THE CREATORS: Over her 50-plus-year career, Van Horne always designed exactly how she lives: simply, collaboratively and inspiringly.
AS A STEADFAST champion of straightforward simplicity — in architecture, and in life — Audrey Van Horne undoubtedly would appreciate it if we would just hurry up and get to the point already. Facts are facts. Complexity only clouds them.
One point taken, and another unpretentiously submitted: Audrey Van Horne is a superstar.
Over her beyond-impressive, beyond-50-year career, Van Horne metaphorically macheted substantial, lasting paths: as an architectural pioneer and mentor, as a business owner, as a civic leader, as a mother of five — all at the same time.
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These days, at 94, Van Horne still nestles a sharpened pencil behind one ear, just in case, and still embodies the robust “Why wouldn’t I do all that?” outlook she might actually have been born with. Now retired from architecture (but little else), she no longer sketches designs for clients, but she consistently, widely inspires as a “How does anyone do all that?” powerhouse of activism, community-building and collaboration.
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“I had the opportunity to meet and work with Audrey while she was advocating and fundraising for affordable housing,” says Seattle architect Curtis McGuire, a longtime Van Horne admirer bordering on “groupie.” “Affordable housing, social-justice issues, Modernism: Audrey was, and continues to be, on the front end of issues that she believes in — issues that are as relevant today as they were when she started her career in architecture.”
THE HAPPY FACT that Van Horne the superstar sparkles in our Northwestern orbit is owed to one poorly considered decision by an adolescent cello player named Dan McKay. He and Audrey dated in high school in New Jersey. One oh-so-fateful evening, after they rode the train into New York City for Dan’s music lesson, he carelessly left his girlfriend in the company of his guy friend, John (last name: Van Horne).
“And he was in my life ever since,” says Dan’s ex-girlfriend.
John and Audrey worked together at a couple architectural firms in New York City, married in 1947 and moved to Seattle in 1948. Once here, John worked with notable modern architects Paul Thiry and Fred Bassetti, then established his own firm in 1951. Five years later, Audrey earned her architecture license and joined John at work, establishing Van Horne & Van Horne Architects.
“When I came here, there were maybe eight women architects, total,” she says. “I’m architect No. 938.”
By the 1980s, architect No. 938 owned a majority of the family business.
Together, always together, the couple built a marvelously wide-ranging portfolio: an award-winning passive solar home; the Hiroshima Exhibit for the Seattle World’s Fair; the expansion of the hippo-viewing area at Woodland Park Zoo; a beach playhouse on the north end of Whidbey Island, where “each piece was on skids, so you could rearrange them,” she says; and the computer-science lab in the University of Washington’s Sieg Hall.
“We did share a lot of ideas. We were each other’s critics — the person who has the design to do makes the final decision,” she says. “John could draw; he was very able. We’d go for a picnic, and while I was setting the plates, he’d say, ‘What do you think of this one?’ ”
Over multiple decades, the Van Hornes designed some of the region’s most striking and enduring examples of midcentury-modern architecture — “which, in the midcentury, was just modern,” Van Horne says. Many are cataloged in a photo book she created after John’s death in 2003 (she printed “enough to go around for the kids”). Van Horne & Van Horne Architects closed in 2008.
“The ones we left a mark with are probably Pottery Northwest and the Volunteer Park Conservatory,” she says. “In 50 years, there were hundreds and hundreds of projects. We managed to keep busy. We went through a lot of kinds of projects: some work for the schools, a lot of work for the Parks Department. Our work was thought through by both of us. The early houses on Hilltop [a planned community near Bellevue] were largely John’s, but we discussed this work as it progressed, and some of the later houses were largely mine, but the design was developed together, critiqued together. Out of it came good houses.”
M. PATRICIA MORSE lives in one of those, built in the 1990s on the west side of San Juan Island. Our straightforward assessment: It outranks “good.”
“Finishing my academic career on the East Coast, I was very fortunate that Audrey oversaw the entire building process,” says Morse, a retired biology professor who taught at Northeastern University and the University of Washington. “Her attention to structural detail has served me well. Every day, I marvel at the multiple views I have, and the house becomes more beautiful as time goes on.”
