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Olympic Hotel: Seattle Landmark Since 1924
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The Fairmont Olympic Hotel, bounded by 4th and 5th avenues, and University and Seneca streets in downtown Seattle, was built in 1924 and expanded in 1928. Its construction was financed with community bonds and it stands on the original site of the University of Washington. The hotel was extensively remodeled over its life and in 1981 was restored to its original glory by the Four Seasons group, which also ended union contracts with its staff. Fairmont Hotels and Resorts took over the Olympic's management in August 2003.
The UW's Original Site
Seattle's desire for a world class hotel took root after World War I, when the Chamber of Commerce appointed a committee to work toward this goal. All eyes soon focused on an undeveloped portion of the "Metropolitan Tract." Formerly called "Denny's Knoll," the Metropolitan Tract was a four-block area of downtown donated by Arthur Denny in 1861 for the Territorial University (later University of Washington).
The University of Washington Board of Regents continued to own the tract after the campus relocated north of Portage Bay in 1895. The area grew in value as Seattle's downtown expanded north from Pioneer Square, and after several false steps, the Regents leased it to the Metropolitan Building Company (MBC) in 1904 to develop it in trust for the University over the next 50 years. (The Tract is now managed by Unico.)
Regents were unmoved by the Metropolitan Building Company's proposal to build a new hotel around the existing Metropolitan Theater (1911), between 4th and 5th avenues and University and Seneca streets. They rejected the plan on May 27, 1921, chiefly because it effectively extended MBC's lease until 1973 without increasing trust revenues. Angered but undaunted, the Chamber of Commerce and MBC organized a Community Hotel Corporation (many of whose trustees also directed the MBC) to sublease the property and develop the hotel through a public bond drive. Because the plan did not alter the terms of MBC's core lease with the UW, Regent permission was not required.
Almost immediately, department store owner W. L. Rhodes and English-born local shipping magnate Frank Waterhouse organized a public campaign and began to sell $3,000,000 worth of bonds in order to make the enterprise a community affair. Meanwhile, The Seattle Times held a contest to name the hotel. After gathering a list of 3,906 names from the community, a committee chose The Olympic. The selection was made public after the bond drive ended.
Once the lease was closed in 1922, architects George B. Post & Sons of New York and Bebb & Gould of Seattle were retained for the project. Ground was broken on April 1, 1923. Within two months, bids for the hotel came in $1,650,000 over the amount subscribed. Another bond issue was taken up and a decision was made to build a larger and better hotel than had been planned. Management was contracted with the Olympic Hotel Company, formed by national hotel owners Frank A. Dudley and Roy Carruthers.
As president of the Chamber of Commerce, Albert S. Kerry wanted to show the world that "the old Seattle crowd never had failed to complete anything that it undertook and would complete the hotel without appealing to the public for another dollar." By the end of 1923, Kerry was elected president of the Community Hotel Corporation and devoted himself entirely to the hotel until it was completed and turned over to the operators at the end of 1924.
The erection of steel began in January 1924, and work was completed by November in near-record time. All told, the hotel cost $5,500,000, of which $800,000 was for furnishings. The hotel operators accepted responsibility for the higher than expected construction costs.
Two thousand people showed up in their finery for the grand opening on December 6, 1924. Rooftop searchlights danced their beams across the surrounding buildings and sliced the night sky over Puget Sound. The hotel, made of buff-faced brick with terra cotta trim, rose from a base of granite and Belgian marble, inspiring the awe of those who stepped out of their cars, which filled Seattle streets that night for blocks on end.
The guests entered off Seneca Street, directly into the grand lobby paneled high with American Oak. To their left was a shop for guests, the reception desk, and a telegraph room. To the right, another shop and the public telephone room. Straight ahead was the entrance to the Palm Room and the staircase to the upper floors.
Also to the left was the entrance to the Assembly Lounge, a room of magnificent proportions. This room led to the main ballroom, the Italian Ballroom and Spanish Ballroom, and beneath that, the Ship Room, the Coffee Room, and the Lunch Room. Hidden from sight were five kitchens, which serviced all of the dining areas.
No Expense Spared
Walnut furniture graced every room. Drapes dressed the windows in damask, cretonne, and velour. Hundreds of lamps illuminated the hotel, and immense chandeliers glowed in the lobby and in all public rooms. Gold and silver lames, gauze, and lace covered or enhanced just about everything.
Chinese maids in green silks served the guests. White clad sailor lads bounded from ball room to dining room and back again, providing entertainment. Snappy bellhops in gold-buttoned uniforms catered to the needs of all, and a French girl vending cigars and cigarettes added to the cosmopolitan air.
