Clapp, Norton (1906-1995)

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 5/18/2005
  • Essay 7295

Norton Clapp, one of the five original investors in Seattle's Space Needle, was a businessman and philanthropist with a seemingly endless capacity for work. A former president of the Weyerhaeuser Corporation, he also served as president of the Boy Scouts of America, chairman of the Pacific Basin Economic Council, director of the National Parks Foundation, president of both the Tacoma and the Seattle Chambers of Commerce, longtime trustee of the University of Puget Sound, and as a member of innumerable boards and committees. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named him First Citizen of 1970.

California Days

Matthew Norton Clapp was born on April 15, 1906, in Pasadena, California, the only child of Dr. Eben Pratt Clapp and Mary Bell Norton. He was named in honor of his maternal grandfather, Matthew G. Norton, a pioneer lumberman in Winona, Minnesota. Matthew Norton, his brother James, and their cousin, William Laird, founded the Laird, Norton Company in 1855. The Laird, Norton family helped finance Frederick Weyerhaeuser's initial purchase of 900,000 acres of timberlands in Washington state in 1900.

By the early 1900s, Clapp's grandfather had settled in Pasadena, and other members of the family came to join him there. Clapp's father, a medical doctor, gave up the practice of medicine to take on a greater role in the family's lumber interests, including Weyerhaeuser Timber Company. Clapp, too, eventually became involved in the family business.

Clapp grew up a child of privilege in Pasadena, doted on by his parents, his older half-sister, Elizabeth, and his Norton grandparents. He credits his mother for teaching him that "there were all kinds of people in this world and that we should try to get along with them." He remembers going with her to deliver baskets of food and other items to the poor. "I learned early on that there could be hardships and disappointments in life. And that it behooved me to be nice to the less fortunate" (Lucas, 192).

In 1920, when he was 13, his mother was killed in a car accident. Clapp also would survive the deaths of two of his four wives, three of his six children, and a beloved step-daughter. His response to each of these losses was to throw himself into work, distracting himself first with his studies and then with a daunting array of business, philanthropic, and civic activities.

Clapp learned some of his work habits from his father. The two often traveled together on business, while Clapp was still a teenager. In later years, Clapp said this apprenticeship with his father was his best preparation for the business world.

He graduated from Occidental College in Pasadena in 1927, and received a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1929. He met his first wife, Mary Cordelia Davis, while in law school. She was the daughter of the minister at the church Clapp attended. They married in 1929 and eventually had four sons.

Early Business Acumen

Clapp's business acumen developed at an early age. He ventured into the stock market for the first time in 1927, while still a student at the University of Chicago. "The stock market was beginning to go wild," he said. "I decided I'd like to buy some. I used to go to Winona on the Milwaukee Railroad in big, comfortable, orange cars. I liked them. So I decided to buy some Milwaukee stock." He asked a banker in Chicago to buy the stock, and kept the certificates in a safe deposit box at the bank.

When Clapp graduated, in June 1929, he decided it would not be safe to carry the certificates -- which were now quite valuable -- back home to Pasadena with him. Shortly before leaving Chicago, he ordered his broker to sell. "So they sold it for me at a nice profit, and the whole market dropped and I became a hero because I didn't know how to ship it west," he said. "So that's how I started my career" (Lucas, 197).

It was the onset of the Great Depression -- an inauspicious time to be beginning a career. Clapp joined the firm of Hayden, Langhorne, and Metzger in Tacoma, but was laid off a year and a half later. He then opened his own law office, but found few clients. He dabbled with a few business ventures, from a cemetery to a gold mine to an effort to market a new electric iron. Then, in 1938, he was named corporate secretary of Weyerhaeuser, a part-time position that paid $2,500 a year.

Meanwhile, he and his wife, Mary, developed Lakewood Center in Tacoma, one of the first shopping centers west of the Mississippi River.

When the United States entered World War II, Clapp enlisted in the Navy. He spent the war years in Seattle, working in the Navy's Convoy and Routing Office at 2nd Avenue and Marion Street.


He returned to Weyerhaeuser after the war. When his father died, in 1947, Clapp replaced him as a director of Weyerhaeuser. He also inherited his father's directorships on the boards of Potlatch Forests, Boise Payette Lumber Company (which became Boise Cascade), and Northwest Paper Company, among other family enterprises. In 1960, he became president of Weyerhaeuser.

Weyerhaeuser was still primarily a Northwest company when Clapp became its president. Clapp helped initiate an aggressive period of expansion into the South and Midwest, and then around the world. The number of employees increased from about 26,000 in 1960 to 36,000 six years later, when Clapp stepped down as president. Net income more than doubled, from $47 million to nearly $80 million. The corporation owned more than 3.4 million acres of timberlands, including 2.7 million in the Northwest. It was operating 11 sawmills on the West Coast and eight additional plants in Canada and the Midwest.

