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Facts about the Smith Tower

Published by Steve Campion. Category: Buildings & Other Structures

One of Seattle’s most recohnizable buildings is celebrating its centennial this week.  The Smith Tower, the city’s first genuine skyscraper, was dedicated July 4, 1914, and reigned for a time as the tallest American building outside of New York City.  That was an astonishing achievement for an upstart pioneer town a continent away from the swath of east coast metropolises like Boston and Philadelphia.

To honor of the slender white skyscraper we compiled a list of Smith Tower facts — including the silly kerfuffle when Ivar Haglund flew a salmon windsock from the top and the city went nuts trying to enforce building codes. Study our notes, then crane your neck skyward — or comfortably ride one of the manually-operated elevators to the observation deck. Say happy birthday to the grand old tower.

47 FACTS ABOUT THE SMITH TOWER

  1. The address is 506 2nd Ave, Seattle, WA 98104.
  2. It stands 522 feet tall…
  3. …and boasts 42 floors.
  4. Seattle businessman John Clise sold several properties to Lyman Cornelius Smith of Syracuse, NY. One lot was at 2nd & Yesler.
  5. A Bartell’s Drug Store existed on the site.
  6. L.C. Smith was the founder of the Smith-Premier Typewriter Company (later Smith-Corona) and the L. C. Smith Shotgun Company in Syracuse, NY.
  7. The plaque near the front door mistakenly credits L.C. Smith as being involved with Smith & Wesson. That company was founded before L.C. Smith was born.
  8. Smith originally planned to raise an 18 story building on the lot. He said as much on a visit to Seattle in Nov, 1909. He raised his goals after visiting and speaking with his son Burns, a New York City resident in the then-newly-booming land of skyscrapers.
  9. The extravagant height was intended to draw publicity to Smith’s typewriter business.
  10. Smith was 60 years old when he  died in November, 1910 — before the tower went up.
  11. The land was cleared and construction of the Smith Tower began in November, 1911.
  12. It was designed by Gaggin & Gaggin of Syracuse, NY. The architects had never designed anything taller than a few floors before … and now they were building one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world?
  13. Seattle’s own E.E. Davis Company did the construction, and used nearly 4,000 tons of steel.
  14. The final construction cost was $1.7 million.
  15. The L.C. Smith Tower was dedicated and opened to the public on July 4, 1914 (although it was opened for 1,500 special guests the day before).
  16. When it opened, it was 4th tallest building in the country and the tallest in the United States outside of New York City.
  17. It greatly surpassed the 18-story J D Hoge Building (completed 1912) as the tallest in Seattle.
  18. It remained the tallest building west of the Mississippi River until 1962.
  19. The Space Needle, 80 feet taller, opened that year and took the crown.
  20. Today the Smith Tower is not even among Seattle’s Top 10 tallest skyscrapers. (See the photo at right in which the once “tallest building outside New York” appears to the right of the much larger Columbia Center.)
  21. Burns Smith reduced the name from the L.C. Smith Tower to simply the Smith Tower in 1929.
  22. The main building rises 24 floors, narrows to a tower, then climbs another 11 floors.  The remaining floors are situated under the pyramid cap.
  23. The entire structure is built on a steel frame, clad in white terra-cotta.
  24. The two lowest floors have a granite façade.
  25. There are 2,314 windows.
  26. You will find Alaskan marble and Mexican onyx in the lobby, with doors framed by steel fashioned to look like mahogany.
  27. The tower has seven Otis elevators, still operated by employees.
  28. They are believed to be the last manually-operated lifts in a skyscraper on the west coast.
  29. The elevators are trimmed with copper and brass.
  30. The observation deck is on the 35th floor and is accessible to the public for a fee whenever the space is not otherwise booked.
  31. The ornate Chinese Room with its detailed ceiling is also on the 35th floor.
  32. The blackwood furniture in the Chinese Room was a gift from the last Empress of China.
  33. The 1941 WPA guide to Washington described the room as “a reproduction of a Chinese temple … decorated with Cantonese furniture, bronze temple lanterns, and ornamental panels of porcelain and hand-carved teak.”
  34. The Wishing Chair in that room is said to have special powers. A single woman who chooses to sit in the chair will be married within 12 months.  Or so the legend goes.
  35. It is inscribed “Long life and good luck.”
  36. The Chinese Room may be rented for events with up to 99 people.
  37. The top 3 floors originally housed a water tank to supply the building below. The tank was long ago removed.
  38. That space was converted into a 3-floor penthouse apartment and is home to a private resident.
  39. Ivar Haglund, the fish & chips restaurateur (pictured at right, standing in the center behind a large windsock), bought the building for $1.8 million in May, 1976.
  40. In 1977, Ivar hoisted a 16-foot “rainbow salmon” windsock on the original (but long unused) 1914 flagpole. The windsock had been suggested and made by the Great Winds Kite Shop in Pioneer Square.*
  41. Within a week, Al Petty, the director of the Seattle Building Department, notified Ivar that he was in violation of a city ordinance prohibiting flags and pennants from downtown buildings.
  42. The ensuing battle between David (as played by Ivar) and Goliath (city hall) played out in the news media.  That kind of spectacle was something the “keep clam” publicity hound greatly enjoyed.
  43. Five months after the citation, the city backed down and issued a variance to let the fish fly (see photo, right), but not before very bad poetry was issued by nearly everyone involved. (Cheesy poetry was Ivar’s shtick.)
  44. The building was refurbished in 1999, by NBBJ and Mithun.
  45. To celebrate the 100th birthday, the Smith Tower is letting visitors ride the elevators to the observation deck July 4-6, 2014, for 25¢.
  46. In his 1961 volume You Still Can’t Eat Mt Rainier, William C. Speidel — the founder of Seattle’s Underground Tours –jokingly wrote that “publication of information about this city without mentioning this building is not permitted.”
  47. WA-List has now met that criteria.

*In my brief chat with Ken Conrad, I learned that he and an associate had been walking to their kite shop in Pioneer Square when his partner noticed the unused pole atop the Smith Tower. “Look at that,” he said. “An empty flagpole.” Conrad told him that Ivar Haglund recently bought the building. “Who’s Ivar Haglund?”  The flamboyant fish-monger, he replied.  Shortly after that discussion, the kite shop tried to gain a little publicity by having one of their Japanese koi windsocks fly from the flagpole. Ivar initially rejected the idea — even after insisting it must be a salmon to coincide with his restaurants. But later, after considering it for several days, he called Conrad and said “We gotta do this.” No one expected the significant publicity that followed; a little exposure, yes, but not a major comedic stand-off with the city.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS © Steve Campion
TWO BLACK & WHITE PHOTOS by Bob Miller, courtesy of Ken Conrad, Great Winds Kite Co.

SOURCES: In addition to the Speidel book mentioned in Fact #46, I referenced many sources for this list, including my boring, but matter-of-fact photograph of the street level plaque near the front door, and my first-hand experiences on the 35th floor.  Then there were books: Seattle Architecture by Maureen R. Elenga, Exploring Washington’s Past: A Road Guide to History by Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Seattle Curiosities by Steve Pomper, and Ivar: The Life and Times of Ivar Haglund by Dave Stephens. The guide mention in #33 was Washington: A Guide to the Evergreen State, part of the WPA Writers’ Program. I also consulted the official Smith Tower website. and talked to Ken Conrad of the Great Winds Kite Company, which still manufactures kites but no longer maintains a kite shop.

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