Seattle Architecture Foundation offers a wide variety of guided walking tours to connect us with the city we live in. New offerings reach beyond downtown and even to the Eastside.

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We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

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— T.S. Eliot

Who knew that situational awareness of your own backyard could be so entertaining? Taking part in “Greatest Hits: Chart-toppers and Heart Stoppers,” one of many guided tours offered by the Seattle Architecture Foundation, I learned to stand still and just look.

When you do that, when you take time to notice the biography of buildings, they tell stories. Those giant terra-cotta faces that adorn Seattle’s 1910 Cobb Building? They’re not based on a Northwestern motif as you might expect but are Iroquois in origin. That pyramid atop Smith Tower? It’s inhabited. And a river runs through City Hall.

The foundation offers these nuggets and more with 270 tours a year — some repeated frequently, others presented rarely, and new tours being added regularly, expanding beyond the downtown core to new neighborhoods and even the Eastside. It adds up to a rich resource of knowledge about where we live.

Such volume is possible because of 300 devoted volunteers, like Dr. Kavita Shah, a 33-year-old research scientist.

“I’ve always been interested in the arts and I love architecture,” she said. A tour-guide-in-training, Shah enjoys what happens when buildings go from being a backdrop to a living landscape. “People see their surroundings in a different way than they did before,” she said. “They get to know more about the history of buildings, and the culture that made them. Then they start to care, because they think of the people who came before us.”

One of the buildings on the Greatest Hits tour is the stately 1904 Rainier Club (on Fourth Avenue between Marion and Columbia streets), a somewhat fusty old brick structure surrounded by sparkling glass skyscrapers. Its design is based on the English manor house — no accident at a time when Seattle was becoming class conscious, when the young city finally had a social ladder to climb. Look for the telltale signs of an addition that was built in 1928-29, evidenced by a faint line of newer brick that begins above the Fourth Avenue entrance.

Can’t-miss library

Also on the tour is Seattle’s love-it or hate-it downtown library (between Fourth and Fifth avenues and Spring and Madison streets). Seeing it for the first time, a man in our group was diplomatic. “Well,” he nodded, looking around, “it’s spacious.”

On the main floor is a vast greenish carpet that I thought was fairly ugly. But tour guide Joe Rettenmaier advised withholding judgment until we were above it looking down. Later, from the fourth-floor balcony, I was surprised to see what had appeared to be a fuzzy green design come into sharp focus; this custom-made carpet is composed of plant photographs. Viewed from on high, it was suddenly impressive.

Just south of the library, we observed the recently spared First United Methodist Church (Fifth Avenue and Madison Street), a Beaux-Arts-style structure built in 1910 by early Seattle pioneers. The domed church was saved from certain destruction at the last moment by a local developer. While a skyscraper goes up around it, the sanctuary is now the Daniels Recital Hall, a music venue.

Green city hall

Our group also strolled through Seattle City Hall (between Fourth and Fifth avenues, James and Cherry streets), a testament to green construction. There’s a cistern up top to collect rain, with the water used throughout the building, and special windows that allow more light in. For aesthetics, a river of water cuts right through the lobby, burbling down to an infinity pool and fountains.

From a City Hall plaza, we next examined the Smith Tower (Second Avenue and Yesler Way). This venerable white “skyscraper,” Seattle’s first, was built from 1910 to 1914, ultra modern for its time. The all-metal construction has a white terra-cotta skin, topped by a pyramid that once disguised a 10,000-gallon water tank, but now — incredibly — houses an apartment that is home to a family with two children. They enjoy a long-term lease, fantastic views, and no neighbors. They come and go in a truly unique way, via the largest collection of manually operated elevators in the United States, powered by the original engines.

At tour’s end, we viewed our surroundings with fresh eyes. Bob Hollowell, 61, a medical librarian by trade, has lived in Seattle for more than 20 years but, in many ways, he’s learning to see it for the first time. “I lost my job last February, and after the shock wore off, I decided I had time to look around,” he said. “I realized that when you’re on vacation, in Paris or Rome, that’s what you do, look around. I just thought, I can do the same thing right here.”

Connie McDougall is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

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