The first Unitarian church in Seattle was founded in 1885 and met in a downtown location. The migration of the church to the University District and then to the Wedgwood neighborhood, parallels the historical lines of growth of northeast Seattle.
Northeast Seattle acquired population more slowly than other areas of the city, beginning with a few scattered homesteaders claims in the 1870’s and 1880’s. The enumeration district of the federal census of 1880 was called Lake Washington, and included the entire north-of-Lake Union area from Phinney Ridge all the way over to Lake Washington. The white settlers of northeast Seattle in those early years did not establish any centers of population, so only “Lake Washington district” was used as an identifying name. By 1890 two “villages” had been established and had post offices: the sawmill Town of Yesler (present site of Laurelhurst) and Pontiac, site of a brick factory, at Sand Point around NE 70th Street.
In 1895 the University of Washington moved from downtown to its present location. Despite the move, the university remained small and struggling until it got a big boost from being chosen as the site of a world’s fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (the AYPE). In preparation for the AYPE which opened in 1909, a plan was laid out for the UW campus and more buildings were built. Intense infrastructure improvements of the entire surrounding area were undertaken so that both tourists and locals could easily travel to and from the fairgrounds. University District streets were paved, electricity put in and trolley lines extended from downtown Seattle out to the AYPE on the UW campus.
As soon as the UW was chosen as the site of the AYPE, northeast Seattle really began to develop for the first time. A land rush took place radiating out from the University District as real estate developers began building houses in nearby areas such as Ravenna and Laurelhurst. Land plats with AYPE-related names were filed, such as Exposition Heights (east of today’s Union Bay Place.) There was even a tract of land named Wilson’s Exposition Heights all the way out at NE 105th Street on 35th Ave NE – a bit far to be AYPE-related, but the landowner must have thought the name would attract buyers. In 1910, after the Exposition, there were enough people living in Ravenna and Laurelhurst to bring those areas into the boundaries of the City of Seattle. But to the northeast of NE 65th Street, the population was still so sparse that it wasn’t until 1943 that more northeast Seattle areas started to become part of the city.
At the time of the AYPE in 1909, members of the downtown Seattle First Unitarian Church had already begun migrating to the University District. The Unitarian church creed was unique among churches in that it did not specify a belief system, but advocated the pursuit of truth. Unitarian church members tended to be well-educated, intellectual, politically liberal and in the forefront of social movements, and it was only natural for them to gravitate towards the social atmosphere of a university. In November 1912 an organizing group in the University District met to discuss establishing a Unitarian program, because they were not satisfied to attend any of the more traditional churches. This organizing group which contained women as some of the leaders was well aware of the difficulties of travelling by streetcar with all of their children to the downtown Unitarian church. The women wanted to have their own Sunday school program for their children, somewhere close by in the University District. By December 1912 a Sunday school had been set up using space at the University District Masonic Temple.
With great rapidity of organization, in January 1913 the University Unitarian Church (UUC) was established and began holding Sunday morning church services. The group received enthusiastic support from the Unitarian Church central office in Boston. The central headquarters helped in arranging to call a minister, and sent continual financial support to UUC, from $800 to $1200 every year. The first Board of Trustees of UUC was comprised of three men and two women, expressing the Unitarian church social practice of equality. The concept of “fair gender ratios” is still practiced today in UUC leadership.
While never very large (average Sunday attendance was forty people) the UUC program developed strongly in the period of 1913 to 1915. The Unitarian home office purchased a site, and UUC began fundraising to build its own church. The site was on NE 47th Street at the southwest corner of 16th Ave NE, just one street over from 17th which was the main boulevard of “Greek Row” fraternities. UUC chose a well-known Seattle architect, Ellsworth Storey. Storey designed a brick chapel for UUC in restrained “collegiate Gothic” style in harmony with the UW campus and other buildings in the District (including fraternities and other churches.) The building’s total cost was $5,464 of which the Unitarian home office in Boston contributed $2,500. With the incredible rapidity which characterized UUC’s start-up years, the group moved into the new building in January 1916. UUC had begun with an organizing core of seven families and in only three years’ time had joined the community of established churches with their own building.
