The Cobb Building, located at 1301 Fourth Avenue, across the street from the Northern Life Tower, is the only surviving example of the innovative urban design scheme planned to create a commercial center in Seattle.
It occupies part of a 10-acre plot that originally served as the first site of the University of Washington. When the campus moved to the shores of Lake Washington around the turn of the century, the university regents decided to lease the land.
The Metropolitan Building Company soon assumed the lease, and then engaged the New York firm of Howells and Stokes to assemble a master plan for the integrated development of the property. Howells and Stokes intended that the area, which became the Metropolitan Tract, be a "city within a city."
The 1907 Howells and Stokes Metropolitan Tract plan was an innovative urban development considered the largest development of a downtown site undertaken to that time in the United States. Their design included a department store, offices, a hotel, housing, and a small plaza, all to be built in a similar style and scale.
The Cobb Building illustrates many of the features that the 10 original structures were supposed to share. Only five were actually built. All were to be 11 stories tall, with terra cotta ornamentation at the top and street levels and brick in-between. Their decoration would combine elements of the Beaux-Arts and commercial styles, such as symmetry and a clearly marked storefront.
When built, the Cobb was one of the country's first high-rises designed to house medical and dental offices, as the plaque of Hippocrates at its main entrance denotes. The Cobb Building was the first dedicated medical-dental building in the West.
J.F. Douglas and the Metropolitan Building Company duplicated the construction of some East Coast buildings specifically designed for this purpose. It was designed by architects Howells and Stokes of New York and named after C.H. Cobb, an investor in the Metropolitan Building Company.
Upon completion in 1910, the Cobb Building provided offices for more than 200 doctors and dentists. Contemporary journals identified it as the first building in Seattle, and perhaps the West, designed for a single professional use, an innovation that generated a great deal of publicity, and it thrived for most of the 20th century.
Time and commercial pressures have led to redevelopment of the sites that once hosted the other original parts of the Metropolitan Tract, but the Cobb Building continues to look much as it has for more than 90 years.
Unico and the University of Washington will be upgrading the building’s systems and redeveloping it into a high-end apartment community, complete with a renovated retail level on the first floor, in order to make better use of the building’s features and to preserve the history and beauty of this unique building.
It takes as many as four workers to restore the 96-year-old sash windows at the Cobb Building: one to re-hang the sashes, one to re-putty the antique glass, one to prep the wood, one to paint.
However, when the workers are done, new residents of the Cobb will look out from stately windows, 4 feet wide, tall enough to stand in, reaching almost to the ceiling. The original circa-1910 brass elevator doors still shine in the first-floor lobby.
Best known for the terra-cotta Indians peering down from its Beaux-Arts facade on Fourth Avenue, the Cobb, is about to become the latest downtown Seattle office building to be reborn as a home for city dwellers. Seattle has seen a steady increase of historic offices being converted into downtown housing, and some think the trend could accelerate.
In a soft market, many older office buildings are struggling to attract tenants, while, with low interest rates, the market for downtown condominiums remains hot.
Converting old offices to housing is hardly a financial certainty because renovations cost as much as, and in some cases more than, demolishing and starting fresh. Developers say such projects are possible only with a federal tax credit that can cover 20 percent of the cost of renovating a historic building. The Cobb project originated with a property owner trying to figure out what to do with an elegant but aging building.
With downtown Seattle's office vacancy rate over 20 percent, it did not make sense to renovate the Cobb for offices. However, condominiums were not an option because the University of Washington, which has owned it for more than a century and leases it to Unico, owns the land underneath the Cobb.
Generally, the association of condominium owners owns the land underneath condominiums. The UW and Unico studied several options for the Cobb, including demolishing the building and starting new, before going ahead with the renovation, with the Cobb needing a seismic upgrade to meet modern earthquake-code requirements.
The reinforced-concrete building made it through several earthquakes, but the seismic upgrade was a major project. One solution, called "X-bracing," involves running a pattern of steel beams inside the walls. However, the braces change the feel of an interior and can obscure views.
Unico, wanting to preserve the graceful old windows of the Cobb, chose an alternative to X-bracing: A separate reinforced-concrete tower that will fit inside the Cobb's L shape.
The new structure, tied to the old building, will give the Cobb the stiffness it needs to resist the twisting forces that the building would take in an earthquake. The new tower also will fit one apartment unit on each floor, helping to offset some of its cost. The Cobb is getting all new wiring, plumbing and heating systems and rebuilt interiors. All 462 original windows are being restored.
Unico is not worried about finding tenants, with 40,000 to 45,000 office employees who work within walking distance of the Cobb. In addition, with Benaroya Hall, the Downtown Library, and several theaters nearby, there should be plenty of nighttime street life.
Despite the financial stresses, historic buildings can have a buried-treasure quality, with finishes and architectural touches impossible to find in today's new construction.