Shaping Seattle architecture: a historical guide to the architects

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Church of the Brethren, Chiarelli and Kirk
Church of the Brethren, Chiarelli and Kirk

The following text is excerpted by the permission of University of Washington Press and Jeffrey Karl Ochsner from the book Shaping Seattle architecture: a historical guide to the architects, by Jeffrey Karl Ochsner, Seattle, Wash. : University of Washington Press in association with AIA Seattle, 1994. (

The slow but steady growth of Seattle in the 1920s was followed by stagnation in the depression years of the 1930s. In 1940, the census indicated that the population had grown by only 2,719 people over the previous decade. The Depression brought building construction to a virtual halt. Investment in building construction in Seattle had remained fairly steady through the 1920s, with the total value of permits (including both residential and nonresidential construction) peaking at nearly 35 million in 1928. Investment declined slightly in 1929 and 1930, but collapsed to just less than $2 million in 1933 at the depth of the Depression. Building activity remained slow until the last years of the decade when federal funding for new public housing first became available. Only in 1940 did the value of construction, spurred by spending on war-related industry, approach the level of the pre-Depression work.

With very little work, the architectural profession suffered through the early years of the Depression. Many of the older generation of Seattle's practitioners retired, while younger architects survived on the commissions they could obtain, primarily residential work on various scales. Architects such as Edwin Ivey (by then in practice with his associate Elizabeth Ayer), William J. Bain, Sr., and J. Lister Holmes began moving away from strict adherence to historical precedent and dependence on academically correct detail and toward more informal compositional approaches.

New Deal public works programs began to employ Seattle architects in the mid 1930s. For example, Ellsworth Storey was selected to design several projects at Moran State Park on Orcas Island, producing some of his best known works. In 1939 the City of Seattle created the Seattle Housing Authority as the local agency to carry out the new Deal's federally funded public housing programs. The first Seattle housing complex, Yesler Terrace was approved in 1939, and the 690 unit project was completed in the following years by a team of architects and landscape architects. This project was a precursor to the many housing projects and related facilities designed and erected over the next several years to meet the demand generated by the many new residents who came to military bases and war related manufacturing plants in the Puget Sound region. Indeed, between 1941 and 1945, Seattle's population swelled from 360,000 to 480,000.

During the Second World War, architects often formed temporary partnerships and joint ventures to carry out massive projects on the short wartime schedules demanded by government agencies. Although most of these arrangements lasted no more than two or three years, the Naramore, Bain, Brady & Johanson partnership, formed in 1943, emerged intact at the end of the war and went on the become on the city's largest and most influential architectural firms.

Not all Seattle architects benefited from the boom of war-related construction. The Japanese American architect K.A. Arai, a graduate of the University of Washington and Harvard University, had struggled as the first Asian American to establish an independent architectural practice in the city. But in 1942, as a result of wartime hysteria, he was among those subjected to forced relocation. Though he returned to Seattle in 1947, his career never recovered.

Three significant postwar developments had their roots in the prewar period: the ascendancy of Modernism in Northwest architecture, the influence of graduates from the University of Washington in the local architectural profession, and the transformation of Seattle's urban form in response to the automobile.

Architect Paul Thiry is widely recognized as the individual who first brought International Style architecture to the Puget Sound region. A 1928 graduate of the University of Washington, Thiry applied traditional styles to his early work, but after travel in Europe, Asia, and Central America, and after meeting Antonin Raymond and Le Corbusier in the the early 1930s, Thiry returned to Seattle and, in 1935, designed his own house in the style of the European Modernists. Thereafter he became the leader in the development of Modern architecture in Seattle; and by the late 1930s, others, including, John R. Sproule and J. Lister Holmes, were designing Modernist structures as well.

Thiry was only the first of many University of Washington graduates to achieve the professional distinction beginning in the 1930s. The program at the university had benefited from the addition to the faculty of Lancelot Gowen in 1924 and Lionel H. Pries in 1928. Pries is remembered as the preeminent architectural faculty member in those years. Later to be recalled as a legendary teacher whose influence and example shaped and inspired a majority of the leading Seattle architects of the postwar period.

Urban Transformations

Nordstrom's Shoe Store interior, Klontz and Wrede

Seattle residents acquired automobiles in significant numbers in the 1920s, producing the first substantial evidence of suburban development and strip commercial construction, but the full impact of the automobile was delayed first by the Depression and then by World War II. But as early as 1908 the nationally based "good roads" movement had lobbied for a state highway system in Washington. By the 1930s their effort had led to the construction of a statewide network of roads. Combined federal, state, and local funding made possible the construction of the first floating bridge extending east from Seattle across lake Washington to Mercer Island and small communities such as Bellevue on the east side of the lake, and fostered their postwar developments as "bedroom suburbs".

