When in Seattle, Check Out The Arctic Building

Seattle's Arctic Building tells fascinating stories about Seattle's early days.

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Image by Mark Morden

Do you ever get curious about a building simply because there’s something curious about it?

That’s what happened when DnA’s producer Caroline Chamberlain stumbled upon an image of the old Arctic Building in Seattle, now a hotel, clad in walrus heads.

About a month ago, I happened upon a quiz on Seattle’s architecture that was floating around on Twitter and decided to take it. Match the photos to the building name and voila! You are deemed knowledgeable of the city’s architecture or not. Life moves on and you get distracted by the next tantalizing piece of click-bait.

But three questions in, I was taken aback by one of the photos: an up close view of beautifully crafted walrus terracotta. I correctly guessed the name of the building: The Arctic Club, but I wanted to learn more.

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And it just so happened that I was heading to Seattle that weekend, so I decided to check out the building during my stay. The more I read about it, the more fascinating it became.

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Courtesy of Museum of History & Industry, PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection.

Founded in 1908, The Arctic Club was a fraternal organization founded by many of the well-heeled alums of the Klondike Gold Rush, a similar, albeit chillier, gold-hunting frenzy to that of California’s, that took place in Alaska in the late 19th century. Gold-seekers from far and wide traveled north in the hopes to strike it rich. Jack London even took part and considered it a defining experience.

And while relatively few individuals found mounds of gold hidden in Alaska, Seattle benefited tremendously. The city served as a hub for the 100,000 souls who traveled to and from Alaska during that time. Many of those adventurers planted their roots in Seattle permanently, and those who founded the Arctic Club were one such group.

Completed in 1916 and situated in downtown Seattle on the corner of Third Avenue and Cherry Street, The Arctic Club Building remains there to this day.

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The Dome Room

It was designed by architect A. Warren Gould in the Beaux Arts style, and the building’s use of terracotta is indicative of buildings of that era in downtown Seattle. “Part of the popularity of terracotta is that it’s fireproof,” said Mark Morden, a Seattle-based architect that lead the restoration of the building in the 1990’s.

In 1889, The Great Seattle Fire destroyed 32 blocks of downtown, which consisted of mostly wood buildings. Following the fire, an ordinance was passed that banned wooden buildings in the area, making room for a new downtown with brick buildings, of which The Arctic Club is an example.

According to Morden there are two reasons why this building is significant architecturally. It’s the first building in Seattle to feature “polychrome,” or multi-colored, terracotta and then of course there are the walrus heads themselves. There are twenty seven of them in total wrapped around the third floor of the building.

The terracotta walruses — a nod to the arctic roots of the building — are a truly striking feature to see in person. “The Walrus heads–people enjoy that kind of ‘witty’ expression,” said Jeffrey Ochsner, an architectural historian at the University of Washington. “There’s a lot of terracotta in Seattle in that era, and I think that this is some of the best.”

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Marion Zioncheck

But the history of this building is also tied to a dark episode. In August of 1936, U.S. Congressman Marion Zioncheck leapt to his death from its third floor. The congressman had been running his re-election campaign from the fifth floor of the building, and following his suicide a note was found in his room that read “my only hope in life was to improve the condition of an unfair economic system that held no promise to those that all the wealth of even a decent chance to survive let alone live.” Some conspiracy theorists believe he was pushed out of the window; others are convinced his ghost lingers in the building.

Today, the Arctic Building serves as a luxury DoubleTree Hotel. Guests can get a taste of its history in the lobby where photos of former Arctic Club members line the walls.

Other buildings you might want to check out in Seattle: Seattle Public Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas, Bullitt Center, the “greenest” commercial building in the world, Experience Music Project Museum, designed by Frank Gehry and Smith Tower, Seattle’s oldest skyscraper.

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