Glass Houses


Tim Allen

Seattle, Washington

Summer, 2009

The Naked Man

I’m standing on the broad, flat roof of a skyscraper in downtown Seattle. And at the moment, the most interesting thing about the apartments across the street in the old Cobb Building is, a naked man standing in his window. 

The man is about thirty-five years old, with pale white skin and wavy black hair. His hefty body is moderately muscled, but his softly rounded belly hints that he spends too much time in the office. Right now, he is in what he thinks is the privacy of his own apartment, leaning in profile over his desk, checking his laptop for e-mail. The man is conspicuously visible, but he is oblivious.

I’ll come back to the naked man in a minute.

The Gift

One Saturday a month, the Seattle Architecture Foundation (SAF) conducts a walking tour of Art Deco buildings in downtown Seattle. My wife knows of my interest in architecture, so as a surprise—and as part of every wife’s God-given mission to help their husband achieve his unspoken dreams—she bought me a ticket for the tour. 

I appreciated her thoughtfulness, but balked at the trip. I knew about the lunchtime tours the SAF offers on weekdays and their longer walks on weekends. So, why hadn’t I ever gone on one? Maybe I didn’t think it was worth the bother to use my precious time off from work to go on a tour. Or, maybe I didn’t believe there were many buildings in downtown Seattle worth seeing. 

“I think you should go,” said my wife, as we drank our breakfast coffee. In the background, the Saturday morning lineup of magazine shows was playing on National Public Radio. “I know you love the romance of architecture, but I don’t think you’d actually like to be an architect,” she said. “I don’t think you’d enjoy the years of drud­gery it takes to learn your craft and then establish a successful practice.”

On the radio, someone with a melodious voice was announcing the time (early), weather (wet), and news (dreadful). 

“But I do think you’d enjoy teaching people architectural history,” my wife continued. “Every tour guide is essentially a performer, and you’re a performer at heart. Go on the tour.”

“But Saturday is my day to sleep in,” I protested. 

“You’re sleeping your life away,” she replied. “Go on the tour.”

“But I love the Saturday morning radio shows. You know, Car Talk; Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me; and if I’ve taken my Prozac for the day, even This American Life.”

“Do something new. Go on the tour.”

Her logic, as always, was hard to assail. My favorite shows would be on again next week. And a rerun of any show that I missed could be heard in a podcast. And of course, since all wives are the divine Spokesperson for a Higher Power, I was probably destined to take the tour anyway. So, resigning myself, and trusting to the care of my better angels, I said, “Thank you for the ticket, dear.”


The office of the Seattle Architecture Foundation is in the Rainier Building, on the third floor of the atrium in the retail structure that surrounds the tower. Wags say the Rainier Building is the box that the Seattle Space Needle was shipped in, but I think the building looks more like a corn-dog on a stick: Its base is a narrow, white pillar that mushrooms out to form the foundation of the marble-clad tower that looms above. Technically, there’s not much reason for the tower to be built that way. But the fact that it doesn’t fall over in the stormy winds that blow from October through November is a testament to its engineering. 

I arrived early at the SAF office and spoke to the receptionist, who was an architecture student who volunteered at SAF on weekends. The terribly thin young man straightened out a snafu with my ticket, answered my inquiries about volunteer work, and then told me where to find the restroom (“Down the stairs, across the atrium, through the door marked ‘Freight Delivery,’ and then halfway down a long hallway. And no, none of us can figure out why the architect made it so inconvenient.”) 

When I got back from the restroom, I perused the Foundation’s office. Superb sepia photographs of monumental old buildings hung from the walls, while balsa wood models of new projects from around the city sat on a huge, low, display table. I towered over the models like a giant.

After a short while, the rest of the tour group arrived. The crowd consisted of an even mix of moderate to middle-aged men and women, as well as a few of their teen-aged children. I guessed that they were all visitors because who, besides me, takes a guided tour of the town they live in?

