AKA: Olympic Tower, Downtown, Seattle, WA; Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company, Office Building, Seattle, WA

Structure Type: built works - commercial buildings - office buildings; built works - commercial buildings - stores

Designers: Bittman, Henry W., Architect and Engineer (firm); Henrikson Alstrom Construction Company (firm); A. Alstrom (building contractor); Henry W. Bittman (architect/structural engineer); John Henrikson (building contractor)

Dates: constructed 1928-1931

13 stories

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217 Pine Street
Downtown, Seattle, WA 98101

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The United Shopping Tower was located on the southwest corner of 3rd Avenue and Pine Street.

Building History

The versatile Seattle architect/engineer Henry W. Bittman (1882-1953) designed the United Shopping Tower for the conglomerate the United National Corporation, a subsidiary of the Seattle investment firm, Drumheller, Ehrlichman and White. A large team collaborated with Bittman to construct the United Shopping Tower. The Henrikson-Alstrom Company served as general contractors, and they collaborated with the following sub-contractors: Meacham and Babcock, electrical contractors, Crosby Lighterage Company supplied concrete, sand and gravel, W.F. Slezak provided the steel, and the University Brick and Tile Company brought the masonry materials. Odman Constracting Company dug the foundations and shored them up, and the A. Weisenborn Decorating Company did the interior design. The previous buildings on the site, including the Federal Hotel, formerly the Melrose Hotel, were demolished by Matheny and Bacon, Incorporated, beginning in 12/1928.

The building was conceived as a new shopping experience, as stores were stacked vertically within the high-rise. Bittman was quoted in the Seattle Times the day before the tower's grand opening: "I am proud of my work on the Shopping Tower, for it is one of the most unusual structures in the country. The idea of 'vertical shopping' is somewhat new, but I believe the idea will become very popular in all cities during the next few years." (See "Architect Voices Pride in Design of Vertical Stores," Seattle Times, 10/25/1929, p. 11.) Unfortunately, the building's first Bargain Basement stores opened on 10/26/1929, an extremely inopportune moment in American financial history. A decade-long Depression was about to set in on the US, killing the vertical shopping concept in particular and shopping in general.

It was thought that diversified company like the United National Corporation would be resilient to financial instability. According to the Seattle Times of 10/25/1929, "United Shopping Tower, Inc., owner of the new Shopping Tower at Third Avenue and Pine Street, emphasizes the position of the tower corporation as a unit in the group of fifteen Pacific Northwest corporations controlled by United National Corporation of Seattle. The group embraces a wide range of diversified corporations each of whose interests lends stability and increased business to others in that group. The group is divided into four divisions, the investment banking division, the insurance division, the realty division and the investment corporation division, the latter operating similarly to the famed British and Scottish investment trusts whose success over a long period of years has been followed on an increasing scale in the United States." The article indicated that United National had $18,000,000 invested in the project, and that the New York-based American Founders' Group, with capitalized assets of $300 million, had invested $4,906,350 in the Seattle building.

This newspaper article came out four days before the Black Friday crash of 10/29/1929 on Wall Street, and during a period of significant turmoil within the New York Stock Exchange. The Seattle Times hoped to calm local investors by downplaying the volatility of the distant New York market and reinforce confidence in the Seattle-based United National Corportation. It stated: "Just last week, while eastern securities markets were suffering from the first onslaught of the present decline in eastern stock values, United Founders invested $1,125,000 in United National Corporation in exercise of its rights to purchase 25,000 shares of the oversubscribed 100,000 share issue of United National participating preference stock which was sold out last Friday. This investment was regarded in financial circiles as an outstanding tribute to the soundness of the United National situation." The Times writer was careful to differentiate events on the "eastern securities markets," from those in Seattle, and that "eastern stock values" may have had only passing interest to West Coast investors. This effort to distance east and west coast financial circumstances was hollow, as the article was careful to note that a major New York investment firm had already sunk nearly $5 million into the building.

In 1932, the vertical shopping center closed, and the building was converted to offices by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. Northwestern Mutual operated in the building until it was sold to the Olympic Savings Bank, which closed in 1994. After this, a syndicate of investors bought the building and converted it into a commercial condominium.

The United Shopping Tower received a unanimous vote to become a City of Seattle Historic Landmark; In 07/2007, the following stores lined the first floor of the Olympic Tower: Spa Salon Seattle, Payless Shoe Source, Sally Beauty Supply, and a Vietnamese Restaurant. The section of Downtown Seattle of Pine Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues was, in 2007, a pocket of drug-dealing and crime. Olympic Tower is set on the corner of 3rd Avenue and Pine Street, and was in the vicinity of numerous street crime incidents.

In 2016, the building was also known as the"Olympic Savings Tower Condominium."

Building Notes

As originally proportioned, the tower stood 124 feet high and had a 113-foot-long frontage on 3rd Avenue and 108 feet on Pine Street. Dimensions changed over the years due to alterations, but in 2016, it occupied, a 12,217-square-foot (0.28-acre) lot, and contained 99,470 gross square feet, 76,805 net. A 9,000-saure-foot retail space occupied the first floor, 11,000 square feet existed in the basement for parking (30 stalls) and other purposes and 79,470 square feet was available for upper-floor offices. This commercial condominium had 14 units each with an average size of 5,874 square feet.

In the 1950s, the Northwestern Mutual Fire Association maintained its main offices in the United Shopping Tower. The Northwestern Mutual Fire Association, not to be confused with the Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, was founded in 1901 in Seattle. (See Best's Insurance Reports: Fire and Marine, Volume 22, [Albany, NY: Hamilton Printing Company, 1921], p. 663.) During the 1920s, the company had its offices in the Central Building at 810 3rd Avenue. It featured an image of the United Shopping Tower on its corporate advertising in 1953.

Alteration

This office building has undergone many alterations. Henry Bittman designed an addition to the United Shopping Tower in 1939. Significant alterations also occurred in 1974-1975.

Seattle Historic Landmark (1987-05-11): ID n/a

National Register of Historic Places (1980-08-18): 80004004 NRHP Images (pdf) NHRP Registration Form (pdf)

King County Assessor Number: 6385300005 Department of Assessments eReal Property GIS Center parcel report GIS Center parcel viewer GIS Center iMap viewer

PCAD id: 6271