When you are on the southeast corner of Third Avenue and University Street, in what is perhaps the thickest part of downtown Seattle’s skyscraper forest, and happen to be looking at the Seattle Tower, you may find it hard to spot the main feature, Claim to Fame, when it was built in 1929. While the area was certainly still the heart of Seattle’s business and commerce, the skies above weren’t as crowded as it is now – and the crown jewel of this Art Deco beauty is above.
The Seattle Tower began as the Northern Life Tower on behalf of David Bruce Morgan. Morgan ran the Northern Life Insurance Company from 1905, first with his brother Tasso Mayne Morgan until Tasso’s death in 1918. The company moved frequently when it started before it found its home in the Tower. In its first decade, it occupied at least four different offices in Pioneer Square.
The lighting architect from Seattle, Abraham H. Albertson, designed the building with employees Joseph W. Wilson and Paul D. Richardson in supporting roles. It was built on the site of the Mackintosh Mansion, which was built in 1887 as a family home for Angus, an Ontarian, and Lizzie, a former Mercer Girl pioneer, and purchased by Bonney-Watson Funeral Home in 1907 when the Mackintoshes were living downtown too according to. Bonney-Watson lived on the property until 1912 when it moved up the hill to Broadway and East Olive and the Mackintosh Mansion was demolished. A nondescript two-story block of business stood there for a few years, but was demolished to make way for Northern Life Insurance’s new business center.
A sketch of what was then the Northern Life Tower. Seattle Municipal Archives, Item No. 16356
The tower was a big deal: A grand civic ceremony marked the first foundation stone, which was laid on August 10, 1928. It was heralded as Seattle’s first skyscraper, although the Smith Tower, which was down the street for 15 years at the time, is more than 100 feet taller.
Although it was only 27 stories from the 38 stories of the Smith Tower, the Northern Life Tower looked taller not only because of the hill it was built on – on a hill overlooking Elliott Bay, while the Smith Tower sits in the lowlands of the Pioneer Square is located – but also the visual effect of the gradient. It looked like this when the windows were set back about a foot, forming “vertical pillars” to emphasize the height. This was precisely the aim of the architects; In its marketing materials, the Northern Life Tower was described as “typical of New York”.
It has also been referred to as the first Art Deco building in Seattle to kick off an architectural style boom that included the Washington Athletic Club (1930), Harborview Medical Center (1931), the Federal Office Building (1932), and the Pacific Tower (1933) were included. . (The Medical Dental Building, completed in 1925 and located a few years before the Northern Life Tower, has been called Art Deco by some and a Late Gothic Revival by others, as it incorporates elements of both styles.)
Albertson, Wilson, and Richardson’s team of architects were also or partially responsible for the Cobb building across the block on Fourth Avenue, with its signature terracotta cartouches with Indian-inspired faces (a tribute to Edward S.) Curtis, whose photography studio was on the same block, as was the YMCA Central Branch on Fourth Avenue, Women’s University Club on Sixth, Kerry Hall of the Cornish College of the Arts on East Roy Street, and St. Joseph Catholic Church on First Hill. Controversially, some have claimed that their design for the Northern Life Tower was copied from the Tribune Tower in Chicago, built in 1923 – so much so that architect Miles Vanick, in a 1971 Seattle PI article, called the Northern Life Tower “a near replica “Saarinen’s plan for the tribune tower described by Eliel. An analysis of Albertson’s extensive writings and sketches from the development of the Northern Life Building, however, emphatically denies this. Modern architects still refer to the tower as “Saarinen-influenced”.
Borrowed from Saarinen or not, Albertson’s imagination for the Northern Life Tower was to make it look like a mountain mirroring the dramatic natural landscape of the Pacific Northwest. The idea was to put a ziggurat at the top, with each level getting narrower and narrower, like a wedding cake – or, following the theme, a pointed mountain top. 33 different brick colors were used in the facade, arranged on a slope to suggest cliffs and cliffs. They have been topped with the palest of terracotta to symbolize snow-capped peaks, while stylized metal bars at the top represent evergreen trees. The ziggurat was both a stylistic choice and a result of the zoning requirements of the time: when buildings were above a certain height, the top had to recede and taper to allow sunlight to hit the floor. This can also be seen in the Smith Tower with its iconic pyramid hat.
The brick itself was local and was excavated at the base of Beacon Hill where Interstate 5 meets Spokane Street. According to Kelly Brost of the Seattle Architecture Foundation, the building was supposed to be the insurance company’s Rock of Gibraltar, which suggests durability and reliability to its clients – and although Northern Life Insurance went out of business in 1977, the office’s headquarters were still solidly standing, despite the fact that it is standing Much harder these days to see the distinctive top of the tower from the street than it was in 1929 when it was technically the tallest thing.
Since the tower was supposed to be a metaphorical mountain, the building’s spectacular marble lobby was meant to be a metaphorical cave. According to the architects, the lobby was “designed as a tunnel made of solid rock, the side walls polished, the floor worn smooth and the ceiling carved and decorated as a civilized caveman could do”. It is a classic Art Deco style study with dark marble, gold and brass motifs, like the huge relief map of the Pacific Ocean and its surrounding land masses with an inlaid clock. In a poem written by Bishop George Berkeley in 1726, a name called “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” is used. The brass and gold leaf map details the trade routes in the Pacific that contributed to and helped Seattle’s early success The ceiling features ornate bronze and gold leaf bas-relief designs that illustrate the flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest.
The building’s toilets feature huge panels of the same dark marble as the lobby, which was widely used in Seattle architecture in the early 20th century. Fittingly, it was quarried on Marble Island in Glacier Bay in southeastern Alaska and is also known as Alaskan or Tokeen marble. You’ll also see it in the King County Courthouse and lobbies of the Smith Tower and the newly restored Publix Hotel.
But the specialty of the Northern Life Building is probably no longer there. In keeping with the overall “northern” theme, as AB Casteel wrote in a 1928 edition of Pacific Builder and Engineer devoted primarily to covering the tower, the original incarnation of the tower included “more than 300 floodlight units in The Offsets that its rays shoot upwards as one color gradually gives way to another, creating a beautiful and effective aurora borealis that can be seen for miles. “
The National Park Service website describes the effect as a “phantasmagoric display”. It backfired a bit, however, as people called it the “Northern Lights Tower” building instead of using the company’s correct name. Thanks to that signature, the Northern Life Insurance employee newsletter was titled The Northern Lights, and later The Aurora Borealis. Unfortunately, the lights themselves were turned off in 1942, but the name remained in the newsletter until 1977 when Northern Life Insurance was sold and acquired by Northwestern National Life Insurance Company of Minneapolis.
Over the decades, some of the building’s tenants in addition to Northern Life Insurance have included the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bartell Drugs, Steinway and Sons, several broadcasting companies, and various lawyers and law firms. Its architect Albertson also moved his own offices into the tower when it opened.
Although the company was still in business at the time, the Northern Lights Tower was sold to Tower Associates in 1967 and renamed “Seattle Tower”. It gained national landmark status and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. In 1990, the Seattle PI wrote that it had been renovated and restored to its former glory without the Aurora Borealis floodlights. The civil engineer for the past 15 years reported that he had “kept everything”. It was sold a number of times in (relatively) rapid succession in 2004, 2006, 2010, 2011, and 2015, and is currently owned by Olympia-based DP Bunker Hill, LLC following purchase by Texas and California based companies.
The Seattle Tower is open during business hours and the lobby is great for wandering around and marveling at the gleaming, sumptuous opulence. You will be in good company.