 1988)

[As the first line hints, what follows below was first composed while Third Ave. was being tunneled for the transit in the late 1980s.] The current commotion along and below Third Avenue is a mere inconvenience compared with the upheavals that accompanied the 1906-07 regrading on the downtown street.  Imagine having to live next door to such disarray. That was the fate Angus and Lizzie Mackintosh, who built the mansion on the right at the southeast comer of Third Avenue and University Street. Not only did the work disrupt their view and domestic quietude, it left their home perched more than twenty feet higher than the regarded street.

Third Avenue regrade 190607 looking northeast thru the southeast corner of Third and University. The Mackintosh mansion is center-right and the Plymouth Congregational Church on the left. (Courtesy, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.)

Angus, a native of Ontario, and Lizzie, one of the pioneering “Mercer Girls” who came here in 1866 when the male-female ratio was 9-to-l, met while Lizzie was working as the first woman enrolling clerk in the state’s House of Representatives in Olympia. Working to promote lumber mills, railroads and banks, the couple had built enough of a nest egg to finance construction of the mansion in 1887.

Judge and political candidate Kenneth Mackintosh helps with the tower's early construction - from the Times for June 6, 1928.

The stately home had seven rooms downstairs, five upstairs and three quarters for servants under the roof. In 1907, soon after the regrade was completed, Bonney-Watson funeral directors, moved into the mansion.  As a sign that death has no end, the mortician was the second-longest continuously operating business in Seattle.  The Seattle Post-Intelligencer was first until its own recent passing. In 1928 the Northern Life Tower (later renamed the Seattle Tower), which many still consider the most beautiful office building in Seattle, was erected at the site.  Between the Mackintosh Manse and the insurance tower the corner was home for the two-story brick commercial structure shown below ca. 1918.

Third and University is lower-left, the Cobb Building at the northwest corner of 4th and University is upper-left and the Y.W.C.A. is upper-right at the southeast corner of 5th and Seneca. The Foster and Kleiser billboards at the lower-right corner were a recent subject with this feature.


Looking south on Third Avenue from near Union Street with the U.W. Campus on the left. The parade of livestock is part of the local show for the visiting Villard entourage with the 1883 coming of the Northern Pacific Railroad to Puget Sound.


This street scene and its lineup of livestock and citizens was photographed on Sept. 14 or 15, 1883. The long afternoon shadow across Third Avenue suggests the former. The sun may have also been shining on the 15th, but Henry Villard and his entourage of distinguished guests arrived in Seattle at about 4 in the afternoon on the 14th and left later than night. These cattle are probably waiting for Villard to enter the University of Washington campus through the ceremonial arch, right of center, erected for the occasion on University Street.

Villard saw many more celebrations between here and Minneapolis after he completed the Northern Pacific Railroad to Puget Sound. Six days earlier and 847 miles away in Montana, Villard drove the golden spike that bound the transcontinental link between New York and Tacoma. Beside him in an entourage of 300 were former President Grant, many senators and the governors of every state along the rail line. Seattle was represented by its mayor, Henry Struve, and its “father,” Arthur Denny.

Another look at the territorial university and its bunting celebrating the visit of Henry Villard and his transcontinental guests to Seattle on Sept. 14, 1883.

In these two photographs we get a sense of what prominence the territorial university held for the community atop Denny Knoll. The University Building is decked with garlands made from fir boughs – like the arch. For this day many of the city’s streets were, to quote Thomas Prosch’s “Chronological History of Seattle,” “thoroughly cleaned and adorned for miles with evergreen trees, arches, bunting and appropriate emblems and sentiments.”

Villard arrived in Seattle not by train from Tacoma but aboard the vessel Queen of the Pacific. Villard’s promise to bring the Northern Pacific directly to Seattle was not completed until the following year, and by then his railroad was in other hands whose interests in Tacoma economy meant poor and often no rail service to Seattle.


North on Third Avenue with the photographer LaRoche's back to University Street. The grand horizon of the generally ill-fortuned Denny Hotel (later renamed the Washington) looms over Third Ave. from its position 100 feet up on the south summit of Denny Hill.


(First appeared in Pacific, April 28, 1985.)

Luther Griffith is one of Seattle’s rarely remembered capitalists. In the 1890s he was out to sell street railways. For promotion purposes, Griffith put together a photo album featuring the work of pioneer photographer Frank LaRoche, a name that’s easy to remember because he wrote it on his negatives.  It’s not clear whether LaRoche recorded the photos on assignment for Griffith, or if the entrepreneur focused on the photographer’s work because it served his purpose so well. Griffith’s album shows off a Seattle that’s progressive, forward thinking and up to date.

The subject here is one example from the album. Taken in 1891, it flaunts one of early Seattle’s main urban symbols. There looming above the city in the distant half-haze is the elegant bulk of the Denny Hotel atop Denny Hill. LaRoche must have set his tripod on the dirt of Third Avenue, one hundred yards of so south of Union Street, but he was safe. Compared to the modern race of internal combustion that is’ now Third, in 1891 it was a pleasantly relaxed but dusty grade where more than one horse and buggy (on the right) could casually park facing the wrong way on the two-way street.

