Mutual Life Building (Seattle)

  • By Dotty DeCoster
  • Posted 11/21/2008
  • Essay 8799

Seattle's Mutual Life Building at 605 1st Avenue faces Pioneer Square. First called the Yesler Building, it was sequentially designed by architects Elmer Fisher (ca. 1840-1905), Emil DeNeuf, and James Blackwell between 1890 and 1916. The Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York bought the building in 1897, and it has been called the Mutual Life Building since. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Mutual Life Building was one of the most elegant office addresses in town; first home to the First National Bank of Seattle. Pioneer Square was the center of civic activity and a hub for public transportation. Seattle continued to grow and to re-grade to accommodate a rapidly growing population, and by the end of the Depression of the 1930s, the Pioneer Square area was rundown.  During World War II, repairs took a back seat to providing housing, and the 1949 earthquake shook down enough brick to condemn the neighborhood to bulldozers. Beginning in the mid-1950s, people began to think about saving some of the old buildings and renovating the historic neighborhood.  A Pioneer Square Historical District was designated in 1970 and the Mutual Life Building was rebuilt during the 1980s under the direction of Olson/Walker Architects, with financial assistance from Historic Seattle and The Emerald Fund. The building had only four owners before it was rebuilt: Henry Yesler, the Mutual Life Insurance Co. of New York, Shafer Brothers Land Co., and Dr. S. T. Magnuson. Now tenanted on all six restored and updated floors, it is currently managed by the historic Seattle firm West and Wheeler. The building is owned by Historic Seattle; Diamond Parking holds the lease.

1889-1893: The Yesler Block   

Henry L. Yesler (1810-1892) moved to Elliott Bay where Seattle came to be built in 1852. He built the region's first steam-powered sawmill and built a wharf near the shoreline of Elliott Bay at about where the current Alaskan Way Viaduct spans the foot of Yesler Way. This was Seattle’s first industry. Yesler also involved himself in a host of other business activities and building projects. He built a cookhouse, which became the meeting center of the emerging city, and was located about where the Mutual Life Building stands. Downtown Seattle was built around Yesler’s mill on both sides of Mill Street (Yesler Way), mostly constructed of Yesler’s lumber.   

On the south side of Yesler Way, the original Seattle plats of 1853 provided street orientations that were based on the compass: On the north side, the streets were oriented toward the shoreline. This created a hump where Front Street (1st Avenue) and Commercial Street (1st Avenue S) met Cherry and James streets and Mill Street (Yesler Way). For decades this was a source of frustration. Henry Yesler would not cut the road straight through his property. 

By 1889, Yesler had begun building large wood-frame buildings on his land.  Downtown was taking shape as population and businesses increased dramatically.  Early settlers were beginning to be called “pioneers.” Then came The Great Fire on June 6, which burned down almost all of downtown -- business buildings, warehouses, wharfs, planked streets, saloons, manufacturing plants, box houses, theaters, and a lot of housing.  Out of the ashes, people chose to rebuild in stone and brick, and solve the street hump. Park historian Don Sherwood writes that “21 days after The Great Fire, Occidental Square was purchased from Henry Yesler” for a “town square”  (Sherwood).  Very soon thereafter Occidental Square was renamed Pioneer Place and subsequently Pioneer Square. 

It has always been a triangle. By the time Washington became a state on November 11, 1889, Yesler, working with architect Elmer H. Fisher, had begun building imposing, Romanesque Revival style stone and brick business buildings around the “square,” including the Yesler Block located on the street segment through the former hump. 

In their book Distant Corner, Ochsner and Anderson describe Elmer Fisher’s design of the Yesler Block: 

“From the first, Yesler intended this as a multi-story block to complement the scale, materials, and detailing of the Pioneer Building [across 1st Avenue]. A description of the Yesler Building was published in March 1891:  “the first story is of Salt Lake red sandstone with carved story capitals and trimmings.  Above the first story the walls will be of cream-colored brick, with red stone trimmings. When completed the building will present one of the most showy exteriors in Seattle.  Its design is semi-Romanesque, with two red tile-covered towers on the  Eastern front.” The ground floor stonework featured the same rounded rough-hewn texture as the Bank of Commerce across Yesler ... . Only the first floor of the project was completed before it was temporarily roofed in March 1891.”