At the same time, 1939 also saw the development of Seattle's cable car and streetcar system. In 1919 the city had paid an inflated price to acquire the privately owned urban rail network. Over the next two decades the system was continuously embroiled in financial difficulties which limited maintainance and improvements. Increasing automobile ownership drew many patrons away and resulted in traffic congestion. In 1939 the city converted the system to electric buses (tractless trolleys) and gasoline buses in outlying areas. Thereafter nothing would impede the growth of automobile-generated suburban sprawl in Seattle and the surrounding area.

Industrial development during World War II transformed the economy of the region. Investment during the Depression and war years provided the infrastructure to support continued development of the region's industrial base. Boeing, a relatively small company in the 1920s and 1930s, emerged from the war an aerospace giant and a dominant force in Seattle's economy. Its use of sophisticated technology and production methods called for a better educated work force, emphasizing technical and managerial skills, and these attitudes percolated throughout the region's culture, including the architectural community.

In the late 1940s and 1950s suburban development in the last undeveloped areas within the city limits and across Puget Sound region was the primary focus of new construction. Population growth resumed, reflecting the impact of the "baby boom," and the city's numbers increased to 467,591 in 1950 and 557,087 in 1960. For the first time, substantial increases were recorded in the metropolitan area outside the city limits, so that King County population increased from 504,980 in 1940 to 935,014 in 1960.

Depression and war had created a pentup demand for new housing. The postwar ideal, the single family house on a large suburban lot, was supported by the new highway and road networks, the availability of low-interest mortgages, and the application of mass-production techniques to housing developments. The "ranch house" became the preferred builder type in Seattle. It was publicized in regional periodicals such as Sunset magazine and a new group of plan and pattern books that offered design variations and promoted a corresponding suburbanized lifestyle. Suburban tracts in outlying areas of Seattle such as View Ridge and Olympic Manor and new suburbs like Lynnwood and Lake Forest park were made up of these long one-story houses with shallow roofs and large "picture" windows.

Modernism and Regionalism

Southgate Elementary School gym
Southgate Elementary School gymnasium, Burkhard

Suburban projects were also the dominant focus of most of the region's architects after the war. Of the leading designers who emerged during this period a majority were graduates of the University of Washington, including Paul Hayden Kirk, Roland Terry, Benjamin F. McAdoo, Jr., Victor Steinbrueck, John Sproule, Robert Dietz, Fred Bassetti, and Wendell Lovett. Many of them initiated their careers with suburban residential projects and other suburban building types such as churches, libraries, schools and clinics. The same was true of new arrivals Ibsen Nelsen, A.O. Bumgardner, Omer Mithun, and others. Paul Kirk, possibly influenced by the work of Portland architect Pietro Belluschi, was a particular leader in developing a clear, structurally reveling design language that appeared to draw in almost equal measure from the work of Mies van der Rohe and from the traditional architecture of Japan. He was able to apply this approach not only to residences but also to a series of institutional and medical buildings. Paul Thiry was a leader in transforming International Style modernism to fit the Northwest context in the immediate postwar years. Similar transformations took place in the works of virtually all Seattle architects, as a regional variant of Modernism, sometimes called Northwest Contemporary, gradually developed in Seattle and Portland.

By the early 1950s, awareness of the coherent character of Northwest architecture was inspiring discussion of "regionalism" as a valid concern for local architects. Regionalism had been a topic in the national periodical Pencil Points (now Progressive Architecture) in the late 1930s and early 1940s in connection with work in California and Texas, but a developed discussion of such an approach to northwest architecture did not appear until after the war. In this, the Northwest was not unique; regionalism as a valid direction within Modern architecture only began to be discussed in articles in the architectural press - by Walter Gropius, Sigfried Giedion, and Pietro Belluschi - in 1954 and 1955. The architecture in Seattle and the Northwest had already received widespread attention in 1953 when the national meeting of the American Institute of Architects was held in Seattle and Architectural Record devoted its April 1953 issue to the region's architectural production. The same issue featured short pro and con essays by Seattle architects on the question, "Have We an Indigenous Northwest Architecture?"

The developing sense that there was a coherence to much of the city's architectural production, evidenced in these discussions, appears to reflect a growing consciousness of Seattle as a unique place that could offer its own contribution to an American architecture. This sense was also fostered by the publication for the 1953 AIA meeting of Victor Steinbrueck's Guide to Seattle Architecture, 1850-1953, the first attempt to present a history of the city's architectural heritage.

But regionalism was not a dominant consideration in all of the city's architectural production. As residential suburbs spread, suburban retailing followed. A decisive step was made in 1947 by Seattle architect John Graham, Jr. who had taken over the firm founded by his father, when he created the design for Northgate, the nation's first built large scale regional shopping center with an internally focused organization. Northgate's success made it a model for many similar shopping centers across the United States over the next several decades designed by the Graham firm, which grew to become one of Seattle's largest corporate architectural practices -- and its successor continues to practice in the 1990s.

