EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an edited excerpt from the upcoming book “Paul Hayden Kirk and the Rise of Northwest Modern,” by Dale Kutzera (Salmon Bay Books, $60, winter 2020/2021). Preorder at PaulHaydenKirk.com.
WHEN YOU THINK of midcentury architects, you might picture Frank Lloyd Wright’s wry smile or Mies van der Rohe’s impassive glare. Le Corbusier had his round glasses, later adopted by Philip Johnson. There was the hawkish scowl of Richard Neutra, and the “Mad Men” cool of Pierre Koenig and Craig Ellwood. In the Pacific Northwest, homeowners had their pick of modern architects, from Paul Thiry’s sleek precision to Paul Hayden Kirk’s Asian-infused design.
Architecture has long been a male-dominated field. From the 1920s to the ’70s, coeds looking for the architecture school often were given directions to the interior design department. Those who persisted found discouraging professors, indifferent employers and skeptical clients. But midcentury architecture in the Pacific Northwest owes a debt to the women who, while not wielding a T-square and triangle, promoted modern design through their work — some with cameras, typewriters or watercolor brushes — and a vision of the future.
EARLY AMONG THESE women was Hope Foote, professor in the Interior Design Department in the University of Washington’s School of Art. Foote was born in Iowa, studied at Columbia and the Pratt Institute, and established the UW’s program in 1925.
Like architects of the era, interior designers were educated in the historical manner of the Beaux Arts style. In far-off Seattle, clients wanted their homes to resemble the established styles of the East Coast and Europe. Rooms stuffed with ornate furniture displayed the owners’ wealth and sophistication.
Foote took a broom to such fussiness, banishing moldings and carvings, overstuffed furniture, and in-your-face fabrics and wallpapers. She promoted open planning, with spare furnishings in neutral colors (think beige). Among her students was Roland Terry, who would go on to a storied career as an architect and interior designer.
“Her interiors were very calm and quiet and relaxed and not in the least jazzy,” Terry told Fred Albert in a 1987 interview titled “Hope and Vision” for The Seattle Times. “We all lead such hectic, wild lives … when you come home, it was important that one had a very calm atmosphere to relax in. Instead of getting into wild colors on walls and furniture, she felt the whole thing should tie together in a very subtle, quiet way.”
Livable design and nature calmly but powerfully connected in Foote’s own Windermere home, which she designed in 1951. (In researching Foote and her work before leading a respectful recent remodel of the classic Northwest contemporary, Seattle architect Paul Moon discovered a 1966 article in The Christian Science Monitor in which Foote said, “Since this is the only house I ever plan to build, I wanted it to have stand-up quality, to be timeless.”)
Foote was an early advocate of Danish Modern furniture and advised her students to buy one quality piece of furniture each year to develop a good collection over time. She must have had a great collection by the time she retired in 1967, after more than 40 years at the university.
THROUGH THE 1930s, Foote’s students could attend exhibitions of modern design at the Henry Art Gallery, thanks to the interests and efforts of another modern woman. Halley Savery was a UW graduate and had worked in administrative capacities at the University of California and the Western Association of Art Museum Directors before joining the Henry in 1927.
The gallery was founded by Seattle businessman Horace Henry, originally as a wing of his Capitol Hill home. He later funded the construction of Washington’s first art museum, set on a prominent site on the UW campus. As designed by Carl Gould, the collegiate building was as traditional as Henry’s art collection, but curator Savery had a much broader definition of art in mind. With input from the heads of the art and architecture programs, she selected traveling shows that would expose UW students to the latest advances in art and design.
Architecture exhibits were a rarity at traditional museums, but the new Museum of Modern Art in New York made design a core part of its collecting and exhibition program. Historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock and MoMA curator Philip Johnson teamed up for the museum’s most-celebrated architectural exhibition in 1932. This exploration of what the pair dubbed “International Style” introduced the radical work of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius to American audiences.