In the summer of 1891, Elmer Fisher retired from architecture. Oscher and Anderson report that his practice passed on to his draftsman, Emil DeNeuf, about whom very little is known. They note an announcement in the Post-Intelligencer on April 24, 1892, announcing that five floors would be added to the Yesler Building and that DeNeuf would design the project so that two could be added immediately and three more as funding allowed. However, in early September of 1892, Yesler decided to proceed with all five floors.  The project was completed on July 31, 1893, about six months after Henry Yesler died.

The six-floor Yesler Building completed by DeNeuf was a symmetrical business block, 100 feet along Front Street (1st Avenue) but only 51 feet along Yesler Way.  A bank was located on the primary corner (Front and Yesler); the first floor and basement were divided into retail shops. A centrally located arched entrance led to the stairs and to an elevator to the five office floors above. The first floor, designed by Fisher, was in rusticated sandstone; the five upper floors designed by DeNeuf were pale yellow brick with flush stone trim. The original Fisher design divided the building into five bays, but DeNeuf retained only a slight projection of the two corner bays.  "The omission of a central bay and the division of the building by horizontal bands above the third and fifth floors gave it a much more unified design than Fisher's initial scheme ... . However, the two corner bays still extended above the cornice" (Oscher and Anderson).

The Bank on the Corner 

The First National Bank of Seattle was the first tenant of the Yesler Block, with first-floor offices in the southeast corner, 601 1st Avenue, overlooking Pioneer Square. A photograph of the interior of the bank published in a souvenir book called Seattle and the Orient in 1900 shows comfortable appointments, including an elk or deer head mounted on a central pillar. The photograph also shows a radiator in the center of the banking floor, with the tall public writing desk placed over it.  Fire insurance maps of the time indicate that the Mutual Life Building was heated by Seattle Heating and Power (steam), just west and north of the building across Post Avenue. Throughout its early history, the First National Bank was the bank of well-connected and affluent business and political figures. The bank moved across the street to the northeast corner of 1st Avenue and James Street in 1910 and became part of Seafirst bank in 1929. 

In 1909,  Ferdinand Schmitz, one of the bank directors and a Park Commissioner, contributed to the building of the Pioneer Square sanitary toilet convenience. “He announced that he would build it first, and then if people objected, he would remove it at his own expense.  The underground toilets were built.”  They remained an important public facility at this transit hub under the pergola until some time after World War II  (Long and Stein). 

1896-1915:  Sherwood Gillespy’s Legacy 

Sherwood Gillespy (1853-1912) arrived in Seattle in 1896 and took over the helm of The Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York for the Pacific Northwest,. He moved the company offices into the renamed Mutual Life Building.  It was Gillespy who completed the purchase of the building in 1897, purchased the adjacent building (to the west, next to the Post Hotel) in 1902-1903, and expanded the Mutual Life Building to its present size in 1904.  The Mutual Life Insurance Company offices occupied the southeast corner of the second floor until 1916. 

Lewis says of Sherwood Gillespy: “He had [the Mutual Life Building] remodeled and fitted up with all the latest improvements, making it one of the most elegantly equipped office buildings in the northwest ... . ”  Sherwood and Maria Z. Simpson Gillespy had three children and raised them in Seattle. “He was one of the organizers of the Independent Telephone Company, a long-distance line of this city, and is found as the champion of many movements for the general good.” Gillespy was an advocate for municipal golf in Seattle and a statue dedicated to him is located at the entrance to the clubhouse at the Jefferson Park Golf Course.  

Miles & Associates, assert that: 

 “[James Eustace] Blackwell was clearly responsible for the final form of the building.  He designed the 30 x 100 ft addition ... in 1904, and major alterations to the building in 1916.  He maintained offices in the building itself between 1904 and 1910.  Except for the ground level design and the unique parapet treatment (the cornice slopes in toward the roof, rather than out toward the sidewalk), the 1904 addition is nearly indistinguishable in detail from the ... [earlier] structure.  Interior treatment is homogenous throughout, and can also be attributed to Blackwell. [In] ... 1904 ... the rusticated sandstone was ground smooth. The arched windows were retained.”   

