Thursday, March 10, 2011

Seattle Stone: Lobby #2, Smith Tower marble

I would like to return to Smith Tower and look at the other beautiful stone that graces its lobby. It is a classic marble, quarried from Tokeen on Marble Island, just off the west side of Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska. Tokeen was the more major of two marble quarries in the area. First to open was Calder, at the north end of Prince of Wales Island but it closed about the time that Tokeen was being more fully developed by R. L. Fox of Seattle. Marble Island was initially called Fox Island.

In the fall of 1903, Fox and several investors started the Great American Marble Company. Apparently the money men had noble aspirations or visions of grandeur. They definitely had other problems, including financial troubles and interpersonal conflicts. Turns out that one investor, Robert Ball, was actually one Charles Mains, a lawyer from Michigan disbarred for shady shenanigans.

Quarry at Tokeen, photo from Alaska State Library Digital Collections

Meanwhile, the owners of the Vermont Marble Company (VMC), in Vermont, had been hearing rumors of “mountains of marble – ‘quantities beyond calculation’ – and of a quality such that ‘no other marble in the world was superior.” Eventually representatives of VMC made it to Marble Island, verified the rumors, and noted a good potential market for the stone. D. H. Bixler wrote in 1908 to VMC “As for the future of Seattle there cannot be much doubt. It seems as though it will surely grow…The pace has been set for first class buildings and any that follow will have to have more or less interior marble.”

With VMC now holding the rights to the marble, they began to develop operations. The initial shipment of 101 tons of marble left Tokeen on July 18, 1909. As many as eight quarries operated with most blocks going to the VMC yard in Tacoma. During the peak years of operation from 1912 to 1915, more than 4,360 blocks were shipped to Tacoma. Cut stone went into buildings from Boston to Honolulu including post offices in Bellingham and San Diego; the Empress Theater in Salt Lake City; the county building in Pittsburgh, and the Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital. In Seattle, it went into King County Courthouse, the Hoge Building, the Bank of California and Smith Tower.

Alaska marble in the Smith Tower

The marble comes from metamorphosed layers of the Heceta Limestone, an Early to Late Silurian (430 to 420mya). Subsequent intrusion of a hornblende diorite metamorphosed the limestone into a marble. Parts of the Heceta is rich in fossils, though none are found in the marble beds. The limestone formed mostly on a shallow marine platform with some deeper water deposition, too.

Smith Tower interior and route to safety

In my next posting, I will show a few photos of the third stone in Smith Tower, a fossil-rich limestone. Very exciting!