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March 05, 2012

Losing a little bit of history: Architect Paul Thiry's office

Daily Journal of Commerce

This is a story about a place. A place in Seattle where noteworthy projects near and far were designed.

Today it's a run-down, vacant building at 800 Columbia St. on First Hill, but it once housed the office of Paul Thiry, the primary planner and architect of the Seattle World's Fair.

As the 50th anniversary of the Century 21 Exposition begins, the building is coming down.

Thiry, who died in 1993, was one of the most important architects in the Northwest. When the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects' first awarded the Seattle Medal, its highest honor, Thiry was one of two recipients.

"You can see the esteem in which he is held is very high," says Jeffrey Karl Ochsner, a University of Washington architecture professor and co-author of "Shaping Seattle Architecture: A Historical Guide to the Architects."

Thiry began making his mark long before the fair. In the mid-1930s, he was among the first architects in Seattle to design buildings in the modern style, which is marked by concrete, clean lines, flat roofs, cantilevers and lots of glass.

It was a radical change. In 1983 in an oral history for the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, Thiry said designing in that style made him "subject to a lot of ha-ha-ing and criticism" from peers.

Some call Thiry the father of modern architecture in Seattle, but Ochsner disagrees. "I think modernism in Seattle had multiple fathers."

But Thiry was a key figure, Ochsner said, because he was among the first to do a series of modern buildings, including a handful of houses. One was for his family at 330 35th Ave. E. in Madison Park.

Thiry's office was built in 1949, overlooking Elliott Bay and downtown Seattle. With a lot of glass on the west side and a fairly flat roof, it reflects the modern style.

In those days, Thiry was designing large local projects that are classic examples of modern architecture: the Museum of History & Industry, Frye Art Museum and the Washington State Library in Olympia.

World's Fair

Thiry was named primary architect of the World's Fair in the 1950s. He told Meredith Clausen, who conducted the interview for the Archives of American Art, that the fair didn't start as a fair. Initially the project was to be a civic center, but as officials looked for a site, "this idea of a festival started to develop, and then it kind of grew into a world's fair."

He was on the committee that decided to hire an architect and planner to organize the process. Officials interviewed people from all over, and Thiry said he was surprised to be selected.

He advocated for buildings that could be used after the fair. Thiry prepared the site plan for the fair, and was commissioned to design some of the buildings, including the Washington State Coliseum, now KeyArena.

Ochsner points out the fair was about science and technology, and the design of the buildings reflects that.

The fair guidebook says the coliseum is shaped like a "hyperbolic paraboloid, [and] has no interior roof supports." Four massive concrete abutments support the roof, which was 110 feet high - 11 stories - before the 1994 expansion for the Sonics.

The aluminum-paneled roof was supported by steel compression trusses and nearly 6 miles of steel tension cables. It resembled the canvases that covered Roman coliseums, while echoing the shape of the Olympic Mountains.

Thiry was selected to design what is now Pacific Science Center. The early concept called for a 20-sided building that looked like spinning top, but his firm didn't have time to produce the building, so Thiry assigned it to Minoru Yamasaki, who went on to design the World Trade Center in New York.

Thiry's firm did design the NASA Pavilion, part of which was moved in 1995 for the KeyArena expansion, and structures to support Paul Horiuchi's glass tile mural and the old Seattle Center fountain.

He also designed the fair's Ford Motor Co. pavilion, which was a gold geodesic dome and featured a simulated space flight, and an egg-shaped structure called Nalley's Space Age Theater. The dome was moved to the waterfront in Edmonds and served as a yacht showroom before it was dismantled in the 1970s, and the theater was demolished shortly after the fair.


Like these fair exhibits, MOHAI in Montlake also is to be razed to make way to expand Highway 520. Another well known Thiry design, a house in Normandy Park whose top level projected out over a beach, was razed several years ago because the owners had other plans for the property and couldn't find anyone to move it.

Now Thiry's old office is going too.

The empty building isn't much to look at today. It is tagged with graffiti, and a homeless person's tent is tucked along the north side.

Stan Snow, a broker with Kidder Mathews, who worked on the recent sale, said it has been "a public nuisance for quite some time." There is asbestos in the interior and exterior.

This forlorn character belies what went on inside. St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Montlake and other places of worship were designed here, and a city-designated landmark, the Seattle library's Northeast branch, was also conceived here. Farther afield, Thiry worked on the massive Libby Dam in Montana and the Fourth Infantry Division Monument at Utah Beach in France.

It was also from this office that Thiry lobbied against building the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which is now being dismantled. He told Clausen this is what got him interested in planning. Some officials "proposed to build this waterfront viaduct which just cut the city off from the waterfront... it was a horrible thing to do to the city, you know."

Thiry said he recommended a tunnel instead, but was "kind of alone on the subject."

Ochsner said the office at Eighth and Columbia also was a training ground for future generations of architects, including Johnpaul Jones of Jones & Jones.

A Swedish pension fund, Alecta, bought the property for $5.4 million from the Thiry Family Limited Liability Co. of Renton. The land is zoned for high-rise housing.

Snow, who represented Alecta, said his client intends to honor Thiry in any future development there. He said the building will be deconstructed "in a thoughtful manner by removing architecturally significant finishes so that they can be retained."

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