USA: Seattle's Art Deco Jewels - from Skyscraper to Fire Station

The Federal Office building
A walk past (and through) some of Seattle's most beautiful Art Deco structures.

Why visit?
In a modern skyscraper-based downtown like Seattle's, architectural heritage is few and far between. Most of it is just another glass and steel (post-)modern rectangle.

But look closely, and you will find some real Art Deco gems, full of detail and beauty, some of which were among the city's first skyscrapers.

Much ignored by the city's visitors, It's high time somebody put these architectural jewels on the map. So here we go!

In and around Seattle's Downtown area. Map.

WE HAVE SPOKEN before about our passion for Art Deco. We won't go into it again. (But in case you're interested, here's our coming-out.)

What's interesting is not just that Seattle has a glorious collection of Art Deco buildings, but also that many of them are so heavily influenced by local architectural preferences.

The Art Deco buildings in Paris are thoroughly Parisian, with Haussmannian features and designs. Art Deco in Amsterdam is proletarian, with its emphasis on happy workers and socialism. But Seattle's Art Deco often neatly blends with local contemporary architecture, making it sometimes hard to tell where the turn-of-the-century Renaissance Revival frill ends and the Art Deco (equally frilly) begins.

We'll be highlighting some of the best Art Deco classics of the city- and to make life easier, we've even put them on their own little map for you.

There's a good cluster in the upper Downtown area. So let's start with the granddaddy of them all.

Seattle Tower

A fairly non-descript name you may say, but this building was originally known as the Northern Life tower, named for the insurance company who willed it into existence. When it was built, in 1927, it was the city's tallest building, lording it over Puget Sound, a beacon of modernity and dynamism to every incoming ship.  It's a true skyscraper, and it's got a Gothamesque feel over it, with its many pinnacles and turrets. The frilly ornaments, like at many buildings named here, are made of terracotta.
Seattle Tower's main entrance. 
Frilly canopy. 
An elevator-filled lobby that was supposed to be inspired by an Egyptian tomb. 
It's got a ziggurat (stepped) top, a typical Art Deco feature, which was partly driven by the need to let more light reach the street, as there were concerns about these tall towers putting a daylong blanket of shade on the city's roads.

Northern Life has long gone belly-up, and Seattle Tower is dwarfed by many later editions to the Seattle skyline, but none of these can match the Art Deco elegance of this glorious building.

1411 4th Avenue Building

It looks like somebody forgot to come up with a name for this one. Or maybe the multiple owners couldn't agree on one.

It was built by semi-famous architect Robert Reamer, who had moved to Seattle and built this in 1928.

The exterior is restrained, but the lobby, with its battery of elevators, has some of the finest Art Deco lampshades this side of Paris.


The All-American department store may have hit upon hard times, especially in the city of Amazon, but this building is witness to the glory days of brick 'n mortar retail.

It started life as The Bon Marché (a clear rip-off of the famous Parisian store, back when Paris was still the center of the high-class retailing universe). It opened in 1929, and was designed by the architectural firm of J Graham, who were later responsible for Seattle's favourite eyesore, the Space Needle.
What we love about the Macy's/Bon Marché building is not just the exterior, with its frilly decoration, but especially the first and second floors. Show me another place where you can shop for Nike sneakers or size 12 women's undergarments among truly impressive Art Deco columns? We don't know of any...
Which way for a sexy g-string? 

Olympic Tower

From the upper floor of Macy's you've got an excellent view of Olympic Tower. Built in 1929, this was originally named United Shopping Tower: a slightly comical name for what was supposed to be Seattle's first covered shopping mall.
Olympic Tower as seen from Macy's.
That didn't quite work out: the retail space was a failure. These days it houses offices and apartments.

The detailed work on the facade is terracotta. Much of Seattle's Victorian and Art Deco buildings are decorated with this material, a unifying force between various architectural styles.
Terracotta details. 

Washington Athletic Club

A gym, I hear you think? Yes, indeed. Going to a fancy gym has been a status symbol for the wealthy few for a long time. So a bunch of bankers and other notables coughed up the dough for this fancy clubhouse, which opened in 1930. Art Deco was a style that conjured luxury and the jet set, and it seemed appropriate for the wealthy sportsmen that came to practice here.
W.A.C was here.
The outside ornamentation is, again, made of terracotta, and features masculine icons, as well as some bold/bald American Eagles. 
Sporty elevators. 

Federal Office Building

This one has the works. The ziggurat top, heavily stylized geometric decorations, and octogonal lamps all scream 'Deco'. You can go inside- part of the building is still in use as a post office. Do send us a postcard.  And don't forget to check out the building's backside.
The Federal Office Building.
The Federal's backside, with the Exchange Building looming over it. 

Exchange Building

This massive pile was built to house the Seattle Stock Exchange, and its timing was impeccably bad: local lore has it that it opened the day after the 1929 Wall Street crash. It was built by the same J Graham who constructed The Bon Marché.
The ground floor retains what a real estate agent would refer to as 'period details': a battery of fancy elevators, as well as a mailbox that overdosed on bling.
Exterior marble work reminiscent of a Mughal tomb. 

Someone pimped my mailbox. 

Hartford Building

This cutesy little box of a building now houses a coffeeshop. It shows the clear modernity of Art Deco: it's basically a shoebox, but a stylish one compared to the boxy no-frills architecture that would rule the middle part of the 20th century. 

Fire Station No. 6

Almost last, but not least: the overly cute former fire station is a concrete beauty with space for two fire trucks. It's no longer in use, and was put up for sale by the city. We don't know if a buyer was found, but it would make a lovely home, with plenty of space to let the kids run wild...

Guild 45th

These ones are a bit out of the way- but worth a gander. These two theatres show a very different side of Art Deco- colourful so-called Streamlined Moderne that would not be out of place in Miami Beach. Funnily enough, one is original, the other one a 1980s construction in Art Deco style. 

When we took these pictures, both buildings were a working cinema- they unexpectedly closed in June '17. Nobody knows if and when they'll be back for more...
The original building from the '30s...
...and the '80's addition. 

Magnolia Fire Station No. 41

Ah, what a treat. Built in a very different form of Art Deco, called Streamline Moderne, with a smidge of Bauhaus and a touch of Modernism. Built in 1934, this colourful little jewel is still in use by the local firemen. 
It's far up north, in Magnolia, but worth the detour. 

Pacific Tower

This one, a true Seattle Landmark, seen by 1000s of motorists every day, has its own article. See here

Useful links:
The Seattle Architecture Foundation runs regular Art Deco tours that cover some (but not all) of the buildings included here. The knowledgable guides dispense much more information than we could ever retain.


  1. And also the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park.


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