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Smith Tower

Smith Tower construction, Feb. 1913
Photograph Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives

The Smith Tower, located in Pioneer Square, is the oldest skyscraper in Seattle, Washington. It is named after its builder, firearm and typewriter magnate Lyman C. Smith. It was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River from its completion in 1914 until the Space Needle overtook it in 1962. It remained the tallest office building west of the Mississippi River until the Humble Building was built in 1963


In 1909, Smith planned to build a 14-story building in Seattle. His son, Burns Lyman Smith, convinced him to build instead a much taller skyscraper to gain publicity. Construction began in 1910. Although Smith did not live to see it, the building was completed in 1914, when it was the tallest office building in the world outside of New York City. It had 42 floors totaling 158 meters (522 feet). Shortly after its completion, the building's superintendent added a flagpole to the top for the building's July 4 opening.

In 1962, the Space Needle was completed. The Space Needle has largely replaced the Smith Tower as the symbol of Seattle. Ivar Haglund of Ivar's restaurant fame bought the tower for $1.8 million in 1976. The Samis Foundation acquired the tower in 1996. It has owned the tower ever since. The building has been renovated twice, in 1986 and in 1999.

Seeking a classy atmosphere, high-tech companies flocked to the Smith Tower, which sports fiber-optic wiring, in recent years. The burst of the dot-com bubble hurt the Smith Tower by raising its vacancy rate to 26.1%, twice Seattle's commercial vacancy rate, as of December 21, 2001. The Walt Disney Internet Group, for example, now occupies four floors instead of seven.


The Smith Tower is an example of neoclassical architecture. Its outer skin is granite on the first and second floors, and terra cotta on the rest. It has been washed only once since its construction, in 1976, because it remains remarkably clean without regular washing.

The building is the last on the West Coast to have live elevator operators. The Otis Elevator Company provided the elevators, which have brass surfaces. The doors are latticed, so a rider can see into each hallway and through the glass walls in front of each office.

The Chinese Room is on the 35th floor of the tower, the same level as the observatory. The furniture and the handcarved ceiling were gifts from the Empress of China. They include the famous Wishing Chair. It is said that a single woman who sits in the chair will marry within a year. The legend came true for Smith's daughter, who married in the Chinese Room itself.

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