Gene Zema was the first architect to build in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood. In 1953, he acquired a lot at 200 E. Boston Street, at the corner of Eastlake, and constructed a small building on the alley side to house his office. Zema knew the area because he had grown up in the Cascade neighborhood, which in the 1920s and 1930s was home to many Russian immigrant families. He recalls that in the early 1950s, Eastlake was quite inexpensive. The neighborhood included many old houses and, of course, the floating homes, which at that time were often little more than shacks. Zema prospered at the Boston Street location, and in 1960-62 he designed and built a much larger multi-story building around a courtyard. This exemplary work of Northwest Regional Modernism briefly served as his home as well as his office and over time became a gallery for his emerging Japanese antiquities business. In the prologue to the book, Gene Zema: Architect, Craftsman (2012), Grant Hildebrand, who worked in Zema’s office in the late 1960s, describes the “rich ambience” of the space and notes that his personal fascination with well-crafted building made it “difficult to get anything done.”
Steinhart, Theriault and Anderson were next. They acquired the lot at 1264 Eastlake (at the corner of Galer near the intersection of Fairview) and moved into their own office in 1956. For this highly visible site, the firm designed a dramatically cantilevered, minimal glass-box floating above the landscape, reflecting the influence of Mies van der Rohe and, possibly, the example of the California “Case Study” houses (although the Seattle building predated the iconic cantilevered Stahl house in Los Angeles, designed by Pierre Koenig, by four years). The cantilever was achieved using wide-flange steel beams; the rest of the structure is wood frame and floor-to-ceiling glass. The south-facing wall is opaque, but since the building is typically seen from the north or west, the solid side is seldom noticed. A series of thin, horizontal, wood slats on the narrow west end are the one concession to the climatic effects of the western sun. The building was a striking presence when it was built; it remains so today.
Kirk/Wallace/McKinley relocated to the Eastlake neighborhood when the I-5 freeway construction required the demolition of their rental office at 615 Lakeview. David McKinley recalls the area was quiet, convenient, affordable and had a casual atmosphere that was great for architects. Their new office building, at 2000 Fairview Avenue E., constructed in 1959-60, is a rectilinear structure elevated above parking, exemplifying the systematic application of by-pass wood construction typical of Northwest Regional Modernism. In their Guide to Architecture in Washington State (1982), Woodbridge and Montgomery described this building and the community psychiatric clinic to the north (dating from 1962, also by Kirk/Wallace/McKinley), as “refined expressions of the wooden post-and-beam pavilion” and added that “the matchstick quality of the structural expression” was a “hallmark” of Kirk’s work. This office building received an AIA Seattle Honor Award in 1961.
In the 1970s other architects moved into the neighborhood. The Bumgardner Partnership moved into the building at 2021 Minor, dating from 1923, in December 1970. The firm remodeled the interior in 1971, cutting a large lightwell/stairway in the middle of the space to connect the two floors, replacing the windows and adding a new entry. Two years later, John Morse relocated his office to 2033 Minor, a house dating from the early twentieth century. The same year, George Suyama moved his firm to 2002 Eastlake. A decade later, Suyama moved again but stayed in the neighborhood. His new office, at 121 E. Boston Street, was a building of his own design. As Hildebrand noted in Suyama: A Complex Serenity (2011), the exterior of wood and brick, with a courtyard overlooking the street, “makes a strikingly sympathetic contribution to the ambience of the neighborhood.”
By the 1980s, however, many of the first generation of Eastlake architects were moving on. Zema had wound down his office in the mid-1970s and thereafter concentrated on his Japanese antiquities business. He retained the Eastlake office building, which for many years housed his gallery, and he still owns it today. In 1980, Kirk/Wallace/ McKinley became McKinley Architects, and by 1984 they relocated to Downtown, Seattle. Bumgardner had moved downtown a year or two earlier. Steinhart, Theriault, and Associates maintained an address on Eastlake for 30 years, but their practice slowed by the mid-1970s. Since the 1980s their building has been occupied by others. Suyama moved his firm to Belltown in 1997; his former space is now a restaurant.
Architects still have offices in Eastlake today—too many of them to name here. Few, however, have constructed their own buildings. The built legacy of the architects from the early 1950s to the early 1980s is a remarkable one—a reminder of the emergence of Northwest Regional Modernism and of a generation of architects who contributed so much to the city.