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Smith Tower in Seattle was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River when it opened in 1914; today, it is dwarfed by some of its neighbors, but a recent renovation has given new life to the beloved landmark.

Thyssenkrupp brings landmark Seattle building’s elevators into the 21st century.

by Dennis Van Milligen photos by Ron Acord

When Unico Properties set out to modernize one of the most historic and iconic buildings in Seattle, it faced a variety of challenges — in particular, how to preserve the rich history and vintage appearance of Seattle’s oldest skyscraper, while creating the safest, most efficient structure it could for its growing tenant base.

Since its opening in 1914, the 42-story, 484-ft-tall Smith Tower in Seattle has stood out and above most others. When it was built more than 100 years ago, it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River and remained the West Coast’s tallest building until 1962.

In 2015 — not long after it was purchased by Unico — Smith Tower underwent a major renovation that gave the historic skyscraper an entirely reimagined visitor experience, including a ground-floor gathering place, exhibits on its history, and a renovated observatory with an open-air observation deck and a speakeasy-style bar offering views of Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains, local sports stadiums and the waterfront’s Great Wheel.

Perhaps even more important to the building’s upgrade, however, was the modernization of its seven vintage elevators, which, prior to the modernization, were among the few manually operated elevators in the city. thyssenkrupp, working with consultant Lerch Bates Inc. and JPC Architects, was selected to perform the elevator upgrades, in the process creating fast and reliable units that meet fire, life and safety codes, while preserving their vintage charm. Prior to the modernization, the elevators were still using their original motors and components from 1914. While these manually operated elevators with their antiquated equipment may have offered a nostalgic charm to passengers, they were also causing extended wait times in an era when fast, efficient lifts are a must for a modern, growing urban center. A reduction in wait times is just one of the benefits Smith Tower tenants have been enjoying since the modernization.

As part of the upgrade, thyssenkrupp replaced the existing DC gearless machines with AC gearless machines, and installed new TAC32T digital controllers, which provide increased safety, reliability and efficiency. These upgrades helped the building earn Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum certification, a rarity for a building as old as Smith Tower. thyssenkrupp also installed seismic detection sensors, and replaced the old-fashioned scissor gates with glass doors for added safety and improved elevator dispatching.

With a historic building such as Smith Tower, adding modern equipment is only half of the equation. Next, thyssenkrupp had to modernize the cabs while preserving the look of the vintage elevators. It tried to ensure the upgraded elevators looked virtually identical to the original cars, while matching the look and feel of the building’s other renovations. This included installing latticed elevator doors to provide passengers with a view into each hallway and through glass walls. Other modifications were made to call buttons, car doors and operating panels.

The two-year modernization was completed in May 2019. That same year, the renovated Smith Tower was recognized with the Outstanding Building of the Year (TOBY) Award in the historical building category at the Building Owners and Managers Association Conference. The award recognized the outstanding efforts surrounding the building’s modernization, including its modern, yet vintage, elevators.

The Smith Tower elevator modernization project stands out — much like the building itself — for its sleek beauty and seamless embrace of both the old and new. The upgraded elevators embody that synergy, weaving together the past and future in an elevator system all generations can appreciate. thyssenkrupp replaced the manually operated elevators, which were more than 100 years old, with energy-efficient elevator systems that meet all applicable fire and safety codes, while preserving the charm that has helped make Smith Tower a shining landmark of which all Seattle residents can be proud.

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Dennis Van Milligen

Dennis Van Milligen

oversees external communications, including public relations and media, for thyssenkrupp Elevator in North America.

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