Decorative Details

Smith Tower from the water. Photograph by Natasha Lewandrowski.

Maybe it’s because I am leaving soon, but recently I have felt the urge to look closely at Seattle. There are so many wonderful hidden places in this city. Before there was no urgency to seek them out, but with only two months until the move, I suddenly have a time limit.

Smith Tower is one such place. It’s not that it’s hidden exactly, but I only recently learned that it is open to the public. For a fee much more reasonable than that of the Space Needle, you can go to the observation deck. There are incredible views up 2nd Ave to the Space Needle, of Pioneer Square and the stadium district, and beyond to the port of Seattle.

Looking up 2nd Ave at the Space Needle from Smith Tower. Photograph by Natasha Lewandrowski.

King Street Station from Smith Tower. Photograph by Natasha Lewandrowski.

The Port of Seattle from Smith Tower. Photograph by Natasha Lewandrowski.

In addition to having a pretty rockin’ view, Smith Tower is also home to the exquisite Chinese Room. The room’s carved wooden furniture and paneling and porcelain ceiling were gifts from the Empress of China. The centerpiece of the room is throne-like chair, which comes complete with a legend that any unwed woman who sits in the chair will be happily married within a year. I sat in the chair for good measure, even though I’ve been married about six months now. Perhaps the chair’s powers worth in reverse time as well?

The Chinese Room. Photograph by Natasha Lewandrowski.

Smith Tower is Seattle’s oldest skyscraper. When it opened on July 4th, 1914, it was the world’s fourth tallest building. For fifty years it held the distinction of being the tallest building west of the Mississippi. Today, its forty-two stories are dwarfed by its younger siblings. Among them is Seattle’s current tallest building, the black monolith Columbia Center.

Columbia Tower (tallest) Smith Tower (far right). Photograph by Natasha Lewandrowski.

Both towers were symbols of status for the companies that built them. To me, the power that each proclaims seems locked in the time they were built. Columbia tower’s reflective black façade, bereft of extraneous adornments, feels in keeping with the faceless power of modern corporations. Whereas Smith Tower hails from an age when even large and powerful companies still had strong family associations, and decoration was the face of opulence.

It’s not that the affluence of yesterday is necessarily preferable to that of today, but I am definitely drawn to its ornamentation. Modern production is just too efficient. There is no room for decorative elements it architecture or anything else. If a few cents can be shaved off the bottom line then it is left off.

I am lucky, I get to look at beautiful objects every day in the museum, but I am envious of the people who got to live and work with these things. I am awestruck with how much detail objects like this elevator façade have. The museum’s own elevators have plain flat facades that neither distinguish or mask them.

Louis Sullivan Elevator Facade at the Seattle Art Museum. Photograph by Natasha Lewandrowski.

Ceder bark dress at the Seattle Art Museum. Photograph by Natasha Lewandrowski.

This simple garment made from ceder bark has more presence as an object than any piece of clothing I will ever buy. Modern production, it seems, has sacrificed form to function. When I look around my room I see few objects that I care very much about. My desk could be any desk; my lamp any lamp, my dresser any dresser. When I move in a few months I will leave most of these things behind. I might miss having a desk for a little while, but I won’t miss this one in particular because it’s not particular. I bought it from a chain store. I can get the same desk again in New Jersey if I want.

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One thought on “Decorative Details

  1. Pingback: View from the Black Tower « conteximus

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