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(Published in the Seattle Times online on June 3, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on June 6, 2021)
‘Where the magic begins’: Olympic Hotel restores its 1924 lobby
By Clay Eals
On Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1924, boomtown Seattle awakened to an appetizing analogy in an editorial cartoon atop The Seattle Times front page.
A flapper, symbol of freewheeling youth, sat at a sumptuous table, applauding an older, tuxedoed steward who opened a cloche platter revealing a miniature, 12-floor Italian Renaissance edifice.
As inscribed in her hair feather, the flapper embodied “Seattle.” As drawn on his lapel ribbon, the steward personified “Civic Enterprise.” The edifice, named on the platter’s bell-shaped cover, was the Olympic Hotel.
On five news pages, and in a whopping 32-page rotogravure section, stories and photos celebrated the previous night’s dedication of the $4.6 million luxury hostelry, which had arisen on the downtown block between Fourth and Fifth avenues and University and Seneca streets, original site of the University of Washington.
More than 4,500 citizen bond-buyers had helped finance the Olympic, so it was fitting that the inaugural dinner and dance events drew 2,100 revelers. The Times proclaimed the hotel “second to none in America.”
Through the years, amid astounding citywide growth and change, the Olympic (now managed by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts) hosted presidential visits, business travelers and lavish weddings, losing none of its preeminence. That is due in part to a building-wide renovation in 1981-82, followed 40 years later by a new $25 million project to restore and transform its elongated lobby and public spaces.
“The lobby is the heart and soul, where the magic begins,” says Sunny Joseph, the India-born general manager whose disposition matches his given first name. “It’s where our guests get the feel of turning moments into their memories.”
Uncovered, after decades under carpets, are original terrazzo and marble floors. Two 300-pound chandeliers have been moved and rehung. Original woodwork has been refurbished. A “history walk” of vintage ephemera adorns the mezzanine. Subdued lighting throughout aims at warmth and intimacy.
A striking addition is an enormous, largely wooden kinetic sculpture, with 400 parts, including seven wheels, emulating the nautical theme of the hotel’s original sailing-ship logo. Hanging above a central bar, the sculpture has no name but doubtless will acquire an informal one.
Of course, today’s milieu differs from the Twenties that roared. An entire printed newspaper often falls short of 32 pages now. Downtown and tourism face a slow rebound from COVID-19, not to mention nearly ubiquitous tent encampments.
But the appeal of the Olympic Hotel endures. Much like its namesake mountain range, this grand inn perpetually brings awe to the psyche of locals, whether or not they have the privilege to step inside. As Joseph says, “It’s about happiness, joy, happenings.”
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!
Special thanks to Kristy Mendes of the Fairmont Olympic Hotel for her assistance with this installment. To see fascinating, time-lapse video of the renovation, visit the YouTube channel of the Fairmont Olympic.
Below are five additional photos and four press releases. Also, we present, in chronological order, 24 historical clippings from The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer online archives (available via Seattle Public Library) and other online newspaper sources that were helpful in the preparation of this column.
The text above references a 32-page rotogravure section in the Dec. 7, 1924, edition of the Seattle Times. The section is accessible via the Times online archive. Below, for variety, we present the similarly extensive post-opening coverage in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer from the same day.