Following renovation, Seattle's Olympic Hotel reopens as the Four Seasons Olympic on May 23, 1982.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 12/02/2004
  • Essay 7161
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On May 23, 1982, The Four Seasons Olympic hotel reopens after being shut down for almost two years for a major renovation and restoration campaign. Built in 1924, the hotel had undergone many changes over the years, and the new Four Seasons management spends $62.5 million to bring back much of the hotel's style and elegance.

As Time Goes By

When The Olympic Hotel opened in 1924, it was considered the creme de la creme of Seattle hotels. Over the years The Olympic played host to Presidents, royalty, movie stars, vacationers, and thousands of conventions, wedding, bar mitzvahs, and parties.

Albert Kerry Sr., The Olympic's first president, strove hard to make the hotel the premiere stopover for Seattle visitors, as well as a meeting place for the local citizenry. When William Edris took over the hotel in the 1940s, he sold much of the hotel's original oak furniture, bronze statuary, and porcelain vases, preferring instead to fill the public areas with "chintz."

More changes came when Western Hotels took over the hotel in the 1950s. President Eddie Carlson preferred the color scheme of red and gold, and also had much of the wood stained dark. A new entrance and Grand Ballroom were constructed on University Street that did not match the character of the grand old hotel.

By the 1970s, The Olympic was showing its age, and to some degree looked less like a Grande Dame and more like a painted lady. There was some talk of tearing the building down, but Seattle citizens voiced their objects to the University of Washington -- owners of the hotel property -- and it was decided instead to save and restore the building.

A Grand Plan

In 1979, the UW regents chose the Four Seasons hotel chain, in a joint venture with JMB realty of Chicago, to oversee the project and take over the lease. The Four Seasons plan detailed many upcoming changes to the hotel. The most noticeable from the street would be the demolition of the Grand Ballroom and construction of a new entrance on University Street. Seattle Architects NBBJ (Naramore, Bain, Brady, and Johanson), in charge of design, also called for a health club and swimming pool to be placed above the lobby facing Seneca Street.

Inside the hotel, the Georgian Room would reclaim its role as the hotel's main dining room, and all the public spaces would be returned to 1920s elegance. Retail space would take the place of the Golden Lion and the Olympic Grill. Walls would be torn out in all 756 guest rooms, resulting in a new total of 451 large rooms, including 201 deluxe rooms, 10 suites, and two VIP apartment suites. In the deluxe rooms, bedrooms would be separated from the seating areas by floor-to-ceiling French doors.

Arrangements were made with Western Hotels to transfer the lease early. A new 60-year lease was written up for Four Seasons. Remodeling was slated to begin in October 1980, giving the hotel enough time to accommodate conventions that had booked in advance. Groups that were booked after that date were rescheduled or relocated to other hotels.

Work Begins

A rummage sale was held to sell off practically everything in the building, and demolition and construction began soon after. First to go was the Grand Ballroom. The guestrooms were stripped down to structural essentials, and some of the walls between them were busted out to create larger rooms. Sandblasting was performed on the exterior, returning the sandstone from dingy gray back to a mellow tan. More than 10,000 cubic yards of debris was hauled away, including the skybridge between the hotel and the garage.

Once the contractors were able to examine the superstructure, they were pleasantly surprised by its condition. There were no large cracks anywhere, and even more remarkably, the building was no more than one-eighth inch out of plumb. These findings allowed work to go forward smoothly, although later the University and Four Seasons got into a squabble over who should pay for the seismic retrofit. The regents shook $5.6 million out of their pockets.

In the Georgian Room, blackout paint from World War II was finally chipped off some of the windows. In the Spanish Ballroom, the oak paneling was removed to install seismic bracing. The wood -- which had been stained dark in the 1950s -- was stripped, bleached, refinished to its original shade, and replaced. The same process was done for wood in all the public rooms. Damaged oak was replaced with oak was shipped from England, and cutting blades were located that matched the same flitch.

A New Era

The Four Seasons Olympic re-opened for business on Sunday, May 23, 1982. The first registered guests were Albert Kerry -- son of Albert Kerry Sr. -- and his wife Audrey, who had attended the grand opening in 1924. This time, Mr. Kerry attempted to sign in as Albert Kerry and wife, but Audrey stopped him. "It's a new world," she said. "I'm signing for myself."

At first, only 50 rooms were available. Additional guest rooms became available over the next few months until the hotel became fully operational in July. Throughout the day, general manager Charles Ferraro greeted visitors while coordinating his staff to make sure that all was running smoothly. Because the hotel opened in sections, the term "soft opening" was born in Seattle.

Guests entering the lobby from the Seneca Street entrance looked up to see 13 six-foot chandeliers -- the same ones that were installed in 1924, completely restored to their former brilliance. Those entering on the University Street side saw a brand new lobby that connected to the original lobby by escalators. The Seneca Lobby, as well as the Spanish Ballroom, looked as new as when the hotel opened in 1924.

