Seattle's Cobb Building is dedicated on September 14, 1910.

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 7/27/2006
  • Essay 7872
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On September 14, 1910, Seattle's Cobb Building, located on the northwest corner of 4th Avenue and University Street, is dedicated. The New York firm of Howells & Stokes designed the building as part of its master plan for the University of Washington's "Metropolitan Tract," managed at the time by the Metropolitan Building Company (succeeded in 1954 by Unico). It is the first building on the West Coast built specially to serve physicians and dentists and will be listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. (In 2006 Unico will convert the Cobb to luxury apartments.)

A City Within a City

The Cobb was the third major building completed in a visionary yet practical scheme to establish a new "city within the city" on the former campus of the University of Washington, which abandoned its original 10-acre site for the northern shores of Portage Bay in 1895. After unsuccessful attempts to sell its "Metropolitan Tract" (roughly bordered by 6th and 4th avenues and Union and Seneca streets), University Regents leased it to developer James A. Moore, but he could not attract enough capital. At the time, downtown Seattle was centered in Pioneer Square, and many investors regarded the Tract as lying too far north to support major commercial development.

In 1907, Moore sold his lease to the new Metropolitan Building Company, directed by the energetic "Major" John Franklin Douglas and capitalized by a small group of local and East Coast financiers. The company hired the New York architectural firm of Howells & Stokes to draw up a master plan for the entire tract. This was one of the nation's first planned development programs.

The White and Henry buildings on the east side of 4th Avenue were finished first, later joined by the Stuart. Their coordinated facades created the appearance of a single structure, often referred to as the White Henry Stuart Building. The MBC also built the Stimson Building, Ice Arena, and Metropolitan Theatre between 1909 and 1915. All were named for major investors in the Company -- the eponymous C. H. Cobb was a Northwest lumberman -- and all but the Cobb were later demolished. (The Olympic Hotel and the Skinner Buildings, both completed in the 1920s, do not conform to the original architectural scheme.)

Doctors and Dentists Welcome

John Mead Howells and I. N. Phelps Stokes designed the building with the assistance of local architect Abraham H. Albertson. The latter is best known today for the Seattle Tower (originally Northern Life Tower, 1929), a classic skyscraper located cater-cornered from the Cobb at 3rd Avenue and University Street. The Cobb was the West Coast's first building designed expressly for physicians and dentists, and it included a bank of four high-speed elevators, additional gas and electrical service and a built-in vacuum cleaning system. A relief of Hippocrates stands guard over the building entrance.

Tenants began to move into the Cobb in late June 1910. The gala opening on September 14 concluded with the building's illumination in a blaze of electrical incandescence. The Cobb's 10th floor roof garden, then the highest vantage point in the Metropolitan Tract, soon became a popular attraction for residents and tourists alike.

Those Indian Heads

The Cobb is regarded as one of Seattle's finest buildings in the Beaux Arts mode, which is distinguished by its classical proportions and elaborate ornamentation. The facade features large terra cotta cartouches incorporating a stylized Indian chief's face in full headdress. These are attributed to craftsman Victor Schneider and were supposedly inspired by the photography of Edward S. Curtis.

The same figures were used in the design of the White, Henry, and Stuart buildings, all demolished in the late 1970s to make room for Minoru Yamasaki's Rainier Square and tower. Several Indian heads were salvaged and may be viewed in the Rainier Square concourse, at the Museum of History and Industry, and at Daybreak Star Center in Discovery Park, in addition to the Cobb.

Near Death and Rebirth

Facing the impending loss of the White, Henry, Stuart, and Stimson buildings due to Unico redevelopment plans in the 1970s, Allied Arts and other preservationists sought to place the Cobb and Skinner Buildings under the City of Seattle's stringent landmarks protection ordinance. Unico and the University of Washington successfully argued in court that the city had no jurisdiction over state-owned structures, and in 1975 a skittish City Council rejected landmark status for the Cobb.

Disturbed by the adverse public reaction to the demolitions, in 1984 UW Regents agreed to the long-term survival of the Cobb and Skinner (which houses the 5th Avenue Theatre) buildings and to their listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The Cobb was also still a profitable venue. As historian Neal O. Hines comments in Denny's Knoll, "The Cobb was saved not by sentiment but by the economic soundness of its place" in the larger Metropolitan Tract scheme (p. 360).

On August 1, 2006, Unico rededicated The Cobb as a luxury apartment building with 92 units. It was thoroughly re-engineered to win a "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design" certification and rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Sources: The Metropolitan Bulletin (biweekly Metropolitan Building Co. newsletter), September 10 and October 8, 1910; "Cobb Building Gayly Opened," Seattle Post Intelligencer, September 15, 1910, p. 12; "Cobb Building Opens with Big Reception, The Seattle Times, September 15, 1910, p. 10.; Neal O. Hines, Denny's Knoll: A History of the Metropolitan Tract of the University of Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980), pp. 68, 69, 90, 101, 360.

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