Construction of the new 9,600-square-foot Hugo House writing center at 11th and E Olive St. is fully imbued with the creative process — right down to the burning spirit that drives any author, poet, or journalist: a deadline.
“Construction always take longer than they think it will and there have been some unavoidable delays,” Hugo House executive director Tree Swenson tells CHS. “They say they’ll be ready.”
Like a publisher awaiting that final draft, Swenson is planning for Saturday, September 22nd — the planned official grand opening of the new Hugo House inside the six-story mixed-use apartment building that stands at the site the old Hugo House previously called home.
“The celebration will be a chance for everybody to explore the whole space in a design that invites creativity,” Swenson said.
Designed by the architects at NBBJ, the new Hugo House is centered around a 150-seat auditorium but Swenson said the first thing any visitor will see from the 11th Ave entrance is the front salon with built-in writing nooks, seating areas, and a small stage.
“It will be a great space for publication parties or informal gatherings,” Swenson said. “Writers benefit from talking to other writers and being around other writers. With literature, so much of the experience happens when we are alone.”
“It’s also a place where, if you want to write, and you don’t need absolute solitude, it’s a great place,” Swenson said.
Walking through the salon, outside you see a garden patio. Continuing through the new Hugo House, you find six classrooms for creative writing courses — “to make their own words better,” Swenson says — and more. You walk by staff offices and the Hugo House bar, open during readings and events, with a counter built using floorboards from the original house. Some of the classrooms have skylights that don’t go up to the sky. Instead, you view the ceiling of the room above them. There are quotations visible through the skylights. You gaze out a window in the middle of the building to find it looks out on a bookcase. You head to your reading in the new theater which fills the back, eastern edge of the building’s ground floor with a flexible space that can be use for speaking and performance. Nervous, you stop in to the gender-neutral bathrooms on your way for a splash of water and a quick look in the mirror.
The story of the new Hugo House began to fully take shape in 2014 as plans for the new six-story development set to replace the old house were announced. Hugo House’s history at the corner goes back further. In the late 1990s, writers Frances McCue, Andrea Lewis, and Linda Breneman were searching for an “urban writer’s retreat with readings and services for readers and writers” when they found the property across from Cal Anderson Park that could serve as a home for their budding organization, Hugo House. Breneman, and Linda and Ted Johnson bought the property and the former mortuary that called it home. The owners allowed Hugo House to continue in the building rent free which is the kind of deal any writer can appreciate.
A decision to build new housing at the corner kept Hugo House at the center as the longtime owners developing the property offered to sell the nonprofit a 10,000 square-foot ground floor commercial condo space for about half of its estimated market value. Meanwhile, a 2013 hearing had previously determined the former Manning’s Funeral Parlor should not be protected as an official city landmark — the building housing the old Hugo House was torn down in the summer of 2016. In advance of the demolition, the literary nonprofit said goodbye with one last party and moved to First Hill for a temporary stay. Now, Hugo House is set to return to Capitol Hill.
It will be a new mixed-use world in the Weinstein A+U-designed building for the small nonprofit that has grown into a leading center for Seattle arts despite its scrappy, small-scale approach. The building also has room for a new restaurant to move in next door. Meanwhile, apartment units in the building above the new writing center are reportedly already full. Swenson says it’s become a common misconception that Hugo House owns the entire building and the apartment units. They don’t. Meanwhile, the units are market rate so it’s hard to say if you’ll find many writers living above.
Hugo House, too, still has bills to pay. The capital campaign to raise $7.5 million to help purchase the new center had $138,590 left to raise from the community as of last week. Swenson says Hugo House supporters Nancy Nordhoff, Grace Nordhoff, and Jonathan Beard have offered “a $100,000 capstone gift” if others pitch in enough to get close to the final goal. For $250, you can help finish the story — and get your name on the Hugo House donor bookshelf.
“The community really has responded,” Swenson said. “There have been so many twists and turns. And we’re almost there.”
You can learn more and find out how you can support the new Hugo House at newhugohouse.org.
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