After 20 years Hugo House, Capitol Hill’s beloved writing center, felt like the city’s literary nucleus. Then in 2016 that house—a sort of Victorian ruin, formerly a mortuary, all old wood and leaks—was knocked down and Hugo House decamped to First Hill for a couple years.
Now, on September 22, its new building will open to the public with a fitting party: Maria Semple will read (she’s taught classes there and even unveiled early pages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette?). Mayor Jenny Durkan’s been invited to speak. Classrooms will hold writing activities, and it all culminates in a dance party.
But anyone looking for a symbol that sharply evinces, and even cuts through, the tension between the arts and tech-driven housing development in this city can find it here. The new Hugo House sits on the land that once held the original building yet it does away with the patina the old building cast. Hugo House is no longer, exactly, a house. The mixed-use building rises six stories, in brick and glass, from 11th and Olive, and Hugo House occupies 9,527 square feet of the first floor. The rest of that story is given over to a corner cafe and a lobby for the apartments above, which run up to $4,425 for a two bedroom. NBBJ—the same architecture firm behind Amazon’s Denny Regrade construction, including the spheres—designed the new Hugo House’s interior. And it’s loaded with hallmarks of current Seattle design: exposed ceiling ventwork, concrete floors, light-flooded lobbies, and reclaimed wood. In this case, architects lined the lobby bar with floorboards from the old building. But such techy connotations actually fit: Back in 1996 Linda Breneman funded Hugo House’s start with tech money (her ex-husband cofounded Aldus, which sold to Adobe, and Visio, which sold to Microsoft). And, along with two other donors, she footed half of the $7.5 million bill that lets Hugo House own its new home.
NBBJ have also introduced touches that are decidedly more Hugo House. The front doors lead to a “literary salon” (essentially a lobby). Move beyond that and you enter a sort of main street: classrooms that look like standalone structures, different heights, different colors, meant to evoke Richard Hugo’s famous “Triggering Town,” a place that sparks a poem. Wend onward and you’ll reach the theater with a movable stage. Scattered throughout the space are small nooks where someone can tuck away to write. They contain intentionally odd angles, says executive director Tree Swenson, since rectangles curb creativity: “The imagination likes to take twists and turns and tuck into little dark corners and see what’s going on.”
If you look with cool rationality, the new place is an obvious upgrade: It allows for more classes. Staff won’t have to suffer cold offices in jackets and gloves. And owning its own building should allow Hugo House to continue to function on prime real estate with its small budget—around $1 million a year.
Yet in Seattle, simultaneously lamenting the demise of the old building (memories! character!) and applauding the new quarters (heat! shiny new bathrooms!) has become its own genre. Articles in The Stranger, City Arts, and Seattle Weekly have all cautioned readers not to get too nostalgic about the old house. They’ve found metaphors in its rebirth, its persistence as an arts organization in an increasingly pricey city. When the house flooded during the final reading there, Seattle Review of Books cofounder Paul Constant imagined it as a thing weeping for its own demise.
But the most prolific cataloguer of the loss is Frances McCue, its founding director from 1996 to 2006. She’s making a documentary called Where the House Was, which is set to debut at SIFF next year, and she, more than anyone, has sentimental ties. She lived above the cafe in the 1990s. When her husband died, she held his memorial service in that cafe. Last year she released a poetry collection called Timber Curtain. It turns these tensions—between art and gentrification, memory and time, loss and momentum—into new work. For a place founded to encourage writing, there is no more fitting elegy. “With luck,” she writes in the collection’s introduction, “we see some overlaps, some things coming into view, and we push things together until they make sense. That’s what poets do—only not exactly.”