Van Horne worked with a mutual friend on the island, Ruth Illg, to design for the site’s western exposure and sometimes-crazy weather conditions, Morse says. “The two of them made many wonderful decisions on my home. The plans involved having an engineer make sure the house would last in an earthquake, and walls a bit thicker to reduce the wind noise.”
Recalls Van Horne: “It sits on rock. We had to put rebar into the rock.”
Van Horne was called back into island action later to design an accompanying studio/guesthouse, where Morse does silversmith work.
“I have the most wonderful view, live in an amazing house and noticed my visiting friends — 30 years later and noticeably a bit older — love the fact I have a place they can stay without any stairs,” Morse says.
As tends to happen with folks who spend time with Van Horne, she and Morse became lasting friends.
“Audrey is an amazing person to interact with during these many years of knowing her,” says Morse. “Her interactions with me have greatly enriched my life. She is one amazing and wonderful woman, and my house is very comfortable and wonderful.”
BORN AUDREY JUPP (“J-u-double-P, instead of J-u-pee-pee,” she says, laughing) in April 1924, Van Horne grew up in New Jersey with her father, a naval architect; her mother, an artist; and three siblings. She discovered her passion for architecture as a senior in high school, when an art teacher assigned hands-on projects rather than regular old reading.
“When we studied famous painters, we each had to paint a picture. I did a Van Gogh,” Van Horne says. “We did the same thing with sculpture; we each did a cardboard milk container filled with plaster of Paris and carved it up. For the history of architecture in the United States, we had to design a building. It was fun. I didn’t know much. Mine was in the country in the woods, from concrete blocks: a summer home.”
Van Horne then announced her chosen career to her father.
“Here’s how you know you have a good dad,” she says. “I knew an engineer whose daughter wanted to be a doctor, and he told her, ‘Oh, but you’ll have to be a nurse.’ When I told my dad I wanted to be an architect, he said, ‘You’re so lucky! I build boats, and they have to float. You have the whole Earth to build on.’ ”
Van Horne attended the University of Michigan’s College of Architecture and Design in the early 1940s — there were just two or three female students in a class of 50, she says, and they’d all start drawing shades and shadows at 8 in the morning, as “the daylight was just beginning to behave itself.”
But Ann Arbor was an all-night train ride home to the East Coast, so after two years, she enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where she earned her master’s degree in architecture in 1947. (She also had looked into Yale and MIT, where the interviewer, she says, “was acting like the king of England. He was in a great big, red leather chair — way up there, and I’m way down here. He said it was very hard there for women; they had special places for women to rest and lie down.”)
In Seattle, there was not much downtime at all for a young architect nurturing a career, a bustling business and a growing family. Van Horne also lectured in the University of Washington’s Department of Architecture (and was featured in its 2011 documentary with Studio 216, “Modern Views: A Conversation on Northwest Modern Architecture”), and taught an Introduction to Construction course at Edmonds Community College, where homework was not required, but attendance absolutely was. But, then again: Why wouldn’t she do all that?
“There was no problem, from a family point of view,” she says. “I was only doing what I wanted to do. We had the business; it was what we wanted to do more than anything. I wasn’t in the office regularly until our youngest was in school, and I did all the driving around that mothers do.”
VAN HORNE no longer drives, but she still lives on one level of the Portage Bay-area home she and John designed and built in 1953. With light-luring clerestories; John’s custom-drawn cabinetry; and giant floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking glimmering water, gliding boats and the top reaches of towering, highly prolific fruit trees, it is a brilliant model of the couple’s modern, functional approach.
“It’s a sense of simplicity and resolving issues and making it work, an effort to break down the complexity of former forms of architecture into something very simple; ornamentation is not the idea,” Van Horne says. “It’s very open. It’s taken me years to realize: I have a friend who comes sometimes and says, ‘But you don’t close the shades.’ Somehow that shows what we were designing: simple and full of light. Like the little Volkswagen: Its design had the same sort of freshness as our house — some details, but not gingerbread.”
Before building their family home, the Van Hornes purchased two adjacent lots, “all covered with blackberries 10 feet tall,” she says, and then developed the property with their friend and future next-door neighbor, architect Edward Cushman.
He was Jewish, and Van Horne says there was some concern Cushman could run into problems trying to buy the lot in early-1950s Seattle.
