Seattle's historic buildings are festooned with interesting details, as you'll see on one of Seattle Architecture Foundation's most popular downtown tours.

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If you work, shop or attend events in downtown Seattle, you’ve probably walked past them a dozen times. But have you actually looked at the critters that adorn the urns in the Second Avenue courtyard of the former Washington Mutual Tower?

Walruses, wolves, bison and rams in bas-relief bronze peer out from under the rims of the containers. They’re handsome pieces — thoughtful design touches among dozens of other similarly beguiling details that we’re all too apt to miss when we’re rushing from one point to another downtown.

“Design Details: Lions, Griffins, & Walruses, Oh My!” — one of the Seattle Architecture Foundation’s most popular walking tours — helps you to slow down and notice “the small stuff.” The two-hour stroll takes you nine blocks from Rainier Square, where SAF has its headquarters, to the Smith Tower, where the Chinese Room (which co-sponsors the tour) is the big attraction.

Two hours may sound like a long time to cover nine blocks, but it feels almost hectic as you go from building to building, jumping back and forth between one architectural era and another. Volunteer guides, using a closely researched script as their starting point, put you in the picture on each site’s background and history.

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As you follow them, it’s clear that you’ve entered a terra-cotta wonderland populated by Iroquois chieftains (at the entrance to the Cobb Building), lion-head cornices (projecting from the top of the Hoge Building), long-tusked walruses (lining the third-floor exterior of Arctic Club Hotel) and griffins and other mythical creatures (guarding the entrance to the 215 Columbia Building). The veneers of many of these buildings are made of terra cotta, too.

Why is terra cotta (literally “cooked earth” in Italian) used so often instead of stone?

One reason is that this ceramic material is fire-retardant, a big consideration after the 1889 fire that destroyed much of Seattle. It’s also less expensive and more versatile than stone.

The terra cotta you see downtown, much of it made from local clays, is usually integral to the buildings it adorns. But other tour sights are more anachronistic: ways to remember an architectural past that long since fell to the demolition ball.

Along the University Street-side of 1201 Third Avenue Tower, for instance, are aluminum-cast reproductions of painted-plaster details from the restaurant of the old Hotel Savoy, demolished in 1986. In front of the Henry M. Jackson Federal Office Building, you’ll find a free-standing entrance archway from the old Burke Building, which once stood on this site.

At each step, the guides alert you not just to a Seattle architectural past that’s survived but to a city that’s vanished.

The tour climaxes with a trip up the granddaddy of local skyscrapers: the Smith Tower. Admission to the tower’s Chinese Room and Observation Deck (usually $7.50 for adults) is included in the price of the tour. The Chinese Room is sometimes closed for private rentals, so taking the “Design Details” tour is one way to be sure of getting to see it.

The room’s elaborate paneled ceiling, a gift from the last empress of China to typewriter- and rifle-magnate Lyman Cornelius Smith, is one draw here. And the view from the observation deck down the narrow slot of Second Avenue toward the Space Needle is worth the price of admission alone.

Here’s a great way to connect with Seattle’s past — and to cherish its present.

Michael Upchurch:

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