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Seattle's Skyline-Defining Smith Tower Celebrates 100 Years

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UIG via Getty Images

Seattle is a city shaped by tech booms and busts. Long before dot-coms became part of the vernacular, one tech giant gave the city its beacon of stature and modernity, Smith Tower. When it opened on July 4, 1914, the 462-foot building was touted as "the highest, finest, and most complete office building outside of New York." Though it hit the skyline at the peak of the skyscraper era, forty years after the advent of the elevator made such tall buildings possible, it was the first such tower in Seattle—the city's tallest structure at the time, the King Street Station clock tower, stood at just 247 feet. Begun by Syracuse, New York, businessman Lyman Cornelius Smith and finished by his son, Smith Tower brought the design and engineering tactics of New York City skyscrapers to the Pacific Northwest.

Smith was searching for a place to grow his new business. The one-time gun manufacturer had recently transitioned into typewriter production. For Smith, Seattle had a strategic geographic position out of earshot and eyeshot of then-President Woodrow Wilson's Democratic administration. When Smith learned that it was also the fastest growing city in the nation, he purchased, sight unseen, eight separate properties in Pioneer Square on which to build a headline-inducing skyscraper for the Smith Premier Typewriter Company. The purchase was the largest-ever property sale in Seattle.

Smith planned for an 18-story building, but soon found himself in a dispute, according to the Seattle Times, with fellow Seattle developer John Hoge, who had commissioned his Hoge Building around the same time. The two businessmen agreed that they'd each build 14 stories, but production lagged on the Smith Tower, and after Smith passed away in 1910, Hoge unabashedly built 17 stories. A year after Smith's passing, his son Burns Lyman took the Smith Tower project over and in 1911 broke ground on a building that even his father could not have envisioned: a 42-story (according to the 1914 Seattle Times, although more recent reports place it closer to 37 stories) neo-classical skyscraper that would come to define the Seattle skyline and the city itself.

The younger Smith had spent much time in Manhattan and brought New York City building principles to the Smith Tower with the help of its architects, Syracuse, New York-based Gaggin and Gaggin. For the steel-framed building, Smith utilized a tower and base method—a wide lower base rising around twenty stories, which then allowed a narrow tower to extend indefinitely skyward. As historian Mark Gelernter notes, this was a method virtually trademarked by New York City's Metropolitan Tower and Woolworth Building, the Smith Tower's two main rivals at the time. It allowed for tall buildings without obstructing light or air.

The Smith Tower's steel frame was not the city's first, but it was perhaps its most notable. By eschewing the local timber industry in favor of steel construction materials, the west coast's grandest building ushered in a new and modern era for the region. Roughly 4,000 tons of steel were shipped in from Pittsburgh's American Bridge Co., requiring the use of 164 railroad cars. While constructing the steel frame, contractor E.E. Davis even set a record by laying eight floors of steelwork in one week using a single crane. That kind of national publicity was exactly what Burns Lyman Smith had in mind when he took over the building's development.

If the Smith Tower wanted to compete on a national level, there could be no finish too extravagant. Window casings and sashes were made of bronze and gold leaf, doors were finished in mahogany, and Alaskan marble and Mexican onyx appeared throughout the building's lobby. The crown jewel was the 35th floor and its breathtaking views of the city. Also known as the Chinese Room, the 35th floor was a shrine to the blackwood furniture and 17th-century silk paintings given to the Smith family by the Empress Dowager Cixi of China. Included in the room was a Wishing Chair carved with dragons and phoenix. The chair was said to promise marriage for any would-be bride that sat in it. Carved wood and porcelain ceilings showed off the furniture. The building's grandeur extended to its exterior as well. The first two floors had a skin of granite, while the upper floors were encased in terra cotta.

The building was so tall that the light in the tower's top floor guided sailors into shore from the Puget Sound; the cornice-capped, neoclassical structure was no doubt the finest light-house the world had ever seen. The light was made of bronze and heavy glass measuring eleven feet in height and eight and a half feet across, and could be seen eight to ten miles from shore. In fact, it drew in its first sailor the day before the building's public opening: Vice-Admiral Teijiro Kuroi of the Japanese navy became transfixed by the light and building while out on the water commanding a training mission. He came ashore to receive a grand tour of the structure.

The Smith Tower held 600 offices—540 in the base and 60 in the tower—and each was wired for telephone and electricity, with over nine miles of metal conduits running throughout the building. The Seattle Times trumpeted other modern amenities: "each office will be equipped with a lavatory, and each floor will have two toilets in which will be incorporated some of the latest plumbing conveniences." Such luxuries were nearly unheard of. The Smith Tower's lobby was to be a hub for retail in the style of its Big Apple counterparts, with six stores, a buffet, and a telephone and telegraph office. The basement floor was slated to house two restaurants with a capacity of 600 people, a barbershop, and a power plant. Those additions, however, never came to fruition.

On July 3rd, the day before the official opening, the Smith Tower welcomed a barrage of 1,500 visitors. Elevators ran from 1:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. as everyone clamored to be a part of history and a part of the future with a visit to the building's observation deck. Crowds lined up again beginning at 9 a.m. the following morning, with 4,000 more visitors riding to the top. That July 4th, 1914, marked an Independence Day of sorts for Seattle itself; with the finest skyscraper the country had seen, the city set out to distinguish itself from the rest of the west coast and much of the country. The building the Smith typewriter built would remain the tallest on the west coast until 1962, when the city's own Space Needle would eclipse it. Over the years, the Smith Tower has seen periods of prosperity and despair, and in 1999 it underwent a major renovation enabling it to house contemporary tech companies along with other businesses. Now it is again helping to usher in another revitalization in Seattle's Pioneer Square.

· Smith Tower coverage [Curbed Seattle]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed National]