Northern Life/Seattle Tower (Seattle)

  • By Dotty DeCoster
  • Posted 12/02/2010
  • Essay 9633
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The Northern Life Tower, an Art Deco landmark in downtown Seattle, was designed and built to be "A Modern Office Building of Distinction and Character Combining Beauty and Utility" (Casteel). Erected by the successful Northern Life Insurance Company, the 27-story tower at 1218 3rd Avenue became the company's new home on March 18, 1929. Designed by architect Abraham Horace Albertson (1872-1964) with Joseph Wade Wilson (1878-1968) and Paul David Richardson (1888-1939), and constructed primarily by local contractors, it cost about $2 million and took a year to build. Brothers David Bruce Morgan (1869-1943) and Tasso Mayne Morgan (1862-1918) founded the Northern Life Insurance Company in Seattle in 1905. The business, family-operated through two generations, was sold in 1977, and has disappeared through various mergers since. The building, now called the Seattle Tower, continues to grace Seattle's downtown. The Seattle Tower is City of Seattle Landmark number 137 and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975.

A Quintessential Art Deco Skyscraper

The Northern Life Tower was, and is, flamboyantly of the Northwest.

"With its muscular vertical piers and tapering setbacks, the Northern Life Tower is considered Seattle's quintessential Art Deco skyscraper … The client wanted a building that would be a symbol of reliability and permanence and the architects responded with a building that was intended to suggest the mountains that surround Seattle. The multi-colored brick becomes gradually lighter as it reaches the top of the building and the piers are finished with light terra-cotta resembling snow-capped rocky peaks. Stylized metal rods resembling evergreen trees crown the building ..." (Elenga).

This is by day. When it was built, the designers added "more than 300 flood light units, located in the offsets, which will shoot their rays upward, while one color gradually gives way to another, producing a beautiful and effective aurora borealis, visible for miles" at night (Casteel). Locals called it the Northern Lights building and the company newsletter was known as the Northern Lights, then, through the 1970s,  the Aurora Borealis. The aurora floodlights were dismantled in 1942, likely never to return.

At 27 stories, the tower is not as tall as the Smith Tower but it was built at a higher elevation. For several decades the Northern Life Tower was Seattle's beacon skyscraper, tallest in the skyline, just as the builders intended.

The Northern Life Insurance Company and the Morgan Brothers

David Bruce and Tasso Mayne Morgan were educated in Cincinnati, Ohio, public schools and business colleges. They moved with their family to Oregon in 1887. Within a few years they had established themselves in the insurance business (originally in Albany, Oregon, and later in Portland) as the Morgan Brothers Company.

Early Seattle historian Clarence Bagley tells us that the brothers came to Seattle in 1905 with an innovative approach to insurance based on their years of experience in Oregon: They combined accident and health policies with life insurance. The Northern Life Insurance Company, which the Morgans incorporated in Seattle on July 24, 1906, was the only company in the state to offer that combined approach at the time.

T. M. Morgan worked out the insurance formulas and attended to actuarial and policy detail for the new company. D. B. Morgan focused on raising funds and in 1917 became president of the company as his brother's health failed. It was D. B. Morgan who built the Northern Life Tower. The founding Morgan brothers are commemorated in the Seattle Tower lobby with a plaque and portrait medallions created by then well-known Seattle artist James A. Wehn (1882-1973).

The Northern Life Insurance Company grew rapidly and moved frequently, with four different downtown locations in its first 10 years in Seattle. In July 1915 the company moved for the fifth time, to the Northern Life building at 4th Avenue and Seneca Street, where it remained until the Northern Life Tower was completed in March 1929.

Initially, according to the Seattle Daily Times, the Northern Life Insurance Company occupied the third, fourth, fifth, twenty-fourth, and twenty-fifth stories of the Northern Life Tower. The upper stories were the executive offices. Business and sales departments and an assembly room were on the fifth floor. The fourth floor housed the investment and mortgage loan department, actuarial department, building office, and employee recreational facilities. On the third floor were cashiers, renewal, claim, printing, purchasing agency, auditing, mailing, policy writing, and a medical division. Northern Life had 25 branches in seven states when it moved into the tower.

