“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.” - William Blake
by Kris Parfitt
- The Capitol Hill Times -
While the threat of funding always lingers around non-profits, the threat that lurks at literally every corner of the Town Hall Seattle building on 8th Avenue is redevelopment. Its neighborhood is a hot real estate market and the west slope of First Hill was recently rezoned to allow for more density. First Hill, a once elite section of town for the wealthy to escape their downtown offices is now experiencing swift redevelopment and older structures are quickly being replaced with multi-use buildings.
Seattle supports growth with the intention of minimizing its carbon footprint while maximizing density. However, as Town Hall Executive Director Weir Harman pointed out to The Capitol Hill Times, “The risk is that density can overwhelm the intrinsic character of this part of the neighborhood. What kind of growth preserves those kinds of attributes to those kinds of changes? What would render it unrecognizable? We are wrestling with the same questions here.”
To answer these questions, Town Hall applied for historical landmark status for its building, which began as a church in 1916. “We did it because we know this building is essential to who we are and what we do,” Weir said. “It is character defining. We want to protect it from potential future encroachment and protect it in context to all the changes in the neighborhood.”
He shared his philosophy of having one foot in the past and one in the future: “The development of a city and its neighborhoods is an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary one. And if you do too much without any regard from where you came from you won’t know who you are.
Town Hall submitted a 73-page application to the City of Seattle Landmark Preservation Board in mid-July requesting historical landmark status for what was once the Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist Church. The application process includes consideration by the Landmarks Preservation Board of the building’s history and how the building now impacts the surrounding neighborhood and community. Gaining this status would not only ensure the building’s future but also the Town Hall organization.
Though the building does not offer any religious symbols on either its interior or exterior, the huge art class windows and dome glass ceiling in the large auditorium suggest a house of faith. Indeed, it was originally built in 1916 as the fourth Christian Science church in Seattle. Its architect, George Dunham, used the pure and classic lines of Roman Revival architectural style to reflect the progressive teachings of the Christian Science faith and finished the exterior in terra cotta so the building would reflect light in the winter and appear to glow in the rain.
Though consistent maintenance of the building was viewed as an important part of the congregational service, by 1996 it was apparent that with a declining membership, restoration and upgrading was too expensive and the building had to be sold.
The Historic Seattle Preservation and Development Authority rescued the building from the threat of destruction and offered to save it for adaptive community reuse. A $75,000 emergency grant provided by the King County’s Arts Commission and Landmarks and Heritage Commission supported an extensive acoustical review and feasibility study. While it was clear that the use of the building as a community center would be successful, funding was not available to make the transition.
David Brewster, founder of the Seattle Weekly and Crosscut.com, saw an opportunity for a common roof to house the literary, musical, and political voices of the area and organized a group of investors, founding Town Hall, LLC in 1997 to purchase the building.
Town Hall Seattle opened in 1999 and today serves as a community culture center that reflects the stories of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. More than a speaker’s program, it offers over 415 separate events to over 100,000 people who demonstrate an interest in science lectures, international music, civic events, political debates, family concerts and storytelling.
“Look at our calendar,” Weir said, “it would be impossible for one person to cook it up. Half the events are brought to Town Hall by artists, world affairs leaders, the Seattle Public Library, and neighborhood groups. There are over seven discrete voices of Town Hall’s programming that ranges from musical to literary, political to science and everything in between.”
The unique programming, he explained, doesn’t exist to this scale anywhere else in the U.S. “Seattle’s climate is what makes this possible and successful. We are a literacy city, which makes it easy to get speakers, authors and musicians. Our city is a boomtown; performers are already here for other reasons. When you look at the full vertical integration and lateral span, no one does what we do.”
“Town Hall is committed to being massively accessible to everyone in the community.” Weir explained. “Our tickets are $5 or free. And while some of our concert tickets are $25 it is the funding we received from our individual members and community that make our ticket prices affordable.” Rachel Maddow recently spoke at Town Hall for $5 a ticket, had packed the Paramount for $45 a seat the night before and $75 in New York a week prior.
Weir, the previous theatre director of the Annex Theatre, honed his creative and political priorities from his time at the Annex. He said the experience challenged his preconceptions of the world and bringing culture and community together. But while he loved the work of theatre he found something missing. “I like to know what is going on in the world extending beyond my own creative field such as a larger cultural conversation,” he said. “I found my theatrical palate was limited. When this position at Town Hall opened and I got it I knew I had found my dream job.”
Town Hall is now a 501(3)c non-profit supported by funding drives from a balanced array of foundation, individual, government and corporate monies. The organization is not an arm of the government despite its name. With just under 3,000 members, the organization has grown significantly in 13 years. “Our skinniest year was in 2008 when we posted a 1 percent deficit,” recalled Weir. “However we have since been able to post a modest surplus that we continue to put back into the organization, operating now on a $1.5 million budget.”
“We love this building,” he said. “We are who we are as an organization because of this building. It tells us what works here, the kinds of events and music that works best in the acoustics. We do not ask this building to do more than it can and in return it provides us with remarkable performances.”
“We feel an obligation to the congregation, the city and the communities we serve to ensure the future and safety of this building that we were given and trusted with,” Weir emphasized.
A nomination meeting will be held at the Seattle Municipal Tower in downtown Seattle on Sept. 19 at 3:30 p.m. Written comments will also be accepted up until 5 p.m. Sept. 17 addressed to the Seattle landmarks Preservation Board, Seattle Dept. of Neighborhoods P.O. Box 94649, 98124.
Copies of the Landmark Nomination are available for public review at the Central Library, 1000 4th Avenue, after September 4 (206-684-7518) and Seattle Department of Neighborhoods office at the Seattle Municipal Tower, 700 5th Ave, Suite 1700 (206-684-0228). The nomination is also posted on the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods website www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/preservation/landmarks.htm, under the heading of “Current Nominations.”
For a calendar of events currently offered at Town Hall: http://townhallseattle.org/upcoming/