1411 4th Avenue Building (Seattle)

  • By Kathleen Kemezis
  • Posted 5/04/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9000
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With the opening of the 1411 4th Avenue Building on 4th Avenue and Union Street in early 1929, the Stimson Realty Company contributed an elegant addition to Seattle's growing central business district. The company chose the architect Robert Chambers Reamer (1873-1938), who created modern Art Deco ornamentation for the façade and interior finishes. It chose the Metropolitan Building Company to manage the operations of the building. With an impressive architectural vision and state-of-the-art conveniences, the Stimson Realty Company attracted a “high character of tenantry” (Western Building Forum, 1929) and “firms with whom dignity of surroundings is an important consideration" (Metropolitan Bulletin, December 1928). The building at the corner of 4th Avenue and Union Street became a financial and transportation hub in downtown Seattle, with national and local investment brokers, insurance firms, and ticket offices for railway companies and steamship lines. Because of its unique Art Deco styling, prominent location in the central business district, and impressive modernist stone façade, 1411 4th Avenue has been designated as Seattle Landmark and placed on the National Register of Historic Places.   

Charles Stimson and Downtown Seattle

In 1900, Charles Douglas Stimson (1857-1929) purchased the 1411 4th Avenue property from O. O. Denny (1853-1916) for $25,000; at the time, the only permanent structure on the site was a trough for watering horses. By 1907, the Metropolitan Building Company had formed to develop a business district on the former home of the University of Washington adjacent to the 1411 4th Avenue property. Stimson immediately became a stockholder in the Metropolitan Building Company, joining other leaders of commerce and industry and contributing seasoned advice on real-estate development. By 1926, he had been elected president of the Metropolitan Building Company and owned 25 percent of the interest in the company.

The business district developed by Stimson and the Metropolitan Building Company became known as the Metropolitan Center, and it anchored the expanding business district of Seattle on the blocks just to the south of the 1411 4th Avenue property. The architecture of the Metropolitan Center shared a conservative, traditional style. Both the Cobb Building (1909) at 1301 4th Avenue and the White Stuart Henry Building (1907-1909) at 1318 4th Avenue (both on University Street), included Beaux Arts designs with clean white terra-cotta ornamentation of classical imagery at the street level and near the roofline. In May 1929, a writer for the Metropolitan Bulletin, the house newsletter of the Metropolitan Building Company, deemed the establishment of the 1411 4th Avenue Building (as well as the Northern Life Tower, later renamed Seattle Tower at 3rd Avenue and University Street) as "continued proof that here is shaping the permanent geographical center of the city's business, the heart of its retail, industrial and professional life."  

Soon after becoming president for Metropolitan Building Company, Charles Stimson acknowledged a need to divide his properties and assets evenly between his two children, Thomas Stimson (1884-1932) and Dorothy Stimson Bullitt (1892-1989). With their full knowledge and participation, he transferred his properties into the C. D. Stimson Company and the Stimson Realty Company. Dorothy and her husband, Alexander Scott Bullitt (1877-1932), received the Stimson Realty Company, which included the 1411 4th Avenue property.

At the beginning of 1928, the three-story Antler Hotel, valued at $70,000, occupied a portion of the 4th Avenue property. By April 7, 1928, the hotel had been demolished, and the end of April brought an excavation of 10,000 cubic yards of dirt for the foundation of a skyscraper of modern appeal. George Teufel, who oversaw much of the Metropolitan Building Company construction, acted as the contractor for the construction of Stimson’s new project.

A Unique and Sensitive Addition 

In 1928, the Stimson Realty Company notably named the 1411 4th Avenue Building to follow the East Coast trend of naming buildings after their addresses; this taste for forward thinking contributed to Charles Stimson’s decision to hire the chief architect of the Metropolitan Building Company, Robert Chambers Reamer, who was known for his willingness to experiment with new styles. Stimson implored Reamer to create “the best and most substantial building, without extravagance” (Haley, 142). Ultimately, approximately $1.1 million was spent on the construction of the building. Because of its location adjacent to the more traditional Metropolitan Center, Reamer conscientiously created a restrained modernism, which complemented the conservative architecture of the surrounding buildings. Although influenced by his travels to New York and Chicago, Reamer did not simply reproduce elements of the popular trend called “Art Deco”; he experimented with and explored the style to create a unique and sensitive addition to Seattle's central business district.

