A skyscraper downtown called the Emerald

The Emerald.

Julia Nagele was sketching in the Pantheon when a stranger sat down next to her. Nagele didn’t notice initially; under the Roman marvel's famous concrete dome, the architecture student had lost herself in an assignment for her master’s program at the University of Maryland. But the woman beside her struck up a conversation anyway. They were both Americans, it turned out. They chatted for a little while before going their separate ways. Have a nice life, Nagele recalls thinking.

Two weeks later, Nagele visited Florence with her study abroad group. One morning she woke early to wander the city by her lonesome, stopping in a piazza. In the square, she heard her name being called. It was the woman—Ann—again. “And we’ve been together ever since,” Nagele says nearly 25 years after first meeting her wife.

The Seattle architect describes her marriage’s origin story as serendipitous, the kind of happenstance that cities have a knack for summoning—in the bustle of their parks, their train cars and, Nagele notes, their buildings. As a principal and director of architectural design at Hewitt, she relishes creating spaces for unplanned connections, allowing people and ideas to cross paths.

One of her most recent projects wrapped up at an inopportune time for such intersections. In October builders finished work on the Emerald, a 40-story condo tower rising above Pike Place Market, after more than three years of construction and several more of planning. The high-rise structure will start welcoming residents later this month, or early next, with pandemic-related public health restrictions still in full effect. No common-area confabs, no sparks by the fire pit. It’s not the kind of rollout Nagele could have ever envisioned when she helmed the exterior design of the slender skyscraper, but she’s confident the social distancing roiling condo sales and city life is temporary. “I think this will pass,” she says.

What will remain is a building that symbolizes something more than the city’s growing appeal to well-heeled buyers across the country and world, a shift Nagele has witnessed since arriving in Seattle during the winter of 1997. The architect is now one of a small group of women in the world to lead the exterior design of a tower this tall, joining luminaries like Jeanne Gang in Chicago and Lu Wenyu in Hangzhou, China. Pinpointing just how many women have steered a skyscraper’s shape is futile, given the collaborative nature of design and building work and some historical under-crediting, according to Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat editor in chief Daniel Safarik. But it’s safe to say it’s rare. “There’s very few of us that are doing these kinds of projects,” says Nagele.

Julia Nagele.

By now Nagele’s used to walking into meetings full of men. “That doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be a hostile environment or anything like that,” she says. “But I think there is something that at least I'm mindful of, and that's sort of what leads me to be super-prepared, and have the extra-high expectations for our team to be super prepared.”

At Hewitt, where she started in 2011 and has since worked on a slew of apartment complexes and other city structures, she stresses “rigorously exploring, without bias,” different options for a project. The Emerald at 121 Stewart Street required working on a narrow site where Downtown and Belltown converge and, like many high-rise projects, going between a number of different parties (the developer is Daniels Create World Seattle and Create World Real Estate of Bellevue, while Polaris Pacific is handling the building’s sales and marketing).

Nagele teamed up with Susan Marinello of Susan Marinello Interiors to create indoor and outdoor spaces that both draw from and showcase the building’s natural surrounds. In the rooftop Olympic Room, Nagele advocated for an unadorned glass edge that allows residents to gaze out at Elliott Bay and the contours of distant mountains or downward at Pike Place Market.

The tourists roaming below may look up and see a future home. During a virtual tour, Polaris Pacific sales manager Henry Lee said that buyers from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin, and several East Coast cities have snatched up some of the building’s 262 units. Others in the Puget Sound region have merely sought an upgrade for their current quarantine quarters.

Still, the Emerald isn’t immune to the downtown condo market’s suffering during the pandemic. As of early December, Lee said the building had sold 40 percent of these living spaces, which typically range from one to three bedrooms and sell for between $500,000 and $3 million (its penthouses can command nearly $11 million). The amenities common to many luxury buildings will be limited when residents start unpacking boxes; the third-floor yoga and fitness studio will require reservations, as will a communal room on the top floor. Elevator rides will be capped at four people.

Nagele has moved onto other projects, including another tower in the vicinity of Pike Place Market that’s slated to be even taller than the Emerald. But she’s anxious for the building to fulfill one of the purposes of any multifamily building: to help more people connect. While ancient churches and piazzas may distinguish European cities, in the U.S., skyscrapers, like them or not, denote urban activity. It’s important to Nagele that they honor their broader home. “They are part of the city fabric.”

Nagele drew inspiration for the Emerald from the building's natural surroundings.

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