A reflection on aging and loss, Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 73” speaks of “bare ruined choirs,” an evocative reference to the decaying remains of Catholic monasteries dissolved during the reign of Henry VIII. This image comes to mind as I reflect on the history and future of St. Edward’s Seminary in Kenmore—long empty but recently granted new life. The building has sat dormant for four decades, but in January 2017, the Washington State Parks department announced its approval to convert the structure to a park lodge and conference center.
This is cause for celebration, as the best way to protect any building is to keep it alive. However, the good news of St. Edward’s renewed future may produce a momentary tinge of sadness as well, as we recall what this place once meant to those who built and inhabited it.
St. Edward’s was literally built upon faith. When Bishop Edward John O’Dea announced the proposed seminary in a letter to his clergy in May 1930, he admitted he had no funds to build. Although the onset of the Great Depression had already curtailed the plans of many institutions, O’Dea proposed a fund-raising campaign in the fall both to support Pacific Northwest Catholic parishes and underwrite the new seminary. The next month he announced the project to the public, calling it a lifelong dream. The site was over 300 acres of land at the north end of Lake Washington. Father John Fenlon of the Sulpicians (the association of Catholic priests who would staff the new seminary) visited Seattle in August to review the design; the Seattle Times reported his praise for the project: “New blessings, distinction, and achievement for the church in the Pacific Northwest will spring from St. Edward’s Seminary here.” In the cornerstone ceremony on October 13, participants, including the papal legate, used the same silver trowel that had been saved from setting the cornerstone of St. James Cathedral in 1903. A year later, in October 1931, 165 Catholic priests participated in the dedication. By then the seminary had already opened with 52 high school students. Collegiate level instruction began within a few years. In 1939, the first 12 St. Edward’s graduates were ordained as priests.
St. Edward’s was designed by the office of leading Seattle architect John Graham. Roughly 350 feet long, with a six-story tower, the building contained more than 200 rooms including a chapel, dining hall, kitchen, classrooms, laboratories, recreation room, priests’ living quarters, 130 rooms for students, and separate living spaces for the sisters who managed the kitchen and bakery. Topped by a red tile roof and constructed of cast-in-place concrete faced with brick and cast-stone details, the building reflects an era of architectural eclecticism when designers drew on the best of the past to address problems in the present. The style is Late Romanesque Revival, sometimes called Lombardy Romanesque, and is based on the architecture of northern Italy and southern France during the 11th and 12th centuries—considered appropriate as it showed the continuity of Roman Catholicism by associating the new seminary with the medieval church.
For the next 30 years, St. Edward’s educated the priests who staffed the growing Catholic parishes across the Pacific Northwest. The level of activity at the seminary was reflected in its subsequent additions: a gymnasium (designed by architect John Maloney) in 1951, new locker rooms in 1961, and a swimming pool in 1968. Even as the additions were made, growth was already outstripping the capacity of St. Edward’s. In 1958 it became a minor seminary serving only high schoolers when the diocese opened the Seminary of St. Thomas the Apostle (also designed by John Maloney), a major seminary for college-aged students, just a quarter of a mile away.
The growth of the 1950s could not be sustained. Following the turmoil of the 1960s, with changes in society and in the church, religious vocations began a precipitous decline. St. Edward’s closed in 1976; St. Thomas closed the next year. St. Edward’s was acquired by the state in 1977 and dedicated as Saint Edward State Park in 1978. St. Thomas was sold separately and is now Bastyr University.
While the grounds of St. Edward’s became a much loved state park, the building presented a conundrum. It is challenging to adapt institutional buildings for reuse, as their designs are often functionally specific, rendering them incompatible for most other purposes. Over the years advocates offered various ideas for using the building, but none reached fruition. Fortunately, St. Edward’s was solidly built; although empty for decades, it remains structurally intact. Now, Daniels Real Estate, a firm specializing in the reuse of historical structures and new construction in historic contexts, has received the unanimous approval of the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission to convert the building into a park lodge and conference center. Once interior deterioration has been addressed and modifications are made for the new use, the building will live again.