Our tour guide was a tall, affable fellow who was full of facts, figures and smiles. He was a volunteer too, and to my surprise, an accountant by trade. He started his lecture by leading us up to the top of the atrium and then outside to the plaza that is on the roof of the retail structure. As we walked towards the edge of the plaza, I said to a fellow tourist, “On summer nights, they show outdoor movies over there under the base of the tower.” 

Most Seattleites wouldn’t have been forward enough to volunteer such a local detail to a stranger. Either I was insecure and didn’t want the tourists to think of me as just another out-of-towner, or else the tour guide bug was starting to bite me as my wife had hoped.

The view from the plaza revealed buildings from many different generations, standing shoulder to shoulder, shrouded by a thin gray fog that turned the morning light to pearl. To the south were steel and glass towers designed in the International Style that was popularized by Mies van de Rohe and Le Corbusier, and is favored by austere businesses and governments. To the north were the newest descendants of that style. Each slender glass box resembled its ancestors, but sported a decorative penthouse floor with an oversized flat roof. To a fanciful eye, each tower looked like a tipsy opera-goer wearing a tuxedo and a jauntily tilted top hat. 

To the west were a few post-modern buildings whose concrete skins were tattooed with cartoonish versions of classic Greek, Roman, or ecclesiastical decoration. To the east, a hodgepodge of hotels and office buildings was squeezed into the margin next to I-5.

Cobb Building

But in the middle of all those buildings, south of the plaza, was the Cobb Building and the Northern Life Tower. According to the tour guide, the Cobb is an example of the Beaux-Arts classical style, while the Tower illustrates the newer Art Deco style. 

The 11-story Cobb Building is named after wealthy lumberman, C. H. Cobb, and was constructed at the turn of the nineteenth century by the University of Washington as part of an unfinished real estate development. The Cobb is patterned after a Greek temple, with a base like a white marble podium that supports a series of white columns. Atop each column, staring down solemnly at the sidewalk below, is the bust of a native American whom most people mistake for Chief Seattle. The columns frame walls of brown brick and rows of dark windows. Crowning the brick façade is a white terra cotta cornice that steps out and up to the top of the building.

Northern Life

The 27-story Northern Life Tower, which is also called the Northern Life Insurance Building or the Seattle Tower, stands across the street and southeast of the Cobb Building. Compared to the Cobb, the Northern Life Tower is a colossus.

D. B. and T. M. Morgan, the two brothers and insurance moguls who commissioned the Northern Life Insurance Building, declared, “Seattle will have the tallest skyscraper west of the Mississippi!” Our guide said the Morgan brothers wanted to celebrate the success of their prosperous company and the bright future of its home: Seattle, the Great City of the West.

Skyscrapers like the Northern Life Tower depend on two advances in construction technology. First, architects started using lightweight iron or steel frames, instead of massive load-bearing masonry walls, that made it possible to build taller buildings. Second, Elisha Otis invented a practical safety brake for passenger elevators, that made it sensible for people to live and work in those tall buildings. Tech­nology changed the shape of buildings, and the shape of buildings changed the world. 

Paul Richardson, the primary architect for the Northern Life Tower, was influenced by the Art Deco trend that was sweeping Paris, London, and New York at the time. The previous Beaux-Arts style was obsessed with grandiose imitations of ancient Greek and Roman architecture. Art Deco, on the other hand, favored bold, angular buildings made of warm materials such as brick, granite, and bronze. Décor was influenced by the exotic cultures of Asia and the Americas. And surface treatments used intricate geometric patterns and abstract designs to depict natural objects such as plants and leaves, water, and landscapes. 

Richardson was also inspired by the grandeur of the Northwest’s evergreen forests and rugged terrain. Our guide said, “The Northern Life Tower is meant to resemble a mountain.” That is why the tower’s 75 foot-long lobby looks like a cave lined with polished red granite, and the parade of frosted glass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling resembles icy stalactites.

“The tower is clad entirely in rust-colored brick,” said our guide, “but the color isn’t uniform. The architect had the masons grade the bricks into 32 colors, then use the darker bricks at the bottom of the building, and then gradually shift to paler colors as they worked toward the top.” Our guide said this technique makes the building appear taller.

