IN 1909, SEATTLE’S first World’s Fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, attracted to the University of Washington campus (home to the exposition) many of the citizen types for which local pioneers had long yearned.
The eastern investor-developers were constantly coaxed to the far Northwest with deals such as cheap land and natural resources waiting to be dug. The selling worked. Increasingly, the eastern bankers — and their suburban officers in San Francisco — gained a developing appreciation of the proven Northwest advantages. If they could be persuaded, the well-heeled visitors would lay down big cash. With Seattle’s booming population, it was not merely lumber, fish and minerals that locals hoped to sell, but the land itself, and the human touches that adorn it — including, eventually and inevitably, skyscrapers.
This old story of high-rise vanity, often repeated, features armaments and typewriter manufacturer Lyman Cornelius Smith and banker-developer James Hoge. The two paused to chat while visiting the fair. Both had acquired a good amount of Seattle real estate, and each was coyly itching to raise a namesake cap to his credit: Seattle’s tallest tower.
In preparation for their private excesses, the two wondered what might be a proper height limit for such a building. Both agreed that Seattle’s first tower, the 1904 Alaska Building, was perhaps a passionate-enough expression of raw loft, an example set above its own corner at Second Avenue and James Street that did not need to be exceeded.
Of course, we now know who won this trickster’s vanity game for fat wallets. Because the two landmarks ascended only two blocks apart, we still can count the sum of their floors from the corner of James Street and Second Avenue. It wasn’t the banker named Hoge who did the excessive reaching. Rather, it was Smith, with our gleaming terra-cotta-tiled Smith Tower, professed when it opened in 1914 to be 42 stories high. To this count, we prudently will add: “more or less.”
Hoge started the competitive lifting first, and he built fast. The Hoge building’s steel frame, shown in our “Then” photo, was completed to its top 18th story in 1911. It took a mere 30 days to raise the frame, which at the time was claimed a record. This speed gave Smith plenty of time to assemble his own frame, to “something like” 42 floors. (It has always been a local question: “How do you count the floors in the Smith Tower’s pyramid top?”)