Seattle's Olympic Hotel opens for business on December 6, 1924.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 1/01/1999
  • Essay 1979
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On December 6, 1924, the posh Olympic Hotel, located in downtown Seattle and bounded by 4th and 5th avenues, and by University and Seneca streets, hosts 2,000 of Seattle's high society in a grand opening celebration. The hotel, financed by a successful citywide bond subscription campaign, is a triumph of civic spirit, and at the time is considered one of the finest hotels in America.

Original Site of the University of Washington

Seattle's desire for a world-class hotel took root after World War I, when the Chamber of Commerce appointed a committee to work towards this goal. All eyes soon focused on an undeveloped portion of the "Metropolitan Tract." Formerly called "Denny's Knoll," the Metropolitan Tract was a four-block area of downtown donated by Arthur Denny in 1861 for the Territorial University.

The University of Washington Board of Regents continued to own the tract after the campus relocated north of Portage Bay in 1895. The area grew in value as Seattle's downtown expanded north from Pioneer Square. After several false steps, the Regents leased it to the Metropolitan Building Company (MBC) in 1904 to develop it in trust for the University over the next 50 years. (The Tract is now managed by Unico.)

Regents were unmoved by the Metropolitan Building Company's proposal to build a new hotel around the existing Metropolitan Theater (1911), between 4th and 5th avenues and University and Seneca streets. They rejected the plan on May 27, 1921, chiefly because it effectively extended MBC's lease until 1973 without increasing trust revenues. Angered but undaunted, the Chamber of Commerce and MBC organized a Community Hotel Corporation (many of whose trustees also directed the MBC) to sublease the property and develop the hotel through a public bond drive. Because the plan did not alter the terms of MBC's core ease with the UW, Regent permission was not required.

Public-Private Partnership

Almost immediately, department store owner W. L. Rhodes and English-born local shipping magnate Frank Waterhouse organized a public campaign began to sell $3,000,000 worth of bonds in order to make the enterprise a community affair. Meanwhile, The Seattle Times held a contest to name the hotel, and after gathering a list of 3,906 names from the community, a committee chose The Olympic. The selection was made public after the bond drive ended.

Once the lease was closed in 1922, architects George B. Post & Sons of New York and Bebb & Gould of Seattle were retained for the project. Ground was broken on April 1, 1923. Within two months, bids for the hotel came in $1,650,000 over the amount subscribed. Another bond issue was taken up and a decision was made to build a larger and better hotel than had been planned. Management was contracted with the Olympic Hotel Company, formed by national hotel owners Frank A. Dudley and Roy Carruthers.

Albert. S. Kerry was now president of the Chamber of Commerce, and wanted to show the world that "the old Seattle crowd never had failed to complete anything that it undertook and would complete the hotel without appealing to the public for another dollar." By the end of 1923, Kerry was elected president of the Community Hotel Corporation and devoted himself entirely to the hotel until it was completed and turned over to the operators at the end of 1924.

The erection of steel began in January of 1924, and work was completed by November in near-record time. All told, the hotel cost $5,500,000, of which $800,000 was for furnishings. The hotel operators accepted responsibility for the higher than expected construction costs.

Opening Night

Two thousand people showed up in their finery for the grand opening. Rooftop searchlights danced their beams across the surrounding buildings and sliced the night sky over Puget Sound. The hotel, made of buff-faced brick with terra cotta trim, rose from a base of granite and Belgian marble, inspiring the awe of those who stepped out of their cars, which filled Seattle streets that night for blocks on end.

The guests entered off Seneca Street, directly into the grand lobby paneled high with American Oak. To their left was a shop for guests, the reception desk, and a telegraph room. To the right, another shop and the public telephone room. Straight ahead was the entrance to the Palm Room and the staircase to the upper floors.

Also to the left was the entrance to the Assembly Lounge, a room of magnificent proportions. This room led to the main ballroom, the Italian Ballroom and Spanish Ballroom, and beneath that, the Ship Room, the Coffee Room, and the Lunch Room. Hidden from sight were five kitchens which serviced all of the dining areas.

Walnut furniture graced every room. Drapes dressed the windows in damask, cretonne, and velour. Hundreds of lamps illuminated the hotel, and immense chandeliers glowed in the lobby and in all public rooms. Gold and silver lames, gauze, and lace covered or enhanced just about everything.

Chinese maids in green silks served the guests. White clad sailor lads bounded from ball room to dining room and back again, providing entertainment. Snappy bellhops in gold-buttoned uniforms catered to the needs of all, and a French girl vending cigars and cigarettes added to the cosmopolitan air.

Guests staying the evening could choose a single room, a double room, a parlor suite of two to seven rooms, or a deluxe suite consisting of a parlor room, a dining room, a maid's room and a kitchen-pantry. Each room had a bath or shower, mirror-paneled closets, and elaborate furniture.

A Capitol Has Been Provided

The following day, a reporter from The Seattle Times waxed rhapsodic: "With the formal opening of the Olympic, Page One in a new social era was turned. Others may sing the civic anthem of praise and accomplishment; lift their voices or ply their pens in a paean over it as a monument along the endless road of progress a city travels, but there is also another point of view. In the province whence come social calendars, a capitol has been provided."

Throughout the 1920s, the Olympic was THE place for Seattle's high society. Those attending performances at the Met could be seen socializing at the Olympic before and after the show. After the stock market crash, the Olympic, like many hotels, suffered for lack of business, but it recovered. The hotel was remodeled in 1981 by the Four Seasons group, which also ended union contracts with its staff. Fairmont Hotels and Resorts took over management in August 2003.


Richard C. Berner, Seattle 1921-1940: From Boom to Bust (Seattle: Charles Press, 1992), 181-182; Neal O. Hines, Denny's Knoll: a History of the Metropolitan Tract of the University of Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980); Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide: Seattle (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998); The Seattle Times, December 7, 1924, pp. C1-C8; Seattle Post-Intelligencer December 7, 1924, pp. O1-O12; ;Ibid. January 31, 1980, p. A8.
Note: This essay was updated on March 26, 2004.

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