The Curtis-inspired Native Chief Sculptures Watching Over Seattle
Updated: Nov 26, 2022
High above the intersection of 4th Avenue and University Street in Seattle are eight pairs of watchful eyes, peering down on a city they have overseen for more than 100 years. Most people don't know the sculptures bearing these eyes are there, nor will they ever see them close-up (at least, not in their current positions). The story of how they got there and what happened to other artworks like them offers a fascinating glimpse into Seattle history.
It began in 1861 when the Territorial University of Washington (as it was then known) first opened its doors on a ten-acre tract in downtown Seattle. The land was donated to the university by some of Seattle's earliest pioneers, and by the 1890s the university had become so prominent that it needed more room to expand. Downtown developers were also anxious to take over the university's site to accommodate the rapid growth of the commercial business district. After a deal was reached to move the campus to its present location in northeast Seattle, the university's regents decided to lease their downtown real estate to the highest bidder. In 1907, the newly formed Metropolitan Building Company signed a lease for the property, and the company immediately began to plan a series of large-scale buildings designed to meet the needs of the growing city, including a department store, offices, a hotel, and housing.
The most prominent investors in the new real estate company put up funding for buildings that would soon carry their names: Chester F. White, Charles Cobb, Horace Henry, and Elbridge A. Stuart. The design of the buildings was consistent from top to bottom, although they were built at different times. The White Building opened first, in 1909, followed by the Cobb in 1910, the Henry in 1911, and the Stuart in 1915. The White, Henry, and Stuart buildings were directly connected, but each was a stand-alone construction project.
Chester White was Vice-President of the Metropolitan Bank, which, not coincidentally, handled much of the financing for the massive building spree along 4th Avenue. He also happened to be a big fan of Edward Curtis, who in 1906 had skyrocketed to local and national fame with the announcement that Wall Street tycoon J. P. Morgan was going to support Curtis's proposed North American Indian project. White wanted the first new buildings on the university's land to reflect the history of Seattle, and he put forth a proposal to have sculptures of Native Chiefs as part of the artistic ornamentation for the new buildings.
During the first decades of the 20th century, architectural terra cotta was one of the hallmarks of building design. It was relatively lightweight, fireproof, and, as a transition from the Victorian Era, it could be molded to display a dazzling variety of ornate artistic designs to beautify the exteriors of new buildings. It was the perfect medium to bring White's proposal to reality.
According to a 1908 Seattle Times story, White also selected several photographs by Curtis as possible models for the new artwork.
Unfortunately, White's seemingly good intentions were overcome by the many stereotypes of Native Peoples that abounded during that time. Rather than portraying local or even Northwest Native Peoples for the artwork, the final sculptures represent men who are more representative of the Peoples of the western plain states, such as Montana and Wyoming. This visage was likely chosen because it would include a feather headdress, making the sculptures instantly recognizable at that time as all-purpose "Indians."
There are no known Curtis images that appear to be the exact model used for the sculptures, and the artist might have used more than one source for his inspiration. The photos below show a close-up of the original sculpture's appearance (center), Curtis's photo of White Man Runs Him - Apsaroke (right), and the image of Running Antelope (left) that was on the 1899 $5 silver certificate (the contemporary version of our current $5 bill). There are several similarities among the portrayals, including the headdress, "bear claw" necklace, and animal fur strips hanging from the head.
The White, Cobb, and Stuart buildings each have/had eight Native Chief terra cotta sculptures on their capital (roofline) sections. No sculptures were included on the Henry building, possibly because it was the smallest of the group and did not have a prominent corner site. Although there are slight differences in their designs, the sculptures that were created for the White and Cobb buildings are attributed to the same artist: Victor G. Schneider, an Austrian-born sculptor who traveled throughout America to create stunning designs in architectural terra cotta. In Seattle, he also designed the terra cotta ornamentation for several other iconic buildings of the early 20th century, including the Orpheum, Pantages, and Coliseum Theaters (now all demolished). Most of the terra cotta used for the sculptures and other exterior artwork on the buildings was locally mined and fired at the Denny-Renton Clay & Coal Company, which had its main plant where Boeing Field is now located.
All of the sculptures are imposing in their design and size. Each is about 8 feet tall from the top of the headdress to the clawed feet at the bottom and about 3 feet wide. They were assembled from 5 to 8 separate sections (clearly visible in the photos), a process that was necessary so that the complete sculptures could safely be placed high on the exterior of the buildings. At that time, there were no cranes that could reach the upper levels of new buildings, and workers had to hand-carry the pieces up flights of stairs and install them while standing on narrow scaffolding.
There are several differences in the features of the sculptures on the White and Cobb Buildings, but the general design and rendering of the pieces have many similarities. The sculptures that appeared on the Stuart Building, however, have a distinctly different appearance from those previous depictions (see below). It seems reasonable to conclude that a different artist was responsible for the design of the Stuart sculptures, but no information has been found to confirm this premise.
The White-Henry-Stuart building (singular, as it is referred to now) was demolished in 1974 to make way for the Rainier Plaza. Some of the sculptures from those buildings were saved and may now be seen at ground-level at locations in and near Seattle. Two of the sculpture variants may be found in downtown Seattle, and the third is in Kent (about 20 miles south of Seattle). Here's a guide to finding them:
Variant A was found on the exterior of the White Building, in a similar setting as the existing sculptures on the Cobb Building. When the White Building was demolished, at least one of the artworks was saved. Today, it may be seen in an unusual location: outside of the office at the KOA Campground in Kent. A plaque there says the sculpture was obtained in 1977 by then-owners of the campground, Beth and DeLane Garrett. UPDATE: In 2022, the KOA campground was sold, and a new development built on its site. The sculpture that was there was sold to a private individual.
Variant B is the model found on the Cobb Building. For some unexplained reason, there is a separate copy of this sculpture in addition to the eight currently on the building. Fortunately, this copy may be seen close up for anyone who wants to examine its details. It's in the lobby of the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, near the information desk. If you'd like to view it from the comfort of your home, take the Center's virtual walking tour. Click or tap on the arrows to go inside and up the three flights of stairs. At the top of the stairs, look for the large circular "1" sign. The sculpture is seen at the left of the sign on the back wall.
Variant C sculptures are thought to have come from the Stuart Building, which, along with the White and Henry Buildings, was torn down in 1974. This depiction has a much starker facial expression, with exaggerated lines and features. Several copies of this sculpture are in public places around Seattle, including a street-level insert on the Cobb Building, in the Fifth Avenue Underground Concourse (near the elevator), on the exterior of the current Museum of History and Industry in South Lake Union, and at the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center at Discovery Park (in the "Spirit of the Guardian" resting place on the south lawn of the building).
When the buildings where the Native Chief sculptures were constructed, Edward Curtis was working from his studio at 709 Second Avenue in Seattle, about six blocks from the Metropolitan Tract. In 1917, he and his wife Clara signed a lease to move into the Exhibition Building, which was directly across University Street from the Cobb Building. He continued to operate out of that building until Clara won a divorce judgment against him in 1919. The next year he and his daughter Beth moved to Los Angeles, where they opened a new studio. Clara was awarded the sole ownership of the Seattle Curtis Studio, and she continued the photography business there under the gaze of the Native Chiefs until the Exhibition Building was torn down in 1927.
Do you like reading stories like this? If so, please support our work. As a nonprofit organization, we depend on donations from readers like you.