Penthouse light

First, you’re admitted into the Smith Tower by the doorman. If you pass inspection, the security guy masquerading as an elevator operator opens the elevator’s sliding glass door and gate and closes it behind you. You watch 34 floors whisk by you in a rush, before the elevator slides to a stop.

Then, you climb two flights of stairs to the 37th floor. You’re now in the Smith Tower penthouse, the only private residence in the entire building.

When the Smith Tower was built in 1914, the 37th floor was designed as an apartment for a caretaker, hidden underneath a cast-iron tank holding 10,000 gallons of water. In the 1990s, during a major renovation of the Smith Tower, the tank was drained and removed, and the apartment turned into a two-story penthouse.

The lower floor is divided into a couple bedrooms and a tiny-but-well-appointed bathroom. When you walk up another flight of stairs, you’re in a loft. The ceiling seems to disappear above you; it is, literally, the top of the tower.

The walls are white plaster over cement, barely covering the steel girders that are the skyscraper’s bones. The penthouse has the same Gothic arched windows as the rest of the Smith Tower, and they open. From the loft, if it’s quiet, you can hear the sounds of Seattle, from the parties in Pioneer Square to the sirens on Pill Hill to the noisy hum of the shopping district and Belltown.

The tenants are art collectors of taste, money, and eclectic sensibility. Contemporary American artists mesh with African sculpture and Chinese doors. Frank Gehry-style cardboard chairs are hidden in a corner. The spectacular centerpiece of the loft is an enormous Chihuly sculpture, layers and layers of blue in an intricate design similar to many of his other chandeliers.

If you’re feeling athletic, you can climb a steep metal stair to the catwalk once used by the folks maintaining the old water tank. There are some good views from the catwalk, but there are better. Climb up to a ramp that leads you over the beams where the Chihuly chandelier hangs, then climb another spiral staircase. Just before you reach the ceiling, there’s a small metal platform where you can transfer to the first of two ladders, the final stage of your climb.

The ladders aren’t for acrophobes or claustrophobes. Below the platform is thirty feet or more of empty space. Above the platform and the first ladder is the final set of supports holding together the top of the tower, two beams forming an X. The space between the beams and the cement wall is tiny, a scant couple of feet, just barely enough for an adult to squeeze through. Don’t try it if you’re broad of shoulder or hip, or if you’re wearing anything that could catch or fall off. To add to the fun, the ladder above the beams and the ladder below the beams don’t quite meet each other.

To climb through, stretch both of your arms above you to the second ladder, brace yourself against the beams behind you, and hoist yourself up till your feet can get a purchase. You won’t have room to bend your knees, so you’ll have to dead lift yourself farther than you’d expect. Watch for the wine bottles, tucked into dozens of niches carved into the cement on the exterior wall.

All the effort is worth it. When you’re done, you’re sitting in the glass ball at the top of the Smith Tower. That light at the top? That’s where you are. Below you, all around you, is Seattle and Elliott Bay. It’s like sitting on air, next to a bright star.

The Smith Tower’s penthouse is a private residence, not open to the public. Once in awhile the tenants will allow someone to host a small party there, usually for charity. That’s how we got in, through the generosity of friends. I’m grateful to them, and to the penthouse’s tenants for having us.

5 Comments so far

  1. samantha (unregistered) on January 23rd, 2006 @ 10:12 am

    Jealous! I’ve always wanted to go up there.

  2. josh (unregistered) on January 23rd, 2006 @ 11:55 am

    fantastic — but no pictures?

  3. Dan Berkes (unregistered) on January 23rd, 2006 @ 12:18 pm

    Thanks for sharing this, Colin. I was invited to a reception in the penthouse about a year ago, but had to decline due to illness.

    I seem to recall that the invitation featured a bold line forbidding photography of any kind. I’m guessing this is a standard provision — I can’t find a single picture of the interior.

  4. Colin (unregistered) on January 23rd, 2006 @ 9:34 pm

    As Dan suggests, I’m not comfortable posting photos of someone’s home without their consent. I want to respect their privacy.

    (Notice how high-minded I sound while cleverly avoiding the admission that I’m a truly lousy photographer.)

  5. joel (unregistered) on January 24th, 2006 @ 11:33 am

    This sounds like a truly unique and wonderful Seattle experience. One that in this world of much higher and fancier skyscrapers, one that only true Seattleites could appcreciate and be jealous of. As I am! What fun!


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