Smith Tower and Old Town Seattle

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On Seattle’s First Avenue heading to the historic Pioneer Square, to the left is the iconic kinetic sculpture of Hammering Man by Jonathan Borofsky

September is one of the best months to visit the beautiful city of Seattle. It is the end of summer; flowers and big trees are still in full bloom while the weather is getting milder and cooler. Being Seattle, the city known the world over for its perennial rain showers, it is always wise to pack some rain gears (say a light umbrella or a rain jacket if you want to look locally streetwise), but other than that, some smart casual outfits, a light jacket and a good pair of walking shoes should suffice.

As I wrote earlier about the Capitol Hill area, we do walk a lot here in Seattle. And why not? Their small city blocks are not just pedestrian friendly but also lined with interesting things to see up-close and in slow pace. Once you get enough of all the foods at the Pike Place Market, it’s time to get a bit of the city’s vibrant history and the best place to start is at their well-preserved Pioneer Square where everything about the city itself began in 1852 (about 161 years ago) when the first groups of settlers called this spot home and built the city from its muddy ground up.

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The Smith Tower, built in 1914, is one of the historical buildings built in later period of Seattle. Now about to celebrate its first century, it is still one of the most beautiful pieces of art deco architectures and once hailed as the tallest office building in the world outside of New York City.

When we were students long long time ago in Oregon, we took all the advantages of the student discounts and explored the cities that we visited as much as we could. I remember that one of the first things we did when in Seattle back then was taking the wonderful Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour into the past-and-almost-forgotten world of Seattle. If you are a history buff like me and think that the best way to get to know a city is to learn about its story and its past, the underground tour is definitely a MUST. Maybe it is the way the tour guide told the story, or maybe it is the richness of the story itself that makes the tour very interesting and fun and memorable. Seattle, like many northwestern cities that line the Pacific Northwest of the US, was one of the stopovers for those hiking their way up to Alaska during the Yukon Gold Rush era (in 1890s), meaning this place attracted all kinds of people from entrepreneurs, barmen, gamblers that prospered in all kinds of activities and businesses – bad and good, but mostly shady because most people were looking to take advantage of those wishing to make it big and quick at the gold rush. But when the rush was over (about 10 years later), Seattle’s Pioneer Square was in bad shape. It became an area of shameful past, driving reputable businesses to move uptown and itself became quickly forgotten.

It was in fact the business of Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour that first started in 1954 that saved Pioneer Square from being bulldozed into new building blocks. He and his wife Shirley were the ones who found the ‘passageways beneath the city’ – the very existence that later on led to more explorations of the city’s magnificent history that made the locals realize that they should save this area and preserve it as a historical place rather than replacing it with just another bunch of new buildings. These locals who took the first Speidel’s underground tours through the remains of Seattle left after the Great Fire in 1889 gathered to sign the petition that later in 1970 resulting in an ordinance naming the 20 square blocks in Pioneer Square a Historical District. Later Pioneer Square became the city’s first area listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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At First Avenue and Yesler Way, the great old Seattle Hotel couldn’t be saved in time. It was replaced by this hideous ‘Sinking Ship Garage’ during the 1950s plans for citywide bulldozing scheme before Pioneer Square was petitioned for preservation by the people.

Among Seattle’s historical sites is the Smith Tower (just opposite to the pictured garage above), which was still open to the public as it first did in 1914 when it was hailed as one of the tallest office buildings in the world (outside NYC). Built by a business tycoon, this is one elaborate buildings achieved in the time when class and money still went pretty much hand in hand. It was an astounding experience going pass the building’s original heavy bronze doors and up into the bronze-framed elevator (still man-operated at all times and still using the original engine that you can observe at the top floor) to see the panoramic view that used to excite the heck out of Seattle people when there was still no Needle Space to topple it.

While the Smith Tower is about to celebrate its first centennial anniversary next year, visitors can always go up 35 flights and enjoy the beautiful Chinese room, walk around the observation deck and see Seattle in its old settlement area complete with the nearby Puget Sound that frames this city practically surrounded by waters.

 

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