In Boom Times for Seattle, a "Hall for All" Endures
As the jurors of the 2017 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Awards deliberated, they kept returning to the idea of community. Architecturally significant, impeccably tailored historic buildings are, and always will be, important to save, but the field of preservation is increasingly widening its focus to include places that affect daily life for large numbers of people. In the end, that’s exactly what the jurors chose to highlight. The rehabilitation of a 1908 performance hall in Seattle (story below) is one of three winners that embody this more holistic view of preservation.
When Jocelyn Bauer got married at Washington Hall in the spring of 2016, the building’s rehabilitation was barely complete. But as a project manager for Ron Wright & Associates/Architects, the firm working on the hall, she knew all along that it would be the perfect place for her wedding. “I felt like I had a connection with the building,” she says of the 1908 structure in Seattle’s Central District. “It has such a warm, inviting vibe. You just feel comfortable there.”
Plenty of others have felt the same way. Architect Victor Voorhees designed the eclectic, brick-faced building with Mission Revival elements for its original owners, the Danish Brotherhood in America. It served as a place where new Danish immigrants to the city could reside until they found jobs and permanent housing. Boarding rooms took up the three-story rear section of the 25,000-square-foot building, while the front, two-story portion contained an auditorium with a proscenium stage and a curving upstairs balcony, as well as a lodge space for smaller meetings. The group rented out the public spaces to anyone who wanted to use them, creating a steady income stream to aid its mission of supporting Danish culture in the United States.
As immigrants and other newcomers flocked to Seattle, the hall hosted events from Yiddish theater productions to jazz concerts and Filipino dances. Local jazz historian Paul de Barros says the building played an important role in the evolution of jazz in the city, hosting performers such as Billie Holiday. “Washington Hall is one of the few edifices that’s still standing from that era,” de Barros says. “It definitely was a nexus in the black community for social dances. It’s not a place you want to lose.”
Jimi Hendrix and his first band, The Rocking Kings, played there during the 1960s. The Sons of Haiti, a Haitian-American fraternal organization, bought the hall from the Danish Brotherhood in 1973, and continued to honor its traditional role as a performance space. The avant-garde theater company On the Boards was based at Washington Hall in the following decades, and punk bands and hip-hop groups took the stage regularly during the 1980s and ’90s. But the building was deteriorating, and the Sons of Haiti put it up for sale in 2009 amid development pressures in the Central District.
Local preservation group Historic Seattle won the bid to buy Washington Hall, choosing three local nonprofits as its anchor partners. These organizations—206 Zulu, which uses arts and culture (especially hip-hop) to spark social change; Hidmo Cypher, a community of artists and activists; and Voices Rising, a showcase for LGBTQ performers of color—would act as both the tenants and managers of the space, just as the Danish Brotherhood and the Sons of Haiti had. “It’s always been a ‘hall for all,’” says Daniel “King Khazm” Kogita, director of 206 Zulu. “We want that to be preserved.”
Over seven years of fundraising and rehabilitation work, and with significant support from another Seattle nonprofit, 4Culture, Historic Seattle stabilized the structure, replaced the roof, rebuilt the south wall, brought the building up to code, and built out office and classroom space. The project also entailed uniting the previously separated front and back sections of the building, and restoring key interior elements such as the proscenium arch and the dramatic balcony.
Many of the windows were restored through a program called Vets Restore, which helps veterans learn trade skills from experienced contractors. And Ron Wright & Associates/Architects, which handled the later phases of the rehabilitation, worked with Historic Seattle and the anchor partners to enhance accessibility by squeezing an elevator inside the building.
Now that the $9.8 million project is largely complete, Washington Hall endures as a community setting for meetings, concerts, plays, dance performances, classes, conferences, weddings, and even wrestling matches. “We’ve restored the bones, and the anchor partners provide the heart and soul for the building,” says Kji Kelly, executive director of Historic Seattle. “And without both [aspects], it doesn’t work.”