Touring Seattle’s historic Smith Tower

If you spend any time walking around Seattle these days there is one major thing that sticks out – lots and lots of construction.

It seems like every block has a giant crane building another building skyward.

The Smith Tower, white building in the center, was completed in 1914. It is quickly being surpassed by modern buildings.
The Smith Tower, white building in the center, was completed in 1914. It is quickly being surpassed by modern buildings.

In the middle of all of this is one of my favorite Seattle landmarks. The Smith Tower is tucked into the south end of downtown near Pioneer Square, rising just 38 stories. It is dwarfed by the nearby Columbia Tower as well as plenty of other buildings in the area, but thanks to its distinct look (kind of like someone giving a thumbs up sign) it still stands out amongst the glass cathedrals surrounding it.

The tower was built from 1911 to 1914, rising 522 feet above the ground and making it the tallest building west of the Mississippi at the time and the fourth tallest building in the world.

The new historic self-guided tour features lots of information about the Smith Tower from its early days.
The new historic self-guided tour features lots of information about the Smith Tower from its early days.

The granite and terracotta structure exchanged hands many times, including being owned by Ivar Haglund of Ivar’s restaurant fame in the 1970s. Eventually, the building was bought by a local investment firm in 2015 and the tourist areas were shut down for remodeling.

The observation deck was reopened with a self-guided tour included in late August, so I went and checked it out recently.

You enter the tower in the Smith Tower Provisions general store, which has historic looking items, food, coffee and more. Tickets were just $10 for Washington state residents and $12 for everyone else.

The Wishing Chair incorporates a dragon and a phoenix and is said to grant single folks their wish of getting married.
The Wishing Chair incorporates a dragon and a phoenix and is said to grant single folks their wish of getting married.

You then enter a hallway that gives the history of the building, including its Prohibition-era roots. It hosted a few secret bars, was a hub for lawyer offices, had a huge switchboard in the basement and a radio station which many years later became the first NPR station in Seattle.

This part of the tour is tastefully done as they have made great use of limited space. There are audio, video and visual elements which tell the story well. One of my favorite parts was the hidden Submarine Room, which was a staircase in a closet that led to a secret bar – this bar was one of the first LGBQT bars in Seattle in the 1950s. The bar no longer exists, but the museum uses a detailed diorama to show what it looked like at the time.

The ornate Chinese Room features a full bar and restaurant.
The ornate Chinese Room features a full bar and restaurant.

After you make your way through the first floor of the tour, you climb a set of marble stairs to the elevator bank featuring seven Otis elevators that are 102 years old. Climb aboard with the attendant and slowly make your way to the Chinese Room on the 35th floor.

The room is named that because of the unique carved teak ceiling and blackwood furniture which was furnished by the last Empress of China, Cixi, according to Wikipedia.

Everything about the room screams historic, including the furniture, the bar area – which also serves food – the painted ceiling and the famed Wishing Chair. The chair includes a carved dragon and a phoenix. Legend has it that a person wishing to get married sits in the chair and their wish will come true within a year.

The Columbia Tower is now the tallest building in Seattle, easily overwhelming the Smith Tower.
The Columbia Tower is now the tallest building in Seattle, easily overwhelming the Smith Tower.

The day I went up in the tower it was raining, so we stayed inside for a bit until the sun broke through the clouds. The observation deck offers 360-degree views of Seattle, including an urban canyon view of the Space Needle, huge views of the Puget Sound with the Olympic Mountains in the distance and ferries and cruise ships in the foreground, a bird’s-eye view of the skyline, views of the Cascade Mountains to the east, Mt. Rainier to the south (she was hidden the day I was there), and a clear view of CenturyLink Field and Safeco Field.

The Space Needle in the background highlights this urban canyon as seen from the Smith Tower.
The Space Needle in the background highlights this urban canyon as seen from the Smith Tower.

It’s hard to describe the stunning views adequately, though I can’t imagine how gorgeous it would be to visit on a sunny summer evening.

Needless to say, after my first visit to this historic landmark I think I will make it an annual pilgrimage to see it at different times of year.

– Craig Craker

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