The Site

The Northern Life Tower occupied the southeast corner of 3rd Avenue and University Street in downtown Seattle. The site was just across the alley west of the University Tract (sometimes called the Metropolitan Tract), which was the original site of the University of Washington. At the time the Northern Life Tower was built, the University Tract was being developed, and architect A. H. Albertson was responsible for overseeing construction of several buildings in the tract. The Great Northern Railway tunnel ran diagonally under the site, about 45 feet below the bottom of the huge foundation slab.

Florence Denny Hellicker outlined the early history of the site:

"The Northern Life Tower stands on part of my Grandfather [Arthur Armstrong] Denny's donation claim, which was given to him by our government in 1852. He sold these two lots to Rev. Daniel Bagley at an early date ... Mr. Angus Mackintosh ... bought them in the early seventies ..." (Hellicker).

Kenneth Mackintosh, who became a State Supreme Court justice, was born in the Mackintosh mansion on this site in 1875. The Mackintosh mansion had been razed, however, and a short, undistinguished business block replaced it, which was demolished to build the tower.

Building the Tower

Abraham H. Albertson designed the Northern Life Tower in association with Joseph W. Wilson and Paul D. Richardson. Building the tower was a major city event, and Pacific Builder and Engineer devoted much of its August 4, 1928, issue to celebrating the construction. The lead story was written by A. B. Casteel, and it appears that the Northern Life Insurance Company simply copied much of this article in its own publication celebrating the building. A chart in Pacific Builder and Engineer listed a host of local companies, designers, and laborers that worked on the project:

  • Architect, A. H. Albertson, Associates, Joseph W. Wilson and Paul Richardson.
  • General Contractor, Sound Construction & Engineering Company.
  • Structural Engineers, Hall & Stevenson.
  • Mechanical Equipment Engineers, Josiah C. Moore Co., Inc.
  • Excavation, A. C. Goerig.
  • Reinforcing Steel, Pacific Coast Steel Company and Northwest Steel Rolling Mills.
  • Readymix Concrete, Builders Sand & Gravel Company.
  • Structural Steel, Wallace Bridge and Structural Steel Company and Hofius Steel & Equipment Company.
  • Erecting Structural Steel, J. H. Pomeroy & Co.
  • Erecting Reinforcing Steel, W. H. Witt.
  • Testing Materials, Northwest Testing Laboratories.
  • Granite, Western Granite Company.
  • Face Brick and Terra Cotta, Gladding, McBean & Company.
  • Brick and Tile, Builders Brick Company.
  • Marble, Oliver E. Lutz.
  • Bronze, Schilling-Everts Company
  • Steel Windows, TeRoller (Browne).
  • Hollow Steel Doors, E. H. Camp (Dahlstrom).
  • Metallic Floor Hardener, Tourtellotte-Bradley, Inc. (Master Builders).
  • Lumber, Nettleton Lumber Company.
  • Nail and Wire, Seattle Hardware Company.
  • Electrical Installation, NePage-McKenny Company.
  • Plumbing, Heating and Ventilating, McNeal-Taylor Company.
  • Flood Light Equipment, Lyman Day Morgan (Pittsburgh Reflector Company).
  • Cast Iron Boilers, American Radiator Company.
  • Oil Burners, Power Plant Engineering Company (Ray Rotary)
  • Piping, Crane Company (Byers).
  • Heating and Ventilating Units, O. C. Hatch (Herman-Nelson Corporation).
  • Fans, Western Blower Co.
  • Air Washer, Western Blower Company.
  • Sheet Metal for Ventilating System, A. M. Castle & Co. (Armco).
  • Temperature Control, Powers Regulator Company (Hornung).
  • Radiator Traps, Heating Service Company (Webster)
  • Pipe Covering, Asbestos Covering & Supply Company.
  • Hot Water Tanks, Birchfield Boiler Company.
  • Water Filter, California Filter Company.
  • Garage Equipment, The Bowser Company

Groundbreaking for the tower was February 17, 1928, a cornerstone was laid on August 10, 1928, in a major civic ceremony, and the building was occupied in March 1929.

