BY BRADLEY MAULE
Vancouver, Washington isn’t a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people — I’d guess most of Portland’s modern emigrant population hasn’t even set foot there (admittedly, it took me over two years to do so) — but one thing it is, is the home to one of the finest specimens of midcentury modern in the Pacific Northwest.
Recalling the famed Capitol Records tower in Los Angeles, Smith Tower is easily the most notable participant in Vancouver’s skyline, save for maybe the enormous industrial elevator next to the railroad bridge across the Columbia River. Technically, SW Washington Medical Center’s Firstenburg Tower is the tallest building in the Couv, a whole two feet (160′) taller than Smith Tower (158′), but it’s way out by I-205, well removed from the old downtown core.
The 15 story tower opened in 1966 as a retirement home for seniors (over 62) and remains so to this day. Interestingly, its official name is Mid-Columbia Manor, but its nickname “Smith Tower” — allegedly begun by Bill Smith himself, the former president of Mid-Columbia Manor, Inc, who still manages the apartment building — stuck early on and is used today on the tower’s sign and letterhead.
Now 45 years old — five years shy of the nomination period for the National Register of Historic Places — Smith Tower looks like it was built in 1966, but it wears its age well. Perhaps a little too well, even, as its original mustard-yellow scheme was sadly scrapped over a decade ago at the behest of the City of Vancouver. The yellow ribbon panels were simply reversed, leaving the cylindrical building with a more boring beige. Not quite as boring, however, as the Harrison West Tower, Portland’s tallest building at the time, has been from the get-go. (For a better reference, the Lovejoy Fountain plaza also opened in 1966.)
Architects Keith Bradbury & Henry Greybrook practiced in both Oregon and Washington, but they operated primarily out of their Vancouver office opened in 1964 to oversee the construction of Smith Tower. While there, another senior living highrise, the 18-story Ya-Po-Ah Terrace (née Foothills Apartments), came off of their desk and still stands as the tallest building in Eugene. During Smith’s construction, it used a lift-slab technique based around its central core, akin to Chicago’s similarly-corncob-esque Marina City (which opened in 1964).
At the time of its opening, Smith Tower stood diagonally across the street from Lucky Lager brewery, which wasted no time lending its identity to the building: the beer can. Alas, the brewery closed in 1985, and to no great chagrin to the elderly residents, that nickname has collected dust while the old brewhouse has been replaced with condos. Fortunately (or perhaps "luckily") for Vancouver, it hasn’t been overlooked in the ongoing Beervana revolution. There are currently two breweries — Salmon Creek and Mount Tabor — in production, and an artisan bottle shop with goods from across the region and country.
Otherwise, there isn’t a whole lot of info out there on Smith Tower, an effort compounded by the fact that Vancouver’s much larger neighbor to the north, Seattle, has a more famous, nearly century old landmark of the same name. Three years ago, a 74-year-old man got stuck in the Vancouver building’s garbage chute and had to be rescued by the local fire department. More recently, local citizens expressed concern that the controversial Columbia River Crossing’s Vancouver footprint would enter downtown at roughly the same height as the Smith Tower roofline, the reference point used by engineers at a public meeting. And, while I was there two weeks ago, an old man with long hair in a cowboy hat and boots urinated in the walkway toward the curving underground parking garage. Exciting times.
Whether it’s a first ballot hall of famer come 2016, its first year of eligibility for the National Register, remains to be seen, but it seems that Smith Tower’s tall, beer-can-shaped place as one of The Couv’s architectural icons is safe. The building is ideally situated in a burgeoning downtown Vancouver, and there are soon to be more senior citizens in this country than ever before, although this particular old folks' home still feels as modern as ever. What's more, Smith Tower typifies a generation of midcentury modern architecture that is only just now arriving on preservationists' radar. We can't just rely on being lucky to see these buildings endure.