“Where the community is enriched by its presence.”
– Rev. Aron Gilmartin
University Unitarian Church was built 1959 – 1960 by Paul Hayden Kirk. The building earned him the American Institute of Architects’ (Seattle) award. The cost of University Unitarian was projected to be $250,000, an enormous sum to the congregation that raised it. At the annual meeting in 1958, the Reverend Aron Gilmartin asked the congregation to envision the new church as something more than just a building. He cast its purpose for the UUC congregation and beyond: “It must be a place where people may gather for worship, where children may be taught to work and pray, and where the community is enriched by its presence.”
That “quarter of a million dollars” bought a church building, but its members made the church. Indeed, the electrical cabling was donated and installed by a member. Volunteers constructed shelving. The congregation gathered and cooked many meals in the most rudimentary of conditions. Dedication of the building took place on Sunday, April 12, 1959. By 1960, Rev. Gilmartin had left UUC for a pulpit in California.
In 1961, the Unitarians and Universalists formally merged. The building, new and modern, was the perfect setting for an evolving congregation and its changing faith tradition.
Born in 1914 in Salt Lake City, Paul Hayden Kirk was a regional practitioner of Modernist architecture, giving shape to a style now recognized as Pacific Northwest Modernism. University Unitarian Church is one of his early large-scale works.
Kirk studied architecture at the University of Washington. His reputation as an architect grew during the 1950s, primarily with private residences. He became one of the most widely published architects of our region, communicating the particular Modernism associated with the Pacific Northwest.
Kirk was very much a builder’s architect, designing buildings with their construction in mind. He adapted to his work Mies van der Rohe’s joins, which indirectly deliver the stresses of beam and support. Grant Hildebrand and T. William Booth, in A Thriving Modernism, praised Kirk for his “delicate wooden modernism” and his “remarkably slender” wooden structural members.
Kirk used the Pacific Northwest’s natural resources in an almost decorative manner. His exteriors are often long expanses of wall with traditional Pacific Northwest building methods – shiplap, clapboard, and cedar shingle – whose surface interest he further exploited with a crisp, clean look. He chose the simple rectilinear geometry of Modernism for its low cost and worked it as elegantly as possible. This relationship of Modernist geometric form and the texture of the natural material is one of his trademarks.
Kirk was critical of the International Style and its known problems in heating and cooling. He emphasized awareness of the environment and the relationship to outdoor spaces, landscaping, and site. His experimentation with low-cost and low-impact housing resulted in new roofing methods, requiring no interior load-bearing walls or perimeter foundation. To maximize light in Seattle’s temperate climate, he expanded windows from floor to ceiling.
Kirk was a modernist who honored the human response in his architecture. He admired Scandinavian and Japanese design. In the Scandinavian, he saw the warmth and humanity of buildings. In Japanese buildings, he admired screening, modular systems, large simple windows and doors, and the integration of inside and outside living spaces. In his own words, he characterized his particular style as “sculptural, muscular, and flamboyant.”
Other early Kirk buildings include the Blakeley Clinic and Group Health Cooperative Clinic at Northgate. Later buildings include many on the University of Washington campus, such as the Faculty Center and Meany Hall. (For a gorgeous photograph of Meany Hall, click here for Otto Greule Photography.) He designed the French Administration Building at Washington State University, the familiar Intiman Playhouse, and the Seattle Library Branch in Magnolia.
Other churches designed by Kirk are the Japanese Presbyterian Church and the Church of the Brethren and its interior. Kirk won a national American Institute of Architects’ Merit Award for his design of the Japanese Presbyterian Church in 1965. The UUC interior and the interior of the Japanese Presbyterian Church share many similarities.
Eventually, Kirk also shared a personal affiliation with the church through marriage. Walter and Helen Richardson, members of Seattle’s First Unitarian Church, served as soloist and organist for UUC. Their daughter, Helen, was born during that time and received a silver baby spoon as a gift from the congregation. Many years later, she married Paul Hayden Kirk. He was a friend of UUC, his memorial was held at the church when he died in 1995.
