Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Seattle Stone: Lobby #2, Smith Tower onyx

In continuing my short tour of Seattle lobbies, I turn to what is one of the best known lobbies in the downtown area. Smith Tower is also one of Seattle’s more famous buildings. Opened on July 4, 1914, the 462-foot tall building was the tallest building west of Ohio at the time. Over the years, the mostly terra cotta clad edifice has borne the brunt of many incorrect claims. As a fine essay on the web site reports, it was never the fourth tallest building in the world, or even outside of New York.

Despite not meeting the aspirations of some, Smith Tower does sport a rather handsome lobby. Two stones dominate, onyx marble from Mexico and marble from Alaska. This post will focus on the Mexican rock.

Onyx is a notoriously confusing stone. True onyx is a variety of quartz. It is sometimes referred to as layered chalcedony or black-and-white agate. The onyx used as building stone is not made of quartz but of calcite and is known as onyx marble. Because such calcareous onyx became popular in the United States through stone quarried near Mexico City, it is also called Mexican onyx, as well, no matter its point of origin. Onyx marble used in ancient Rome and by early Egyptians usually came from Algeria. All onyx marble is popular because of the colorful layering and ability to be highly polished. Color variation depends on the amount of iron and manganese and their oxidation states in the deposits, which become layered as they accumulate in pools.

The Smith Tower onyx panels are from Baja California from an area known as El Marmol. Like all onyx marble, it formed layer by thin layer in springs, in this case cold water springs. Other onyx marbles form in hot springs, too. They can also form as stalactites and stalactites. First quarried around 1893, the El Marmol deposits are about 160 miles southeast of Ensenada and 15 miles from the east coast of the peninsula. (One additional note. After posting this blog, I was reminded that the onyx in Smith Tower is also called Pedrara Onyx, in reference to the company that owned the quarries.)

The Spring at El Marmol (from the Tacoma World web site)

El Marmol achieved a bit of fame for its onyx marble schoolhouse, which was supposedly the only all onyx place of education in the world. Apparently the stones were not polished and by at least the 1950s, the weathered stones were drab and brown. As you can see from this modern shot, it’s not in very good shape.

The schoolhouse at El Marmol (from Tacoma World web site)

When geologist George Perkins Merrill visited the Baja quarries in the early 1890s he found the deposits quite pleasing. “Nothing can be more fascinating to the lover of the beautiful in stones than this occurrence, where huge blocks of material of almost ideal soundness, with ever varying shades of color and veination lie everywhere exposed in countless numbers…The colors are peculiarly delicate, and there is a wonderful uniformity in quality…The rose color is, so far as my present knowledge goes, quite unique and wonderfully beautiful.

The quarry at El Marmol closed in the early 1960s. An article by naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch theorized that it was due to plastic. He wrote “As with so much that is coming in the world, there is a cheap substitute for something dearer and more beautiful.” Fortunately, we can still see the dear and beautiful at Smith Tower.
Next time, I will look at the Alaskan marble.


Dr. Jack Share said...

I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading your work here. I live just west of Boston and actually started a blog on geology and paleontology a month or so ago ( For years I've been looking at all the buildings, churches and stone walls in New England and was elated to see that you have written so much about it. I can't wait to blog the subject. I'll surely reference your blog and book. Thanks!

David B. Williams said...


Thanks for your note. Sounds like we have similar geologic passions. I spent nine years living in Moab, always excited by the geology. And Boston was where I developed my interest in building stone. I look forward to reading your blog as well.

All the best,

Stone Art's Blog said...

Hi David. Nice to have discovered your blog. You have some interesting reading here. Regards from Ireland, Sunny

David B. Williams said...

Sunny, Thanks for your note. There must be some stunning stone buildings in Ireland to see.

Morgan Marketing Online said...

Hello, Was searching onyx online and found your write up on El Marmol that my husband and I visited a couple years ago while touring Baja Mexico for 3 months. I have a lot of pictures if you are interested, of the graveyard, the school house, a cistern and the magnificent huge onyx stones. We are off to try to find the onyx canyon on the old road to Ensenada just east of La Mission. At one time El Marmol shipped out 100 tons a day by wagon and mule to the coast either Punta de Las Cancas or Las Morales and went by ship to San Francisco. We also found a turquoise mine in our travels and met the miner who allowed us to mine on his 1000 hecatre property. All in all Baja is a facinating area.