Cubes of Air: The coming of Seattle's condos

Roots of Tomorrow: The glory and drama of Seattle's condo uprising.
Roots of Tomorrow: The glory and drama of Seattle's condo uprising.

Editor's Note: This article is the final installment in Crosscut's "Roots of Tomorrow: Urbanism in our Blood," a 4Culture-supported series on northwest urbanism. Also! Join Crosscut Wednesday, December 4th for a party with Knute Berger, food, drink and a live band to celebrate bike lanes, P-Patches, density and the rest of Seattle urbanism, past and present. Things will get dense. Learn more here.

As the Space Needle snagged the attention of the world and suggested a new, futuristic way of living (see The Jetsons), another phenomenon was taking place in the Needle's shadow, one that would prove far more practical than spinning Sky Pads and flying cars.

It was the condominium, an ancient concept from Rome, circa 6th century BC, wherein the Romans provided for "the joint sovereignty or joint ownership of property." Leap to the Space Age, and the idea found new life in the post-war United States where people were looking for new, affordable living options, and ways to finance them.

The condo idea first took hold in this country in unlikely Salt Lake City, Utah. It was there that a real estate attorney named Keith Romney — a relative of Mitt's — helped launch the first U.S. condo complex. Romney became a kind of condo-evangelist, touting the benefits of condominiums for multi-family housing, vacation properties and just about anything else. He traveled the country, urging state legislatures to pass laws legalizing condos, and acting as a consultant on many projects and developments, including some in Washington state.

The concept offered benefits and challenges. Unlike cooperative apartments, condo buyers could own their units and get a mortgage, with all the attendant tax advantages and FHA financing they offered. They could benefit from rising market values too, which made them a good investment. Creating a functional governance structure, though — one that could handle group ownership and consumer protections for buyers — was more of a challenge.

In early 1962, lawmakers in Olympia began considering legislation to legalize condos here. The "Horizontal Property Regimes Act" finally passed in March of 1963. As one newspaper described it, "Applied to an apartment house, the most frequent example, each tenant would own his own unit — the air space the unit occupies — plus an equal share with other tenants of the roof, walls and land…."

One Seattle newspaper headline announced that people could now buy "Cubes of Air" in Seattle. The question was, would anybody want one?

Seattle developers gradually began to take advantage of the new law. On Lower Queen Anne, where the remaking of the neighborhood for the World's Fair was stimulating construction, a sleek, modern 11-story high-rise with great views of Elliott Bay grew. It was called Mercer West. A newspaper ad that ran during the fair touted its location: “Surrounded by stores, shops, banks, churches and entertainment facilities."

Here was a walkable neighborhood with modern multifamily housing near the center of urban action. If you couldn't afford to live in the Space Needle — and there were those who tried — you could still enjoy modern high-rise living within its view.

In 1964, the Mercer West owners decided to convert the building from a co-op to condos, and the city council passed an ordinance making it the first building to be platted as a condominium in the city of Seattle.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.