University of Washington scholars Grant Hildebrand and T. William Booth say that Modernist architects, at least in the US, were informed by Emerson, Thoreau, and Horatio Greenough, who all argued that to revive the gothic in church buildings was inauthentic.
There has been an enormous resistance to Modernism, felt perhaps most keenly in regard to church spaces. Modernist buildings have been called “reductionist”, “oppressive,” “weird” and “ugly”. (Religious critics of Modernist church buildings remark on the atheism, agnosticism, or at least the Protestantism of the architects of the period.)
This resistance comes, in part, from the way that Modernism challenged both the previous style and the religious assumptions embedded in it.
The mid-19th century Gothic Revival, codified by the well-meaning John Ruskin, taught churchgoers an architectural language of church structure, which in Modernist buildings is entirely absent. In the United States, Gothic Revival and other shorter-lived architectural styles have examples from the lovely to the grotesque to the ridiculous. The years following the Gothic Revival had a few styles of note, but none of these movements was as broadly successful as Modernism.
Modernism eschews ogees and roundels, domes and niches, colored glass, soaring vaults, buttresses, and overwhelming decoration. It expresses serenity, individuality, intellectualism, and meditative focus with new shapes, spaces, and light.
Frank Lloyd Wright, an outspoken architectural genius and also a Unitarian, designed many beautiful Unitarian Universalist churches. He once said that the upward reach of church steeples was a misdirection based on “anxiety” about heaven.
The intentional stripping-away of ornament in Modernism creates a new kind of space that focuses the viewer inward, to contemplation, calm, and stillness. There is little to distract the viewer. As a result, it expresses serenity, individuality, intellectualism, and meditative focus with new shapes, spaces, and light.
Modernism was a response to all that preceded it and more: it was an intentional desire to create something new for the modern era. As an example of Modernist architecture, our building informs our individual spiritual lives, encouraging us to seek meaning within its walls and within ourselves. It houses and feeds us. Our building is a living thing. And like any living thing, it groans with age in some places. But it is a beautiful space in which to quietly contemplate our spiritual lives and how we may live them more fully.
Long-time member, Morris Jellison, worked for Paul Hayden Kirk several years after University Unitarian was built. He noted that preliminary sketches showed a round sanctuary, far different from the final rectangular form.
In the early to mid-20th century, Modernism grew out of the needs of a changing world. Population growth and new technologies, like mass transit and mass production, required new structures, including stations and factories.
In architecture, Modernism is characterized by the use of industrial methods and materials and by a sculptural approach to space. It is from Modernism that we have the now ubiquitous design dictum that “form follows function.” The buildings evoked the spirit of Modernist “progress” and the hope and wonders of technology. Typically, a Modernist building has repeated geometric forms, large unbroken planes, a certain lack of ornamentation, visible use of industrial materials that informs the design, and the agreement of the exterior structure with the interior space.
In Europe, architects in many different countries were developing their own forms of Modernism. This loose collective became an architectural movement known as the International Style, led perhaps most famously by Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. American Modernism’s great architects include Louis Kahn, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Modernism was supposed to solve problems with engineering. Unfortunately, Modernist buildings are very susceptible to leaks, provide poor spaces for working or expansion, and report other faulty systems. Still, with an emphasis on minimal ornamentation, Modernist buildings are beautiful in their structure and space.
On a site devoted to Modernist architecture, playfully named docomomo WEWA, you will find a biography of Kirk, as well as information on other architects, styles, and preservation. Docomomo WEWA stands for Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement in Western Washington.
Excellent article on our neighbor Modernist building, the Seattle Public Library Northeast branch
Seattle’s AIA awards from 1950- Lists the Seattle American Institute of Architects’ honorees since the award began.
ArchitectureWeek Magazine’s Great Buildings database. Search here to find great Unitarian church buildings as well as hundreds of others.