The future of the downtown Seattle skyline is up in the air again, as the iconic Smith Tower skyscraper (well, what used to qualify as a skyscraper anyway) was sold to a group of New York investors from Goldman Sachs this week. Both the buyers and the sellers, Seattle-based Unico Properties, have declined to comment on the sale except to say that the deal is for a substantial $750 million. That’s raised some eyebrows for some Seattle, King County and Washington State residents, especially when considering the Smith Tower’s significance in the region and the skyrocketing real estate market.
A quick history of the building begins with its construction, which was completed in 1914. Although it was then called the Beaux-Arts Tower, The building’s namesake is Lyman Cornelius Smith, who was a gunsmith (surprisingly not the “Smith” of Smith & Wesson) and part owner of the Smith Corona Typewriter Company. Construction of the tower began in 1911, one year after Lyman died. Upon its completion and opening in 1914, Smith Tower was the tallest building (462 feet) west of the fabled Mississippi River until 1931, and until the Space Needle was built for the World’s Fair in 1962 it was the tallest construct on America’s West Coast.
The 38-story Smith Tower has sported a fine roster of tenants over the years. Well-known giants such as the Walt Disney Company leased up to 9 floors at once for its Internet Group until 1998. Microsoft Live Labs and Providence Health & Services have also rented space. Now at the time of this sale, the building plays host to tourists and alcohol enthusiasts in its Prohibition-themed speakeasy Smith Tower Bar, nestled into the 35th floor.
The top 28th floor hosts a three-story penthouse, yet who knows who dwells there; the tenant list isn’t public. If you ever think your rent is too high, imagine cutting a check to the Smith Tower for a penthouse every month!
Unico bought the Smith Tower in 2015, but it has changed ownership several times. Realtors from CBRE Capital Markets (a New York firm) bought the property in 2012. Before that, the Samis Foundation (formerly the Samis Land Company) owned it since 2006. The Smith family reportedly only owned it for 10 years, and Ivar Haglund of Ivar’s fame bought the tower in 1970. Back then, rent in the property was only in the $300 – 400 per month range!
WHAT IT MEANS
It’s not clear why Goldman Sachs purchased our Smith Tower for $750 million, but it does beg to question if the 104-year-old building is in danger. With acquisitions of other Seattle landmarks such as the Showbox ongoing in favor of housing for Amazon and other tech firm engineers, it’s easy to jump to conclusions. But for now, we are still at leisure to enjoy the Smith Tower, either from our view of the spire from I-5 or the guided tour for $12 with a Washington State ID (that includes a trip to the speakeasy bar!)