At the time of its 90th anniversary, it has been physically eclipsed by 15 taller Seattle buildings, but this gleaming white terra-cotta monument has never lost its cultural position as the Northwest's best-loved skyscraper. Oddly proportioned yet also strikingly impressive, it is one of the most improbable high-rises of the twentieth century. It was built far higher than Seattle's then-booming economic circumstances warranted, but not as tall as widely claimed over its 90-year history. Indeed, the Smith Tower is the subject of more exaggeration and misinformation, on both a popular and scholarly level, than perhaps any other high rise building anywhere.
The reality of this structure is fascinating enough without such overstatements. It was more a product of New York than of Seattle, a supremely optimistic gesture by Lyman Cornelius Smith, a Syracuse industrialist, and his son, Burns Lyman Smith, who first visited Seattle in 1888, and later convinced his father to see the city for himself. L. C. had prospered making fine shotguns (under his own name and the names of others, although he had no connection to Smith & Wesson, a handgun manufacturer) and typewriters (L. C. Smith, later Smith-Corona). In the early 1890s, local real estate mogul J. W. Clise visited the elder Smith in Syracuse, and sold him eight separate Pioneer Square properties, sight unseen, in what was said to be the largest sale of Seattle property in the city's history up to that point.
This real estate seems to have been a passive investment for more than a decade, but eventually Mr. Smith went to Washington to see his properties and to meet with John Hoge, another wealthy Easterner who was planning a downtown skyscraper. Decades later, The Seattle Times recalled that "They sparred with each other about their plans, each wanting to build a little higher than the other, but both agreed finally that 14 stories was about the right height. [The Hoge Building ultimately grew to 18 stories.] When Mr. Smith returned home, he found that his son Burns Lyman had been studying skyscrapers in New York and was all-out for 21 stories capped by a 20-story tower. Mrs. Smith shared Burns' enthusiasm and both were surprised when at dinner the night of his return, Mr. Smith said he believed he had better make the building so high that there would be no danger of anyone approaching it in his time. Burns' idea just fitted his plan and so it was done."
Indeed, Burns was keenly aware of the of the advertising value of extremely tall office buildings. At the time of the Smith Tower's creation, the world's three successively tallest skyscrapers were all stretched higher than real estate economics alone would justify, in order to publicize commercial endeavors -- the Singer Sewing Machine company (1905-08, 612 feet), the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (1909, 675 feet), and the F. W. Woolworth chain of five-and-dime stores (1910-13, 792 feet).
Neither the Smith family nor their architects (Gaggin & Gaggin, also based in Syracuse) seem to have had any professional experience with buildings taller than five stories prior to or after their heady Northwest adventure. L. C. Smith died in 1910, and in October of that year Burns Smith announced that "the structure will be 42 stories high, and not one story less. It will be finished as finely as money and brains know how. As far as possible, local materials will be used and local labor employed." He also vowed that the building would be ready for occupancy early in the spring of 1912.
Given Smith's lack of development experience, and his apparent taste for ballyhoo, it's not surprising that none of those claims materialized fully. The completed building had 33 usable above-ground retail and office floors, plus an observatory level. Where the leading New York skyscrapers were faced in stone, Smith's project was clad in less costly terra-cotta. The two most important materials came from outside the region -- structural steel from Pennsylvania and terra-cotta from California. The owner-developers and the architects were in Syracuse, and the structural engineers and general contractor were based in New York city. And the Smith Tower opened more than two years after its target date, while lower-floor construction was still going on. Still, the building was a marvel of its time. Its eight high-speed elevators were the finest on the coast, and its exotic observatory floor, first announced as a Japanese tea room but built in the style of a Chinese temple interior (albeit with low ceilings) also had no equal in the West.
Seattle's business district was moving north from Yesler Way, and the tower, which reputedly cost somewhere between $1.25 and $1.7 million, was meant to anchor the business center on lower Second Avenue and thus stabilize the value of the Smiths' many Pioneer Square properties.
