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Seattle's historic Smith Tower: gaudy, yet beloved

Lesley Holdcroft, elevator operator at Seattle's historic Smith Tower.
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols
Lesley Holdcroft operates the elevator at Seattle's historic Smith Tower.

Smith Tower re-opens Thursday in Pioneer Square. It marks an important turnaround for the 1914 landmark Seattle building. 

It was once the tallest building West of the Mississippi. But it left that title behind long ago. You could say the Smith Tower hit rock bottom after the recession when plans to turn it into condos didn’t pan out and banks foreclosed on the famous wedding cake of a building.

KUOW’s Joshua McNichols took a tour of Smith Tower to learn some of its history.


That’s where I met Ned Carner, Sr. Vice President of Unico, the company that bought the Smith Tower.

Carner met me in the Smith Tower lobby. He told me the building materials reflect the huge ego of the building’s original owner, Lyman Cornelius Smith.

Carner: “The lobby is covered in Onyx. Everything in the whole building was designed to reflect the most ostentatious and popular styles of the time.”

KUOW: “Who was this guy, Mr. Smith of Smith tower? He got his money selling guns and typewriters, right?”

Carner: “Yeah, Lyman Smith made his money in guns. He sold that business and then sold Corona typewriters which was really where he made the majority of his money.”

KUOW: “OK, so he made a lot of money and he wanted to make a mark on Seattle real estate. And he threw a lot ostentatious ornamentation into this building.

“Can you tell me about the elevator door? They kind of remind me of something you’d see, like – I don’t want to say it – something you’d see in Trump Tower or something.”

Carner: “The gold doors all are engraved with the LCSmith, so Lyman Cornelius Smith. They’re pretty gaudy. They’re completely designed to impress. So the elevators themselves are designated as a historic landmark so they will be saved perpetually. Another very unique factor is that they’re manually operated so each elevator has an operator.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "The lobby is testament to the ego of the building's creator, says Unico's Sr. Vice Prez Ned Carner. Styles and materials meant to indicate prestige and wealth pile on top of each other, including gold paint, carved Indian heads, and onyx. Doors throughout the lobby are monogrammed with the initials of Lyman Cornelius Smith, whose fortune paid for the tower.", "fid": "129231", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201608/SmithTower_Interior_ElevatorLobby.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Unico"}]]Elevator Operator: “Get ready for a historical ride in Seattle. We’re headed up to the observatory. You’ll be able to hear when you get up there, there’s actually film footage of a one-armed stunt man named Mink Duranda. And his dream was to jump off of the Smith Tower and to pull a parachute. And he asked for a permit, which he couldn’t receive. So he did it anyway, and he said it was an accident.”

Lesley Holdcroft is full of stories like that. She is a "guest experience guide" and one of her duties is operating the elevator.

Before we went into the observatory, Unico’s Ned Carner pulled me into a locked room where all the elevator machinery is. It sounds like this: whump clack clack clack click.

KUOW: “OK. That’s a freaky noise. It’s not what I would expect in an elevator machine room. What the heck is happening?”

Carner: “This is the technology of the time. They were using electric arcs to decide which floor everything is going to.”

Basically, they didn’t have modern transistors. Instead, they had this old fashioned mechanical version of a transistor.

Carner: “As everything is switching you start to see bright flashes of light that look like lightning. And it is perfectly safe – they’re maintained by Otis as they have been for over 100 years. They’re certified by the city and the state. But it is a very different technology than you’re accustomed to.”

KUOW: “What does that tell us about restoring an old building like this?”

Carner: “I liken it to restoring an old car. You have to look very carefully to find the pieces. So if a similar elevator in another city is removed, we will buy the pieces. Or we have to manufacture pieces to keep them running on occasion.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Smith Tower", "fid": "129232", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201608/smith_tower.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]

Finally, we head to the observation platform for a view of the city. Down below us is Pioneer Square.

After this building was built, downtown really moved north. That’s part of the reason the Smith Tower sticks out so much down here.

Carner admits that the only investor who ever made money off this building is the company that bought it in foreclosure after the recession. They doubled their money when they sold it to Unico. But Carner thinks this building has the potential to go further.

Because all that funky stuff he showed me – the carved Indian heads in the lobby, the gold monogrammed doors, the stories about people who tried to parachute off it – it all adds up to character. And people will pay for character these days.

Carner: “This is a unique place. And it attracts people that are looking for something that feels different, that feels special, and kind of connects with them at an emotional level.”

The owner also hopes curious visitors will shell out $20 for a self-guided tour of the building. That’s almost as much as it costs to visit the Space Needle. But here’s a secret, if you’re cheap like me: There’s a bar at the observation deck and you can get in there for only $10.

Correction 9 a.m., 8/25/2016: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect first name for Lyman Cornelius Smith.