The Architects

Abraham Albertson was born in New Jersey and graduated from Columbia University in architecture. He practiced with Clinton & Russell in New York and in 1905 moved to Duluth, Minnesota. Albertson came to Seattle in 1907 representing Howells & Stokes to prepare plans for the Metropolitan Tract. By 1920, he had founded his own firm with Wilson and Richardson and they completed many of the buildings in the tract. Wilson had joined Albertson in 1907 after graduating from the University of Illinois with degrees in engineering and architecture. Richardson grew up in Seattle, graduated from Broadway High School, and began working with Albertson in 1910. Albertson and his two associates were well known Seattle architects when they received the commission for the Northern Life Tower.

There has been some controversy about the architecture. A November 21, 1971, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article by Darrell Glover reported that architect Miles Vanick announced that the Northern Life Tower was "a near replica" of Eliel Saarinen's plan for the Chicago Tribune Tower in 1922. Various commentators have repeated this assertion since. There is little evidence that this was the case, and Albertson's own extensive writing about designing and constructing the building, along with the sketches and plans still available, do not support this assertion. The design, both external and internal, reflected the existing architectural state of the art and the natural features of the Pacific Northwest.

Among the several other extant buildings designed in whole or part by Albertson, Wilson, and Richardson, the most easily visited in Seattle are the Cobb Building, 1305 4th Avenue; YMCA Central Branch, 909 4th Avenue; Women's University Club, 1105 6th Avenue; Cornish School (Kerry Hall), 710 E. Roy; and St. Joseph's Catholic Church, 732 18th Avenue.

The Grand Lobby

The Northern Life/Seattle Tower, like other Art Deco commercial buildings in Seattle and elsewhere, has a grand lobby faced in dark marble and illuminated with both electric lights and extraordinary brass and gold leaf decoration in a variety of motifs. Once one's eyes adjust to the dazzling display, one can proceed to the back wall (eastward) and view the huge brass bas-relief map of the Pacific Ocean surrounded by continents and islands outlining the Pacific trade routes that were so critical to Seattle's growth and development. The map, with the motto "Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way," surrounds a clock.

It is not clear who designed and made the map. There is a reference to Paul D. Richardson, one of the architects, upon it. It is possible that Richardson himself designed it. The Seattle Times reporter Don Duncan wrote that Ernest Waters, a graduate of Lincoln High School, made the map, but considerable research did not corroborate Waters' involvement or locate Duncan's source.

In any case, in 2010 the cave-like lobby opens to the left (northward) into the Seattle Art Museum rental gallery. In July 1929, this space was leased by George Bartell (1868-1956) for his 15th drugstore. The Seattle Daily Times enthused:

"Included among the physical features of the new store will be a colored tile floor, mahogany showcases and display shelves, a beautiful twenty-two-seat soda fountain, a handsomely designed balcony extending across the rear of the room and an artistic prescription section. The walls and ceilings of the store will be in soft-toned colors blending with the flooring and fixtures" (Times, July 14, 1929).

In addition to the drugstore, D. B. Morgan helped organize a new bank which opened on the first floor of the Northern Life Tower in 1929: the Northern Savings Bank. Frank E. Burns was chairman of the bank's board.

Sadly, D. B. Morgan and family, who lived just at the south end of Millionaires Row on Capitol Hill, lost their youngest daughter, Gladys Elizabeth Morgan, on April 14, 1929, just after the Tower was completed. Bagley notes that "she had furnished no little inspiration and ... had taken deep interest" in the building (Bagley).

Over the Years

Through the years, the Northern Life Tower had many tenants including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and radio broadcasting companies along with a variety of businesses. In 1967, the building was sold to Tower Associates and began to be known as the Seattle Tower.

On January 1, 1990, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that the building had been restored to its original glory (minus the flood lights). Bernard Jalbert of Architectural Alliance, Inc. supervised the restoration. The P-I article included an interview with Bill Anderson who had been the building engineer for the tower for 15 years and "kept everything."

On April 23, 2010, the Daily Journal of Commerce reported that the Seattle Tower had sold again to Peter Morgan, a vice president of LaeRoc of Hermosa Beach, California. (Is he a descendant of the Northern Life founders? No one seems to know.) Currently (2010), the building is managed by Jan Greene of GVA Kidder Mathews on site. The building is open during business hours.