It's not clear that the building ever turned a profit for the Smiths, who reportedly sold the structure after only 10 years. Altogether, the building has changed hands 12 times. On more than one occasion it was studied as a possible city- or county-owned office building, but found to be unsuited for such a role each time. (However, government agencies have leased space there on occasion.) Its most famous owner was restaurateur Ivar Haglund, who watched the building rise as a child, and acquired it in the 1970s. To the consternation of preservationists, (but very likely to the building's esthetic benefit) he removed the heavy masonry balusters from the edge of the observation balcony and substituted a lighter cage of white-painted steel bars. Reputedly, Haglund was the only owner to make money on his Smith Tower investment.
The Samis Land Company is the tower's present owner, and has been the most active of its many landlords. It invested about $27 million in building upgrades, partially filling in its lightwells, removing internal partitions, wiring it for high-speed Internet service and catering to high-tech and communications tenants -- a market that shrank considerably with the dot-com collapse of the late 1990s. Samis also converted a caretaker's apartment inside the pyramid into a luxurious two-story penthouse. Despite its age, the tower is clearly an adaptable structure.
Architecturally, the tower is a paradox. It's a naive design by a provincial firm with no expertise in the skyscraper building type, and yet its naiveté gives it a certain strength and character. In 1962, architect Victor Steinbrueck encapsulated its architectural strengths and weaknesses, noting that it "stands as a monumental object in the skyline. The unique and rather ungainly form immediately orients the citizen as it comes into view. If its superficial ornament and ostentatious amassment are disregarded, it compares well with its younger brothers in lightness and airiness and in structural expression."
Edwin H. and T. Walker Gaggin were well-trained by the standards of their time (both graduated from Syracuse University, and then one studied at Columbia while the other attended L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris), but they seemed to lack great design talent -- aesthetically, the firm was competent but not in the top ranks of Syracuse architects of the day. Their Smith Tower design borrowed from both of the diametrically opposed Chicago and New York approaches to designing tall buildings. The "lightness and airiness and ... structural expression" that pleased Steinbrueck represented Chicago thinking, while the "superficial ornament and ostentatious amassment" that he tried to ignore were artifacts of the New York style, as was the emphasis on height. (The "rather ungainly form" was the Gaggins' original contribution to the effort.) The elite design journals of the time (the ones tracked by the Avery Index of Architectural Publications) seemed to have completely ignored the Smith Tower, despite its newsworthy height, perhaps because of a certain lack of refinement in the building's form and detailing.
The building took the fashionable New York "mounted tower" form, combining a substantial base with a slender tower above. The broad base accommodated most of the building's floor space, while the slim tower provided most of the visual interest and much of the building's height. Inexperienced in this style, however, the Gaggins contradicted the design's basic verticality with heavy cornices, and were unable to integrate the two elements smoothly in three dimensions. From some vantage points there is an uncomfortable visual relationship between the base and tower, calling to mind a gawky a long necked giraffe. The pointed tower form is derived from the Metropolitan Life building, (which in turn was based on the Campanile San Marco in Venice) and is also similar to the King Street Station. It is also worth noting that the two tallest buildings in Syracuse at the time had pyramidal tops.
Otherwise, the Smith Tower exemplifies Chicago functionalism. Its windows are large and simple, giving the exterior a lightness that is reinforced by the white terra-cotta cladding, and on most of the building the underlying structural framework is clearly expressed by the uncluttered geometry of the masonry cladding. The practicality of that cladding is borne out by the fact that the building has only been washed once in 90 years, yet remains glistening white to this day; it is an efficient self-cleaning material in Seattle's rainy climate. There is copious surface decoration in the terra-cotta walls, but it is visually subordinated to the larger column-and-beam pattern that gives the Smith Tower its visual clarity and strength.
Although the Gaggins may not have been fully fluent in contemporary skyscraper design, their earnest efforts lent the Smith Tower a powerful originality. Twelve decades of skyscraper architecture have produced nothing exactly like it, and it still remains instantly recognizable among the tens of thousands of tall buildings around the world.
Myths, Legends, and Misinformation About Smith Tower
Accurate published information about the Smith Tower's height and its place in the skyscraper firmament is a scarce commodity. Over the years, the terra-cotta tower at 2nd Avenue and Yesler Way has been a powerful magnet for mythology and misinformation. These errors appear in periodicals of high and modest pedigree, brochures, museum exhibits, university research papers, local histories, scholarly tomes, and architectural, historical, and general guidebooks.