To bring in added revenue, the exhibition and those that followed were offered to museums around the country. Fortunately for Seattle, Savery was a repeat customer. She corresponded with Alfred Barr; Johnson; and Elodie Courter, director of circulating exhibitions at MoMA, to book shows and arrange them into the Henry’s busy exhibition schedule.
Through the Depression and the war, with the university budget growing tighter, the Henry relied on such traveling exhibitions. As Savery wrote to Courter in October 1944: “I realize that we are in a minority position in our dependence on assembled shows, but there must be other university galleries who are also the victims of administrative financial neglect while at the same time wanting to give their students stimulating materials during the college year. This your shows have enabled us to do … Scarcely a month goes by without some visitor telling me how much he or she enjoyed such and such an exhibition, naming one of the shows secured from your museum. This is an enduring contribution in widening the horizon of public taste and engendering greater tolerance for all art expression.”
Savery brought the International Style exhibition to Seattle in 1934, the work of Le Corbusier in 1936, a survey of modern architecture in England in 1937, and shows on Alvar Aalto and the Bauhaus in 1940. She also presented architecture shows arranged by the Western Association of Art Museum Directors. In many instances, the size of these shows was reduced from their original presentation. The prohibitive cost of shipping and insuring architectural models meant that some shows were comprised of just drawings and enlarged photographs. But these images were more than enough to plant the seeds of Modernism in many art and architecture students, despite the university’s traditional Beaux Arts curriculum.
PHOTOGRAPHS PLAYED A key role in the spread of Modern architecture around the globe. Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, published in Europe in the teens, influenced a younger generation of architects whose work traveled back across the Atlantic in the pages of “Progressive Architecture,” “Architectural Review” and “Architectural Forum.” As Modernism took root in America, a growing number of photographers specialized in architectural photography — most famously, Julius Shulman and Ezra Stoller in Southern California. Photography, like architecture, is a regional enterprise, and in the Pacific Northwest, Phyllis Dearborn became the go-to photographer of Modern design.
Dearborn graduated from the UW in 1937 and later studied at the Clarence H. White School of Photography, and with Ansel Adams at MoMA in New York. The curriculum resembled that of the Beaux Arts School: Problems were assigned, such as the depiction of an emotion or sentiment, and students were tasked with finding a photographic solution. This was a practical education, designed for commercial and fine-art photographers.
Dearborn’s style was heavily influenced by Group f/64 of the Bay Area, whose members included Adams, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston. The group advocated for deliberate compositions, sharp focus and a wide depth of field achieved with a high f-stop.
Dearborn married architect Robert Massar, and the couple was known professionally as Dearborn-Massar. They divided their time between Seattle and New York, where Dearborn was involved with the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a writer and curator. Her work appeared in the pages of the major magazines of the time, from “Sunset” to “Progressive Architecture.” By the time Dearborn moved permanently to New York, Seattle-area architects could rely on Charles Pearson, Art Hupy, Hugh Stratford and others to document and publicize their latest creations, but none of them quite replaced Dearborn-Massar.
DEARBORN’S PHOTOS OFTEN appeared in the pages of The Seattle Times to support articles by Margery Phillips, perhaps the most significant proponent of Modern architecture in the region. In the postwar housing boom, The Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer covered the latest design trends, sponsored home tours and publicized exhibits in Frederick & Nelson’s design gallery.
Phillips profiled a new home each week, complete with perspective drawings and floor plans. She was born in Seattle, attended Broadway High School and studied under Foote at the UW. After graduating in 1938, Phillips won a national interior design competition.
It was as a writer, however, that Phillips would influence architecture in the Pacific Northwest. In college, she served as Fashion Editor of Columns magazine and went on to write for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Home News, and The Times. As Phillips later explained to the UW alumni magazine, “Four years of training from Hope Foote in interior design, and as much architecture as the curriculum would allow, plus criticism from my mother (a former English teacher), gave me the background for the job.”
