If you find yourself at the southeast corner of Third Avenue and University Street, in perhaps the densest part of downtown Seattle’s skyscraper forest, and happen to gaze up at the Seattle Tower, you might be hard-pressed to spot the feature that was its main claim to fame when was built in 1929. Although the area was certainly still the core of Seattle’s business and commerce, the sky above it wasn’t as crowded as it is now—and this Art Deco beauty’s crown jewel is found at the top.
The Seattle Tower began as the Northern Life Tower, commissioned by David Bruce Morgan. Morgan had been running the Northern Life Insurance Company since 1905—at first with his brother, Tasso Mayne Morgan, until Tasso’s death in 1918. The company moved frequently when it was starting out before finding its home in the tower; it occupied at least four different offices in Pioneer Square in its first decade of business.
Seattle luminary architect Abraham H. Albertson designed the building, with associates Joseph W. Wilson and Paul D. Richardson in supporting roles. It was built on the site of the Mackintosh Mansion, constructed in 1887 as a family home for Angus, an Ontarian, and Lizzie, a former Mercer Girl pioneer, and later purchased by Bonney-Watson Funeral Home in 1907 when the Mackintoshes found downtown living too noisy. Bonney-Watson inhabited the property until 1912, when it moved up the hill to Broadway and East Olive, and the Mackintosh Mansion was demolished. A nondescript two-story business block stood there for a few years but was torn down to make way for Northern Life Insurance’s new center of operations.
The tower was a big deal: A major civic ceremony marked its first cornerstone being laid on August 10th of 1928. It was heralded as Seattle’s first skyscraper, although the Smith Tower, which had been down the road for a full 15 years at that point, is more than 100 feet taller.
Although it was only 27 stories to the Smith Tower’s 38 stories, the Northern Life Tower appeared taller not only because of the hillside it’s built on—on a hillside facing Elliott Bay, while the Smith Tower sits in the lowlands of Pioneer Square—but also the visual effect of the color gradient. It also looked the part, as the windows were set back about a foot, creating “vertical piers” to emphasize its height. This was exactly the architects’ goal; in its marketing materials, the Northern Life Tower was boasted as being “typical of New York.”
It has also been called Seattle’s first Art Deco building, ushering in a boom in the architectural style that included the Washington Athletic Club (1930), Harborview Medical Center (1931), the Federal Office Building (1932), and Pacific Tower (1933). (The Medical Dental Building, which was finished in 1925 and predates the Northern Life Tower by a few years, has been described as Art Deco by some and Late Gothic Revival by others, as it incorporates elements of both styles.)
The architectural team of Albertson, Wilson, and Richardson was also responsible or partially responsible for the Cobb Building on the other side of the block on Fourth Avenue, with its distinctive terra-cotta cartouches featuring Plains Indian–inspired faces (a tribute to Edward S. Curtis, whose photography studio was on the same block) as well as the YMCA Central Branch on Fourth Avenue, the Women’s University Club on Sixth, Cornish College of the Arts’s Kerry Hall on East Roy Street, and St. Joseph Catholic Church on First Hill. Controversially, some have alleged that their building design for the Northern Life Tower was copied from Chicago’s Tribune Tower, built in 1923—so much that in a 1971 Seattle P-I article, architect Miles Vanick called the Northern Life Tower “a near replica” of Eliel Saarinen’s plan for the Tribune Tower. However, an analysis of Albertson’s extensive writing and sketches from the development of the Northern Life Building strongly disputes this. Modern architects still continue to refer to the tower as “Saarinen-influenced.”
Whether it was borrowed from Saarinen or not, Albertson’s conceit for the Northern Life Tower was to make it look like a mountain to echo the dramatic natural landscape of the Pacific Northwest. The idea was to put a ziggurat at the top, with each level progressively narrower, like a wedding cake—or, sticking with the theme, a pointy mountain summit. 33 different shades of brick were used in the façade, set in a gradient to insinuate crags and cliffs, crowned with the palest terra cotta to symbolize snow-capped peaks, while stylized metal rods at the pinnacle represent evergreen trees. The ziggurat was both a stylistic choice and a result of zoning requirements of the era: If buildings were over a certain height, the top was required to step back and taper off in order to let sunlight hit the ground around it. This is also seen in the Smith Tower, with its iconic pyramid hat.
The brick itself was local, excavated from the base of Beacon Hill, around where Interstate 5 meets Spokane Street. The building was meant to be the insurance company’s Rock of Gibraltar, according to Kelly Brost of the Seattle Architecture Foundation, suggesting durability and reliability to its customers—and although Northern Life Insurance went out of business in 1977, their rock-solid office headquarters still stands, although nowadays it’s a lot harder to view the tower’s distinctive apex from the street than it was in 1929, when it was technically the tallest thing around.
As the tower was supposed to be a metaphorical mountain, the building’s spectacular marble lobby was supposed to be a metaphorical cave. According to the architects, the lobby 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.” It’s a classic study in the Art Deco style, with dark marble and gold and brass motifs throughout, like the enormous bas-relief map of the Pacific Ocean and its surrounding land masses with an inlaid clock. Titled “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way,” a name is taken a line in a 1726 poem by Bishop George Berkeley, the brass-and-gold-leaf map details the Pacific trade routes that contributed to early Seattle’s success and helped it to flourish.. The ceiling displays ornate bronze-and-gold-leaf bas-relief designs illustrating flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest.
The building’s restrooms showcase huge panels of the same dark marble found in the lobby, which was used often in early 20th-century Seattle architecture; it was quarried, fittingly, at Marble Island in southeastern Alaska’s Glacier Bay, and is also known as Alaskan or Tokeen marble. You’ll also see it in the King County Courthouse and the lobbies of the Smith Tower and the newly restored Publix Hotel.
But the Northern Life Building’s most special feature, arguably, is no longer around. In keeping with the whole “northern” theme, the original incarnation of the tower included, as A. B. Casteel wrote in a 1928 issue of Pacific Builder and Engineer that was mostly devoted to covering the tower, “more than 300 flood light units, located in the offsets, which will shoot their rays upward, while one color gradually gives way to another, producing a beautiful and effective aurora borealis, visible for miles.”
The National Park Service’s website describes the effect as a “phantasmagoric display.” It backfired a little, though, as this caused folks to call it the building the “Northern Lights Tower” instead of using the company’s correct name. Thanks to this signature trait, Northern Life Insurance’s employee newsletter was titled The Northern Lights and later The Aurora Borealis. Sadly, the lights themselves were taken down in 1942, but the name stuck around on the newsletter until 1977, when Northern Life Insurance was sold and absorbed by Northwestern National Life Insurance Company in Minneapolis.
Over the decades, some of the building’s tenants, in addition to the Northern Life Insurance, have been the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bartell Drugs, Steinway and Sons, several radio broadcasting businesses, and various attorneys and law firms. Its architect Albertson relocated his own offices to the tower when it opened, too.
Although the company was still in business at the time, the Northern Lights Tower was sold in 1967 to Tower Associates and was rechristened as “the Seattle Tower.” It attained national landmark status and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. In 1990, the Seattle P-I wrote that it had been renovated and restored to its former glory sans the aurora borealis floodlights; the building engineer of the last 15 years reported that he had “kept everything.” It was sold a few times in (relatively) rapid succession in 2004, 2006, 2010, 2011, and 2015, and, after being bought by Texas and California-based corporations, is currently owned by DP Bunker Hill, LLC, based out of Olympia.
The Seattle Tower is open during business hours and the lobby is very conducive to wandering around and gawking at all the shiny, magnificent opulence. You’ll be in good company.