Historic Preservation: Northwest Modern Architecture in North Seattle

The Seattle Landmark Ordinance provides that a structure may be eligible for historic preservation if it is at least twenty-five years old.  Commercial buildings and private homes designed in more recent architectural styles, such as Northwest Modern, may come up for consideration before the Landmarks Board in the near future.  The question of what is “historic” is one that will affect preservation efforts in Wedgwood, because what is “historic architecture” will have to be defined as expressing the character of the neighborhoods of north Seattle.

Throughout the city of Seattle commercial buildings, houses and even objects such as street clocks are eligible for nomination as historic structures.  But as might be expected, there is a greater concentration of historic structures in the areas of the city which are older, such as downtown and Capitol Hill.  As time goes on, however, houses and other buildings in north Seattle which were built in the 1940s to 1980s may become eligible and be considered for nomination.  On November 14, 2012, a private home in the Maple Leaf-Northgate area, built in 1948-49, was presented to the Seattle Landmarks Board for consideration.  This leads to questions about the architectural styles and time periods of housing in north Seattle, including Wedgwood, and whether historic preservation of modern-era houses is a possibility.

Standards of historic designation in Seattle

Postcard showing the Smith Tower, Seattle, completed in 1914. Museum of History and Industry Photograph Collection Image Number 2002.48.650.

When we think of historic preservation of buildings we most often think of the oldest structures in Seattle, such as Pioneer Square.  Pioneer Square was largely rebuilt after Seattle’s Great Fire of June 6, 1889, and it represents the rebirth of the city of Seattle and its rise to greatness in the following decades.

The Smith Tower is an example of an old structure in downtown Seattle which has obtained historic designation. Completed in 1914, the Smith Tower was once the tallest building in the western USA.  The building represents the era of an up-and-coming Seattle struggling to compete with other cities for preeminence.

No matter whether a building, object or site is located downtown or in another neighborhood, Seattle’s Historic Designation Standards are that the structure must be associated with significant events, or the life of a person important in the history of the city, a significant architect or that the building is an outstanding architectural work.

Anhalt Apartments (1930), 1600 East John Street, Seattle. Photo taken in 1949. Museum of History and Industry Photograph Collection Image Number 1983.10.16950.

In addition to downtown commercial structures, throughout Seattle there are many schools, houses and apartment buildings which have been designated as historic landmarks.  On October 17, 2012, the nomination of the Anhalt Apartments at 1600 E. John Street, Capitol Hill, was presented to the Seattle Landmarks Board.  The nomination report explained that these “luxury apartments” in Tudor Revival style were built in 1930.

Not only are the Anhalt Apartments constructed with fine craftsmanship and are a delight to the eye, but they are also significant because they represent how Capitol Hill was developed with apartment living and access to travel by streetcars rather than automobiles.  Designer and builder Fred Anhalt contributed to the dense development of the Capitol Hill neighborhood by his use of space for well-planned apartment buildings.

After the presentation of the Anhalt Apartments by architectural historian Susan Boyle at the October 17, 2012, Landmarks Board meeting, a member of the board commented, “This is as close to a slam-dunk as anything we’ve heard.”  The board voted unanimously in support of nomination of the Anhalt Apartments.  The second hearing with the final vote, called designation, was in December 2012 and was also unanimous.

When viewing the classic architecture of some downtown buildings or of Capitol Hill apartments, it is easy to see why the structures themselves and their original owners are part of Seattle history, but making a decision on historic nomination becomes more difficult when a private home is presented.  The house has to be associated with important events in Seattle, a person significant in the life of the city or the house itself must be an outstanding architectural work.  It is even more difficult to understand the significance of a house in Seattle history when the house is not as old as Pioneer Square or the Anhalt Apartments.

Historic architecture in northeast Seattle

The Northeast Branch Library was built in 1954 in Northwest Modern architectural style.

Along 35th Avenue NE in northeast Seattle are several structures designed by outstanding architects in Northwest Modern styles, built in the post-World-War-Two period.  The University Unitarian Church (1959) though not yet landmarked, is often referred to as one of the most significant works of architect Paul Hayden Kirk.  Directly across the intersection is the Northeast Branch Library at 6801 35th Ave NE, built in 1954 and designated as a historic landmark in 2001.  The architect of the Northeast Branch Library was Paul Thiry, referred to as the “father of Northwest Modernism.”  Not as well known, but also an architect of Northwest Modern styles, is Gene Zema who designed the medical-dental clinic building on 35th Ave NE at the southeast corner of NE 70th Street.  (See article on this blog, Northwest Modern Architecture in Wedgwood.)  Each of the three above-mentioned architects also designed private homes in Wedgwood but none of the Wedgwood houses have been nominated for historic preservation.

