Image of the Week: Smith Tower, Former Skyscraper | Andrew Bergh Travel Photography
Image of the Week: Smith Tower, Former Skyscraper

The Space Needle, which was specifically built for the 1962 World’s Fair, certainly helped put Seattle on the map.  The Emerald City does have its share of history, however, so let’s not forget about the iconic Smith Tower, which once had bragging rights to being the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.

In the wake of the Klondike Gold Rush (1896-1899), financial interest in Seattle was at an all-time high among East coast investors.  One of them, millionaire industrialist Lyman Cornelius Smith who made a fortune selling typewriters and firearms, bought and developed numerous buildings in the Pioneer Square district of downtown Seattle, and soon became the largest individual owner of Seattle real estate in the entire country.  Among his holdings was an odd-shaped lot at the northeast corner of Yesler Way and Second Avenue.  During a trip to Seattle in 1909, Smith tentatively planned to replace the existing one-story brick building with a 14-story structure, but his son persuaded him to erect a much taller skyscraper to steal “tallest-west-of-the-Mississippi-River” honors from a building in rival city Tacoma.  By the time final plans were submitted in October 1910, the project had mushroomed to an unheard of 467-foot, 42-story building, which also made it the highest outside of New York City.  (In case you’re wondering, the Empire State Building wasn’t completed until 1932.)

Sadly, Smith died the following month and never even saw his namesake tower break ground.  His son oversaw its construction, however, and the Smith Tower opened to the public on July 4, 1914 with every bell and whistle.  This included eight high-speed, manually operated elevators that could carry an estimated 22,000 passengers per day; an Observation Deck and Chinese Room on the 35th floor with furnishings reportedly gifted to Smith by Cixi, the last Chinese empress; and a 12,000-gallon tank in the pyramid roof to supply drinking water to all the tenants.

But indeed, times have certainly changed over the years.  As shown by the side image, the Smith Tower (at the far right) is now a relative runt on the Seattle skyline – though it remained the tallest building on the west coast for almost half a century.  Fittingly, it was the Space Needle who knocked the Smith Tower off its pedestal.

The Smith Tower itself also has changed over the years, thanks in part to having a parade of different owners after the Smith family sold the building in the 1940’s.  For example, as the result of an extensive renovation in the late 1990’s, the pyramid roof was converted to a multilevel, 2,138-square-foot penthouse complete with a 360-degree view.  When it came on the rental market for the first time in February 2021 (click here for a cool video), the asking price was only $17,000 per month.  Sorry, no word on whether it’s still available.

Both images are available in the Panoramas gallery of our online store, and we of course have many other Seattle images at our gallery on Bainbridge Island along with our usual excellent assortment of metal prints, canvas prints, custom-framed black-and-white prints, and fine art acrylic prints in different genres.  If you happen to be in our area, please do stop by for a visit!  In the meantime, as we slowly edge closer to more normal times, partner Carol and I sincerely hope that you and everyone in your world are staying healthy, safe, and strong.

Ciao for now,

Andrew (“Andy”) Bergh


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