The Rebirth of Smith Tower

As Pioneer Square sees rebirth, its iconic cornerstone leads the way.

Above: Ben Gibbard sings of Smith Tower’s sadder times.

“Built in boast, as the tallest on the coast/He was once the city’s only toast,” sings Ben Gibbard in his song “Teardrop Windows.” The tune, released last year, was about the Smith Tower. At the time, the 42-story building—which will observe its 100th anniversary next July 4—was 85 percent unoccupied. As Gibbard puts it, “There’s too many vacancies/He’s been feeling all so empty.”

It’s now a year since Gibbard’s ode was released, and I’m having a pint at Smith Tower’s Shawn O’Donnell’s, a new Irish pub in a ground-level space that hasn’t been occupied for more than a decade. I’m accompanied by Petra Franklin, an artist and longtime Pioneer Square resident who’s walking me through the ups and downs of the skyscraper she calls home. She and her two girls, Simone and Naomi, aged 9 and 6, are the building’s sole residents. Franklin has called 506 Second Avenue home for 16 years, living in the pyramid-shaped penthouse at the top. Yes, those are her teardrop windows.

In her tenure at Smith Tower, Franklin has attended lavish parties hosted by the Sisters of Providence—who used to keep offices in the building—and shared a tense moment with a longtime security guard during the Nisqually earthquake. And she was there during the fast-and-loose days of the mid-’00s, when out-of-town developers with grand designs for the building came along and “caused a lot of problems.”

Walton Street Capital, a Chicago-based real-estate investment firm, bought Smith Tower in 2006 and had plans to convert the building into condos. But then the real-estate market collapsed, and things went south. Many tenants moved out, and the remaining rent couldn’t cover operating expenses. In 2011, Walton Street Capital defaulted on its loan—in excess of $42 million—and the building was put up for auction.

Cate Chase, who handles marketing and relations for the building’s new managing company, Goodman Real Estate, says the tower was in a sad state when the firm took over in December 2011. “There were just floors of offices sitting empty,” she says. “It was deserted.” Cue Ben Gibbard.

But Chase, the building’s unofficial historian, cites a quick turnaround. She says the tower is now 72 percent occupied, and rattles off a roll call of new tenants who now call it home: offices for Pixar, Uber, shoe company Dolce Vita, and Projectline, a marketing consulting group housed in suites once occupied by Microsoft. Then there are Shawn O’Donnell’s and Diva Espresso, slated to move into the former Starbucks space in the foyer.

“Pioneer Square is growing again,” she says. “We’re providing affordable space compared to some of the places up north. I think Seattleites appreciate unique office spaces. And the Smith Tower has the coolest history.”

Steve Gahler, president of internet marketing group Portent, agrees. In June 2012, his company was the first to sign on as new tenants after the building’s change in ownership. His company now occupies the entire 17th floor, a space of about 11,000 square feet.

“I had never been in before, but it was such a cool experience,” says Gahler, whose company was formerly located in Tukwila. “I honestly felt like it was the right thing as soon as I saw the space.”

Committing to the tower did take a leap of faith, however. After moving in, he says, “We were unsure. It was quite dead in here, and most of the building was empty.”

But now, after just over a year? “The new energy and the life in the building is awesome. . . . Pioneer Square is having a real resurgence. And the Smith Tower is its crown jewel. It’s iconic.”

Even during the Tower’s hardest times, that has never been up for debate. In an effort to attract tenants and restore the building to its original grandeur, Goodman renovated its famous Chinese Room, which, according to legend, was furnished by the last Empress of China as a gift to Mr. Lyman Cornelius Smith, the tower’s builder (and half of the Smith-Corona typewriter empire).

“That myth is not validated,” says Chase, “though it is known Smith traveled to China with typewriters and shotguns.” She adds, “There wasn’t a good archive left,” noting that the building has changed owners more than 20 times in its century as part of the city skyline. “There are a lot of legends about the building.”

Perhaps most emblematic of the Smith Tower’s new currency have been its arts and music events, which can be taken in with the right connections. Last year Gibbard performed for an intimate crowd of 99 in the Chinese Room. In October, a Sam Shepard play was staged there, using the room’s iconic “Wishing Chair” as a prop. (According to the “History & Facts” page at smithtower.com, legend says that any “wishful unmarried woman who sits in it would be married within a year.” I can attest that it worked for me.)

And I would return, just days after my pint with Franklin, to Projectline’s offices for an intimate acoustic performance by another Seattle fixture, singer/songwriter John Roderick. The show was the third installment of the Mill Street Sessions, a new online music series similar to NPR’s beloved Tiny Desk Concerts, hosted by Seattle musician and Projectline employee Kris Orlowski.

“The identity of Seattle has changed and evolved since its lumberjack roots, but it has continued to be a pioneer, not only in industry and architecture but also in music,” the Sessions’ website explains. Mill Street was the former name of Yesler Way, it says, where the Tower shares a corner with 2nd Ave. “As tribute to our city’s groundbreaking roots, we bring you the Mill Street Sessions — stripped down songs by Northwest artists recorded in the iconic Smith Tower.”

In turn, Franklin, who met Orlowski in a Smith Tower stairwell, has hosted parties in her home featuring Orlowski as the entertainment. “Kris is remarkable,” says Franklin. “If you see him perform, I recommend seeing him play an acoustic set.”

As the Smith Tower nears its 100th birthday, the opportunities for doing so appear to be multiplying.

“The Smith Tower has always just been used,” says Chase, pointing out that it’s still the famous gathering place, workspace, and attraction it once was.

Gibbard would be pleased that his rueful lyrics—“In 1962 the Needle made its big debut/And everybody forgot what it outgrew”—have lost some of their sting.

gelliott@seattleweekly.com

 
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