IT BEARS A square shape, but to me, Town Hall Seattle always has felt round. This derives from its dome, but also from the sensation of sitting in its Great Hall. Scores of pews angled in a giant half-circle envelop the stage, bringing performer and audience together as one.
Coming to mind are people I’ve enjoyed seeing there, both nationally known (folk legend U. Utah Phillips and a nonsinging Linda Ronstadt) and homegrown (speakers at a memorial for newspaperman Emmett Watson, plus this column’s own Paul Dorpat and Jean Sherrard in their annual “A Rogue’s Christmas” show).
A focus on people bolstered the vision of Town Hall’s founder, David Brewster, when the nonprofit organization opened in 1999. In cultivating investors, the civic and journalistic entrepreneur conceptualized it as a gathering place for citizens to share “music and the music of ideas.”
To house his idea, Brewster chose the three-floor Roman Revival edifice at Eighth and Seneca, the former Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist. Built in two stages, in 1916 and 1922, more than 40 years before Interstate 5 sliced the site away from downtown proper, it offered an auditorium with room for 1,000, befitting a faith that once drew crowds to its message that prayer can triumph over sickness. It also was among several local Christian Science churches yielding to new owners and uses as congregations declined.
Initially, Brewster wanted to rename the building Landmark Hall, but it was not yet an official city landmark (that happened in 2012). Having grown up near New York City and familiar with its Town Hall, he decided to adapt the more down-to-earth moniker for Seattle.
His vision took flight. In the ensuing two decades, Town Hall has drawn more than 1.5 million attendees to nearly 7,000 events featuring artists and scholars, musicians and presidential candidates — as the saying goes, “thinkers and doers.”
To remain viable and withstand earthquakes for decades to come, Town Hall just finished a two-year, $35.5 million interior renovation, improving its underpinnings in ways that are largely and intentionally invisible while also enhancing sound and upgrading ancillary rooms. Matt Aalfs, principal architect, sums up: “We wanted to keep the building’s soul.”
That soul returns to full bloom this September during a 40-event Homecoming Festival. Wier Harman, executive director since 2005, says it exemplifies an ongoing mission to provide low- or no-cost tickets to a kaleidoscope of events dreamed up by hundreds of local producers and organizations. It’s a quest that touches him personally.
“Town Hall truly speaks to the highest aspirations of this community because it inspires creativity, activism and civic engagement,” he says. “The chance to help a place that’s founded on preserving and celebrating those values has been irresistible.”