Fairmont Olympic: Cradling the Stories of Seattle

Tightly woven into the storyline of Seattle, the Fairmont Olympic Hotel tucks significant pieces of the city’s past into its deepest chambers. The roguish water-centric city shed some rough edges between the two World Wars, and this ornate Italian Renaissance hotel was in the thick of it all.

Just six years after World War I and experiencing a new surge of wealth from those who got lucky in the Klondike Gold Rush, Seattle was ready for its first true “grand hotel.” The chosen land already held a soft spot in the heart of locals, being the first home of the University of Washington. A plan emerged for the community to pitch in by way of a citywide bond subscription campaign to finance the hotel’s construction, and it was a resounding success.

It also gave everyday Seattleites a stake in their new “Belle of the Northwest Ball.” The Seattle Times held a public contest to name the city’s new hotel, gathering a list of 3,906 entries. Less than a year after breaking ground, the opening day finally arrived on December 6, 1924.

A Capitol Has Been Provided

At least 2,000 people donned their finest threads for the posh opening-night gala, arriving in awe to a graceful edifice of Belgian marble, brick and terra cotta with rooftop searchlights scanning the sky. Orchestras music sifted throughout the ornate lobby, assembly room, Italian and Spanish ballrooms and hundreds of sleeping chambers, while five kitchens dished out elegant fare served by maids swathed in green silk.

Lit by glittering chandeliers, the scene unfolded as bellhops, cigar vendors and white-clad sailors dashed in and out of the crowds, framed by walnut furniture, arched ceilings, Palladian windows, American oak panels and damask draperies. No expense was spared, and it was a night that elevated downtown Seattle to new social heights. Newspaper headlines the next morning heralded the project’s success, and the Seattle Times proclaimed, “With the formal opening of the Olympic, Page One in a new social era was turned ….. In the province whence come social calendars, a capitol has been provided.”

World War II brought a new level of social engagement when the section of University Street in front of the Olympic Hotel and Metropolitan Theater became “Victory Square.” It was Seattle’s homefront for War Bond drives, rallies and civic engagement as well as the celebration spot for the war’s end in 1945. The Metropolitan Theater, connected to the hotel from the very beginning, survived until 1954 with a final performance of What Every Woman Knows starring Helen Hayes.

Fit for Royalty

Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Fairmont Olympic retains all its original charm – and then some. The old adage “fit for royalty” is literal here, evidenced by the presence of guests such as Britain’s Prince Philip, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and Japan’s Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko. In March 2018, hotel guests were stunned by the presence of metal detectors, security personnel, bomb-sniffing dogs, and a pavement full of Seattle police vehicles and black Suburbans with government license plates.

As it turned out, a crowd of royal court delegates from Saudi Arabia were encamped at the hotel while Prince Mohammed bin Salman met individually with Bill Gates, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadello. The Crown Prince and his entourage had landed earlier at Paine Field in his private VIP 747 jet to tour the Boeing plant where it was made.

America’s own versions of royalty have graced the halls of the Fairmont Olympic as well, with a string of presidents ranging from Herbert Hoover to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. U.S. Senator Warren G. Magnuson even lived in the hotel when he was back home in Washington. The 450 guests room and suites have hosted legends such as Charles Lindbergh and Jimmy Hoffa and celebrities Bob Hope, John Wayne, Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby.

An Uptown Hometown

Travelers captivated by tales of history, presidents and politics at the Fairmont Olympic are often surprised to learn that it’s still very much a “hometown” hotel. It’s where couples say I do, seniors have their last prom dance, and civic galas celebrate new milestones. It’s also a place to watch daily life unfold: afternoon tea with mom at The Georgian … live music at The Terrace on a nervous first date … girlfriend spa time of Penelope & the Beauty Bar … grabbing an espresso at Fourth Ave coffee bar on the way to a job interview.

Coworkers and out-of-towners alike make their way to happy hour at what was once the hotel’s haberdashery in the 1930s and now houses Seattle’s oldest oyster bar, Shucker’s. Seasonal selections come from at least a dozen places with names like Cranberry Creek, Stellar Bay, Penn Cove and Sister Point.

Teddy Bears and Honey Bees

The Fairmont Olympic does things by the hundreds and thousands, from teddy bears to honey bees. Families plan for months ahead to visit the hotel in December, but not just for the elaborate winter-wonderland displays, roasted chestnuts and life-sized gingerbread house. They go for the tromp through teddy-bear heaven. Hundreds of teddies, from minis to giants and in every conceivable configuration, live inside the Teddy Bear Suite, which encourages snuggle time in the cozy plush bed. It’s all free, and donations go to Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Another fantastical kingdom crowns the Fairmont Olympic, literally. It’s the land of the honey bees, doing their busy-buzzing magic on the rooftop aviary created by Executive Chef Gavin Stephenson. Splashing the sky with a blaze of color, 10 painted hives house at least half a million bees. And yes, they do actually produce honey, which you can taste in the Olympic Honey Hard Cider and Honeymoon Suite Ale at Shuckers and the Terrace Bar. The honey also infuses a Rooftop Honey Lemon Drop cocktail, a breakfast-favorite Rooftop Honey Granola, and several delectable creations at the afternoon high-tea service.

Heartbeat of a City

Like many properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Fairmont Olympic Hotel has a complexity earned by an ongoing role in things that matter. It’s seen conflict, controversy and compromise alongside victory in war, resolution of labor disputes, the end of Prohibition, and the rise and fall of prosperity for almost 10 decades. The Fairmont Olympic will always be part of Seattle’s heartbeart, burnishing both past and present in a continually unfolding story.

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