James Eustace Blackwell (1865-1939), started practicing architecture in the Northwest as early as 1891 and was practicing in Portland, Oregon, from 1894-1897 when he joined Robert L. Robertson in practice in Tacoma until 1904. Blackwell then moved to Seattle and practiced on his own and with others until 1938.  

1915-1955: The Shafer Brothers Years 

The Shafer Brothers Land company purchased the building on June 30, 1915.  According to the 1981 Miles & Associates study of the building, Blackwell altered the Mutual Life Building for the new owner by removing the arched windows and the entrance to the basement in the southeast corner, lowering the first floor to street level, and installing standard wood and plate-glass storefronts.

The Shafer Brothers, Isidor (“Issie”) and Julius, owned and managed the Mutual Life Building on site until they died -- Julius in 1951 and Isidore in 1952. Their Land Company offices were on the 4th floor in room 404. Rebecca B. Shafer, Julius’s widow, continued the company as president through 1954 at the Mutual Life Building. 

During the 1920s and 1930s, offices continued to be tenanted throughout the building. In 1922, for instance, there were toy manufacturing and wholesale businesses on the fourth and fifth floors, accountants on the second floor, architects on the fourth floor, and real-estate agents and brokers throughout. The corner of the building at 601 1st Avenue became a cigar store under the direction of Fern Harris.  

Sherwood reported that about 1923, Pioneer Square was redeveloped and the totem pole relocated with improvements to paving and the creation of flower beds.  Pioneer Square was still a lively and elegant place, but civic focus was moving northward. 

The Shafer Brothers Land Company must have been doing well during the 1920s because in 1928, Julius and Rebecca Shafer bought the large house, now known as the Shafer Baillie Mansion, on Capitol Hill. They lived there until 1952 and raised a family in the elegant house that now serves as an inn. Rebecca Shafer, who was raised in Seattle and graduated from Broadway High School, lived until 1971. She was active throughout her life in the local Jewish community. 

The Depression was hard on the Pioneer Square area. Even the totem pole suffered.  Sherwood reported that in 1937, the 148-year-old cedar pole was damaged extensively by fire.  It took an act of Congress to authorize the U.S. Forest Service to commission a new one. 

In 1939, the Mutual Life Building had vacancies, but there were tenants on each floor. Pioneer Smelters had a storefront at 607 1st Avenue and a laboratory on the 6th floor. Harry Harris had taken over the cigar store on the corner. E. H. Hamlin & Co., salmon brokers, and J. A. Rokes, lawyer, were long-term tenants. Unions also had their offices in the building: Fish Reduction & Saltery Workers Local 14 UFUP had its office on the second floor and the International Checkers Association had a hall and office on the third floor. The Loop Tavern, a beer parlor, and Loop Lunch, shared the 603 storefront. Rosen’s Men’s Furnishings were at 609 1st Avenue. 

During the 1940s, housing was so short in Seattle that people shared beds. Repairs were delayed. The cable-car and street-car lines became scrap metal for the war effort. 

Then on April 13, 1949, at 11:55 a.m., came a 7.1 magnitude earthquake. Pioneer Square was shaken badly. The top two stories of the Mutual Life Building must have been severely damaged. By 1953, Polk’s Street Directory for Seattle doesn’t even mention the fifth and sixth floors of the building. Harry Harris Cigar Co. was still on the corner at 601 1st Avenue; the tavern at 603 had become the Britannia Tavern.  Hamlin-Halferty Seafoods Inc., brokers were still in room 218, and the Checkers Association, Local 36-38 ICA on the third floor. John A. Rokes was still on the fourth floor, and Rosen’s continued to sell men’s furnishings at 609 1st Avenue.  