The most frequent errors involve its number of floors and height in feet, which are almost universally given as 42 stories above the ground and either 500 or 522 feet. The number of stories is ambiguous, but was never 42 by any reasonable standard. The tower opened with 33 rentable above-ground floors and an observation deck and function room on the 35th story. The 34th story was a low-ceilinged windowless space not served by the elevators. A water tank and access ladders occupied the hollow pyramidal cap above the observatory floor. The pyramid had three tiers of small arched windows, but no internal floors corresponding to those openings, and the building was topped by a hollow glass globe that served as a beacon at night. One could reasonably conclude that the Smith Tower had 36 stories when it opened, counting the odd 34th floor that was not meant for human occupancy.
Decades later, a caretaker's apartment was built on the 36th floor, and its top could be considered floor number 37. A few years ago, that apartment was expanded into a two-story penthouse (albeit one without an exterior terrace), bringing the number of stories to 38.
Plans on file with Seattle's Department of Planning and Development reveal that the building is about 462 feet tall (the drawings are not fully dimensioned, and some scaling is required), using standard definitions of height which do not include flagpoles as part of the calculation. Claims of a 500' or 522' tall building have no real basis, and over the years there have been occasional indications of the real height (see below), but these received less attention than the inflated promotional figures. There was even one claim that its observation floor was 42 stories above the street, rather than 34.
Nearly as common are claims of ranking or comparative height such as: Fourth tallest building in the world. In fact, when it opened, there were six taller ones in New York, others in Philadelphia and Cincinnati, and taller religious buildings in Cologne, Turin, Strasbourg, Rouen, Hamburg and Ulm, making it at best the 15th tallest in the world. The inclusion of symbolic or touristic structures such as the, Washington Monument, Eiffel Tower, and others, would drop it to 19th place or lower in 1914.
Tallest building outside of New York. When built, there were at least eight to 12 non-New York buildings taller than the Smith Tower, depending on one's definition of a building. (One claim went even further, calling it "the highest, finest, and best known of buildings outside of New York City.")
Tallest building west of Chicago, or tallest west of the Mississippi. These distinctions were accurate until 1931, when a 481-foot Kansas City office building gained the title, but the claim continued to be made frequently, as late as 1964.
Largest building west of the Mississippi. This claim refers to either the floor area or the cubic volume of the building. In either case, since the Smith Tower occupied less than a quarter of a small block, it would have been trumped by several shorter buildings in other western cities.
Local Superlatives: It has often been described as Seattle's first fireproof building, its first steel-framed building, and its first skyscraper. All those titles actually belong to the 1904 Alaska building, whose steel construction and 14-story height fit the turn-of-the-century standards for skyscraper status. The Smith Tower wasn't even second, since it was also preceded in these areas by the 18-story Hoge Building (1912), and several other local high-rises.
Historical significance: It has been called one of the world's first skyscrapers. Chicago's Home Insurance Building, generally considered to be the first skyscraper, was completed 30 years before the Smith Tower. The intervening three decades saw several hundred other skyscrapers built in scores of cities in the U.S. and Canada, prior to the Smith Tower's completion. It would have been accurate to say that it one of the first 10 office buildings taller than 450 feet.
They Got It Right
There are scattered cases where more accurate information about the Smith Tower's height were published:
- In 1913, a Seattle Times caption for a construction photo implicitly gave the height as somewhat over 460 feet.
- A 1930s illustration, comparing the length of the Queen Mary to the height of 16 buildings, showed the tower at 462 feet.
- A 1945 report to the Seattle City Council put the height at 470 feet.
- In 1976, a Seattle Times article said that "even counting the basement, sub-basement, and two tiny cramped floors in the dunce cap cone, has 39 floors. In 1982, another Seattle Times article found the 42-story claim exaggerated, but to this day there are four brass plaques affixed to the tower's first floor exterior claiming 42 stories for the structure.
- In a 1994 Seattle Weekly article, I contended that the claim of 42 stories was originally six stories too high, and that the 522 foot height was most likely incorrect.
- In 2000, skyscrapers.com (now Emporis) debunked three Smith Tower myths, saying that its "actual height is only 465 feet (not 500 as claimed), and [it] only has 35 floors (38 counting the steeple vents). When the tower opened on July 4, 1914, it was the tallest building in the United States west of Ohio -- but not the tallest outside of New York. Cincinnati's PNC Tower and the [Philadelphia] City Hall were both taller."