Not the Empress

Seattle Fire

In 1889, Colorado lumberman James W. Clise moved to Seattle. He arrived on June 7th, one day after the Great Fire destroyed Seattle’s business district. Other men might have viewed the smoldering vista as inauspicious, but Clise began buying real estate – probably at fire sale prices – and was soon a successful developer.

Lyman C SmithLyman C. Smith

In 1890, Clise came east in search of investors, and in Syracuse, N.Y., was introduced to Lyman C. Smith. Mr. Smith had made a fortune with the L.C. Smith shotgun and was on the way to a larger fortune manufacturing Smith Premier typewriters.

Sold on Seattle, sight unseen, Smith wrote Clise a check for one of the largest purchases of real estate in the city’s history. In 1901, Smith also joined Clise and others in starting a gas company to provide fuel and illumination for Seattle, and a transportation company for shipping to the Orient.

In 1909, Smith returned home from a trip to Seattle with plans to build a 14-story office building on the land he owned. But his son, Burns Lyman Smith, had seen the publicity that taller buildings created for Woolworth’s, Singer sewing machines and Metropolitan Life. He felt that if the L.C. Smith Building was the world’s tallest outside of New York, it would lift sales of Smith Premier typewriters.

Smith Tower 1912The L.C. Smith Building was completed in the summer of 1914, and its opening saw a rush to the 35th floor, where an observation deck gave the people of Seattle spectacular views of the city, waterfront and mountains. Visitors were also charmed by the 35th floor’s Chinese Room.

Chinese Room NewThe builders had first said the room would be finished in Washington fir with Alaskan decorations. Later, the plan was changed to a Japanese tea room. But ultimately a Chinese temple motif was selected. It was a logical choice: Among the original tenants of the office building, 28 were shipping companies doing business with the Orient.

The_Ci-Xi_Imperial_Dowager_Empress_(5)In the present day, there is a story circulating that the Chinese Room was a gift to Lyman C. Smith from the Empress of China. Occasionally, writers preface the claim with “local legend says” or the oft-used “it is believed.” However you serve it up, the story is baloney.

Sources from 1914 say clearly that the furnishings are replicas, the ceiling tiles represent historic tablets from Chinese temples, and the room is decorated with Chinese characters depicting Northwest history. There is no mention of a Chinese empress, much less Ci-Xi, who hated foreigners and supported the Boxer Rebellion which sought to throw westerners out of China, preferably after they’d stopped breathing.

Chinese RoomMany writers embroider the tale with the Wishing Chair – whereupon a dragon and phoenix represent the union of a man and a woman – saying that if a woman sits in the chair, she will be married within a year. They recall that L.C. Smith’s daughter sat in the chair and was married exactly one year later, in the Chinese Room!  Fun story, except Smith’s only daughter, Flora Bernice Smith, never married.

Unfortunately, the Empress folklore slights the people who really did the work.

Chinese Room Evans Ad 1914The walls, doors, ceilings and furniture of the Chinese Room were hand-carved in Burmese teak by G. Gerald Evans of Philadelphia. Evans and his craftsmen could, and did, duplicate any style of woodwork. Evans did furnishings for DAR Memorial Hall in Washington, D.C., patterned after a room in the City of London and made of oak from the 1777 wreck of the British warship Augusta. Evans did ornate wood carving for the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge, and pews and pulpits for churches all over America.

Chinese Room Ceiling 1The porcelain ceiling tiles were made in Syracuse, N.Y. We have that on the authority of Louis Merz, a master carpenter who was interviewed in early 1914 about the progress of the construction and identified Syracuse as the source. At that time, the city was the center of the Arts & Crafts ceramics movement; the Onondaga Pottery Company was producing Syracuse China and Adelaide Alsop Robineau was creating exquisite ceramic art. No one had to loot a temple.

One more item in the Chinese Room, seen in a single postcard, briefly presented a mystery. Could it have been a prayer wheel?

Chinese Room in ColorThe answer was more prosaic. One year after the Smith Tower was completed, Burns Lyman Smith perfected a truck wheel cast in one piece. The object of veneration in the center of the Chinese Room is a Smith Wheel. And no, it’s not from the Empress of China.

Smith Wheel 1

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3 comments

  1. Excellent reporting and debunking of myths. The Smith Tower, as it is now called, was the tallest building west of the Mississippi until the 1960s. It was renovated (again) within the past decade, but largely empty and looking for tenants, commercial and residential, the last I read. Another myth to debunk: That the tower offered “spectacular views of the city, ocean and mountains.” City and mountains, yes, but between the tower an the ocean is the Olympic Peninsula and Olympic Mountains rising up to some 7600 feet above sea level, indicating only Superman and his x-ray vision could be seeing the ocean from downtown Seattle.

  2. Ellsworth Bahrman · · Reply

    Terrific piece, Kihm!

  3. […] I finished a piece on the Chinese Room at the top of the Smith Tower in Seattle, and this morning I was looking through my postcards to see what could be mailed and live again, […]

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