Seattle Building Geography

Where Architecture Meets Geology

Posted:  Nov 28, 2018
In this blog we try to focus on local construction – building materials, issues that may arise, solutions to those problems. Usually the focus is on doors and door hardware, but today we’re going to be discussing building materials as a whole – the literal bricks and mortar of the buildings in Seattle.

What does that have to do with Seattle’s geography?  Well – most of the buildings are made out of stone that was quarried out of the ground, and now it makes up the ground under our feet and the walls and ceilings soaring over our heads, too.  If you Google “Seattle Building Materials walking tour,” I guarantee that you will find maps that will guide you around the downtown area and show off many of these same features.  This article is meant to pique your curiousity and maybe help you learn a little something along the way. 

What is most interesting about Seattle architectural building materials is that so many of them are local.  Buildings from the turn of the century had to rely on local brick, stone, and marble because importing such heavy material was much more difficult before the age of cranes, semi-trucks, and hydraulic power. 

First up on our digital walking tour: Seattle’s Pioneer Building at 600 1st Avenue.  The distinctive grey columns that rise up the front of the building were carved out of sandstone from the Chuckanut Formation, just up the road near Bellingham, WA.  The Pioneer Building was built in 1892, following the “Great Seattle Fire” of 1889.  Chuckanut sandstone was also exported to San Francisco for rebuidling after the 1906 earthquake/fire.

Not far from the Pioneer Building, on Yesler and 2nd Ave., is Smith Tower.  Most of the building exterior is white baked terra cotta tiles, but the first two floors are granitic rock quarried from Index, WA, not far from Everett.  Smith Tower was the tallest building west of Chicago until 1931, and a lot of care was taken for it to be the showcase buildng of the west.  The lobby features Tokeen marble from Marble Island, AK.  Ten-ton Tokeen marble blocks wolud be hand cut with steam-powered saws,loaded onto barges, and shipped to Tacoma, WA to be cut, polished, and finished.  It was incredibly popular and can be see in buildngs across the US. 

The Smith Tower Lobby also features a grey onyx marble staircase.  Its source is undocumented, but geologists believe it was quarried from Prince Wales Island, not far from the Tokeen marble quarry.  Fossil clams and coral can be seen in this marble, which is how geologists identified its source. 

Too be continued...

Information for this post taken from Geology Underfoot in Western Washington, by Dave Tucker.  Mountain Press Publishing, 2015.

« back to top