One of her first articles for The Times, a retrospective on residential architecture in the Pacific Northwest, illustrated how, “We have come a long way in the past 60 years in designing comfortable and livable homes.” A trio of homes illustrated this evolution: a boxy 1888 Victorian, a 1918 Craftsman bungalow and a new one-story ranch house. Phillips praised the efficiency of the ranch design, noting “the brighter living areas that served multiple functions, the absence of musty attics and dark dingy basements, and the use of materials that are easy to care for.”
Most of the homes that Phillips featured in the late 1940s would be considered ranch-style, but even these had modern touches, such as open plans and walls of glass. More daring were the modern, Wright-influenced homes of architect John Ridley. In the first two years of her column, Phillips featured five Ridley homes, more than any other architect.
Her coverage of Modern architecture expanded in the 1950s, as a growing Northwest School of Modernists gave her ample projects to choose from. These were not the waterfront palaces of the region’s wealthy, but modest starter homes affordable to the middle class.
“What does the family of 1955 want in a new home?” Phillips wrote in covering that year’s Parade of Homes. “Grandeur, not in costly building materials, but in the abundance of native beauty that surrounds us. Spaciousness, not in square footage, but in the hundreds of delightful vistas. Luxury, not in elegant backgrounds, but in the opportunity to live indoors and out with conveniences galore permitting more leisure time.”
And this, from April 11, 1948: “Today, Northwest architects and builders are producing homes which are a true expression of contemporary living. There is a freedom in designing that is characteristic … a mingling of the accepted ‘old’ and the spirited ‘new.’ The most acceptable designs use native woods, stone and brick in abundance … they have great windows to catch every lively vista … the pleasant rooms are placed in myriad ways to nestle into natural surroundings. These features and many others are employed by the architect and builders who are developing a true Northwest style of architecture.”
In collaboration with the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Phillips originated the popular “Home of the Month” feature. She also wrote freelance articles for national magazines, spreading the quality and character of Northwest design to a wider world. In consideration of her central role in popularizing modern architecture in the Northwest, Phillips was made an honorary member of AIA Seattle in 1994.
OF COURSE, MANY women advanced Washington architecture as actual architects. In the 19th century, there was Mother Joseph Pariseau, the nun who designed several religious schools and hospitals. In 1921, Elizabeth Ayer became the first woman to graduate from the UW program, going on to design mansions for the region’s elite in partnership with Edwin Ivey. Mary Lund Davis followed Ayer’s path, graduating in 1945 and establishing a notable practice in Tacoma.
Among the more legendary architects the UW produced was Astra Zarina. Born in Riga, Latvia, Zarina immigrated to the United States after World War II and earned her degree in 1953. She went on to work for UW graduate Minoru Yamasaki in Detroit and, in 1960, was the first woman to receive the American Academy in Rome Fellowship in Architecture. She later received a Fulbright scholarship to continue her study of Italian architecture, and established the UW’s Rome Center for architecture students.
Before these achievements, Zarina played a key role in the office of Paul Hayden Kirk, the region’s leading Modern architect. Kirk had contracted polio as a child and lost the use of his right arm. While a skilled draftsman, he labored to create the presentation drawings used to sell skeptical clients on cutting-edge designs. Through the early 1950s, Zarina created these drawings for Kirk, often in ink, but occasionally with watercolor.
Zarina’s eye for detail brought Kirk’s architecture to life, depicting the people, cars, furniture, plants and activities of the proposed residential or commercial design. Such drawings helped clients envision living or working in the proposed building. More importantly, they helped sell clients on what many still considered radical architecture.
Midcentury architects rarely advertised their services. They depended on the magazines and newspapers of the time to show their work in a favorable light. With the help of a handful of talented women, word of Northwest Modernism spread to the architectural capitals of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Some of this architecture has been lost to redevelopment or remodeled beyond recognition, but the work, words, pictures and drawings these women created are a lasting record of this region’s unique brand of Modern design.