Exploring the main area, many made their way to the Garden Court Lounge, a skylit fern and ficus-filled room that had replaced the Grand Ballroom. Others looked in on the pool and spa that overlooked Seneca Street from the second-floor terrace. On the mezzanine, new conference rooms were available for business professionals. Half a level down, larger meetings could be held in the distinctive Metropole Room, once the Olympic Bowl, which had replaced the Italian Ballroom.

The entire restoration cost more than $62.5 million, more than 10 times the cost of the original hotel, and it showed. Rave reviews appeared in newspapers statewide, and then across the nation. But although response to the new hotel was positive, the opening was not without controversy.

Labor Pains

During the 18-month reconstruction period, the hotel union contract had lapsed and become null. In the interim, more than 13,000 people applied for 600 positions. When the Four Seasons reopened the hotel, it did so without union contracts. A coalition of 21 unions representing restaurant, hotel, and service personnel, called WEST, pushed to organize the new workers.

General manager Charles Ferraro refused to allow union organizers into the premises to talk with employees, stating that it was the opinion of the Four Seasons company that there was no advantage for the employees to seek outside representation. The unions began a boycott and soon brought out picket signs. WEST ran newspaper and television ads accusing Four Seasons of breaking faith with Seattle's tradition of labor representation and the hotel's own community roots. One ad in the Wall Street Journal "advised" travelers to avoid the Olympic until the dispute was resolved.

Union leaders also won support from Mayor Charles Royer and Congressmen Mike Lowry, Norm Dicks, Don Bonker, and Al Swift. U.S. Senator Henry M. Jackson attempted to broker a compromise, but his efforts were rebuffed by Mario Vacarino, powerful president of Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees Union Local 8. (A year later, for as yet unknown reasons, Vacarino was brutally murdered in his bathtub.)

Formal charges were also brought against the Four Seasons Olympic claiming that the hotel had improperly interrogated applicants about their personal feelings toward unions. Labor leaders also accused Four Seasons management of age and sex discrimination in new hiring. Both charges were later rejected by the National Labor Relations Board, and the active boycott ultimately faded away. The Four Seasons remained on union "unfair lists," however, putting it off limits for most public officials and candidates, especially Democrats. Thus, the Olympic's star at the center of Seattle's political universe dimmed. But it continued to be "The Hotel" to Seattle's social elite, as well as upscale business guests and vacationers.

Noteworthy Event

On July 10, 1982, all the work on the hotel was now complete and The Four Seasons Olympic held its grand opening gala. Valet parking -- unheard of at the time for a Seattle hotel -- was provided for guests. A fundraiser was held in the Spanish Ballroom for the Seattle Symphony, but outside the building more than 400 union members protested the hotel's non-union status. The picket line was informational, and attendees to the fundraiser were told that The Four Seasons Olympic was not a struck hotel.

Only six people declined to cross the picket line and 250 people attended the event. The Seattle Symphony was over $1 million in debt, and at $250 per ticket, the guest list read like a who's who of Seattle's arts patrons. Governor Dan Evans was in attendance, as was Jeanette Rockefeller, who had just moved back to Seattle. Mrs. Rockefeller was the widow of Arkansas Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, and the daughter of previous owner William Edris.

Symphony supporters dined on lobster and veal. The highlight of the evening was a performance by jazz great Oscar Peterson, a surprise gift to the party from Four Seasons management. Peterson flew in from the East Coast and flew back that night on the hotel's tab.

The Four Seasons operated the hotel until 2003, at which time Fairmont Hotels and Resorts took over management, and changed the name of the hotel to The Fairmont Olympic.


"Save Olympic is Word at Hearing," The Seattle Times, February 8, 1979, p. E-8; "Olympic Hotel to get Facelift, Not Demolition," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 20, 1979, p. A-3; "A Hotel for Four Seasons," Seattle Weekly, August 1, 1979, pp. 2, 35, 36; "Grand Ballroom to Go First in Olympic Redevelopment," The Seattle Times , October 19, 1979, p. A-8; "The New Olympic," Ibid., August 17, 1980, pp. 1, 2; "An Olympic Preview," Seattle Post-Intelligencer , April 11, 1982, pp. 1, 3; "Unions will Push to Organize the new Olympic Hotel," Ibid., June 11, 1954; "The Unions Lay Siege to the Four Seasons Olympic," Seattle Weekly, June 23, 1982, pp. 18-20; "400 Picket Gala Opening of Non-Union Seattle Hotel," The Seattle Times, July 11, 1982, p. C-2; "A Gala Night for Symphony and Olympic," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 11, 1982, p. D-4; Interview with C. David Hughbanks, November 19, 2004.

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