Seattle Now & Then: Town Hall Seattle, pre-1968

(click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN: This undated view of Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist, looks southwest from the corner of Eighth and Seneca, sometime prior to the 1968 demolition and reconstruction of neighboring First Presbyterian Church, whose own dome peeks out at left. (Paul Dorpat collection)
Walking toward the “now” camera at Eighth and Seneca, poised for a green “go” light for Town Hall’s post-renovation festival in September are (from left) Candace Wilkinson-Davis, event manager; Anthony Canape, development coordinator; Dana Feder, production director; Jini Palmer, digital media producer; Grant Barber, individual giving manager; Jonathan Shipley, associate director of communications; Kate Weiland, AIA, project architect, BuildingWork; Matt Aalfs, AIA, design principal, BuildingWork; Wier Harman, executive director; Zac Eckstein, digital marketing manager; Megan Castillo, community engagement manager; Shane Unger, event manager; Shirley Bossier, rental and booking director; Missy Miller, communications and marketing director; Alexander Eby, staff writer; Renate Child, bookkeeper; Mary Cutler, general manager; Kate Nagle-Caraluzzo, development director; and Haley Fenton, donor relations and membership manager. (Not pictured: Amanda Winterhalter, institutional giving manager; Ashley Toia, director of programming; Bruno L’Ecuyer, technical lead; Edward Wolcher, curator of lectures; Laurel Taylor, senior database administrator; plus event staff and sound engineers.) Visible at top are stalwarts of our skyline: the Seattle Municipal Tower (1990, left), the Columbia Center (1985, center), Safeco Plaza, “the box the Space Needle came in” (1969, right) and, yes, a construction crane. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in Seattle Times online on Aug. 15, 2019,
and in print on Aug. 18, 2019)

Encircling the quest to share ‘music and the music of ideas’
By Clay Eals

It bears a square shape, but to me Town Hall Seattle has always felt round. This derives from its dome, but also from the sensation of sitting in its Great Hall. Scores of pews angled in a giant half-circle envelop the stage, bringing performer and audience together as one.

Coming to mind are people I’ve enjoyed there, both nationally known (folk legend U. Utah Phillips and a non-singing Linda Ronstadt) and home-grown (speakers at a memorial for newspaperman Emmett Watson, as well as this column’s own Paul Dorpat and Jean Sherrard in their annual “A Rogue’s Christmas” show).

A focus on people bolstered the vision of Town Hall’s founder, David Brewster, when it opened in 1999. In cultivating investors, the civic and journalistic entrepreneur conceptualized it as a gathering place for citizens to share “music and the music of ideas.”

To house his idea, Brewster chose the three-floor Roman Revival edifice at Eighth and Seneca, the former Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist. Built in two stages, in 1916 and 1922, more than 40 years before Interstate 5 sliced the site away from downtown proper, it offered an auditorium with room for 1,000, befitting a faith that once drew crowds to its message that prayer can triumph over sickness. It also was among several local Christian Science churches yielding to new owners and uses as congregations declined.

Initially, Brewster wanted to rename the building Landmark Hall, but it was not yet an official city landmark (that happened in 2012). Having grown up near New York City and familiar with its Town Hall, he decided to adapt the more down-to-earth moniker for Seattle.

His vision took flight. In the ensuing two decades, Town Hall lured more than 1.5 million attendees to nearly 7,000 events featuring artists and scholars, musicians and presidential candidates — as the saying goes, “thinkers and doers.”

To remain viable and withstand earthquakes for decades to come, Town Hall just finished a two-year, $35.5 million interior renovation, improving its underpinnings in ways that are largely and intentionally invisible while also enhancing sound and upgrading ancillary rooms. Matt Aalfs, principal architect, sums up: “We wanted to keep the building’s soul.”

That soul returns to full bloom this September during a 40-event Homecoming Festival. Wier Harmon, executive director since 2005, says it exemplifies an ongoing mission to provide low- or no-cost tickets to a kaleidoscope of events dreamed up by hundreds of local producers and organizations. It’s a quest that touches him personally.

“Town Hall truly speaks to the highest aspirations of this community because it inspires creativity, activism and civic engagement,” he says. “The chance to help a place that’s founded on preserving and celebrating those values has been irresistible.”


To see Jean Sherrard’s 360-degree video of the NOW prospect and compare it with the THEN photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!

Below, in chronological order, are 11 clippings from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) that, among others, were helpful in the preparation of this column.

July 4, 1909, Seattle Times, page 19
July 22, 1914, Seattle Times, page 10
June 21, 1916, Seattle Times, page 5
July 8, 1916, Seattle Times, page 5
Aug. 12, 1916, Seattle Times, page 5
Sept. 11, 1916, Seattle Times, page 17
March 3, 1917, Seattle Times, page 7
June 18, 1922, Seattle Times, page 12
Dec. 25, 1967, Seattle Times, page 69
Dec. 17, 1968, Seattle Times, page 3
May 24, 1969, Seattle Times, page 15

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