Cover image for Distant corner : Seattle architects and the legacy of H.H. Richardson
Distant corner : Seattle architects and the legacy of H.H. Richardson
Ochsner, Jeffrey Karl.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Seattle : University of Washington Press, [2003]

Physical Description:
xii, 409 pages : illustrations, maps ; 29 cm
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Call Number
Material Type
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NA735.S45 O27 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks-Oversize

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On the afternoon of 6 June 1889, a fire in a cabinet shop in downtown Seattle spread to destroy more than thirty downtown blocks covering 116 acres. Disaster soon became opportunity as Seattle's citizens turned their full energies to rebuilding: widening and regrading streets, laying new water pipes and sewer lines, promulgating a new building ordinance requiring construction in the commercial core, and creating a new professional fire department. A remarkable number of buildings, most located in Seattle's present-day Pioneer Square Historic District, were permitted within a few months and constructed within a few years of the Great Seattle Fire. As a result, the post-fire rebuilding of Seattle offers an extraordinarily focused case study of late-nineteenth-century American urban architecture.

Seattle's architects seeking design solutions that would meet the new requirements most often found them in the Romanesque Revival mode of the country's most famous architect, Henry Hobson Richardson. In October 1889, Elmer Fisher, Seattle's most prolific post-fire architect, specifically cited the example of H. H. Richardson in describing the city's new buildings. In contrast to Victorian Gothic, Second Empire, and other mid-nineteenth-century architectural styles, Richardson's Romanesque Revival vocabulary of relatively unadorned stone and brick with round-arched openings conveyed strength and stability without elaborate decorative treatment. For Seattle's fire-conscious architects it offered a clear architectural system that could be applied to a variety of building types - including office blocks, warehouses, and hotels - and ensure a safer, progressive, and more visually coherent metropolitan center.

Distant Corner examines the brief but powerful influence of H. H. Richardson on the building of America's cities, and his specific influence on the architects charged with rebuilding the post-fire city of Seattle. Chapters on the pre-fire city and its architecture, the technologies and tools available to designers and builders, and the rise of Richardson and his role in defining a new American architecture provide a context for examining the work of the city's architects. Seattle's leading pre- and post-fire architects - William Boone, Elmer Fisher, John Parkinson, Charles Saunders and Edwin Houghton, Willis Ritchie, Emil DeNeuf, Warren Skillings, and Arthur Chamberlin - are profiled. Distant Corner describes the new post-fire commercial core and the emerging network of schools, firehouses, and other public institutions that helped define Seattle's neighborhoods. It closes with the sudden collapse of Seattle's economy in the Panic of 1893 and the ensuing depression that halted the city's building boom, saw the closing of a number of architects? offices, and forever ended the dominance of Romanesque Revival in American architecture.

With more than 200 illustrations, detailed endnotes, and an appendix listing the major works of the city's leading architects, Distant Corner offers an analysis of both local and national influences that shaped the architecture of the city in the 1880s and 1890s. It has much to offer those interested in Seattle's early history, the building of the city, and the preservation of its architecture. Because this period of American architecture has received only limited study, it is also of importance for those interested in the influence of Boston-based H. H. Richardson and his contemporaries on American architecture at the end of the nineteenth century.

Author Notes

Jeffrey Karl Ochsner is professor of architecture at the University of Washington; among his previous publications is H. H. Richardson: Complete Architectural Works . Dennis Alan Andersen , formerly in charge of photographs and architectural drawings in the Special Collections Division of the University of Washington Libraries, is a longtime historic preservation advocate and currently a Lutheran pastor. Both are authors in Shaping Seattle Architecture: A Historical Guide to the Architects .

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

This thick book details the influence of the great Boston architect H.H. Richardson on one little corner of the globe at a particular time in history-Seattle between the Great Fire of 1889 and the national financial Panic of 1893. During this feverish four-year period of recovery and rebuilding, over 100 acres of downtown Seattle were redesigned and reconstructed in a concentrated exercise in the reigning style of the Richardsonian Romanesque Revival. Rounded Romanesque arches and rusticated ashlar masonry found favor in hundreds of fire-proofed, steel-framed, multistoried business, commercial, and public buildings of the downtown district, which now characterize the city's famous Pioneer Square Historic District. Contributors to Shaping Seattle Architecture: A Historical Guide to the Architects, Ochsner (architecture, Univ. of Washington; H.H. Richardson) and Andersen, former curator of the architectural drawings collection at the University of Washington Libraries, are perfectly qualified to write this historical scholarly study. With 234 black-and-white illustrations, it is recommended for regional libraries and comprehensive architecture collections in academic and public libraries.-Peter S. Kaufman, Boston Architectural Ctr. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Ochsner and Andersen (both, Univ. of Washington) offer a detailed analysis of how Seattle rebuilt after more than 30 blocks and 116 acres of its downtown burned on June 6, 1889. The Romanesque Revival was the style of choice in rebuilding because of its flexibility, its reliance on stone, brick, and other fire-resistive materials, and "its image as an architecture emblematic of metropolitan development." This book is also a skillful examination of the diffusion of architectural taste and explains how the Romanesque Revival, so closely associated with Henry Hobson Richardson, became a national style in the aftermath of the architect's death. What is surprising, given the subtitle, is the degree to which the authors trace the influence of Midwestern architects such as John W. Root and the architectural press in disseminating plans for buildings that influenced the shape of structures erected in Seattle. Fewer than 18 months after the fire, an economic downturn halted most construction, and the Panic of 1893 only made conditions worse. By the time the city recovered, the Romanesque was in eclipse, replaced by the Beaux Arts classical popularized by the World's Columbian Exhibition, the colonial revival, and the skyscraper. An impressive accomplishment. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through professionals. D. Schuyler Franklin & Marshall College