Life inside the Smith Tower penthouse pyramid
How did Petra Franklin Lahaie, 46-year-old choreographer-turned-venture capitalist-turned-no-nanny mom, win a long-term lease on the space at the top of the historic Smith Tower in Pioneer Square, or what might be the most extraordinary apartment in the city?
The New York Times
SEATTLE — To get to the top of the world, Petra Franklin Lahaie ushers her two young daughters and their girly bikes through a set of heavy bronze doors, greets the 24-hour elevator operator in the Prussian blue uniform, rides up 35 stories past mostly vacant office suites, debarks next to an observation deck and Chinese-themed banquet room, passes through a portal marked "private residence," climbs two stories into a neo-gothic pyramid and enters a penthouse apartment. She pauses to scoop up an armful of scattered toys, then mounts another flight of stairs, crosses the living room, circles 38 steps on a cast-iron stairwell ("look the other way," she may call to someone below as she gathers her billowing dress around her calves), hauls herself up 13 rungs in a narrow vertical shaft, and emerges — at last! — into a glass globe 462 feet above the city.
But how did Franklin really get here? That is, how did this 46-year-old choreographer-turned-venture capitalist-turned-no-nanny mom win a long-term lease on the space at the top of the historic Smith Tower in Pioneer Square, or what may be the most extraordinary apartment in the city?
Well, she decided she wanted to live there, of course. And Franklin — who is either a "dynamo," a "ball of fire" or a "highly determined woman," depending on whom you ask — has a habit of getting what she wants.
What she wanted on a recent Saturday afternoon was for her 6-year-old daughter, Simone, to sit quietly inside the glass globe. The 10-foot-diameter lantern — with its 24 window panels — perches atop the 42-story tower like a crystal ball on a traffic cone. It is practically the definition of a place where children should not gambol. Three-year-old Naomi seemed contented to ride the rubber horse that zips along a climbing rope, from the kitchen to the living room. But Simone, scampering up and down the primitive ladder, was seeking bigger thrills.
"Look!" she cried out, pointing at the cubbyholes that pock the concrete entrance shaft like a honeycomb. "Under this, there's wine! And there's a word, too. It says M-O-E-T."
"Yes," said Franklin "That's Moet & Chandon."
These bottles are empties, the artifacts of 12 years' worth of parties, creative summits, fundraisers and the occasional visit from the band U2. The next month alone, she said, would bring two school-parent dinners; the annual gathering of the Progress Alliance, a left-leaning donor group; a fundraiser for Rep. Jay Inslee, D- Bainbridge Islandand a "marvelously goofy TheFilmSchool event," with guests acting out film roles, directed by the actor Tom Skerritt. Almost all these affairs would be "one-pot specials," Franklin said, that she prepares herself.
Franklin is a "delightful" entertainer, said Kurt Beattie, artistic director of ACT Theater in Seattle. (Oh, there was a theater benefit on the calendar, too.) "She's very interested in stimulating conversations about culture, society, politics, technology," he said. "It's a salon, really."
But the main attraction of a night at the top of Smith Tower must be the IMAX-strength views: Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains to the west, the Cascades to the east and, below, thousands of people doing the things they do when they believe no one is watching.
From the apartment she calls the "Lighthouse," Franklin can see almost the entire city. But the city cannot see her. So the residence on top of the tower has taken on the status of an urban legend.
The tour guides around Pioneer Square can be heard to claim that "there's a shut-in who's lived up there for 80 years and has 200 cats," said David Lahaie, a 51-year-old energy and recycling executive. Lahaie is skeptical, to say the least: he lives in the apartment himself and is Franklin's husband.
Stephen Willis, the Smith Tower's docent and de facto historian, has encountered many odd theories in the 10 years he has guided visitors through the building. "I heard the other day that it's still family owned by the Smiths," the heirs of the Smith Corona typewriter fortune. "They haven't had a stake in the building since the mid-1920s."
The 1914 Beaux-Arts tower, with its white terra-cotta cladding, was an instant landmark — the tallest building on the West Coast at the time and, by many accounts, the fourth tallest in the world. But Willis said that no records endure to say who lived in the caretaker's apartment atop the tower.
"It was one of those little hidden gems," Willis said. "Everybody wanted it, but it was almost impossible to get."
As late as the 1970s, the rent was just $300 or $400 a month, and possession would pass with the key from friend to friend, many of them "writers and artists," he said.
As a former choreographer and performer, Petra Franklin had the right lineage. Indeed, her mother, Patt Franklin, was a painter and university professor. Her father, Lynn Franklin, was a photojournalist who wrote a book about salty characters in backwoods Maine. (Mr. Franklin, an amateur bush pilot, died in a plane crash in 1983 on his way to an interview.)
One of his black-and-white photographs hangs in the hallway outside the master bedroom. It shows a young Petra in the company of two friendly-looking octogenarians. One, it turns out, is the celebrated portrait photographer Lotte Jacobi. The other is Buckminster Fuller — or, as Franklin knew him, her erstwhile baby-sitter.
"He was totally cool," she said. "Here he is making me this hat."
