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The hidden history of the Arctic Building

Behind the terra cotta walruses is a century’s worth of stories

Joe Szilagyi/Flickr

With its colorful terra cotta façade and walrus cartouches, the Arctic Club Hotel at the northeastern corner of Third Avenue and Cherry Street is hard to miss. It’s also got a colorful history that spans a century.

The building basically started its life as a bar. In late 1907, two tycoons, Alaskan E. A. Von Hasslocher and former Chicago newspaperman A. D. Coulter, who’d made their fortunes in the Klondike Gold Rush, established a social club called the Alaska Club along with other Arctic explorers as a place to drink and reminisce on old times in the Arctic, kind of like the VFW or the Elks.

Although experience in the Arctic was not required, according to the 1909 Alaska Almanac, “the men that are developing and civilizing the Northland and the men of affairs in Seattle and the Northwest generally where they can meet on a common level extend their personal acquaintance and cement more closely the ties of friendship.”

One can imagine that business was also frequently transacted there. The organization merged with the similar-in-concept Alaska Club in 1908.

The Arctic Club’s first home was at Third Avenue and Jefferson Street, in the building now called the Morrison Hotel, from 1909 until 1916. That was when fancypants architect-of-the-hour A. Warren Gould was commissioned to build the group a themed, 8-story clubhouse with a domed ballroom—razing the 1,300-seat Seattle Theatre, part of the Rainier Club, for the occasion.

The Arctic Building was one the first in Seattle to use not only terracotta panels over reinforced steel but colored terracotta as well, with the walruses as well as various other details employing light blue and ochre. The Beaux Arts architectural style was new to Seattle and considered radical for the time, especially the terra cotta walruses and polar bear above the Third Avenue entrance.

When it opened, the building housed a cigar store, a library, a bowling alley, a barber shop, a rooftop garden, an elegant ladies’ tea room, several card and billiards rooms, private dining rooms, private guest rooms for Arctic Club members as well as offices that were rented to the Swiss and Dutch consuls, among other tenants.

The interior was lavish. The Alaska Almanac described the space:

Costly oriental rugs and runners cover the floor, mural paintings of Northern scenery are used in the assembly room and the furnishings are in mahogany upholstered in leather” and “it is claimed apparently with justness that the Arctic Club has the richest and most commodious home of any social club west of Chicago.

The crown jewel of the new Arctic Club, of course, was the grand dining room, known originally as the Dome Room, spanning 3,600 square feet with an elaborate stained-glass ceiling.

The members of the Arctic Club were happy in their snazzy new digs, but there was one thing about their first home that they missed: the bar. It’s not known when, but reportedly, a couple of them got together and just stole it one night, hoisting it out the window of the old Third and Jefferson location and dragging it up the street to the new building without permission. The club’s president didn't find about it until he saw the bar installed and in use at the new Arctic Club, as though nothing had happened, and he quickly issued a payment to the owners of their old building before they could sue him.

Another of the building’s tenants was U.S. Congressman Marion Zioncheck, a local left-wing Democratic Party leader who was elected in 1932—soon after he’d spearheaded a recall drive against Seattle Mayor Frank Edwards, who was attempting to sell off Seattle City Light.

Zioncheck was a New Deal disciple and a muckraker who was known for his anti-globalism protests and antics such as driving on the White House lawn, attempting to fistfight a Texan delegate on the House floor and drunkenly pranking a D.C. telephone switchboard to wish everyone in an apartment building a happy new year. He also married a federal typist after a single date. The press loved to report on Zioncheck’s scandals and tailed him constantly, likely contributing to his mental instability.

In the summer of 1936, Zioncheck traveled back to his Seattle office at the Arctic Building, months after a temporary separation with his wife and a short stay in a Washington, D.C. psych ward. On the evening of August 8, Zioncheck was seen writing at his desk one moment, and the next, he’d jumped to his feet and leaped out the window to his death, landing on Third Avenue directly before a car occupied by his wife. His suicide note read: “My only hope in life was to improve the condition of an unfair economic system that held no promise to those that all the wealth of a decent chance to survive let alone live.”

The City of Seattle had been renting offices in the building as well, starting in 1921 and expanding in 1970 and throughout the ‘80s. In 1988, the city purchased the building and began restoration work on the badly decayed façade in 1996 after one of the walrus’ tusks had fallen off. It was later discovered that the tusk was plastic—a 1982 bid at restoring the walruses involving switching out the terra cotta tusks for plastic ones and bolting and grouting them to the terra cotta. Water had subsequently seeped into the grout. Nine of the walrus faces were sawn off and rebuilt with new terra cotta rusks, while the remaining 27 were rebuilt without removal.

The Arctic Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and named a City of Seattle Landmark in 1993. In 2006, it was sold again to developers based in Spokane and the interior was overhauled, which is when the polar bear above the main entrance was tragically lost.

In particular, the spectacular Dome Room—known now as the Northern Lights Dome Room—received a special revamp, with soft glowing lights installed behind the ceiling’s stained glass. Many original Victorian mouldings and other details were recycled or otherwise retained in the process of the facelift.

In its current form, the Arctic Building is known as The Arctic Club Seattle, having operated as a four-star Doubletree by Hilton hotel since 2008. The luxurious lounge, now styled as the “Polar Bar,” remains and is open the public—and the Northern Lights Dome Room is available for events.