View from the top

International Glimpses

View from the top

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.

How did she get there?

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. What she wanted on a recent Saturday afternoon was for her six-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.

From her 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 sceptical, to say the least: he lives in the apartment himself and is Franklin’s husband.

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.”

An eight-foot-tall blue chandelier, which resembles Sonic the Hedgehog, is an installation by the glass artist and local tycoon Dale Chihuly. 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.

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 archeological 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 spiralling toward the littered street below.Wherever you go from the pinnacle of the Lighthouse, it’s a long way down.

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