The lobbies of Seattle's Art Deco buildings are a highlight of the Seattle Architecture Foundation's next tour.

Share story

Come in off the street — and you’ll realize you’re not in your average office lobby.

Most people obliviously pass by the gilded elegance of Seattle’s Art Deco buildings as they hustle to work or run errands downtown. Fortunately, the Seattle Architecture Foundation — which sponsors a whole array of downtown and neighborhood tours — can show you some of the gems you’ve been missing.

Earlier this week, SAF volunteer guide and Seattle native Kelly Brost gave me a preview of Saturday’s tour, “Art Deco: The Roaring ’20s, Northwest Style.” Here are some highlights from three buildings all built in 1929:

Seattle Tower, 1218 Third Ave.: This one is the masterpiece. Built by the Northern Life Insurance Company, the former Northern Life Tower — with its earthen-colored bricks gradually lightening toward the top — was intended to convey the solidity of a mountain: just what you’d want in an insurance company. The lobby is the “cave” of the mountain. An early observer remarked that it was “conceived as a tunnel carved out of solid rock, the side walls polished, the floor worn smooth, and the ceiling incised and decorated as a civilized cave man might do it.”

Here, classical architectural influences were rejected. Instead Native American, Central American, Polynesian and Asian motifs mix richly together. Totem poles are etched on the elevator doors. Feather headdresses are a part of the upper door-frame pattern

At the far end of the “cave” is a map of the Pacific: “a snapshot,” Brost says, “of how we saw ourselves at the time.” A pagoda, a Mayan pyramid and the Great Wall of China are depicted. The only modern building is the Northern Life Tower (San Francisco, our nearest trading rival, is represented by an Old Spanish mission). Four ships ride the waves, but the only steamship is departing from Seattle; the rest are sailing vessels. Inscribed beneath it: “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way.”

The elevator button-pads are worth a special look. They depict the building itself, with “Northern Lights” emanating from it. Playing on its name, Northern Life used to illuminate its headquarters in the colors of the Aurora Borealis. Back when the building was the highest structure visible from Elliott Bay (it had an altitude advantage over the physically taller Smith Tower), it must have been quite a sight.

Exchange Building, 821 Second Ave.: This was built to house the Northwest Commodities and Stock Exchange — until the 1929 Crash scotched that plan. But the lobby is still full of “commodities motifs” reflective of the building’s intended purpose. Wheat sheafs, grape bunches and tulips (bulbs used to be raised on the site of Boeing Field, Brost says) festoon every fixture, from the stained-glass fanlights over the outer doors to the letter box inside. The “organic” flow of the ornamental relief on the walls of the lobby and elevator frames shows some Art Nouveau influence. But the lobby ceiling, with its molded chevrons and starbursts, is pure Art Deco (one odd touch: paisleys are curled up in the angular space between them). There’s a variety of style here that makes Brost think a number of different artisans might have contributed individual touches to the lobby.

1411 Building, 1411 Fourth Ave.: The detail adorning the outer lobby is in a combination of styles: classical columns, Celtic knots, Art Deco chevrons. Inside, the Honduran mahogany paneling is original. The etched-glass chandeliers are most likely replicas. In the 1930s and ’40s, the building housed the offices of numerous railroad companies, the Alaska Steamship Company and Aloha Airlines. Bill Boeing also had his office here.

Not as splendid as the other two — but still of historic interest.

Michael Upchurch: