Seattle’s grand dame: the Fairmont Olympic Hotel

Today's Fairmont Olympic Hotel. Credit: Fairmont Olympic Hotel

Even with all the hotels that have popped up in Seattle during the past few years (Four Seasons Hotel Seattle (opened yesterday), Hotel 1000, Pan Pacific Seattle), along with a new property scheduled to open in 2009 (Hyatt at Olive 8), the grande dame of them all is still garnering accolades. The Fairmont Olympic Hotel, which opened in downtown Seattle as The Olympic in 1924, was recently named by Forbes Traveler 400 as the No. 1 hotel in Washington state. In fact, it was the only hotel in the state to be included in the elite group of 400 hotels and resorts around the world.

The winners were selected by a “board of experts,” consisting of dozens of business leaders who are either CEOs, prominent travelers, tour operators, travel industry executives, elite travel agents, or editors/writers. They rated the five-star hotels where they recently stayed, and the writers who reviewed them did not accept complimentary accommodations.

At the other end of the spectrum of reviewers, Conde Nast Traveler’s 21st Annual Readers’ Choice Awards 2008 ranked The Fairmont Olympic Hotel No. 42 among the top 100 hotels in the United States (No. 1 was Chicago’s The Peninsula).

Located on a 10-acre city-center tract deeded to the University of Washington by Seattle pioneer Arthur A. Denny and others in 1861, The Olympic was financed by 4,500 individual investors (the name Olympic was selected in a contest sponsored by The Seattle Times.) According to Alan J. Stein, author of The Olympic: The Story of Seattle’s Landmark Hotel, it opened to great fanfare:

On the night of December 6, lights placed on surrounding buildings illuminated the exterior walls of The Olympic. Two large spotlights on the hotel roof swept the sky. The Stars and Stripes fluttered on the rooftop flagpole above the white and blue house flag emblazoned with the Olympic crest. Inside, vases and jardinières filled with exotic flowers occupied nearly every corner and every table of every room. By 7:00 p.m., the streets surrounding the building were crowded, both by those attending the gala affair and by others who just wanted to peek in through the windows and front door. Fore more than an hour, cars lined up to let of passengers. The men wore fine suits or tuxedoes, and the women, elegant gowns and fur.

The hotel’s construction cost? Four million dollars, with more than $800,000 spent on furnishings. The modified Italian Renaissance style hotel was decorated with hundreds of antique mirrors, bronze statuary, and terrazzo floors installed by workmen who journeyed from Italy. It soon became Seattle’s premier venue for social, civic, and corporate gatherings.

Over the years, the hotel has had its share of famous visitors and guests, many documented (some with photos) in the book: Charles Lindbergh, Franklin D. Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, Joan Crawford, Bob Hope, Haile Selassie, John F. Kennedy and The Rolling Stones. I spotted a familiar face once while having a martini in the Terrace Room. It looked just like Meathead of All in the Family; the waitress checked his signature and yes, it was Rob Reiner. Also on the Hollywood front, the lobby and exterior appeared briefly in the 1973 film Harry in Your Pocket; the Spanish Ballroom was used in the 1977 TV movie Eleanor and Franklin; and scenes from the 1994 Barry Levinson-directed movie Disclosure, starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore, were filmed here.

The hotel has gone through several changes of ownership over the years. In 1955, Western Hotels (which eventually become Western International and then Westin Hotels & Resorts) bought it. The hotel switched hands when it reopened as the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel in 1982, following a two-year, $62.5 million restoration and modernization. In 2003, the signage changed again, this time to Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. Two years later, it underwent another refurbishment and restoration, bringing back the original luster of the main lobby and surrounding public spaces. Today, it is known as The Fairmont Olympic Hotel, but for locals who have long thought of it as the living room and social hub of Seattle, it will always be The Olympic.

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