Sliding Doors

Seattle, in Sickness and in Health

In a building filled with doctors, every elevator ride tells a story.

By James Ross Gardner July 17, 2018 Published in the August 2018 issue of Seattle Met

Downtown Seattle's Medical Dental Building

A story about the building where someone works surely ranks alongside a recap of someone’s dream. Unless you’re in it—and, I don’t know, it’s you who saves the day against the coworkers-turned-cannibals—you really don’t care.

Still, at the risk of drawing a big, breathy sigh, I want to tell you about the building where, every weekday morning, the Seattle Met staff reports for duty. Because where we work is essentially a hospital.

The Medical Dental Building at Fifth and Olive is 18 floors of medicine. Podiatrists and periodontists, neurologists and naturopaths. There’s the occasional florist and talent agency and magazine company (hi!), but it’s mostly docs. A few of those physicians even appear in these pages for our annual list of the region’s best (“Top Doctors 2018”).

Anyway, to step into one of the building’s eight elevators is to witness human drama on a scale usually reserved for, well, a hospital. I’ve seen people swing in on crutches, kids clutching their mom’s leg like it’s the last tree on earth, grown men with their eyes closed the whole ride. These moments represent something big, maybe something tragic, in the lives of Seattleites.

And the building’s carried on this way since opening in 1925. Other than joining the National Register of Historic Places, little about the office tower has changed. It’s rare that a building maintains its original purpose for so long, noted a historic preservationist in The Seattle Times in 2005, speaking of this striking terra cotta–accented, late Gothic revival.

For 93 years Seattleites have repaired to this spot, seeking better health. Tens of thousands of stories, I’m sure. Moments of mortality and triumph over the odds, bad news and good. And, like I witnessed just yesterday, love in the face of what I can only imagine was a diagnosis.

The elevator doors slide open, and they file in. Her, gray hair and mint-colored blouse; him, blue flannel shirt tucked tight into the waist of his Levis and a pronounced limp. The couple, maybe in their late 70s, are silent at first as the elevator descends. “It looked like a cloud,” she finally says, solemn, speaking perhaps of some image they’d just been shown. A few more seconds pass as the elevator hums. “Yes,” he replies, “a cloud.” Then she takes his hand, and it’s quiet all the way down.

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