The path of UUC was not completely smooth, however, even though they had their own building. In 1917 a small roofed-gate structure, called a lychgate, was added to the church property. A lychgate is part of a typical English churchyard and marks a walkway or courtyard leading up to the church entrance. UUC’s lychgate was designed by architect Ellsworth Storey with the cost underwritten by UUC members. The lychgate was placed at the sidewalk to frame the entrance to the chapel at the corner of 16th Ave NE. But unexpectedly some neighbors of the church objected to the structure as violating zoning regulations, and the issue was taken to court. Eventually the dispute travelled all the way to the Washington Supreme Court, and UUC prevailed. The lychgate at UUC came to symbolize the Unitarian’s right to exist as “out of the mainstream” but upholding principles of integrity and spiritual search. Even today, the church newsletter is called The Gateway in reference to the struggle of those early years.
UUC suffered from the pressures of growth and development in the University District, which sometimes brought conflicts with neighboring property owners as in the lychgate dispute, and sometimes with other churches. In the period of the 1940’s and 1950’s following the end of World War Two, almost all churches thrived with an infusion of young families with children. UUC shared their block with the University Presbyterian Church, and as the attendance at each church swelled, there was competition for space. University Presbyterian was one of the most successful churches in the District, and it grew to take up most of the block. The sound of their powerful pipe organ disturbed the Sunday services at UUC.
Other pressures included the post-war change in transportation, when a majority of families began driving to church in cars instead of coming on foot or by bus/trolley. UUC families, like others, were migrating out farther to the northeast into single-family neighborhoods like Wedgwood. People who drove into the University District to attend Sunday services had a hard time finding a place to park near UUC. UUC did not have its own parking lot, as the idea of driving to church in a car had not even been thought of when the UUC built its building in the University District in 1915.
Because of increased attendance and the pressures of lack of space and parking, UUC began to study the idea of moving. The study committee determined that UUC’s chapel in the University District could not be enlarged without destroying the character of the building. It was found that rebuilding on site would not be adequate and would be more expensive than simply “starting over.” For these reasons, in 1955 UUC purchased property at its present site, NE 68th Street on 35th Avenue NE, diagonally across the intersection from the Northeast Branch Library which had been built in 1954. UUC’s last Sunday service in the University District was on March 1, 1959, and they met at their new NE 68th Street building the next week. The UUC’s University District chapel was sold to the neighboring University Presbyterian Church. The chapel is “landmarked” under Seattle’s historic preservation ordinance and will be preserved.
While not yet historically landmarked, UUC’s present building on NE 68th Street earned awards for architect Paul Hayden Kirk in 1959. UUC’s building is considered to be one of the best expressions of the Pacific Northwest Modernism architectural movement. The soaring façade along 35th Ave NE uses “rectilinear geometry” to draw the eye upward, suggesting man’s quest for spiritual knowledge. The long expanses of vertical glass windows between the beams bring light into the interior and create a sense of indoor/outdoor continuity. Awareness of the environment and a building’s relationship to its site is one of the principles of Northwest Modernism which Paul Hayden Kirk expressed in the design of UUC. From an engineering standpoint the UUC building is a success, as well, because the exterior beams distribute the support of the building.
UUC has the unusual distinction of having fostered two different Jewish congregations which later settled into other, permanent locations in Wedgwood. Temple Beth Am had begun using space at the old University District site before the move, and the group moved to Wedgwood along with UUC. They continued meeting at UUC on NE 68th Street until their own building, located near Dahl Field, was completed in 1965.
To the north of UUC across NE 68th Street there was a building which had a very short life of only eight years as View Ridge Brethren Church. In 1963 the building was purchased by UUC and remodeled into classrooms with a social hall. Since the building had become general-use and had no Christian religious symbols, it was suitable for use by another Jewish congregation which was starting up. Congregation Beth Shalom purchased the building in 1973 and has undertaken more than one remodeling since then. The building is the only one in Wedgwood which has been so completely transformed from its original use, from Christian to Jewish expression.
Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition: Washington’s First World’s Fair. Alan J. Stein, Paula Becker and the HistoryLink Staff, 2009.
HistoryLink Essays: #505: Yesler Post Office (1890.)
#2217: Pontiac Brick & Tile Company (1889.)
#3280: Pontiac Post Office (1890.)
#3345: Seattle Neighborhoods: Laurelhurst Thumbnail History.
Reflective Light: the 75-year Story of the University Unitarian Church of Seattle, 1913 to 1988. Alma L. Howard, 1988, UUC church library.
University Unitarian Church : in revising its webpage in 2013, UUC has unfortunately taken down the pages of info about its history and architecture. Some descriptions of the church building are available on the webpage of Docomomo-wewa in the essay “Modernism 101” and in the biography of Paul Hayden Kirk.