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The many-storied history of the Mutual Life Building

Well, six stories

Shiny Things/Flickr

Standing at First Avenue and Yesler Way for well over a century, Pioneer Square’s Mutual Life Building is probably best known today as the home of Magic Mouse Toys. But it’s got a multifarious, compelling past.

It starts with the building’s flamboyant first owner, Henry Yesler, one of the city’s founding fathers—as well as its first millionaire.

From 1854 to 1866, Yesler's chunk of land on First Avenue and Cherry Street was originally home to Seattle’s first restaurant called Yesler Hall, which was also used variously as a jail, town hall, and religious gathering place.

This plat is one of the reasons that the avenues bend at that point: South of Yesler Way, they run according compass directions, but disagreements among city founders led to a coastline-oriented street grid between Yesler and Denny.

Yesler’s property was at the crux of those disagreements, and complicated the grid further by not allowing a street to run through his property.

The Mutual Life Building, viewed from Yesler Way in an undated Historic American Buildings Survey photo.
Via Library of Congress

By 1889, with the cookhouse long gone, Yesler started building large wooden structures on the land, but this only lasted until the Great Seattle Fire on June 6 of the same year, which wiped out most of fledgling downtown Seattle.

Yesler began to rebuild not even six months later. He enlisted architect Elmer H. Fisher, who was responsible for designing the bulk of the post-fire construction in Seattle between 1889 and 1891, to draw up plans for a six-floor semi-Romanesque structure across from Yesler’s imposing Pioneer Building at First and James, now best-known as the starting point for Bill Spiedel’s Underground Tour, echoing its detailing and building materials. Per a description of the structure from March of 1891:

The first story is of Salt Lake red sandstone with carved story capitals and trimmings. Above the first story the walls will be of cream-colored brick, with red stone trimmings. When completed the building will present one of the most showy exteriors in Seattle.

But only the first floor of what would become the Mutual Life Building was completed before it was temporarily roofed in March 1891, when Fisher retired from architecture due to financial issues. The project was inherited by Emil DeNeuf, Fisher’s draftsman, who took over the task of adding the five extra floors, finishing six months after Henry Yesler died, in July of 1893. Yesler’s estate was held up in litigation after his death, adding to the delay of the building’s completion.

Although Fisher’s ground floor was in red sandstone, it stood out in sharp contrast against the top five floors, which DeNeuf did in yellow-buff brick with stone trim.

Now that it was done, the Yesler Building was ready for its first tenant: The inaptly-named First National Bank of Seattle, aka Firstbank and later Seafirst (RIP), which rented the ground floor before moving across the street to the Pioneer Building in 1910.

Another of its early occupants was also its owner, starting in 1897: The Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, which bought the Yesler Building, changed the name, then occupied a corner of the second floor until 1916.

The Shafer Brother Land Company bought it in 1915, kept the name, and managed it until they died off during the 1950s. The building was home to a number of colorful businesses during this time, including various cigar shops, skid row taverns, and lunch counters on the ground floor and basement, while the upstairs held accountants, architects, a checker’s union, and lots of different kinds of seafood brokers and fish workers’ offices.

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In 1916, a year after the Shafers purchased the building, architect James Blackwell was brought in to add major alterations and produce the Mutual Life Building’s final form that we know today. Blackwell added office floors, which reflect the Chicago school style so often seen in the early 20th century, and designed an addition to the structure directly to the west, which had previously been a whole separate building.

The seam between the two buildings is still noticeable, as is the difference between the shapes of the windows. Despite this, Blackwell’s work is celebrated for its subtlety; while installing storefronts and removing the entrance to the basement in the southeast corner of the building, he made sure the interior smoothly blended into the existing style.

Although it appears super solid in its squat, Romanesque way, the Mutual Life Building is pretty fragile, which came to light for the first time on April 13, 1949, when a 7.1-magnitude earthquake shattered much of Pioneer Square, filling the street with shards of brick and terracotta.

It was damaged by another earthquake in 1965, but 1960s saw an era of urban renewal in Pioneer Square, which had started going to seed as the older Victorian buildings decayed. The neighborhood became a National Historic District in 1970 with the help of local preservationists Bill Spiedel and Victor Steinbrueck, among others.

By 1983, the totally empty Mutual Life Building was purchased by Historic Seattle, which spearheaded a complete architectural rehabilitation the following year—one of the last buildings in Pioneer Square to be restored in this multi-building project.

Although efforts were made to retain as much of the original interior, the floors and inside partitions had to be removed in order to earthquake-proof the building. They were, however, able to save the wood-paneled entry lobby and the red sandstone on the first floor.

It was also in the 1980s that a visiting Butoh troupe, the Sankai Juku dance company of Tokyo, chose Seattle to kick off a world tour of public performances. It was customary for the five-man company to perform a 30-minute piece called “Jomon Sho” (Homage to Prehistory), wherein four twisting dancers are suspended upside down by their ankles on ropes, in the fetal position, as they are slowly lowered to the ground. Working with local dance theater On the Boards, Sankai Juku secured the top of the Mutual Life Building as their stage.

On September 10, 1985, as a few thousand watched below, the dancers performed “Jomon Sho” around lunchtime, with the dancers hanging from the edge of the Mutual Life Building’s cornice by ropes affixed to metal brackets. It was only a few minutes into the performance that Yoshiyuku Takada realized his rope was beginning to fray. But as soon as he reached up to grab the section above the fray, the rope snapped and Takada plummeted 80 feet to the sidewalk of 1st Avenue. He was pronounced dead at Harborview Medical Center later that afternoon. (Sankai Juku canceled the rest of its tour but returned to Seattle seven months later, making it a point to kick off its U.S. tour here, at the Opera House.)

Historic Seattle still owns the Mutual Life Building today. Although it’s changed substantially since it was built in 1893, a few of the Mutual Life Building’s original features still endure, perhaps most notably its marvelous, ornate elevators, which were restored in the 1984 overhaul. You can go down there and ride them today.