1955-1980:  The Magnuson Years and Historic Preservation 

According to Miles & Associates, the Mutual Life Building was purchased by Dr. S. T. Magnuson in October 1955. He did not have offices in the building and it appears that there was no on-site management during this period.  Only a few tenants stayed:  Harry Harris Cigar Store remained on the corner for decades. The Britannia Tavern and Rosen’s also stayed. Clarence H. Jones, consulting engineer, had offices on the second floor. And E. H. Hamlin Associates, food brokers remained. Sherwood reported on the neighborhood:

“In 1958 the walk areas in Pioneer Square were repaved with asphalt and the stairways [to the comfort station under the pergola] were effectively sealed.  ...  Meanwhile, the merchants in the District catered mainly to residents of the vicinity.  Smoke shops, cafes, taverns, that were the places where these residents gathered to meet their friends and pass the day and evening ... ” 

Then the idea of historic preservation began to emerge. Don Sherwood wrote that the beginnings of City of Seattle historic preservation of buildings in the Pioneer Square District can be attributed to the advocacy of Myrtle Edwards (1894-1969), a visionary city councilmember in the mid-1950s. Among those efforts was a design contest among architects held in 1954. There was no funding, however, and local building owners were not interested in restoration. Demolition followed, parking lots were created, and it took some time for these early efforts to grow into a historic preservation movement.

In 1960, at the Mutual Life Building, the Ship Scalers Union Local No. 541 was listed in Polk’s and Rosen’s was still there at 609. During the 1960s the Pioneer Banque Restaurant occupied the corner space at 601 1st Avenue. 

On April 29, 1965, a 6.5 magnitude earthquake shook the area. The Mutual Life Building, like most older Pioneer Square masonry buildings, was damaged in the earthquake. Photographs show the streets in the area covered with loose brick and terra cotta. But the extent of the damage to the Mutual Life Building specifically does not seem to have been documented.

In 1970, Pioneer Square became both a National Historic District and a local (Seattle) preservation district. By 1980 the Mutual Life Building was completely vacant. 

Rebuilding -- 1980s 

In March 1983, Historic Seattle purchased the Mutual Life Building. Working with the Emerald Fund of San Francisco, ownership and financing were arranged to rebuild.  On March 17, 1984, the Daily Journal of Commerce used its cover to show photographs of the newly restored building and the following list of participants: 

  • Architect: Olson/Walker Partners, Seattle
  • Contractor: J.M. Rafn Co., Bellevue
  • Developer: Emerald Fund Inc., S. F.
  • Mechanical Contractor:  Air-Con Inc., Redmond
  • Mechanical Engineer: Richard Stern & Assoc., Seattle
  • Electrical Contractor: Collins Electric Co., Seattle
  • Electrical Engineer: Travis Design Assoc., Seattle
  • Structural Engineer: Ratti/Fossatti, Seattle
  • Masonry Restoration: Puget Sound Masonry, Seattle
  • Tenant Improvements: Wyatt/Stapper, Seattle
  • Elevator Restoration: A-1 Ornamental Ironworks, Seattle
  • Storefront Window Framing:  Standard Steel, Seattle
  • Graphics and Signage: Larry Launceford, Seattle
  • Glass Work: Ana Gardner, Seattle 

Historic Seattle described its role and the rehabilitation: “to undertake the rehabilitation of what was a very visible and seriously deteriorated building.  Historic Seattle provided financing assistance as well as subordination of its underlying property interest. The Mutual Life Building was one of the last structures in Pioneer Square to be renovated.”  

The lead architect for the project was Gordon Kendall Walker for Olson/Walker.  Robert C. Wagoner and Susan D. Boyle, at that time with Olson/Walker, were project architect and project manager respectively. Although there was a desire to retain and restore the internal spaces, the structure could not be properly retrofitted for seismic events without removing the partitions and floors. The wood-paneled entry lobby, red sandstone for the original first floor, and the Chuckanut sandstone blocks forming part of the basement from the earliest construction were retained. The basement entrance on 1st Avenue was rebuilt with granite stairs. 

Today (2008) the Mutual Life Building is a beautifully restored six-story retail and office building with modern conveniences. Magic Mouse Toys and Ragazzi’s Flying Shuttle have been retail tenants since the 1980s in the storefronts at 603 and 607 1st Avenue. 

The Mutual Life Building, owned by Historic Seattle, is currently leased by Diamond Parking, whose headquarters are in room 600. The building manager is West and Wheeler Associates, formed in Seattle in 1888 by Fred W. West and James W. Wheeler.

