MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Happy 100, Smith Tower!

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What a work of beauty it is: a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance Revival architecture that once held the title of tallest building west of the Mississippi and long reigned as the tallest on the West Coast, Smith Tower was opened to the public during the July 4th holiday period 100 years ago (technically, July 3) — the very month in which the First World War began.

And even amid the present Seattle skyline, where it’s dwarfed by the “Darth Vader” Columbia Tower and other urban mountain peaks, the Smith Tower retains its matchless poise and sturdy elegance. It arose in the aftermath of the Great Fire that had destroyed the old downtown Seattle in 1889 and represented the vision of Lyman Cornelius Smith, a prominent New York industrialist (who founded what would become the Smith-Corona Typewriter Company).

 Smith Tower under construction, 1913

Smith Tower under construction, 1913

Smith died before the building was completed, but his son, Burns Lyman Smith, took over to see the project through. Designed by the Syracuse brother architects Edwin H. Gaggin and Thomas Walker Gaggin, the Tower reaches to 489 ft at the top of its spire, with 38 floors of office space (42 total), and 304,350 sq ft. The famous Chinese Room on floor 35 contains gifts from Empress Dowager Cixi, the “Last Empress” of China.

My friend Ben Lukoff observes the following in his book Seattle: Then and Now: “The Smith Tower, which was designated a city landmark in 1987, is still the seventeenth-tallest building in the city. It has twice undergone renovation and was a popular office location during the dot-com boom.”

View of the Chinese Room

View of the Chinese Room

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