Smith Tower: Seattle's past stands tall at Second and Yesler
Special to The Seattle Times
That's the cost of an elevator ride to the observation deck of the venerable Smith Tower, storied as the highest building west of the Mississippi in the era before boxy glass high-rises.
You can gawk at the ornately carved black ceiling in the Chinese Room and, if the weather cooperates, take in equal drafts of 35th-floor air and mountain views from the outside balcony.
"It's awesome. You can see everything from here," Tacoma resident Scott Smith raved from the southeast corner of the observation deck. "I don't think I've been this high before."
In its own way, the Smith Tower was a monument to an ego — that of Burns Lyman Smith, heir to the fortune of his father, Lyman Cornelius Smith, who manufactured firearms and Smith Corona typewriters. Although he couldn't compete with the skyscrapers financed by the family wealth of Woolworth and Singer in New York, the younger Smith saw the opportunity to create the highest building outside of Manhattan.
He persuaded his father to dump plans for a modest 14-story building and erect a landmark 42-story skyscraper that combined distinctive modern features, such as electric elevators, with craftsman materials, such as Alaskan marble and Mexican onyx.
Like the money that paid for it, a lot of the tower's vital parts were shipped from the East, including steel for girders and bronze for window frames.
Costing $1 million, the Smith Tower took four years to construct and hosted a bevy of dignitaries when it opened on Independence Day 1914. The 522 feet between the top of its pyramid cone roof (a feature influenced by the Metropolitan Life Building in New York) and the Second Avenue sidewalk made it the fourth-tallest building in the world.
To a city honed from wooded hills and tidal mud, the terra-cotta-clad tower became an icon of progress. The Seattle Times called it the Queen City's noblest monument to steel and reported that seasoned skippers found it a boon to navigation.
You can soak up how much progress has occurred in the 87 years since the building was completed with a slow circling of the observation deck.
Retreat inside and admire the generosity of the Empress of China, who gifted a ceiling of ornately carved wood and porcelain, as well as elaborately carved Blackwood furniture. These pieces gave the 35th-floor Chinese Room its name, although the hallmark red wallpaper that many visitors recall has been replaced by a gold finish following a building refurbishment by the current owner, The Samis Foundation.
Among the pieces in the Chinese Room is the famed Wishing Chair, which is said to bring marriage within a year to any hopeful occupant.
Jayme Bowen and her suitor, Michael Nail, and her parents, Dave and Debbie Bowen, recently were assessing the Chinese Room for a reception, possibly even a place to get married.
Her mom had practical concerns such as where guests would park their cars. Chuck Russell-Coons, guide and ticket-taker and former elevator operator in the tower, pointed out that there were more horses than cars in Seattle when the building was completed.
But there is ample parking in the area, he said.
Smith Tower, at Second Avenue and Yesler Way, underwent a $28 million renovation that was completed in January 2000. Since then, public entry to the building has been restricted to the self-guided tours of the Chinese Room, the observation deck and the entrance lobby. The tours, costing $5 for adults, are available weekends only, now through May (11a.m.- 4 p.m.), and daily from May through September (10 a.m. — 4 p.m.).
For information: 206-622-3131 or see www.chineseroom.com.
For historical information: www.historylink.org/galleries/nowthen/smithtower.htm.
Bainbridge Island freelance writer Gordon Black sees the Smith Tower regularly from the vantage point of a Washington State ferry.