Often called the "father of Pioneer Square," architect Ralph D. Anderson, who died Oct. 24 at 86, saw the beauty and potential in the neighborhood's decrepit old buildings in the 1960s and began a movement to restore Seattle's historic district.

Share story

Pioneer Square of the early 1960s was a gritty slum known as Skid Road. But Ralph D. Anderson saw the beauty and potential in the neighborhood’s old buildings and began a movement to restore the architecture of Seattle’s historic district.

Often called the “father of Pioneer Square,” Mr. Anderson was a prominent Seattle architect who also helped develop the Northwest Style of architecture, using wood and other natural materials to design houses that complemented the environment instead of dominating it.

A quiet, adventurous man with an artist’s eye, Mr. Anderson was indifferent to the city’s architectural establishment and refused, for instance, to join The American Institute of Architects or other professional associations. But he’s credited with nurturing younger architects who’ve gone on to leave their own fingerprints on the region’s landscape.

“He was a huge influence on a whole generation of architects, the generation behind him,” said architect Jim Olson, who worked for Mr. Anderson early in his career. “His spirit will live on in many, many buildings built by others.”

Mr. Anderson died Oct. 24 at Horizon House, the Capitol Hill retirement community where he lived with his wife, Shirley, a retired physician. In declining health for the past six months, Mr. Anderson recently broke five ribs in a fall; while he was hospitalized, doctors found that the kidney cancer he had battled in his 50s had returned, his family said. He was 86.

The middle of three sons, Mr. Anderson was born and grew up in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood and graduated from Queen Anne High School, said his son Ross Anderson, 52, of Anderson Collier Architects in Ballard.

During World War II, Mr. Anderson enlisted with the Army Air Corps but became ill with fever and spent his time in the service on light duty in Boca Raton, Fla., his son said.

He returned to Seattle and graduated with a degree in architecture from the University of Washington in 1951. He began his career working for Paul Kirk, a preeminent Pacific Northwest architect. Mr. Anderson later partnered with several well-known architects, including Bill Booth and Bob Koch, and collaborated with some of the city’s finest interior designers, such as Allen Salsbury and Jean Jongerward, said Olson, of Olson Kundig Architects in Pioneer Square.

When Mr. Anderson came home one day in the early 1960s and announced he’d mortgaged the house to purchase “a 50-cent-a-night flophouse” at 108 S. Jackson St., “I thought he’d lost his mind,” said his wife, Shirley Anderson.

He later bought and restored the Union Trust Building on South Main Street, and then the Grand Central Hotel with property owner Alan Black and gallery owner Richard White. He rehabilitated several Pioneer Square properties for other people, including the Pioneer Building at First Avenue and Yesler Way, his wife said.

George Suyama, of the Suyama Peterson Deguchi architectural firm in Belltown, remembers working for Mr. Anderson in the 1960s. After Mr. Anderson began his historical-restoration work in Pioneer Square, the neighborhood became something of a bohemian enclave, with artists and gallery owners gathering there amid the street drunks and derelict buildings, he said.

It “was a melting pot of all these great, creative juices,” Suyama said. Mr. Anderson, he said, “was a very nurturing and very giving person” who gave younger architects the same creative freedom and control over their projects that he always demanded for himself.

Shirley Anderson, who was doing her residency at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital when a mutual friend introduced her to her future husband, said Mr. Anderson always supported her in her career. The two wed on May 24, 1957.

“Our marriage was very special,” she said. “I was far from Betty Crocker. He gave me that kind of freedom — we had the freedom with each other to be ourselves.”

Mr. Anderson built several homes for his family in West Seattle and decorated them with his extensive art collection, gathered on his many trips abroad. He and his wife visited every continent except Antarctica.

Though he did most of his work in Seattle and Eastside suburbs, he also designed buildings in Hawaii, Mexico, Canada, Japan and Turkey.

In addition to his wife and son Ross Anderson, Mr. Anderson is survived by his brother, John Anderson, of Ashbury, N.J.; son Kel Anderson, who lives in Bali; and three granddaughters.

At Mr. Anderson’s request, no memorial service will be held. Instead, his family intends to host a party in his honor at a future date. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to The Horizon House Employees Recognition Fund, 900 University St., Seattle, WA 98101.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com