The second tower in this scene (left of center) sits atop the brick Burke Block at the northwest corner of Third and Union. On the main floor the plumber and steam fitter A.F. Schlump did his business. Across Union is a mansion-sized home, a vestige of the old Single-family neighborhood. By 1891, this 1300 block of Third Avenue between University and Union streets was packed with diverse commerce. There was a dressmaker, a hairdresser, three rooming houses, a music teacher, a mustard manufacturer, a retail druggist, a wholesale confectioner, two tobacconists, a second-hand store, a restaurant, a sewing machine store and Mrs. Cox, who listed herself in the 1891 Polk Business Directory as simply, “artist.”

Also, at the Union Street end of this block was the Plummer Building, the two-story clapboard with the three gables on the photo’s right. This building housed more retailers plus a saloon and the Seattle Undertakers.

Ten years later, the progress on Third Avenue got so intense the Plummer Building was picked up and moved two blocks north to Pine Street to make way for the Federal Post Office. The post office is still on the Union Street side and pictured on the right of the “now” photo [when we once more bring it to light].

Beginning in 1906, Third Avenue’s forward-look started sighting through Denny Hill, which in the next four years would be nearly leveled as far east as 5th Avenue allowing the street to pass through the Denny Regrade with barely a rise. The grand hotel, LaRoche’s subject and Griffith’s symbol, was razed with the hill.

Plymouth Congregational Church on the northeast corner of Third Ave. and University Street. Behind it the federal post office is under construction.
Plymouth Church still at is corner with the new Cobb Building behind it at the northwest corner of University and 4th Avenue. The south facade of the Post Office is seen left of the church, above and behind the piano sign.
Theatre magnate Alexander Pantages purchased Plymouth Church in 1911, razed and replaced it with his own sanctuary of theatrical sensation and spectacle, the namesake Pantages Theatre.


This first appeared in the Times as recently as the summer of 2011. Fourth Avenue north of Seneca Street is being graded through the old Territorial University campus. The Mackintosh home at the future Norther Life Tower's site at the southeast corner of the Third and University is on the left. Behind it is Plymouth Church and to the right of the Congregationalist is the Federal Post Office, still under construction.


(First appeared in Pacific, August 6, 2011)

For this subject a photographer from the Webster and Stevens studio stood near the center of the intersection of Fourth and Seneca and aimed north on Fourth into an intended mess made by teams of sturdy horses.  Beginning in 1861 this was the original University of Washington Campus on Denny Knoll.

Note both the small bluff on the left side of Fourth Avenue, and other and higher vestiges of the knoll hinted on the far right.  The subject most likely dates from late 1907.   Had the photographer chosen this prospect a few months earlier, he or she would have looked across the green lawn of the campus to the tall fluted columns of the impressive portico to the university’s principal building used then as the city library.

At the scene’s center the light Chuckanut sandstone Federal Building, aka the Post Office, is getting a roof for its 1908 opening. To its left the impressive spire of Plymouth Congregation Church (1891) points to heaven above Third and University, although the congregation was then anticipating a sale and looking three blocks east to their current location.

Far left and nearing completion the eight-story Eilers Music Building became home for one of the region’s biggest retailers for pianos and organs that also promoted itself as “Seattle’s Talking Machine Headquarters” selling Victor’s Victrolas, and Columbia’s Graphonolas.  To this side of both the music makers and the Congregationalists is the subject’s oldest structure, the big home of Angus and Lizzie Mackintosh.  (Lizzie was one of the immigrant “Mercer Girls” of 1866.) The prosperous couple took residence there in 1887.  By 1907 they had retired to California for the weather and sold their mansion to Bonney and Watson Funeral Directors.

Here the same block through the Knoll, 4th Avenue north from Seneca, appears on the right forming a border with what appears to be a graded footprint for the Olympic Hotel construction. The White-Henry-Stuart building is on the right directly across University Street from the hotel construction site. At the center is the Cobb Building at the northwest corner of 4th and University. The Bell Telephone building at the northeast corner of Seneca and 3rd Ave. is on the left and at its original height. The photograph was taken from the Elks Building at the southwest corner of Spring and 4th Ave. across 4th from the Carnegie Public Library.
Another of the Fourth Ave. blocks between Seneca and Union as they a lower with the street's regrade. The mansion with a tower is the old and ornate McNaught home at the northeast corner of Spring and 4th. It was moved across Spring Street to that corner for the construction of the Carnegie Library. The towers of Providence Hospital show left-of-center, the home since 1940 of the Federal Court House.


We will conclude with a few more clips about the Norther Life Tower and thoughts at that time on towers and the ambitions of skylines and cityscapes.

From The Times, March 14, 1929.
From The Times, January 7, 1929
July 5, 1929, another clip from The Times.
Seattle's Seven Wonders as of August 5, 1929 - figured by The Seattle Times editor and compared to Gotham.
As witness to early construction on the Northern Life Tower and other local ambitions, The Times feature "Hits By Mrs." reflects on the vanities of progress and construction but also on the their gifts.
At the age of nine, the Northern Life Tower is given the front cover of the July 1937 issue of Seattlife, a depression-time publication that was shortl-lived, when compared to the tower.
Seattle in the early 1930s looking southeast to its hills over the Central Business District.
Horace Sykes record of University Street as recorded in 1953 from the top level of the then new - but as yet not open to traffic - Alaskan Way Viaduct.


3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The Northern Life (aka Seattle) Tower”

  1. My grandma was an elevator operator in the Northern Life building in the 50’s. Could someone contact me, I have a few questions. 206-427-1948. thank you, Sara

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