The 1411 4th Avenue Building feels taller than its 15 stories. The strong vertical piers dominate the façade of the building and defy its boxy shape. At the roofline, as the piers taper into spires and carry the eye upward, gentle setbacks further this emphasis on the vertical. In the recesses, between the tapering spires, geometric diamond designs frame stylized urns. The façade of native gray sandstone, precisely cut, hides a sturdy concrete and steel frame. Although Reamer often designed facades made entirely of stone, 1411 4th Avenue was notable at the time of its construction for being the tallest edifice in the city with this type of facade.  

Elegance, Comfort, Light, and Air

The subtle decoration of the façade -- the unique Celtic patterns and bestiary images -- remains an unusual feature among Seattle buildings. Just above the ground floor retail space, reliefs of interlaced Celtic knots capturing noble bestiary animals soften the austere piers. Above the 4th Avenue entrance, a shallowly carved design announces the name of the building with French floral designs and more Celtic lace flanking the words. In the entrance vestibule, a small bronze-framed storefront, which originally held a Brewster Cigar Company shop, presents chevrons and vegetal imagery to passing visitors.

A writer for the Metropolitan Bulletin of September 1928 gushed over the “modern flair for color” of the lobby and office finishes. Exotic Honduran mahogany paneling with dark-green and cream-veined marble wainscoting line the lobby and convey impressive luxury as well as professionalism. The polished bronze elevator doors with an architectural, geometric design contribute a refreshing, modern contrast to the hypnotizing depth of the wood and marble.

Contemporary write-ups and advertisements announced state-of-the-art technologies to accommodate and comfort the businesses and their clients. Elegant elevators of the “very latest automatic-control type” would whoosh a visitor to the designated floor (Metropolitan Bulletin, September 1928). Robert Reamer's mastery of light and space, and the L-shape design and large operable windows of the building allowed the occupants of offices to enjoy plenty of natural light and fresh air. In November 1928, a writer for the Washington State Architect magazine noted the enclosure of all fire escapes within the building, which eliminated “the necessity of having iron stairways on the outside.” According to Dorothy Stimson Bullitt, even the floors had springs to reduce fatigue in the office staff.

Robert Reamer, Architect

Throughout his professional career, Robert Reamer gained a reputation for deeply studying and understanding a variety of architectural idioms, according to historian David L. Leavengood. His designs did not simply reproduce these idioms but instead represented explorations of differing styles like Moorish or Spanish Renaissance Revival, Chinese Imperial style, or French and American Art Deco. After World War I, he moved to Seattle and submitted a design for the Metropolitan Building Company’s Olympic Hotel. Rather than awarding him the winning bid, Metropolitan Building Company offered Reamer the position of house architect.

Reamer’s experimentation with Art Deco can be found in many building in Seattle including the Great Northern Building (1929), Seattle Times Building (1932), and the last project of his Seattle office, the Edmond Meany Hotel (1930-1932) located in the University District. This latter edifice represents his innovated use of continuously poured slip-formed concrete and the first use of this construction technique. He also designed the Fox Theater of Spokane (1931) and the Skinner Building of Spanish Renaissance styling, which houses the 5th Avenue Theatre (1926) featuring elaborate references to the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heavenly Peace, and the Summer Palace of China.

Although Robert Reamer gained much success and acclaim for his Art Deco structures, he will ultimately be most remembered for his work with the Yellowstone Transportation Company. Before his contributions to Washington architecture, Robert Chambers Reamer designed for the Yellowstone Transportation Company from 1902 to 1926. He is best known for the trail of shelters, hotels, and lodges of rustic design found in the Yellowstone National Park including the Old Faithful Inn (1902-1903). Unfortunately, few of his 25 contributions to the park remain unaltered.

Art Deco

After traveling to New York and Chicago, Robert Reamer gained inspiration from a new trend in architecture and design. The motifs and styles of French Art Deco became popular in America after the 1925 Parisian “Exposition des arts Decoratifs.” The style influenced not just architecture but also applied arts, fashion, and industrial designs. Skyscrapers, dresses, jewelry, and graphic design sported stylized classical forms, machine imagery, lightning zig zags, unfurling ferns, and florals. Designers employed vivid colors and materials like aluminum, chrome, exotic woods, and richly patterned textiles to convey a new “modern” society.

More frequent contact with cultures, like African tribes and the Far Eastern cities, contributed the exotic patterns. Significant archaeological excavations, like that of King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922, also contributed unusual motifs and color combinations to the style. Common in Egyptian art, a scheme of dark colors paired with blazing gold became a signifier of urbane taste in American society, and the dark green marble paired with the bronze doors of the 1411 4th Avenue Building’s lobby revel in this new aesthetic.  

