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CHS Schemata | Group Health Capitol Hill’s hidden charms (and crazy slide)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHospitals typically are not architecturally endearing structures. A hospital campus can even less so. Designed by the same type of large, corporate architecture firms that reflect the organization of the hospitals themselves, this pair of leviathans typically has more pressing matters than fitting neatly into their surroundings. The demands of programmatic efficiencies and healthful interior environments makes the focus of such institutions decidedly inward, their mission dictating priorities that better serve their patients and staff, oftentimes at the expense of enhancing their surrounding exterior environment. This is not the case on Capitol Hill where our own Group Health Cooperative has (at least part of) its campus providing a genuine attempt to be a good neighbor.

(Images: John Feit)

(Images: John Feit)

The campus’s more successful portions (not all are created equally), Group Health’s buildings and landscape never quite shed their institutional character, but they are successful at softening their edges and in being supportive of the neighborhood’s street and open space vitality. Some of the buildings are — dare I say — urban, mixed-use buildings with retail at the ground floor. This is easy to take for granted on Capitol Hill, but the inclusion of retail in a medical building adds to their management tasks and is at least a minor distraction to their health-care providing mission. The image to the right highlights their most successful attempt of urban neighborliness, even if in execution it lacks the funkiness of the rest of 15th Ave. The way-finding signage in the upper right of the photo (part of a re-branding effort some years back) is tastefully done, with its design being found on all of the campus’s entries.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

An institution that has grown over many decades, Group Health Capitol Hill is a mix of architectural styles and spatial juxtapositions. Pictured above is a now vacated street that formerly served a parking garage entrance (now abandoned). When paired with the more recent, non-medical development beyond, one is presented with an exterior enclosure that is rare on the Hill. My being an architect is perhaps the only excuse with finding the building at the upper right visually pleasing, its pre-cast panels and ribs, a respectful expression of that materials structural and manufacturing process. A pavilion-like building along 16th (below) is an even better example of this tectonic, its folded plate roof gently resting on an expressed concrete frame, infilled with massive pieces of glass.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While these few buildings may prompt a bit of attention from those of us who are fans of this ilk of design, the landscape of the campus probably has the greatest appeal. The east lawn has a series of follies that not only bring daylight to the hospital’s subterranean levels, but also allow for exiting from those spaces. This lawn doesn’t attract the crowds of Capitol Hill’s other public open spaces, but it nonetheless does offer a bit of whimsy and a welcome bit of strolling space for hospital users. On more than one occasion, I have seen neighborhood children taking advantage of the slide (myself included!). With the addition of Bakery Nouveau across the street at 15th and John, I have found this lawn a sunny place to enjoy one of the yummy offerings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs is often the case with these posts, the desire to write about a space prompts greater exploration of it. While I had noticed and enjoyed the above places, I had never ventured into the enclosed courtyard in the center of the campus. I was rewarded in my curiosity by experiencing a serene space, gently dappled in light and sheltered by a nice mix of deciduous and coniferous trees.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There are a few, masonry architectural fragments are most likely remnants for the previous building that stood on this spot; a pity it is no longer extant as it appears to have been a building of some character. Spaces such as theses seem invaluable to a hospital, as they are an easily accessible refuge for patients desiring to take a moment’s break from the sanitary environment of the hospital. And even thought it was empty this particular morning, I can imagine times when it is filled with patients and their family members enjoying its quiet atmosphere.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe nicest surprise of the morning was the discovery in the courtyard of a George Tsutakawa sculpture. Like many, I am a big fan of his work and have enjoyed similar pieces on display at the Central Library and Central Waterfront. At first, I was curious about why such a delightful piece was tucked out of view, hidden as it were from all but the inquisitive. Upon further reflection, its location is just right; in a place of quiet repose where its elegance can be best appreciated.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the larger context of Capitol Hill, Group Health is a valuable asset to have. While its scale and visual dominance of this part of the Hill can make it appear ill-suited for the rest of the neighborhood, these little landscape and architectural gems certainly take the edge off. Additionally, being a frequent patron of the many businesses that are near Group Health, I cannot help but think that the merchants along 15th from Denny to Mercer would struggle — and some not even exist — if it were not for the thousands who pass through Group Health’s doors on a daily basis.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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8 thoughts on “CHS Schemata | Group Health Capitol Hill’s hidden charms (and crazy slide)

  1. I work on that campus and, like you, love the mix of architectural styles from the different decades. The one-story pavillion-like building housed the old cafeteria that was part of the hospital back in the 1950s & 1960s (and maybe even later), now converted to admin offices. As for the brick archway standing in the courtyard, that was an archway of the original building that the first Group Health hospital was located in, back in the mid-1940s–the other identical arches, I think, have a plaque that describes it. Unfortunately, this courtyard is almost never filled with people, usually just a couple of staff on a lunch break!

  2. If the place is always empty, then it’s failing in its purpose. A functioning city needs useful places, not empty plazas filled with the unrealized imaginings of architects.

  3. I should add that I get the point that Group Health brings an amount of foot traffic into the area, I just get tired of deserted corporate plazas littering the landscape. Functional public spaces are great, places like Cal Anderson park and Volunteer Park can be nice places to be, and are well utilized, but this area just feels like another eastside corporate office park. It’s saved by the surrounding neighborhood, not vice versa. It’s like First Hill vs. the rest of Capitol Hill. Hospitals and unremarkable sandwich shops, vs. vibrance.

    • Have you actually seen this courtyard? It is hardly a “corporate plaza.”….but instead a calm, well-landscaped oasis. Probably the reason it’s not used more is that most people, other than hospital employees, do not know it’s there.

  4. I can’t imagine 15th without Group Health. It’s genuinely what it is and does not try to be “authentic” hipster like everyone else. Most hospitals can be depressing but this place always has a quiet charm. I enjoy sitting on the bench near the slide and trees to get away from the world without leaving my hood. A few weeks ago I saw the memorial for the nurse who passed away a few years ago from a freak murder, it was touching. It seems like a place full of good people doing good things.

  5. John, these are lovely photographs. It might be worth noting that the most recent look and feel of Group Health on Capitol Hill was the result of a prolonged negotiation between the medical center and the neighborhood (through the Capitol Hill Community Council) along with the architects. It didn’t just happen. The fountain has been relatively recently restored — it was moved and then left dry for many years. Another kindness. As for the plaza, perhaps it isn’t used much in winter, but it is used much more the rest of the year. Since Group Health hospital closed (Group Health patients now use Virginia Mason Hospital) a decade ago, perhaps there are fewer people hanging out as visitors to the facility. I taught my granddaughter to walk and run in the courtyard and the little “mini” park — going down the slide was a rite of passage. We were living half a block away. FYI, the original hospital was St. Luke’s on 16th and John.

  6. It is difficult to comprehend an esthetic which perceives a beautifully serene and sparsely-populated public space as non-functional and solely an ego-stroke for corporations and corporate architects. Perhaps this is yet another expression of the purely money-driven lurch toward population over-density posing as a societal ideal?

    I am neither ignorant nor blind to the cost of building and maintaining calm and restful public-access spaces, which historically has been the province of education and healing (usually underwritten by not-for-profit organizations, directly from the pockets of donors great and small). I do not imply that spaces and amenities such as these Group Health courtyards and plazas are a “right” to which “the public” is entitled; I am simply deeply appreciative of their existence and the foresight and humane priorities which they embody, and puzzled by the notion that they are a waste of resources.

  7. Pingback: CHS Schemata | Capitol Hill’s grand dome | CHS Capitol Hill Seattle