“As you look up the sides of the tower,” the guide continued, “you can see the floors of the building gradually step back the same way the sides of a mountain step back to form plateaus as you approach the pinnacle. At the top of the building are three triangular, iron sculptures that represent pine trees growing on a mountain peak.”

Then our guide said, “Notice the small, sand-colored outcroppings on the columns? They’re called ‘balconettes.’” At first, I couldn’t make out what our guide was describing. But then I finally perceived the diamond-shaped web of widely spaced boxes that covered the building. 

“The balconettes used to contain red, yellow, blue, and green lights that illuminate the building at night. Years ago, ships anchored in Puget Sound reported that the building appeared to be an enormous mountain rising above the city, surrounded by the flickering colors of the aurora borealis.”

Although the Northern Life Tower is in good repair, its balconettes were turned off decades ago to conserve energy. Sadly, they were never turned on again.

The heyday of Art Deco construction in Seattle was during the late ‘20s. That era ended with the Great Depression and World War II, when few could afford to build at all, let alone artfully. 

Things change. The war ended and avant-garde architects like van de Rohe and Walter Gropius immigrated to countries that welcomed artisans who could help rebuild the world. The wartime industries that hammered iron into guns, tanks, and planes became the peacetime industries that forged steel into rivets, columns, and beams. The modernist architects used the economies of steel and glass to design the skyscrapers that now symbolize the International Style. 

In the meantime, the Cobb and Northern Life Insurance buildings wore their aging styles like well-made, but unfashionable suits of clothes. All around them, neighboring buildings were used until they no longer served a purpose, and then were remodeled and reincarnated, or razed and rebuilt. Yet through it all, the Cobb and Northern Life Insurance buildings persevered.

Naked Man Redux

Today, the Cobb Building has been converted into apartments for a burgeoning town-center community. In a window without curtains, on an upper floor high enough that you’d think you didn’t need to be concerned about privacy, a naked man checks his e-mail. The women in our tour group gasp with surprise at the sight, fidget, and then chuckle with guilty pleasure. 

The naked man senses, more than knows, that something is amiss. Perhaps out of the corner of his eye, he catches movement across the street. But he doesn’t consciously associate that movement with curious attention, or that he might be the cause of that attention. So, without quite knowing why, the naked man moves away from the window the way a movie actor moves out of the camera frame at the end of his scene. 

Gift Redux

“Well, I have to admit,” said my wife, with a wry smile, “that starting your tour by being ‘flashed’ by a naked man will certainly make it something you’ll never forget.” As she tore the lettuce for our dinner salad, she asked, “What other buildings did you see?”

“Oh, just a few more quick examples of building styles,” I replied, as I put dinner plates on the table. “Our guide had us trotting along at a pretty good clip near the end of our time together. We glanced at the outside of the Treasury Building, the last two Art Deco buildings constructed before World War II, and the Exchange Building.” 

“Isn’t the Exchange Building where Metro has its offices? I went there once to get a bus pass.” 

“Yeah, that’s the one,” I said. “The lobbies to most of those buildings are closed on weekends, but the SAF arranged to be let in. That was nice because there were no crowds to dodge or block the view. 

“We also looked at a couple of buildings associated with the old Northern Pacific Railway. Did you know that during the heyday of the railroad, the Northern Pacific’s ticket office occupied half a city block and an entire corner on Third Avenue? And that the exterior of the building was mocked up to look like a string of railroad cars? 

“The tour guide didn’t say much about the railroad, but I think I could create an entire excursion around the glory days of train travel. And even though it’s south of downtown, maybe I could start the tour at King Street Station, which is still a Beaux Arts palace. Hmmm, that’s not a bad idea…,” I mused, as I stroked my lower lip and peered into the distance.

The Spokesperson for a Higher Power didn’t turn around or say another word. Instead, she just smiled to herself and made the salad.

— The End —

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