On September 5, 2012, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted unanimously to designate the Cedar Park Elementary School building, designed by Paul Thiry, as a Seattle Landmark. This action protected the northeast Seattle building, which currently houses artists’ live/work studios, from likely demolition, as the Seattle School District had been considering the Cedar Park site for a possible new school. The unanimous vote for designation was unexpected. The building is not a widely known Thiry design and, at first glance, may seem unimpressive.
Paul Thiry is, of course, widely recognized as one of the “fathers” of Modernism in Seattle architecture. Still, his career has been relatively little studied, and there are few recent publications about his work. His iconic designs such as the original Museum of History and Industry building, Coliseum (now Key Arena), Northeast Branch Library and St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, all in Seattle; Mercer Island Presbyterian Church; Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma; and the Washington State Library (now Joel Pritchard Building), Olympia; are generally known, but most of the buildings he designed have received less attention. As Landmarks Board member Jerry Finrow noted at the September 5 meeting, Thiry was a complex designer who produced a surprising variety of projects over the course of his career. Among his lesser known buildings were two public elementary schools in Seattle: Northgate Elementary, completed in 1956, and Cedar Park Elementary, completed in 1959.
At the request of the Landmarks Board, the Johnson Partnership, who prepared the Cedar Park Landmark nomination for the Seattle School District, provided a supplemental catalog that documented and illustrated all 33 school buildings, including 20 elementary schools, constructed by the District in the 20 years after 1945. Most of the elementary schools built between 1945 and 1960 were rectilinear designs with flat roofs, often with individual functional components expressed as distinct boxy volumes. View Ridge Elementary School (1944 – 45) demonstrates these characteristics, and they repeat for succeeding buildings such as Arbor Heights, Briarcliff, Genesee Hill, Lafayette and so forth. This design approach juxtaposing individual rectilinear volumes serving different functions was used for many Seattle institutional buildings of this era. This compositional approach derives from Modern buildings such as the Bauhaus (with its rectilinear design and functional expression) and was an early post-World War II version of the International Style.
In contrast to the International Style, many Seattle architects in the years after 1945 explored the approach now recognized as Northwest Regional Modernism. Typically applied to residences and smaller institutional buildings (like suburban churches), Regional Modernism is characterized by sloped overhanging roofs, strong relationships to sites (and, if available, views), use of natural materials, revealed structure (often regularly spaced post-and-beam) and selective use of transparency to link inside and outside.
In the 1950s, Paul Thiry explored designs of a hybrid character, at least in some projects, including the Northeast Branch of the Seattle Public Library and the Northgate and Cedar Park Elementary Schools. In the Northeast Branch Library, Thiry used a steel frame and concrete wall-panels as well as wood beams and a shallow, sloped roof. The building has characteristics of Northwest Regional Modernism, but its materiality sets it apart. Similarly, in the Northgate and Cedar Park Elementary Schools, Thiry placed all building functions under broad, shallowly sloped roofs reflecting Northwest regionalism but selected materials appropriate to each school’s institutional use and somewhat utilitarian character concrete frames, concrete (tilt-up) walls and concrete roofs. At Cedar Park, Thiry downplayed the front elevation and main entrance but opened up the classrooms to the surrounding green spaces and playgrounds, suggesting he may have designed the building based on the model of a big, Mid-century Modern house.
Northgate Elementary has served as a school for more than 50 years, but in 1981, Cedar Park was closed due to declining enrollment. Within a year, the building was leased as artists’ live-work studios, initially called Cedar Park Arts Center and later Artwood Studios. The building has served its residents for 30 years, yet it also shows a high degree of integrity because the artist-residents have made few permanent alterations.
When the Landmarks Board discussed Cedar Park Elementary School before voting on designation, several noted that it was necessary to see the building to appreciate its character. Members commented on the unusual adaptation of Northwest Regional Modernism to a public elementary school. Some spoke of the quality of the concrete and the unusual use of “tilt-up” for a school. Several were enthusiastic about the 30 years of artists’ activities in the building but stated that this cultural use could not be a basis for designation, as the artists have made almost no permanent interventions in the building. The Board voted to designate the school as a Landmark — an innovative work of Paul Thiry that embodies characteristics of Mid- century Regional Modern architecture.
Whether the Cedar Park Elementary School will continue as artists’ live-work studios or will return, in the future, to school use is not known. Nonetheless, the Landmarks Board vote means the building will survive as a reminder of Paul Thiry’s innovative thinking.