HISTORY IN PERSPECTIVE | Seattle Pacific University's Alexander Hall
Saturday, June 15, 2013 5:07 AM
Queen Anne residents don’t often linger on the campus of Seattle Pacific University. If they did, they might discover Alexander Hall, one of the most charming brick buildings in Seattle. Nominated for city landmark status in May, the building comes up for designation next week on Wednesday, June 19.
Alexander Hall, now. Photo courtesy of Queen Anne Historical Society
Alexander Hall may, indeed, be the oldest building in all of Queen Anne. It certainly is among the oldest surviving masonry load-bearing buildings in town.
The building hunkers on the southwest corner of the elliptic drive known as Tiffany Loop, on the west side of Third Avenue West. Designed in 1891 by English-born carpenter/architect John Charles Parkinson (1861-1935) for the Free Methodist’s new Seattle seminary, it was first called the Red Brick Building. In spite of radical alterations to its fenestration and entryways, the building’s four octagonal towers, projecting bay and round arch entrance make it an intriguing example of Richardsonian Romanesque Revival design.
Richardsonian Romanesque Revival reflects the influence of Henry Hobson Richardson, only the second American to train professionally as an architect at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. When Richardson went to Paris in 1860, there was no school of architecture in the United States.
The style that the architect developed was not, however, the classical style of the École, but rather a more medieval one, influenced by William Morris, John Ruskin and others. Richardson developed a unique and highly personal idiom, adapting, in particular, the Romanesque of southern France. The 1872 Trinity Church on Copley Square in Boston solidified Richardson’s national reputation and led to major commissions for the rest of his short life (1840-1886).
Although incorporating historical elements from a variety of sources — including early Syrian Christian, Byzantine and both French and Spanish Romanesque — his eponymous style was more “Richardsonian” than Romanesque. Glessner House (1886) in Chicago is a masterpiece of Richardson’s design that he did not live to see completed. Richardson also died before the completion of his two favorite commissions: Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail (1883) and the Marshall Field Warehouse Store (1885), also in Chicago.
Parkinson’s design might be called simplified Richardsonian Romanesque. The broad, round arch entranceway is typical of the style, while the octagonal corner towers sporting witches’ caps hint at the same medieval influences that Richardson favored. The prison-like windows at the base of each tower, with their six brick-framed openings, are another medieval touch.
Structurally, the building is an interesting anomaly, with a four-story, brick shell laid up in American bond wrapping, around a partially free-standing platform frame structure of wood joists and perimeter stud walls rising up from the dirt-floored basement. The two buildings can move independently of one another when the earth shakes.
Like an incredible number of untrained American builders and designers, John Parkinson apparently subscribed to national magazines that published the most fashionable architectural structures of the time. It is only through careful parsing of the periodicals to which he must have subscribed that Parkinson could have chosen, for Alexander Hall, the architectural features that had become the rage of the East Coast and the Midwest.
The road to landmark status
Nils B. Peterson, a member of the Free Methodist Church, donated five acres of his farm’s kitchen garden for the seminary. The farm ran from to Eighth to First Avenue West, across 80 acres of land Peterson homesteaded in 1878.
Five of his children were among the first 12 students to attend classes when the building opened in April 1893. Alexander Beers served as the school’s first principal while his wife, Adelaide, took charge of the academic side of things.
Forty of Peterson’s acres eventually became the Mount Pleasant Cemetery at the top of Queen Anne Hill. (The cemetery will be the focus of the Queen Anne Historical Society’s 21st-annual tour on June 22, starting at 10 a.m. at the cemetery gate.)
In 1940, the Red Brick Building was renamed in his honor, but Seattle Pacific College trustees, fearing malicious associations with his patronymic, used only his first name.
In a move welcomed by Queen Anne’s preservation community, the college (now known as Seattle Pacific University) initiated the process to designate the building a city landmark.
So all of us who live in this vibrant community applaud Seattle Pacific University and the people entrusted with protecting its historic fabric. They have turned a new page that recognizes the importance of Alexander Hall for the folks who live in the neighborhood and for students and faculty past, present and future who love their alma mater. We are delighted its preservation is assured and trust the university’s other historic buildings will receive similar care.
Thanks to Larry Johnson of The Johnson Partnership for his fine nomination of Alexander Hall as a city landmark. This article borrows heavily from his work.
MICHAEL HERSCHENSOHN is president of the Queen Anne Historical Society (qahistory.org). To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.