Guests staying the evening could choose a single room, a double room, a parlor suite of two to seven rooms, or a deluxe suite consisting of a parlor room, a dining room, a maid's room and a kitchen-pantry. Each room had a bath or shower, mirror-paneled closets, and elaborate furniture.
A Capitol Has Been Provided
The following day, a reporter from The Seattle Times waxed rhapsodic: "With the formal opening of the Olympic, Page One in a new social era was turned. Others may sing the civic anthem of praise and accomplishment; lift their voices or ply their pens in a paean over it as a monument along the endless road of progress a city travels, but there is also another point of view. In the province whence come social calendars, a capitol has been provided."
Throughout the 1920s, the Olympic was THE place for Seattle's high society. Those attending performances at the Met could be seen socializing at the Olympic before and after the show. A new wing was completed on 5th Avenue in 1928 (effectively encasing the Metropolitan Theater on University Street). After the stock market crash of 1929, the Olympic, like many hotels, suffered for lack of business. Its operators went into receivership in 1933, and management was taken over by The Olympic, Inc. William Edris secured effective control of the hotel in 1943, when most of its original debt was retired.
During World War II, University Street in front of the hotel and Metropolitan Theater was dedicated as "Victory Square." A temporary Greek-style temple and obelisk were installed and numerous patriotic and War Bonds rallies were held during the course of the war.
UW Regents extended the hotel's ground lease in 1953 and approved plans to demolish the Metropolitan Theater, around which the hotel was wrapped, in order to create a new entrance on University Street. Helen Hayes starred in the 1911-vintage theater's final production. The curtain descended for the last time on December 4, 1954.
From Western to Four Seasons
The following year, Western Hotels (later Western International and Westin) took over management of the Olympic through a new subsidiary, Seattle Olympic Hotel Company. The new company paid $3.5 million to buy out the rights of The Olympic, Inc. It sold the contract to the London-based Four Seasons chain in 1979.
Four Seasons retained NBBJ architects to design a comprehensive upgrade of the building, including restoration of many of its original features. At the same time, it enraged local labor unions by opposing collective bargaining with hotel employees. This triggered a long and bitter labor boycott when the Olympic reopened in 1981. The hotel remains non-union to the present day (1999).
Over the years, many of Seattle's influential visitors have stayed at the hotel. Starting with Herbert Hoover, every U.S. president, and virtually every presidential candidate, have occupied the Presidential Suite. When John F. Kennedy, who had a bad back, stayed at the hotel in 1961, he found a firm mattress waiting for him. He tested it and found it still too soft. While he attended the University of Washington's centennial celebration, officials at the Olympic had a factory in Tacoma stop production, make a new mattress, and deliver it within a few hours.
Other famous guests of the Olympic include Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Crown Prince Akhito and Princess Michiko of Japan, Prince Philip of Great Britain, John Wayne, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, John Glenn, Jimmy Hoffa, and Elvis Presley. U.S. Senator Warren G. Magnuson used the hotel as his Seattle residence when not in Washington, D.C. Use of the hotel by local and visiting politicians declined precipitously when the hotel ended its union contracts in 1981.
Despite such controversies, the Olympic remains a monument to Seattle's spirit of community-based entrepreneurism and the undisputed "Grand Dame" of the city's hotels.
Richard C. Berner, Seattle 1921-1940: From Boom to Bust (Seattle: Charles Press, 1992), 181-182; Neal O. Hines, Denny's Knoll: a History of the Metropolitan Tract of the University of Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980); Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide: Seattle (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998); The Seattle Times, December 7, 1924, pp. C1-C8; Seattle Post-Intelligencer December 7, 1924, pp. O1-O12; Ibid., January 31, 1980, p. A-8.
Note: This essay was updated on March 26, 2004.
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The Olympic Hotel (George B. Post & Sons and Bebb & Gould, 1924), Seattle
In front of The Olympic Hotel (George B. Post & Sons and Bebb & Gould, 1924), Seattle, 1920s
The Olympic Hotel (George B. Post & Sons and Bebb & Gould, 1924), Seattle, 1930s
The Olympic Hotel under construction, Seattle, 1924
Courtesy MOHAI (PEMCO, W & S)
Luggage label for The Olympic Hotel, 1930s
Courtesy The Fairmont Olympic Hotel
The Olympic Hotel (George B. Post & Sons and Bebb & Gould, 1924, 1928), Seattle, 1950s
Lobby of The Olympic Hotel, Seattle, 1950s
Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, at the Olympic Hotel, Seattle, June 11, 1954
Marine Room, Olympic Hotel, Seattle, 1960s