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Smith Tower officially opens in Seattle on July 4, 1914. Essay 5370 : Printer-Friendly Format

On July 4, 1914, the 462-foot-high Smith Tower, located in downtown Seattle, is officially opened by its owner, Burns Lyman Smith (1880-1941). Located at 506 2nd Avenue, the building has taken three and a half years to construct. The Smith Tower is built with 1,400 doors, 2,000 windows, and 40,000 feet of molding. The building sits on 1,276 Raymond concrete piles measuring 22 feet in length. The American Bridge Company produced the tower's steel in a Pittsburgh plant and shipped it on 164 railroad cars, each carrying about 28 tons.

Reaching Great Heights

In the 1890s, real estate developer James Clise (1855-1939) sold a parcel of Pioneer Square properties to New York industrialist Lyman Cornelius Smith (1850-1910) and his son Burns Lyman Smith. The father and son had both made their fortunes selling typewriters and shotguns (they are the "Smith" in Smith Corona typewriters, although they are not the "Smith" of Smith & Wesson guns). The Smiths had visited Seattle in 1888, but purchased the properties from Clise sight unseen.

After the elder Smith died in 1910, Burns Smith announced plans to carry through on the construction of a towering skyscraper on their Seattle property, a dream that his father had been contemplating for some time. Smith hired Edwin H. Gaggin (1866-1955) and Thomas Walker Gaggin (1871-1945) from his hometown of Syracuse, New York, and vowed that the building would open in 1912.

It took a bit longer than that. For the next three-and-a-half years Seattleites watched the massive edifice rise over Pioneer Square, dwarfing all other buildings in downtown Seattle. The tower measured 462 feet to the top of its roof and, counting its antenna spire, totaled 489 feet in height. Upon its completion in 1914 it was touted as the tallest building west of New York (a claim that was untrue, although at the time it was the tallest building west of Ohio.)

Seeing the Sights

Tenants began moving into the L. C. Smith Building (the name "Smith Tower" hadn't quite caught on yet) weeks before its official opening. On March 30, 1914, Smith gave a tour of the building to visiting United States Secretary of Commerce William Cox Redfield (1858-1932). In honor of the visit, the big electric beacon on top of the building was lit for the first time. The next day, Mayor Hi Gill (1866-1919) got a visit. Gill opted to ride the elevator for 18 stories, and then climb 24 flights of stairs to the observation deck. Reporters and cameramen accompanying him were less than thrilled with the workout.

On July 3, 1914, the day before it opened, the building received a surprise visit from Vice Admiral Teijiro Kuroi of the Japanese Navy. Kuroi, and more than 1,500 officers, cadets, and sailors, were visiting Seattle aboard two first-class naval cruisers, and the Vice Admiral had been looking at the Smith building all morning from the deck of his flagship. Kuroi called the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and told them, "I am burning with desire to see your beautiful city from the top of its highest building" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 4, 1914).

The Chamber was happy to oblige and invited Kuroi to the building, where he was greeted by Burns Smith, who presented him with ticket No. 1 to the observation deck. Atop the building, Smith pointed out local landmarks, including where Mount Rainier would be visible had it not been so cloudy, but Kuroi wanted to go higher still. Smith allowed him to climb the spiral staircase inside the building pyramid cap, which gave him a view from just under the glass ball on top of the structure. The Vice Admiral was delighted.

Only July 4, 1914, Burns Smith formally opened the tower to the public, so that people could see all of the hard work that went into building it. Smith also used the visit as an opportunity to advertise his structure outside Seattle. Visitors were given free postcards of the Smith Building and were asked to send them to friends both countrywide and abroad. More than 1,500 people visited the observation deck between 1 p.m. and 10 p.m. and many of them promised to tell their friends about their visit.

A few months after the opening, Burns Smith announced that he would soon add a luxurious restaurant in the basement that could seat more than 600 people. This, along with his plans for a second Smith building, as tall the first, never came to pass. But the tower Smith did build, he built to last. The severe (7.1 magnitude) earthquake of 1949 caused it so little damage that the greatest expense was the fee of the investigating structural engineers.

"L. C. Smith Dies at Home in Syracuse," The Seattle Times, November 6, 1910, p. 25; "Smith Tells Story of Big Skyscraper," The Seattle Times, February 23, 1912, pp. 5, 10; "Smith to Begin Work on Another Giant Building," The Seattle Times, February 17, 1913, p. 1; "Gill Leisurely Climbs to Top of Skyscraper," The Seattle Times, April 1, 1914, pp. 1, 3; "Cruisers of Japanese Training Squadron Due to Arrive Here June 27 for Ten Days' Visit," The Seattle Times, June 21, 1914, p. 22; "Smith Building Opening Brings Joy to the Builder," The Seattle Times, July 4, 1914, pp. 1, 2; "Kuroi Sees City From Smith Building Peak," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 4, 1914, p. 2; "Smith Tower is Magnet for Big Holiday Crowd," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 4, 1914, p. 2; "As War Roars, Smith Promises Eating Palace," The Seattle Times, August 7, 1914, pp. 1, 3; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, " Smith Tower (Seattle)" (by John Pastier), (accessed February 8, 2013).
Note: This essay replaces a previous essay on the same subject.

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Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You

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Bird's eye view of downtown Seattle with Smith Tower and Elliott Bay, 1920s?

Smith Tower (Gaggin and Gaggin, 1914), under construction, Seattle, 1913

Smith Tower (Gaggin and Gaggin, 1914), Seattle, ca. 1915
Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. SEA1790)

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