Look up, on the ceiling of a classroom in the new Hugo House, and you’ll see a little piece of the poet Richard Hugo. In the ceiling is a cutout like a skylight, but with words providing the illumination. A quote from Hugo’s essay collection “The Triggering Town,” it reads: “In the world of imagination, all things belong.”
Appropriate words, for a place that celebrates writers and writing. Hugo House opened 20 years ago, in a century-old Capitol Hill building that once held New City Theater (and, before that, a mortuary). Founded by Seattle writers Linda Breneman, Andrea Lewis and Frances McCue, it was intended to be an urban writers retreat; a place where writers — established authors and beginners alike — could gather, attend readings and classes, and find connection with each other.
Now, there’s room for a lot more connection. That quirky old building, whose maintenance costs were soaring, came down in 2016; in its place is a sleek brick edifice, with rental apartments on the upper floors and Hugo House filling the ground floor with 10,000 square feet of space. It’ll open to the public on Saturday, Sept. 22, at 5 p.m., but executive director Tree Swenson gave me a tour of the space earlier this month. Nail guns were firing, saws were buzzing and our paths were made treacherous by webs of electrical cords and large dollops of dust — but an expansive, high-ceilinged haven was clearly taking shape.
Swenson described the creative process of designing the new Hugo House, with architectural firm NBBJ. The brief: “It couldn’t look like an office,” said Swenson. “It needed to be a place for creative people to feel at home.”
The result is a space that’s airy and modern, but full of character. The large lobby has cozy corners and writing nooks built in; you can picture writers poring over their laptops, or quietly conferring over a manuscript. At its center is a nod to Hugo House’s past: the reception desk is made of planks from the floor of the old Hugo House performance space, complete with farewell messages written in black marker. Once the construction detritus is cleared away, the space will be filled with sofas, tables and desks, welcoming writers and their projects.
Down the hallway are the center’s six classrooms (up from four in the previous space) of varying sizes, each named for a place in Richard Hugo’s work. The Skye classroom also features a Hugo quote viewed through a skylight — “Not what YOU have to say, but what the WORDS have to say”; the Point No Point classroom features a window through which a hallway bookcase can be viewed. Each has a large conference table and comfortable chairs. All the furniture, Swenson said, was donated, but looks invitingly new.
A large performance space can be configured in different ways; using the entire room for big events (holding up to about 150 people) or — via movable stages and walls — making an intimate space for smaller-scale readings. And there’s an invitingly landscaped outdoor courtyard in the back, giving light to the office space that holds Hugo House’s staffers (10 full time, plus a number of part-time workers).
Swenson, who’s been at the helm of Hugo House since 2012, walked me through the space in happy disbelief — this project, several years in the making, is finally near completion. She spoke of the contributions by many generous people: building owners Linda Breneman and Ted and Linda Johnson, who made it possible for Hugo House to purchase the space (it’s technically a condo) at a well-below-market rate; the board members and donors who raised millions of dollars for the purchase and renovation; the Frye Museum, which offered a temporary home to Hugo House during construction; the many volunteers who help with Hugo House’s programs. “It feels kind of miraculous to me,” she said. “We are so clearly under a lucky star.”
Hugo himself, who died in Seattle in 1982, will never see the building that his work and life inspired. Born in White Center, he grew up in hardscrabble poverty; as an acclaimed poet, his work often focused on overlooked people and places. “He had a huge heart,” said Swenson, who knew him, “and he wrote with such insight and compassion about people in difficult circumstances and towns dying on the vine.”
It took Hugo many years — during which time he worked at Boeing — to find his voice as a writer; Hugo House, as it settles into its new home, continues to be dedicated to helping writers do just that. “Hugo House is all about opening the door of the literary world,” said Swenson, “to everyone who loves books, and who has a drive to write.”
Hugo House grand opening, 5-8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22; 1634 11th Ave., Seattle; 206-322-7030, hugohouse.org. Free and open to the public; program, hosted by Nancy Guppy, includes readings from local writers (including Maria Semple, Anastacia-Renee, Quenton Baker and Hugo House writers-in-residence Kristen Millares Young and Amber Flame), live literature-inspired music, a Works in Progress open mic and an after-party (8-10 p.m. with disc jockey Gabriel Teodros of KEXP).
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