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Construction and Equipment Spotlight
April 24, 1997

Lofty ambitions: Seattle's highrise builders

Journal A/E editor

Every city skyline tells a story of this century, a century in which American dreams, power and urban buildings rose to greater and greater heights.

One hundred years ago, innovations in structural steel and elevator technology were beginning to point the way skyward for construction, and it was irresistable invitation for corporate America.

As Seattle began to rise from the ashes of the devastating 1889 fire, its contractors started their buildings one story above the original street level so the city's tall buildings got a head start. Although it always has been a few steps behind Chicago and New York, Seattle's skyline has kept pace. Seen from across the water, from over the foothills or from the highway, its tall buildings have been a constant reminder that the viewer -- and the city -- have arrived.

Ground zero

Completed in 1892, the Pioneer Building showed Seattle had entered the age of modern "highrise" office buildings.

Elevations of all of Seattle's streets are measured from the bottom step of the corner entrance to the Pioneer Building, "Old Seattle's Number One." Henry Yesler's home sat on the site for more than 30 years before the building was erected.

The Pioneer Building was completed in 1892, although digging for the foundation had begun before the 1889 fire. During the fire, people threw their hastily salvaged belongings into the hole for safekeeping.

As the Pioneer Building rose from the ashes of what was then downtown Seattle, it signalled the age of the modern high-rise office building. It was one of the first to make use of the modern structural steel skeleton, and boasted Seattle's first electric elevator.

The Pioneer Building was designed by Elmer H. Fischer, who also designed the Burke Building two years earlier on a site at First and Madison that is now occupied by the Federal Office Building. The Pioneer Building's heavy Romanesque arches and turrets are reminiscent of Burnham & Root buildings in Chicago. The crowning element, a central square tower, was toppled by an earthquake in 1949.

Although the exact cost of construction is not known, estimates run as high as $250,000.

The Pioneer Building was the most prestigious office address in Seattle during the 1890s and early 1900s.

In the two decades after it was built, it was the home of mining firms, banks and the city's leading lawyers, doctors, investment firms and insurance companies.

It was also the site of the last lynching in Seattle, in 1882, on extra timbers provided by Yesler. During prohibition, it housed one the city's finest speakeasies on the sixth floor. On the alley side of the building at the sixth floor level are stubs from the I-beams of Seattle's very first skybridge, which led from the Pioneer Building across the alley to the Butler Hotel.

In the 1940s, the Pioneer Building began a steep decline that ended with restoration in 1974.

It sold in 1946 for $315,000 and then again in 1951 for approximately $75,000. It sold again in 1974 for about $500,000 when it was restored and renovated with under the direction of architect Ralph Anderson for $2 million.

That year, the Pioneer Building became "ground zero" for the growing momentum of historic preservation in Seattle. The rest, as they say, is history.

Smith Tower reaches for the sky

By 1910 engineering of steel frame buildings was sufficiently refined to release a surge of vertical construction. Advances in elevator technology made 50-story skyscrapers not only feasible but, arguably, practical.

The streets of New York and Chicago were becoming dark canyons, choked with traffic, and civic leaders continued to question the safety and public impact of taller and taller buildings.

But when opportunity came to Seattle, the city quickly made way for the skyscraper. Even as the merits and risks of skyscrapers were debated in New York and Chicago, the Seattle City Council passed a variance to the existing building height limit of 208 feet and in 1911 approved a building permit for the "Smith Building."

Over four years, Seattle's first skyscraper rose 42 stories and 522 feet, towering over downtown Seattle and making the city the envy of San Francisco and Portland.

This symbol of progress was the last project of L.C. Smith, who made his fortune in guns and typewriters. It was built on a piece of ground his wife had purchased on a tour of the west in 1888.

The Smith Tower was designed by Gaggin & Gaggin of Syracuse, N.Y., and inspired by New York's Woolworth Building. The fire-proofed steel structure featured terra cotta exterior facing and cornices. It was built for about $1.7 million.

Built-in amenities were generous by the standards of the day. There were ground floor shops and lavatories on every floor.

Impressed with the advertising boost skyscrapers had given to the Woolworth, Singer and Metropolitan Life empires, Smith ordered that "no money, artistic or architectural skill will be spared in making the edifice a monumental advertisement for Seattle and the Northwest." In fact, the building became a monument to L.C. Smith, who died just prior to construction.