Sources: Clarence B. Bagley, History of King County (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Pub. Co.,1929), 5-17; Thomas Veith, "Albertson, Wilson & Richardson," in Shaping Seattle Architecture: A Historical Guide to the Architects, ed. by Jeffrey Karl Ochsner (Seattle: University of Washington Press,1994), 162-167; Maureen R. Elenga, Seattle Architecture: A Walking Guide to Downtown (Seattle: Seattle Architecture Foundation, 2007), 95; A. B. Casteel, "Northern Life Tower," Pacific Builder and Engineer, August 4, 1928, pp. 31-48; A. H. Albertson, "Inspired by Nature," The American Architect, February 1930, pp. 34-35, 94-96; Florence Denny Hellicker, "Our New Tower," The Soroptigram, 1929, p. 4; Darrell Glover, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 21, 1971; Alf Collins, "Odd Parcels," Ibid., March 7, 1976; "Ring in the Old: The 1929 Seattle Tower is Being Restored to its Original Glory," Ibid., January 1, 1990, Section C; "Pictorial Notes on Current News", The Seattle Times, February 3, 1928, p. 12; "Northern Life Company Begins Business in Its New Home," Ibid., March 17, 1929, p. 35; "New Seattle Bank Will Open August 15," Ibid., June 6, 1929, p. 35; "Bartell Leases Site for New Pharmacy," Ibid., July 14, 1929, p.32; "Sail on Alaska Friendship Cruise," Ibid., May 25, 1930, p. 7; "Northern Life's Leaders to Meet Here Tomorrow," Ibid., July 12, 1931, p. 42; "Noted Artist, Sculptors Will Judge Carvings," Ibid., May 5, 1931, p. 13; "Last Northern Life Tower Bonds Called Ahead of Due Date", Ibid., November 15, 1935, p. 20; Don Duncan, "Don Duncan's Driftwood Diary: Seattle's Architectural Yardstick," Ibid., April 12, 1970, magazine section, pp. 8-9; Michael Upchurch, "Delight in the Details on Walking Tour of Art-Deco Seattle," Ibid., December 26, 2008 (; Lynn Porter, "Seattle Tower Sells for $21M, $15M less than the Last Time," Daily Journal of Commerce, April 23, 2010, p. 1; Darrell Glover, "Northern Life Tower Cited," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 21, 1971, p. D-11; "Northern Life Survives Scandal," Ibid., March 7, 1976, p. B-2; "Seattle Tower Sold to N.Y. Firm," Ibid., December 22, 1986, p. B-11; Cecelia Goodnow, "Ring in the Old: The 1929 Seattle Tower is Being Restored to Its Original Glory," Ibid., January 1, 1990, p. C-1; A. L. Newbould, Corporation Counsel, City of Seattle Law Department, to Board of Public Works, City of Seattle, December 11, 1970, Seattle Municipal Archives, City of Seattle, Seattle, Washington; Box/file 2351-001, James A. Wehn Papers 1929-1974, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle; "James A. Wehn" in scrapbook "Artists War-Weh No. 58," 8th floor desk, Central Library, Seattle Public Library; "Northern Life Tower," ca. 1929-1930, Northern Life Insurance Company, Seattle Room, Central Library, Seattle Public Library; "History" file, Landmark file "Northern Life/Seattle Tower," Historic Preservation Office, Department of Neighborhoods, City of Seattle; "Northern Life Tower," National Register of Historic Places website accessed October 8, 2010 (; "The New Souvenir Tower Policy," 1928 Northern Life advertisement in The Argus, copy available at Vintage Seattle website October 8, 2010 (; "Northern Life Tower (Seattle, Washington) Third Avenue Cross Section," University of Washington Digital Collections, accessed October 10, 2010 (; "The Seattle Division: A Brief History," Federal Bureau of Investigation website accessed October 10, 2010 (; "Report of Examination, Northern Life Insurance Company, Seattle, Washington, December 31, 1996," Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner website accessed October 15, 2010 (, pp. 3-4; Fred Poyner IV, Washington State Historical Association, email to Dotty DeCoster November 8, 2010, in possession of Dotty DeCoster, Seattle, Washington.

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