A memento from another childhood pal hangs from the rafters in the living room. The 8-foot-tall blue chandelier, which resembles Sonic the Hedgehog, is an installation by the glass artist and local tycoon Dale Chihuly. Franklin first met Chihuly when she was 6 years old and he was a visiting artist at the Haystack-Hinckley craft program, an offshoot of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, where her parents were instructors.
"He was setting up a hotshop — " she said.
"My skirt! Look! It's blowing!" Simone interrupted. A warm gust of air puffed into Simone's purple-and-white dress, and exited through a hole in the fabric under the armpit.
"He would send me presents over the years," Franklin continued. "One time he was in the city of Petra and he sent me this little present from there.
"My mom's name is Petra!" Simone called out.
Franklin graduated from Bennington College, where she and her early '80s friend Bret Easton Ellis took a class with the true-crime master Joe McGinniss, she said. And for a time she ran a dance school in Guatemala. Eventually, she landed at Chihuly's workshop near Lake Union, in Seattle. For roughly 10 years, she acted as Chihuly's helpmate, building up his organization while accompanying him to art openings and events.
It was an introduction to Seattle's artists and patrons, its inventors and investors — and to Chihuly's titanic marketing powers. These things would help Franklin when she started Vault Capital, a small investment fund, in 1998.
When Franklin first visited the Smith Tower in 1997, the apartment had been empty for more than 10 years — and for good reason. "There was a huge water tower that was being taken out," she said. "And there were big piles of concrete. There weren't stairs; there were ladders to get from floor to floor. And you'd be living among amazing dust. When it rained, the rain all came in. It was like standing inside of a river."
The building had landed in the real estate portfolio of the Samis Foundation, a Seattle nonprofit that supports Jewish education and culture. Part of the tower's $28 million overhaul in 1998 involved removing the 10,000-gallon cast-iron tank that had once fed the fire-sprinkler system.
What the Smith Tower really needed, Franklin decided, was a newly expanded two-story dwelling. Two bedrooms and two baths could be squeezed onto the 37th floor, and an open living room-kitchen-dining room would fill the 38th. Naturally, this fantastic, 1,750-square-foot apartment would need an occupant: herself.
She said, 'I could make this the greatest home and studio in the world,' " recalled William Justen, the managing director of real estate for the Samis Land Company.
"When we put a bid on the property, we didn't allocate any income for that space," he continued. "As far as the Samis trustees were concerned, if we could find a use for it and get some rent off it, that was a bonus."
Justen was won over by Franklin's sales pitch: he would later help cofound Vault Capital and also officiate at her wedding. The unit was rented for 10 years at a fixed market rate, he said, and Franklin received a discount for the improvements she made, amortized over 20 years.
Franklin's investments during the tech boom had set her up nicely, she said. Yet her wealth, by Seattle standards, was unexceptional. Jim Castanes, the architect who mapped out the floor plan, said the budget on the project was "very, very low." A new "maple floor on the main level," he said, "was a big deal, budget-wise."
"In terms of the finishes and all that," Castanes said," Petra basically mined the rest of the building."
When companies moved into the newly renovated offices, Franklin said, they "pulled out some of the marble."
"So I grabbed it."
One 9-by-7-foot gray slab became a kitchen counter; another heap of marble now skirts the tub that provides a postcard view of Mount Rainier, some 50 miles away.
The black wood scrim work that decorates the doors came from the Chinese Room; Franklin found the panels stacked in the building's basement. Nearby, she discovered a set of carved Chinese chairs that might be 300 years old. According to local lore, these furnishings were a gift from the last Empress of China. (Willis doesn't buy it.) However they came to Seattle, they belong in the apartment now.
Performing a kind of archaeological dig in the bowels of the building was easy enough. Rappelling down the outside to open the sealed windows was a more formidable challenge. Each of the four faces of the pyramid has six teardrop-shaped windows. Yet Franklin managed to get even this daunting job done for free.
As Franklin tells it, a former maintenance worker for the building, who had recently lost his ex-wife in a car crash, asked to affix a plaque with her name on top of the glass globe. As long as he was climbing out on a harness, Franklin asked, would he mind spending a day or two slicing open the windows?
"Mom!" called Simone, who was clambering up again to the glass globe, sherpa-ing up a bottle of San Pellegrino and three yellow sippy cups. Before long, this precocious entertainer might be ready to host her own parties in the Lighthouse.
"I would love to live here my whole life," Franklin said. Yet the specific terms of the lease — what she pays and how long she can stay — are subject to some dispute.
"Ask Petra," Justen said.
"I can't really give you that information," Franklin said.
In 2006, the Samis Foundation sold the building to Walton Street Capital for $43 million. In recent years, the building has either lost or shed its major tenants, including Walt Disney Internet Group, Microsoft and Providence Health and Services. A proposal to convert the tower to condominiums seems to have stalled. What plans the new owners may have for the penthouse is anyone's guess.
"I can't say anything," said Cleita Harvey, who represents the building for the leasing agent Urbis Partners — and then hung up the phone.
At the moment, Simone had a subtenant she wanted to evict from the globe. "Mom, there's a moth!" she said.
"It looks like he's alive," Franklin said.
"Could you take the moth and put it out the window?" Simone said, nudging it with a pen. A moment later, the moth — apparently more dead than alive — was spiraling toward the littered street below.
Wherever you go from the pinnacle of the Lighthouse, it's a long way down.
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