Art Deco architecture emphasized the refreshing interaction of traditional and new images and materials to create an architectural style of “energy and visual impact” according to architectural historian Patricia Bayer. The juxtaposition of old and new found in the new architecture echoed the essence of the Jazz Age in American society, after World War I. Primarily an urban phenomenon, Art Deco architecture reflected the momentum of the prosperous cities of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. While the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building in New York transformed the New York skyline, Art Deco commercial buildings were distinguished not so much by their height but by the stylized ornamentation and tapering silhouettes exemplified by the gentle setbacks of the 1411 4th Avenue Building.

Stimson's Vision and Seattle's Downtown

C. D. Stimson, through shrewd development deals as well as in a leadership role with the Metropolitan Building Company, contributed significantly to the development of Seattle’s downtown during the first three decades of the twentieth century. After his death in August 1929, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted the scope of his accomplishments:

“With the vision of leadership they had also the canny knowledge that the Seattle of the future was too big to be a one-man job. So they worked, not singly, but in groups, and not for a day, but for the long vista of the unmeasured future. No single building is a miracle, but the transformation of midtown Seattle, under the leadership of C. D. Stimson and his associates, came close to the miraculous.”

According to architectural historian Lawrence Kreisman, the success of 1411 4th Avenue represented the culmination of C. D. Stimson’s real-estate career.  

Dorothy Stimson Bullitt's Continuing Legacy

Under the leadership of Dorothy Stimson Bullitt and her husband Alexander Scott Bullitt, the Stimson Realty Company continued to own the building and maintained an office there. After Scott’s death from illness in 1932, Dorothy took charge of their real-estate holdings and continued to run the Stimson Realty Company out of an office in the 1411 4th Avenue Building.

With the ticket office of the Great Northern Railway just across the street, the intersection of 4th Avenue and Union Street became the transportation hub of Seattle. Ground retail space of the 1411 4th Avenue Building held sales offices for the Alaska Steamship Company, Southern Pacific railway, Union Pacific railway, and Northern Pacific railway. It gained the reputation as the financial hub as well with the upper floors housing nationwide investment brokers and insurance agencies as well as local industrial firms such as the Bloedel Donovan Timber Mills.

Throughout its success in the communications industry (Dorothy Bullitt purchased what would become the KING Broadcasting Co. in 1947), the Bullitt family remained partial to the 1411 4th Avenue Building. Eventually property transferred from Dorothy’s company to the company of her son, Stimson Bullitt (1919-2009). During the 1970s, he considered selling the property and informed his mother of the decision. According to Stimson Bullitt, her reaction forced him to cancel the deal. “When I told Mother, she listened with interest and made no objection, but a tear rolled down her cheek” (Quinn 143). To this day, Harbor Properties, Inc., Bullitt’s real-estate company, owns the elegant 1411 4th Avenue Building, and her listing on the National Register of Historic Places will help to keep her residing over the central business district for a long, long time.

Sources: “Fourth and Union Bldg.,” Metropolitan Bulletin, Vol. 11, No. 3 (May 1928), p. 2, 4; Metropolitan Bulletin, September 1928, pp. 3, 18; “1411 Fourth Avenue,” Washington State Architect, Vol. 8, No. 12 (November 1928), pp. 1,4; Metropolitan Bulletin, December 1928, p. 10; “The 1411 Fourth Avenue Building Seattle,” Western Building Forum, Vol. 6, No. 2 (April 1929), p. 7; U.S. Department of The Interior, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, “1411 4th Avenue Building,” May 28, 1991; Patricia Bayer, Art Deco Architecture: Design, Decoration and Detail from the Twenties to the Thirties (New York: H. N Abrams, 1992); Lawrence Kreisman, The Stimson Legacy: Architecture in the Urban West (Seattle: Willows Press, 1992); David L. Leavengood, "Robert C. Reamer," in Shaping Seattle Architecture ed. by Jeffrey Ochsner (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994), 186-191; Delphine Haley, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt: An Uncommon Life (Seattle: Sasquatch Press, 1995); Ruth Quinn, Weaver of Dreams: The Life and Architecture of Robert C. Reamer (Gardiner, MT: Leslie & Ruth Quinn, 2004); Maureen R. Elenga, Seattle Architecture: A Walking Guide to Downtown (Seattle: Seattle Architecture Foundation, 2007), 93.

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