A house designed by Chiarelli & Kirk

This Wedgwood house by Chiarelli and Kirk is in Northwest Modern Style. It has a flat roof and uses volumetric forms with no exterior decoration. The house is deeply set in a wooded lot with no lawn. Not visible from the street are walls of windows over a private patio which extends family living space into the outdoors.

The house at 8504 43rd Ave NE in Wedgwood was designed in 1948 by architects James J. Chiarelli and Paul Hayden Kirk in Northwest Modern style. Some of its characteristics are that the house “has its back turned” to the street, with few windows at the front.  Even the front door gives the impression of being “unavailable” because the path to the door is indirect. The house is set in a densely-treed lot with walls of windows on the private side of the house to give a sense of indoor-outdoor flowing space.

Integration with the site and preservation of trees is one of the most important principles of Northwest Modern architecture.  The house at 8504 43rd Ave NE is meant to look as though it was set into its site with vegetation to soften the sharp corners and straight lines of the architectural design.  Pacific Northwest native plantings are used along with Japanese maple trees, and there is a rock garden rather than a lawn.

Other characteristics of the Northwest Modern architectural style are slightly sloped roof lines which are cantilevered and look like a person with a hat pulled down low on their brow.  The extended roof lines give protection from rain and a sense of smooth flow without decorative detail.  As an expression of the Pacific Northwest, houses in Northwest Modern styles use exposed wood extensively in exterior and interior wall treatments.

Historic designation of Chiarelli’s personal residence

Geometric forms, flat planes and lines are characteristic of Northwest Modern architecture. The house at 843 NE 100th Street has a sloping roof supported by a post at the front corner, creating an entryway. A brick fireplace wall divides the carport (to the right) from the entry space and the house.

On November 14, 2012, a house in Northwest Modern style came up for consideration at the Seattle Landmarks Board meeting.  Located southeast of the Northgate Mall between 8th Avenue NE and Roosevelt Way in the Maple Leaf neighborhood, the house at 843 NE 100th Street was built in 1948-49 as the personal residence of architect James J. Chiarelli.  The house was presented for historic nomination as representative of the Northwest Modern architectural movement and of key characteristics and elements of Chiarelli’s work, design principles and aesthetics.

In the year 2011 some other Northwest Modern homes which were designed and lived in by modern architects such as Lionel Pries, had been presented to the Landmarks Board.  The list of the houses as well as commercial buildings which have been successfully landmarked, is on the Department of Neighborhood’s Historic Preservation List.

A characteristic of a Northwest Modern house is a secluded patio and landscaping in Japanese style. The L-shaped house at 843 NE 100th Street has a master suite on the right, overlooking the backyard rock garden.

The nomination effort for the Chiarelli house at 843 NE 100th Street was significant for the potential nomination of other post-war housing in north Seattle neighborhoods such as Wedgwood.  Wedgwood has houses in Northwest Modern style by several noted architects, including Paul Hayden Kirk, James J. Chiarelli, and Gene Zema.  It remains to be seen whether Northwest Modern architecture will take its place as worthy of preservation alongside classic architecture of Seattle’s earlier eras.

At the November 14, 2012 Landmarks Board meeting the nomination of the Chiarelli House was presented by Mimi Sheridan, architectural historian, on behalf of Annie Doyon, MHP of Spokane, who prepared the nomination but who could not attend.   Representatives of the Dore family who were the second family to own the house, were present.

The Landmarks Board unanimously voted that the Chiarelli-Dore House embodies the distinctive visible characteristics of Northwest Modern style (Criteria D) and is an outstanding work of Chiarelli’s architectural legacy (Criteria E of the historic designation standards.)  The second hearing and final vote, called designation, was held on December 19, 2012, with the Landmarks Board unanimously affirming that the house met Criteria D and E.  Present were several members of the Dore family and Craig McNary, the new owner as of November 2012.

Here is an April 2015 update on the interior renovations done by the owner of the house at 843 NE 100th Street.

Resources:

The Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Historic Preservation Program has information on landmarking and current nomination reports.

An organization called Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement, Western Washington, (Docomomo WEWA) has definitions and descriptions of Northwest Modernism, and biographies of architects.

About Wedgwood in Seattle History

Valarie is a volunteer history writer for the Wedgwood neighborhood in Seattle, Washington.
This entry was posted in Architecture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Historic Preservation: Northwest Modern Architecture in North Seattle

  1. bluebrightly says:

    Very interesting – as a recent transplant from the east coast I have certainly noticed the difference in architectural styles. What you say here helps me make sense of what I’ve seen – so thanks! and thanks for visiting my blog as well.

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