(click and click again to enlarge photos)
(Published in Seattle Times online on Oct. 17, 2019,
and in print in PacificNW magazine
of the Seattle Times on Oct. 20, 2019)
Seattle’s first tall curtain wall conveys egalitarian modernity
By Paul Dorpat
Seattle’s first “glass box” of size, the Norton Building, opened on Oct. 30, 1959, at Second Avenue and Columbia Street, with its principal tenant, Canadian Bank of Commerce, holding the ground floor. Named for pioneer lumberman Matthew G. Norton, the edifice was then easily Seattle’s grandest display of modernity.
I was there – nearly. Living and studying in Spokane, I made yearly trips to visit Ted, my psychiatrist oldest brother in Seattle, not for therapy but for brotherly love, lunch on the waterfront and, in 1959, an inspection of the Norton and its glass curtains.
Not counting the four-story stone base, the Norton’s unadorned sides climb 17 stories wrapped in tempered grey glass and anodized aluminum. Ballard-based Fentron Industries proudly pointed out in the opening hoopla that Fentron “had been given Total Responsibility for detailing, extruding, fabricating, alumiliting and erecting the curtain walls of the Norton Building.”
The skin’s aluminum bound the Norton so tightly that its floors were mostly free of interrupting posts. This interior decorating freedom is anticipated and exposed in photographer Roger A. Dudley Jr.’s portrait of construction in 1959. The west end of the building, on the left, is aglow in the afternoon sun.
I knew Dudley, a past president of the Photographers Association of Washington, and benefited from his generous sharing of historical photographs – not, however, this one. Another friend and vintage collector, Dan Eskenazi, introduced me to a collection of Dudley’s 1950s work that Dan acquired long after Dudley’s death in 2003. Included is his Norton coverage, 4-by-5-inch negatives of the building’s attended parking off First Avenue, its cornerstone dedication with members of the Norton family, the building’s long escalators, examples of its big open floors and the sculpture plaza at its Second Avenue entrance.
Seattle architect Susan Boyle, with her encyclopedic sensitivity to modern architecture, provides more insight. Another old friend, she belongs to Docomomo WEWA, short for the International Committee for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement. (WEWA is for Western Washington). The organization provides tours of the Norton.
“The Norton Building,” Boyle writes, “embodies all that was progressive in mid-century post-war architectural design: functionality combined with beauty, a faith in technology and new materials, use of efficient construction systems and an optimism about the future of Seattle as an urbane urban place.
“The escalator from the First Avenue-level parking garage was a modern way to arrive to work. The original building provided a publicly accessible sculpture garden on a west terrace off the main lobby, and open-plan upper floors that allowed office tenants maximum flexibility. The resulting space was consistent throughout, with ample daylight from perimeter windows, and it offered an egalitarian work environment.”
Below are seven clippings from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) that, among others, were helpful in the preparation of this column. Enjoy!
2 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Norton Building, 1959”
I always admired this elegant office building. It’s a simple glass box perched on a solid base with an inviting courtyard and clean lines. Your article was very enlightening regarding the jet age aluminum skin too.
-One omission in the piece though; We architects get testy when a building write-up in the press neglects to mention the architect, even from the past. This can foster the impression, especially among young readers that buildings are just created by engineers and/or developers. I’ve noticed the Seattle Times sometimes doing this in the business section too.
Surely there must have been an architectural firm that came up with the clean, simple, original concept, and then designed and detailed this building in concert with the other trades.
Thanks for your work!
Tom Kuniholm AIA
Thanks for the comment, Tom. The architectural designers of the Norton Building were the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill firm of San Francisco in association with Seattle-based Bindon and Wright. See http://pcad.lib.washington.edu/building/5120/.