Sources: Jeffrey Karl Ochsner and Dennis Alan Andersen, Distant Corner: Seattle Architects and the Legacy of H. H. Richardson (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 181, 182, 193-5, 367; "The First National Bank" in Seattle and The Orient ed. by Alfred D. Bowen (Seattle: The Seattle Daily Times, 1900), 128-130; Don Miles & Associates, "The Mutual Life Building Study," December 8, 1981, typescript, File: "Mutual Life Building," Office of Historic Preservation, Department of Neighborhoods, City of Seattle;  “Mutual Life Building,” Historic Seattle website accessed August 23, 2008 (; Dotty DeCoster email to Historic Seattle, September 2008; Polk’s Seattle Directories, many volumes; File: "07-057 Mutual Life Bldg," Box 1, Folder 10, 1974-1988, Record Series 5754-E2, Records of the City of Seattle Historic Preservation Office, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Washington statehood bill introduced in U.S. Congress on December 10, 1878” (by Greg Lange), “Jefferson Park Municipal Golf Course (Seattle)” (by David Wilma), “Earthquake hits Puget Sound area on April 13, 1949” (by Greg Lange), “Schmitz, Dietrich (1890-1969)” (by Louis Fiset), “Luxurious Sanitary Toilet Convenience opens beneath Seattle’s Pioneer Place on September 23, 1909” (by Priscilla Long and Alan J. Stein), “Train arrives in Seattle over new transcontinental tracks on January 7, 1893” (by Heather M. Macintosh), “Henry Yesler arrives in Seattle on October 20, 1852” (by Priscilla Long) (accessed August 27, 2008); Shelby Scates, Firstbank: The Story of Seattle-First National Bank  (Seattle: SeaFirst Bank,  1970); David B. Williams, The Street-Smart Naturalist: Field Notes from Seattle (Portland, OR, West Winds Press, 2005). 30; “Mrs. Shafer, Here Since 1898, Dies at 75,”The Seattle Times, March 16, 1971; Myra L. Phelps, Public Works in Seattle: A Narrative History, The Engineering Department, 1875-1975 ed. by Leslie Blanchard (Seattle: The Seattle Engineering Department, 1978), 15-16; Jerry Craig, “Mutual: Pioneering on the Square,” Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce and Northwest Construction Record, Vol. 90, No. 77, Saturday, April 2, 1983 (front page); Dotty DeCoster conversation with representative of Diamond Parking, Seattle, September 18, 2008;  Shafer Baille Mansion Inn website accessed September 16, 2008 (; Cover story (no title), Daily Journal of Commerce, Saturday, March 17, 1984, p. 1; Don Sherwood,  “Pioneer Square,” Seattle Parks Department Sherwood History, Seattle Parks and Recreation website accessed August 21, 2008 (; Don Sherwood, “Jefferson Park,” , Seattle Parks Department Sherwood History, Seattle Parks and Recreation website accessed August 27, 2008 (;   “Blackwell, James Eustace, 2403”; “Robertson and Blackwell, Architects, 2760”; “Mutual Life Building, Seattle, WA, 4912”; “DeNeuf, Emil, 2716”; “Olson/Walker Architects,1761”; “Gordon Kendall Walker, 1405,” ArchitectDB, College of Architecture & Urban Planning, University of Washington, website accessed August 31, 2008 (; “Preliminary Guide to the West and Wheeler Associates Records 1888-1966," University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections website accessed August 2008 (;  "605 1st Avenue," Parcel No. Parcel  8591400075 in King County Parcel Viewer website accessed August 27, 2008 (; "Summary for 605 1st Avenue/Parcel ID 8591400075," Historical Sites, Department of Neighborhoods, City of Seattle website accessed August 23, 2008 (; “Pioneer Square Historical District,” Department of Neighborhoods, City of Seattle website accessed September 17, 2008 (; “Sherwood Gillespy,” in A Volume of Memoirs and Genealogy of Representative citizens of the City of Seattle and County of King, Washington (New York and Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1903), P. 158, passage transcribed by Diana Smith, found on Roots Web website accessed August 29, 2008 (; Insurance Maps of Seattle by Sanborn Map Company, Vol 1 1893 updated to 1903, Seattle Room, Seattle Public Library.

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