“We just divided the land,” she says. “Ed was a friend. It just happened as part of the story.”
Inside Van Horne’s home, meaningful mementos create an artful gallery of a vibrant life: a bust of Van Horne’s daughter Francine, sculpted by Van Horne’s daughter Jill; a bold, colorful piece of wall art that John Van Horne made of movable, magnetized foam flags; straightforwardly simple standing lamps from their time in New York City; the requisite basket stuffed with rolled-up architectural drawings (“Every architect has one,” she says); scrumptious homemade biscotti (if you’re lucky); and a dedicated, well-used workspace.
Even in her decidedly modern designs, Van Horne always has relied on a couple of traditional techniques.
Number one involves a good No. 2 pencil.
“I’m a drawer. God help me — I’m much better at ‘viewing things’ than ‘reading things,’ ” she says. “Architecture has changed a bunch from using CAD [computer-assisted design]. You can’t think with a computer nearly as well as when you grow up thinking with that pencil.”
Number two takes two: face-to-face communication.
One client, she recalls, “got so they wanted to tell us by email what they wanted; it just plain doesn’t work. You can’t do it without that thing you get from people — that look on their face. The more you can draw and let them see what you’re thinking, that’s what you hope: You can draw sketches so people see the story you’re trying to tell.”
ONE THURSDAY A MONTH, an architect friend swings by Van Horne’s home to shuttle her to meetings of the Volunteer Park Sustainability Coalition, which Van Horne originated as a member of the board of the nonprofit Friends of the Conservatory (she remains an honorary member, and a forever Conservatory friend).
“We develop sustainability practices, mostly saving water,” she says. “Our efforts are changes that will help to save this planet.”
Van Horne also was instrumental in saving the Conservatory itself, a Seattle Landmark, throughout a multiphase, multibuilding restoration beginning in the early 1990s: as consulting architect for the first two phases (the Palm House and West Wing) and, after her retirement, as the mission-driven influence behind completing the third (East Wing).
“It was built in 1912, and in 80 years was not doing very well,” she says. “It was moist inside, and wood rots.”
Initially, Van Horne convened a study group with members of the building industry, and the group suggested replacing the aged wood with aluminum.
“That might be why I got the job: I suggested at the meeting that the right answer was aluminum. We decided to do it in aluminum and made almost every single piece the exact same shape,” she says. “I was excited, and we offered solutions. Sometimes you have to use your head and things you’ve gathered over the years to bring you to the point when you can do things you couldn’t do before.”
Money for the final phase of the restoration had been set aside, but the project was put on the back burner after the recession, says Seattle Parks and Recreation senior gardener David Helgeson, who’s responsible for the day-to-day operation of the Conservatory.
“In the paper, it said the Parks Department was going to shut down the Conservatory,“ Van Horne recalls. “I talked with the [then] head of the Friends of the Conservatory, Anthonio Pettit, and asked if that’s what he wanted. ‘No,’ he said; ‘we don’t want that to happen.’ ”
Van Horne didn’t want that to happen, either. So it didn’t.
“In 2011, Audrey came knocking on my door and said, ‘What’s going on with the restoration? What do we need to do?’ ” says Helgeson. “She jump-started the fundraising campaign, got the project back on the city’s radar and rallied donors. If it hadn’t been for her dogged determination and persistence, we may not have gotten that final push for the third and final phase.
“The fact that she’s still knocking on my door and asking questions — she’s a really amazing civic leader. She’s my hero.”
Architect Adam Young, who worked at Van Horne & Van Horne Architects, finished that final phase of the Conservatory restoration with his own firm, Young Architecture & Design, in 2014, and still works with Van Horne on the Coalition as a consultant.
“Audrey is the force behind the Volunteer Park Sustainability Coalition,” says Young. “I’ve known her since the mid-1990s. She’s still at it, working every day, and a champion for Seattle Parks, and the Volunteer Park Conservatory. She is smart, strong and tough, working for over 50 years in a field that is still male-dominated.”
Van Horne noticed that disparity, of course, but true superstars are not easily eclipsed.
“It was unusual to be an architect doing what I was doing,” she says. “It was mostly guys. People got used to me after a while. Someone once said, ‘Audrey couldn’t handle it,’ and I said, ‘Forget it. I can do this.’ ”