Compared with suburban development relatively few new buildings were erected in downtown Seattle in the immediate postwar period, and those that were built responded more to national trends than regional influences. Seattle city government commissioned the earliest Modern buildings downtown: the Public Safety Building (completed in 1951), the new Seattle Public Library (1956-59), and the Municipal Building (1959-61). The influence of Mies van der Rohe was evident in several of the new downtown office towers. The first Seattle office tower with an advanced aluminum and glass curtainwall, the 16 story Norton Building, was completed in 1959. Designed by Myron Goldsmith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's San Francisco office (with Bindon & Wright of Seattle), the building reflected the direct influence of Mies in its crisp rectilinear form set on a horizontal plaza atop a plinth. In 1969, the Seattle First National Bank headquarters (now the 1001 Fourth Avenue Plaza), by Naramore, Bain, Brady & Johanson, a four-square office tower also influenced by the Miesian tradition, had finally topped the Smith Tower, which had reigned as the tallest building in Seattle since 1914. Mie's own KING Broadcasting Company Building (1967), intended for a site outside downtown (on Portage Bay) was never built. That downtown buildings in the 1960s and 1970s reflected national design tendencies suggests that regionalism was less applicable of office buildings in the city's central business district. Perhaps the closest approach to regional expression in a downtown building was found in the crafted wood interiors of the Federal Office Building by Fred Bassetti & Company (with John Graham & Company and Richard Haag) completed 1971.

Century 21, the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, was proposed in 1955 as a way of celebrating the city's growth and attracting national attention to its achievements. Planned under the direction of Paul Thiry, who was appointed principal architect in 1957, the fair opened in 1962 and drew 9.5 million visitors. The planning and the buildings reflected the continuing powerful influence of Modernism. The fairgrounds, about one mile north of the downtown business district, occupied parts of approximately thirty city blocks, which were combined to form a unified pedestrian district. A monorail was built to link the fair to the downtown commercial center and was envisioned by some as the harbinger of a regional mass transit system. Thiry's Coliseum exhibited his interest in innovative applications of concrete technology. Minoru Yamasaki, a University of Washington graduate whose Detroit based practice had achieved national stature, was responsible for the design of the U.S. Science Pavilion (with Naramore, Bain, Brady & Johanson) and its attenuated linear detailing paralleled tendencies in his other work. The most famous structure at the fair, one that became the symbol of Seattle, was the Space Needle. The project combined the talents of John Graham, Jr., who conceived the idea, and Victor Steinbrueck, who was a key participant in its formal development. The Space Needle was featured several times on the cover of Time magazine in 1962, and seemed to embody that era's faith in technology and progress. For Seattle residents, Century 21 took on significance as the symbol of the city's "coming of age". After the fair closed, the grounds were redesigned as an urban park and cultural center by Richard Haag who had emerged as one of the region's leading landscape architects after arriving from San Francisco in 1958. Reopened in 1964, Seattle Center (as it has been renamed) is the site of the city's opera house, an outdoor stadium, and an indoor sports arena, along with other facilities.

UW Health Sciences Building bas relief
UW Health Sciences Building bas relief

The postwar period also saw significant growth at the University of Washington. The passage of the G.I. Bill and growing demand for access to higher education led to a rapid expansion of enrollment and a building boom on campus. In 1948 the campus first expanded beyond its historical boundaries with the creation of the West Campus parkway, a link first envisioned in 1923 by Bebb & Gould. New construction in the historical core of the campus proceeded rapidly, initially in the Collegiate Gothic mode of the older buildings, but after 1950 buildings became increasingly Modern. While the entire university expanded, the growth of the medical school was particularly astonishing as the University began its climb toward pre-eminence in biomedical research. In 1957 the regents created an architectural design commission to guide campus growth, a group that continues to function. In the early 1970s the central quadrangle, initially proposed by Bebb & Gould plan of 1915, was finally completed (and became known hereafter as Red Square). Since then most of the university's growth has been at its periphery, particularly in the newer areas of the west and southwest campus.

The growing demand for architectural services in the postwar period prompted rapid expansion of the University of Washington architectural program after 1945. New faculty who joined the program, including John Sproule, Robert Dietz, Victor Steinbrueck, Omer Mithun, Daniel Streissguth, Keith Kolb, Wendell Lovett, Norman Johnston, Gordon Varey, and others, as well as visiting and part-time faculty such as Fred Bassetti and Ibsen Nelsen, were firmly committed to Modernism. In 1958 the School of Architecture became the College of Architecture and Urban Planning with long time faculty member Arthur Hermann as the first dean. The Department of Urban Planning (later renamed Urban Design and Planning) was formed in 1962 under the chairmanship of Myer Wolfe. In 1964 the Department of Landscape Architecture was formed, chaired by Richard Haag. A program in building technology and administration, founded in the early 1960s, became the Department of Building Construction in 1968.