AKA: Seattle Tower, Downtown, Seattle, WA

Structure Type: built works - commercial buildings - corporate headquarters; built works - commercial buildings - office buildings

Designers: Albertson, Wilson and Richardson, Architects (firm); Lohse, Henry, Sr., Building Contractor (firm); Sound Construction and Engineering Company (firm); Abraham Horace Albertson (architect); Henry Lohse Sr. (building contractor); Paul David Richardson (architect); Joseph Wade Wilson (architect)

Dates: constructed 1928-1929

27 stories

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1212 3rd Avenue
Seattle, WA 98101-3004

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1212 Third Avenue;

Overview

Ground was broken for Seattle's finest Art Deco skyscraper on 02/17/1928, and a cornerstone laid five months later. Relatively low labor costs of the period enabled large-scale commercial buildings to be completed very quickly in the 1910s and 1920s. From cornerstone to occupancy occurred in seven months, a rapid pace for a 27-story building. The building was intended to resemble a Pacific Northwest mountain, with brick tones composing the tower's walls going from dark at the bottom to light on top, with the spire decorated with light stone suggesting a snowy peak.

Building History

Brothers David Bruce Morgan (1869-1943) and Tasso Mayne Morgan (1862-1918) founded the Northern Life Insurance Company in 1906. They grew up in Cincinnati, OH, before moving to Albany, OR, in 1887, where they founded an insurance business operating in Albany and later Portland. HistoryLink.org quoted Clarence Bagley's History of King County: "Early Seattle historian Clarence Bagley tells us that the brothers came to Seattle in 1905 with an innovative approach to insurance based on their years of experience in Oregon: They combined accident and health policies with life insurance. The Northern Life Insurance Company, which the Morgans incorporated in Seattle on July 24, 1906, was the only company in the state to offer that combined approach at the time." (See Clarence B. Bagley, History of King County, [Chicago: S. J. Clarke Pub. Co.,1929], p. 5-17 and Dotty DeCoster, "Northern Life/Seattle Tower [Seattle],"Accessed 10/10/2014.) With its innovative services, the company experienced vigorous growth, necessitating frequent moves to larger quarters in Downtown Seattle. Between 1906 and 1929, the Northern Life Insurance Company relocated its offices five times before it built this tower. Tasso Morgan died in 1918, and his surviving brother soon after decided to build a trademark skyscraper, at 27 stories the tallest on the city’s corporate skyline. He wanted the building to symbolize Northern Life's modernity, solidity and deep roots in the Pacific Northwest.

To design his marquis headquarters, he commissioned architects Abraham H. Albertson and Associates, a firm experienced in designing the Cobb Building and other towers of the prestigious Metropolitan Tract. They brought together a skilled construction team of local craftsmen and tradespeople. Composed of meticulous and distinctive detailing and a lavish range of materials—brick, terra cotta, limestone, granite, marble, bronze, and gilded ornamentation—the tower’s construction would take 2 years, wrapping up in 03/1929. Seeking to underscore the Northern Life's forward-thinking perspective, Albertson and Associates created one of Seattle’s first Art Deco buildings, its form strongly recalling Eliel Saarinen's famous entry in the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower Competition. (Ironically, architect Abraham Albertson's former partner, John Mead Howells (1868-1959), won the Tribune Competition with a flamboyant Gothic Revival design he created with Raymond Hood [1881-1934]. Saarinen's design, however, exerted far more influence on American skyscraper design of the 1920s-1930s, affecting many West Coast architects, such as Timothy Pflueger [1892-1946], George Kelham [1871-1936] and Albertson [1872-1964].) Kreisman has stated of the building: "Designed to convey the impression of lofty aspirations, strength, durability, and solidity, the 27-story tower form suggests the rock mass of Mount Rainier, both in form and in the gradations of the earthy colored brick with which it is sheathed. The lobby was conceived as a tunnel, carved out of solid rock, its side walls polished, the floor worn smooth, and the ceiling incised and decorated as a civilized caveman might have done it." (See Lawrence Kreisman, Historic Preservation in Seattle, [Seattle, WA: Historic Seattle Preservation and Development Authority, 1985], p. 34.) The color scheme of the brick work was designed to lighten from bottom to top, reinforcing a visual impression of Rainier-like solidity. The roof was capped by three spires configured to evoke conifers. The building, with its regional allusions, was a key symbol for the company. An advertisement in the Seattle, WA, arts periodical, The Town Crier, illustrated a drawing of the Northern Life Tower, with the caption: "Visible evidence of the Company's progress and achievement." (See "The New Souvenir Tower Policy," Town Crier, 23:50, 12/15/1928, p. 86.)

Building Notes

Architectural historian Lawrence Kreisman observed about the lobby in 1978: "Seattle's trade advantages over other West Coast ports were heavily promoted from the time of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition onward. This relief map in the lobby of the Northern Life Tower, completed in 1928 by Albertson, Richardson and Wilson, visually expresses the city's role as the Gateway to the Pacific Rim. A great steamship, probably one of James J. Hill's, leaves Seattle (symbolized by the Northern Life Tower) for Asia. Los Angeles, also a thriving port, is pointedly symbolized by a Spanish Colonial mission rather than a skyscraper." (See Lawrence Kreisman, "Northwest Living Nature In Architecture -- Seattle Buildings Wear Waves Of Creature Profiles," Seattle Times, 01/14/1990,Accessed 02/01/2011) Reflecting Seattle's increased economic power as a port, manufacturing and corporate center, an advertisement extolled Seattle's construction rate in 1927 and mentioned the Northern Life Insurance Company Office Building #2 by name for its remarkable $1,750,000 cost. (See "Seattle 'the City that is ever Building!'" Seattle Times, 07/09/1928, p. 34.) This money, a significant investment in 1928-1929, was spread between the general contractor, the Sound Construction and Engineering Company, and its 35 sub-contractors. Among the key sub-contractors were Hall and Stevenson, the skyscraper's structural engineers, and Josiah C. Moore Company, Incorporated, its mechanical engineers.

Documents concerning the Northern Life Tower are contained in the Abraham Horace Albertson Papers, 1908-1962, held at the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division.

Seattle Historic Landmark: 137

National Register of Historic Places (May 30, 1975): 75001857 NRHP Images (pdf) NHRP Registration Form (pdf)

PCAD id: 4731