Weyerhaeuser also expanded worldwide, acquiring plants and operations in Australia, Belgium, British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, France, Germany, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Malaysia, Malta, the Philippines, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, and Venezuela. Clapp personally visited most of these acquisitions.

In 1966, Clapp left the presidency of Weyerhaeuser (remaining as chairman of the board until 1970). He and his third wife, Jane, settled into life on a five-acre estate in Medina (a wealthy suburb of Seattle). Although he continued to pursue business interests -- serving as a director of Safeco and of Seattle First National Bank among other activities -- he also devoted considerable energy to philanthropy, particularly through the Medina Foundation. Since its founding in 1949, the Medina Foundation has provided more than $48 million to a variety of education and social service agencies in the Puget Sound region. He also was a generous supporter of the St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Medina.

Chief Scout

Clapp gave his time as well as his money to causes that he deemed worthy, chief among them the Boy Scouts of America. The Boy Scouts had played an important role in his life from age 12, when he joined Troop 5 at Polytechnic Elementary School in Pasadena. As a young man, he served as scoutmaster of Troop 37 in Tacoma. He later held several administrative positions at the state and regional level. In 1971, Clapp was elected national president of the Boy Scouts. He estimated that he flew almost a quarter of a million miles during his year as president.

Another of Clapp's primary interests was the University of Puget Sound, a private liberal arts school in Tacoma. Clapp joined the board of trustees of what was then the College of Puget Sound in 1933. He soon became secretary of the board, then a member of the finance committee, vice chairman, and eventually (in 1967) chairman of the board. In all, Clapp served as a trustee for 62 years, including 19 years as chair, longer than any other trustee. As was the case with many of his other philanthropies, he gave both treasure and talent to the school. The Norton Clapp Theatre in Jones Hall on the UPS campus honors his many contributions.

Clapp served as a patriarchal figure in his large and extended family, although he could be remote in dealing with people who were closest to him. Some friends and family members have speculated that he built up a certain reserve as a result of the large number of personal tragedies that he experienced. His mother was killed in a car accident when he was scarcely 13. His first wife (whom he had divorced) and one of their young sons were killed in a car accident in 1945. His second wife, Evelyn (mother of Booth Gardner, governor of Washington state from 1985-1993), and a stepdaughter were killed in a plane crash in 1951. Another son, Roger, died of cancer in 1964 and yet another, James, in 1974. After each of these events, Clapp seemed to throw himself even deeper into work.

Among his business interests was real estate. Clapp was involved with a number of notable real estate projects in the Puget Sound area, including the construction of the 17-story Norton Building in downtown Seattle in 1959. The building, at 2nd Avenue and Marion Street, was the first major project to be constructed in downtown Seattle since the completion of the adjacent Exchange Building in 1930. It was named in honor of Clapp's grandfather, Matthew G. Norton.

Life at the Top

Clapp's most prominent contribution to the Seattle skyline was the iconic Space Needle. When the King County Council refused to finance construction of the Needle as a part of the 1962 World's Fair, Clapp and four other private investors put up the money. The Needle, designated a national historic landmark in 1999, remains in private hands. Clapp was proud of his association with the structure, although he sometimes grumbled that every time any one had a bad meal in the revolving restaurant on the top, he heard about it.

Though Clapp was a frequent contributor to Republican political campaigns, his most-notable political association was with his stepson, Booth Gardner, a Democrat. Clapp donated $91,000 to Gardner's first campaign for governor, in 1984, and $57,000 to his second, in 1988.

Clapp died at his home in Medina on April 22, 1995, at age 89. A shrewd investor and a hard worker, he left a fortune estimated by Fortune magazine to be about $450 million, making him one of the wealthiest people in America at that time. He was survived by his fourth wife, Jacqueline, three sons, four stepchildren, and numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, and nephews.

The list of his accomplishments and honors would fill several pages. Among those that he valued most was a 1973 award for his humanitarian work from the National Conference of Christians and Jews.


Patricia Latourette Lucas, Branching Out: The History of the Laird Norton Family (Presidio Press: Novato, Calif), 1989; David Schaefer, "Norton Clapp Dies at Age 89," The Seattle Times, April 24, 1995, p. A-1; "Former Weyerhaeuser Chairman Norton Clapp Dies," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 25, 1995, p. B-1; "Norton Clapp, Life Trustee," University of Chicago Chronicle, May 11, 1995 (; "The Medina Foundation History," Medina Foundation website accessed January 29, 2005 (; "Norton Clapp Theatre," University of Puget Sound website accessed January 29, 2005 (

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