After making a fortune in guns and typewriters, L.C. Smith spared no expense in adding new technology and decorative details to the landmark Smith Tower.

His son, Burns Lyman Smith, completed the building, giving it "trademark" quality with the best materials installed by the most experienced subcontractors and craftsmen in Seattle. Many of the interior features, including the solid brass doorknobs, bear the initials LCS.

About 4,000 people admired the view from the breathtaking Chinese Temple Room on the 35th floor when it was complete in 1914.

The Smith Tower was dedicated even as the First World War erupted in Europe. It was the last skyscraper to be built in Seattle until well after the Second World War was over. For a time, it held the distinction of being the highest office building outside of New York City.

The high-speed Otis elevators had the finest machinery and controls of the day. The fact that they are still in operation and that most of the decorative details of the interior are unchanged is due, in part, to benign neglect.

In fact, the Smith Tower, which is loved for its romantically towering profile, white terra cotta cladding and rich interior detailing, has never been a commercial success.

After its inauspiciously timed dedication, Seattle's business center would move northward, leaving the tower isolated for many years.

Modernism comes to the skyline

When the Norton Building opened in 1959 at Second and Columbia, the architectural center of Seattle returned to the edge of Pioneer Square.

It was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in association with Bindon & Wright for United Exchange Building Corporation. The structural engineer was Anderson, Birkeland & Anderson, and it was built by Howard S. Wright Construction for about $12 million.

The Norton Building was Seattle's initiation to post-war urban architecture of the glass curtain wall and the International Style. In the tradition of New York's Lever House, it was designed around simple, repetitious grids and stands airily upon a solid and heavy base.

The first skyscraper to be built here since the 1920's, it was also the first building in the country over six stories that incorporated prestressed concrete members.

The building's frame consists of four transverse column-girder frames, repeated for 16 of its floors. The precast, prestressed concrete beams span 70 feet as supports for the poured-in-place concrete slab floor.

Each floor is three bays long by one wide (210 feet by 70 feet). Earthquake forces are taken by the walls of the service core located at one side of the building.

The core wall in the long side of the building combines a steel truss bent with a reinforced concrete sheer wall to take all longitudinal lateral force. The end core walls, which take transverse lateral force, combine reinforced concrete and rigid frame steel sheer walls.

Because of the sloping site, the basement is three stories above grade at its low side.

Urbane elegance

The Seattle First National Bank Building, now known as 1001 Fourth Avenue, proudly expanded the Modern tradition in the city.

Although the 50-story high-rise was the tallest in Seattle upon its completion in 1969, it is a sign of the times that the intent of the architect NBBJ and the developers was to create a significant but "unobtrusive" element among the many other taller and larger buildings that were expected to follow.

It was built by Howard S. Wright for $32 million.

Unobtrusive or not, the Seafirst Building brought the excitement of New York's Seagram Plaza to Seattle -- a heady composition of height, simple geometry, rigorous detailing, and a high, transparent lobby at the street level connected to a large public plaza.

The corner columns turn the simple geometry of the skyscraper into an elegant structural and esthetic expression. Standing fin-like on the diagonal at each corner of the building, they taper as they reach the top of the building and as the load decreases. They also enhance the verticality of the skyscraper, receding in perspective more rapidly than they rise.

The anodized aluminum skin stretching between the columns is detailed in a way that adds pattern and human scale to the facades without interrupting the clean lines of the building or destroying the reflective quality of the curtain wall.

While the external mullions reflect the actual form of the enclosed steel skeleton, solar bronze glazing minimizes the visual contrast among the exterior surfaces of the building.

In 1959, the Norton Building's simple, repetitous grids brought the International style to Seattle.

With it's bold but refined modernism, its sophisticated incorporation of large-scale public art in the plaza and glass-enclosed lobby, and its place in Seattle's architectural history, the Seattle First National Bank Building won a number of architectural and structural awards and garnered praise in New York, where New York Times architecture critic Ida Louise Huxtable called it "one of the most urbane buildings in the country."

The Seafirst building may have been the first Seattle skyscraper designed with the significant use of computer technology. The design team, which included Skilling, Ward Magnusson Barkshire (SWMB) as structural engineer, used computers to create a Vierendeel steel truss system: a flat, vertical structural system that transfers the vertical and lateral loads of the building to the steel corner columns.

