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Summary for 502 2nd AVE / Parcel ID 0939000060 / Inv #

Historic Name: Smith Tower Common Name: Smith Tower
Style: Commercial - Chicago School, Italian - Italian Renaissance, Other Neighborhood: Pioneer Square
Built By: Year Built: 1914
In the opinion of the survey, this property appears to meet the criteria of the National Register of Historic Places.
In the opinion of the survey, this property appears to meet the criteria of the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Ordinance.
In the opinion of the survey, this property is located in a potential historic districe (National and/or local).
The Smith Tower was completed in 1914 and opened to the public on July 4 of that year. In its day, it was considered the tallest building west of the Mississippi. In fact, it was reported to be the tallest building in the world, outside of the F.W. Woolworth Building, the Singer Building and the Metropolitan Life Building in New York. It was commissioned by the typewriter and rifle magnate Lyman C. Smith, whose son, Burns Lyman Smith, had originally pushed the idea of a skyscraper over the initial plan for a fourteen story building. Smith hired Gaggin and Gaggin, an architecture firm from Syracuse, New York to design the building. The permit for construction was obtained in 1911. From the start, L. C. Smith intended to lavish as much money and care on the building as possible and stated: “No money, artistic or architectural skill will be spared in making the edifice a monumental advertisement for Seattle and the Northwest.” Construction for the building exceeded $1.5 million. After the Great Fire of 1889 in Seattle and numerous fires in major American cities, fireproofing continued to be an important consideration in the construction of buildings. Special care was taken in the construction of the Smith Tower, which was advertised as “absolutely fireproof.” In addition to its fireproofed structural steel frame, it had interior doors and trim of metal, finished to look like mahogany as well as bronze window frames. In the same period, terra-cotta cladding was also widely advertised as a fire-proofing material. The building’s exterior, almost entirely clad in gleaming white terra cotta, is one of the finer examples of the legacy of terra cotta clad buildings in Seattle, built between the 1910s and the late 1920s. When it opened, the Smith Tower contained the latest conveniences of the time, including: lavatories on every floor, telephone, telegraph, wireless and cable offices. It also featured shops and restaurants. It is still famous for the richness of its lobby interior, paneled with Pedrara onyx, the ornate steel cage elevator cabs (by the Otis Elevator Company), upper floor lobbies clad in marble, as well as the Chinese Room, located on the thirty fifth floor of the building. The interior furnishings of the Chinese room were originally provided by the last Empress of China as a gift to L. C. Smith. 1911 was at the end of 10 years of explosive growth for the original commercial district, which later became the Pioneer Square-Skid Road National Historic District and for Seattle in general. 1911 was also the year when Virgil Bogue produced the Bogue Plan, which would have moved Seattle’s commercial center north to the Denny Regrade and created a civic center at about Fourth Avenue and Blanchard Street. At the same time, by 1911, the area where the Smith Tower was to be sited was already a cosmopolitan area, with many, new shining examples of Seattle’s most sophisticated architecture, including Eames and Young’s Alaska Building of 1904, Bebb and Mendel’s Corona Building of 1903, and Arthur Bishop Chamberlain’s Collins Building of 1893-94. There was a movement to counter Bogue’s idea for a more northern city center and the Smith Tower was a big part of it. L. C. Smith actually extracted a promise from the city administration that he would build the Smith Tower, if it would not move city hall north. While the Bogue Plan was defeated in a city wide vote in 1912, ultimately L. C. Smith’s notion of keeping the main commercial district close to the city’s original center did not prevail. The center of the city did move north. This also ensured that most of the buildings which make up the historic district survived.
The Smith Tower is a forty-two story structure located at Second Avenue and Yesler Way. It has a steel skeleton, fireproofed in concrete which, in turn, sits on a grillage of concrete and iron beams, also fireproofed in concrete. All this is supported on 1,281 concrete pilings. The first twenty-four floors are roughly 120 feet by 108 feet, but irregular in plan, with an elevation set diagonally at the southwest corner between Second Avenue and Yesler Way. From the third floor up, the building was designed with two open light courts which penetrate the building at the middle of the east and north elevations. From the twenty-fifth floor to the thirty-fifth floor is a tower, about 54.5 feet by 44 feet in plan, which is centered over the west elevation. This is surmounted by a pyramidal shaped roof which begins at the 36th floor and extends upward seventy feet. On the exterior, on Yesler Way and Second Avenue, the granite faced elevations of the two lower floors are divided into regular bays by piers, faced in granite with decorative capitals at the second level. These piers continue up the face of the building, but are clad in terra cotta above the second floor. Above the first floor storefronts, from the second to the 35th floor, the bays are similar with a rectangular window opening containing a row of three double-hung windows set in a bronze window frame. The terra cotta clad floors are distinguished by the running ornamental bands of small ogee arches above the window openings, repeated pairs of circular medallions set on the continuous piers (at the level of the lintel of a lower window and sill of the window above it) and terra cotta roll molding running vertically up the face of the piers. A major remodel in 1999 included filling in one of the building’s light-wells, the addition of a fiber-optic cable system that runs throughout the building, the creation of a penthouse apartment in the location of the old watertank at the top of the tower, changes to the office configuration around the upper floor lobbies and recladding of the lobby’s foyer off Second Avenue.

Detail for 502 2nd AVE / Parcel ID 0939000060 / Inv #

Status: Yes - Inventory
Classication: Building District Status: NR, LR
Cladding(s): Stone, Terra cotta Foundation(s): Concrete - Block
Roof Type(s): Flat with Parapet, Pyramidal Roof Material(s): Other
Building Type: Commercial/Trade - Professional Plan: Irregular
Structural System: Steel No. of Stories: twenty+
Unit Theme(s): Architecture/Landscape Architecture, Commerce, Community Planning/Development, Science & Engineering
Storefront: Moderate
Changes to Plan: Slight
Changes to Original Cladding: Intact
Changes to Windows: Intact
Major Bibliographic References
Ochsner, Jeffrey and Dennis Andersen. Distant Corner: Seattle Architects and The Legacy of H. H. Richardson. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2004.
“Building Facts, Smith Tower,” 2003. Database on-line. Available from:
Dorpat, Paul, “A Photographer’s Climb to Get Close to the Terra Cotta Tower on the Canyon of Dreams,” in Lydia Aldredge, Editor, Impressions of Imagination: Terra Cotta Seattle, Seattle: Allied Arts, 1986.
Wakefield, Arthur F., Editor. History of the Forty-Two Story L. C. Smith Building., Seattle: DeLuxe Publication Company. Reprint 1998.University of Washington, Special Collections and Manuscripts.
Dorpat, Paul, “Now and Then – Smith Tower,” 1999. Database on-line. Available from:
“Smith Tower, 506 Second Avenue, Seattle- Historic Preservation Certification Application, Part 1,” 6 October 1998.

Photo collection for 502 2nd AVE / Parcel ID 0939000060 / Inv #

Photo taken May 24, 2004
App v2.0.1.0