Steel sheer walls in the core at the bottom connect to a grid of horizontals that act as a moment frame.

Over the top

The 76-story Columbia Seafirst Center was a first in several categories, including tallest building (by number of stories) west of the Mississippi River. As with many other tall buildings in Seattle and around the world, SWMB continued to refine the structural engineering of skyscrapers in Columbia Seafirst Center.

It began in 1982 on the block bounded by Fourth and Fifth and Columbia and Cherry with the deepest excavation in the city, and rose to twice the height of the Space Needle (943 feet). Columbia Seafirst Center commanded attention for tens of miles around the city. Designed by Chester Lindsey for developer Martin Selig and built for $285 million by Howard S. Wright Construction, the height and expansive floor plates of Columbia Seafirst Center were made possible by the structural engineering of Skilling Ward Magnusson Barkshire (SWMB).

The floors, which range from 21,500 square feet of rentable space in the low-rise section to 12,500 square feet in floors 61 to 76, are accessible through no less than 49 elevators. The elevators are zoned to service a maximum of seven to 10 floors per bank of four cars, and travel at a speed of up to 1,200 feet per minute.

The building functions as a self-contained town for 4,000 occupants and up to 5,000 visitors per day. The 6,000-square-foot public arcade is lively.

An engineering breakthrough by SWMB keeps Columbia Seafirst Center - and many other highrises that have followed it - from swaying too much during storms.

Columbia Seafirst Center's structure is triangular in plan. Three seven-foot by 10-foot mega-columns were formed on the ground with high-strength concrete around steel members, then lifted into place, floor by floor.

The most important breakthrough in engineering represented by Seattle's tallest building is the damper system. This system, developed by SWMB and first used in the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, was designed to conquer one of the most significant challenges to modern, braced-core skyscrapers: swaying.

During storms, occupants with sensitive stomachs must leave the top floors of modern skyscrapers -- not for safety, but for solid ground. In Columbia Seafirst Center, they can stay put in all but the most violent winds.

SWMB's 260 visco-elastic dampers absorb the energy of wind gusts so that the resulting vibrations do not build to a large amplitude. The dampers mean that the skyscraper need not be stiff enough to completely resist the forces of wind, resulting in considerable construction savings.

Wind force on the structure, which has been calculated to reach 15 million pounds, also threatens to drive water through the seams of the glass curtain wall. To make sure moisture barriers were tight enough, they were subjected to a "dynamic water test" in which an airplane engine was used to create hurricane force winds against a mock-up of the Columbia Center window wall system.

The dark, curving curtain walls of the top of Columbia Center can easily be viewed from surrounding cities and even counties.

Seattle's highest landmark rose to its great heights with few visible traces of the progressive energy or adventurous spirit of the century's first skyscrapers.

It nevertheless succeeded in exploding the bubble of innocence that had kept Seattle complacent about rapid development. This skyscraper -- and others that rose to somewhat lesser heights in the 1980s -- so alarmed citizens about the dangers of "Manhattanization" that they responded with a hastily crafted initiative -- the Citizen's Alternative Plan, or CAP -- to place restrictions on the height of new office buildings in downtown Seattle. The initiative also required building proposals go through a stringent design review process at an early stage in development.

They needn't have bothered. The 1980s boom fizzled before the CAP was actually in place. So far, no building has been built under its defensive terms.

Down to the future

By 1969, the builders of the Seattle First National Bank wanted a large, significant but "unobtrusive" highrise.

There is talk today that Seattle office space is reaching a low enough vacancy and commanding high enough rents for new skyscraper development to pencil out within a few years.

But the race to the sky seems to have passed across the ocean to the Pacific Rim. Malaysia, China and Taiwan are now staking their claims on the world's tallest structures -- with the help of Seattle engineers and architects.

And at home, the public and local governments have increasingly turned their attention from vertical symbols of "progress" to wise use of land and other symbols of "quality of life."

At the same time, the modern American corporation has taken a more horizontal posture -- organizationally and structurally. Following Microsoft's lead, Seattle high-tech firms are seeking a pleasant, green environment and a relatively low profile. Having filled many square miles in the suburbs with vast corporate campuses, they have begun to take over large amounts of underused industrial land in the city.

Perhaps the next century belongs to skyscrapers that lie down.


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