Sunday, April 4, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Living

Housing Between The Wars -- Paul Thiry Is Seattle's Architect Of Modernism

THE PUSH AND PULL OF progress in America is told in its residential communities developed between the world wars, after architects were exposed to the exciting ideas of European designers - Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Robert Mallet-Stevens and Le Corbusier.

These architects promoted austere cubist houses with flat roofs, white stucco walls, minimal ornament and large expanses of glass. Le Corbusier's famed demonstration residence, described as a "machine for living," drew awe and controversy at the Paris Exposition International des Art Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925.

American architects admired these design breakthroughs, but rarely got to explore the trend on their own turf. Homemakers here were reading Elsie de Wolfe's "The House in Good Taste," which encouraged comfortable, traditional interiors. At the same time, the popular magazines House Beautiful and House and Garden were mouthpieces and sales tools for historically inspired residential design.

Seattle simply followed the traditional attitudes shaping residential neighborhoods throughout America. Between the wars, it was a fertile ground for romantic brick and half-timbered English and French cottages and country homes and Spanish colonial mini-mansions.

Not all architects chose to follow the norm. One Seattle architect, excited about the new architecture, made it his own. Paul Thiry is respected for his valuable contributions as supervising

architect of the Century 21 exposition grounds (now Seattle Center) and for the designs of the Coliseum, the Museum of History and Industry, and many churches throughout the Northwest, including St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church. His talents in the broader field of urban design led to master plans for Western Washington University in Bellingham and for Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.

In the mid-1930s, however, just beginning his own practice, he built houses for himself and other clients in traditional neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill, Leschi, Denny Blaine and Madison Park. He and contractor Edwin C. Edwards developed some double lots on the hillside above Lake Washington Boulevard near Denny Blaine. Several were historic revival-styled homes that "fit right in." But Thiry's home and the home he designed for Edwards were in the "modern" style, and drew mixed reviews from many passers-by. Even as late as 1979, former owner Eve Alvord recalls, a friend tersely commented, "Oh, that house - maybe graphics will help."

The Edwards residence has new owners now, artist Norman Lundin and his wife, Dr. Shirley Johnson. They are enjoying the labors of Eve and Chap Alvord III, who lived there over a decade and directed two periods of expansion and refurbishing.

Before beginning their project, they contacted Thiry, then in his 80s and still managing an architectural office. Eve Alvord recalls telling him, "We want the addition to stay with your vision." Thiry made some preliminary sketches but it fell to architect Rob Widmeyer, now a partner in the Seattle firm of Loschky, Marquardt and Nesholm, to realize the vision, both in 1981 and 1987.

Widmeyer appreciated the historic importance of this house. It represented "an architectural experiment, with its open plan, simple expression of structure, and industrial sash. It expressed confidence in the new modernism. It was also a house that was easy to alter and make additions to." In 1981, a master bedroom, breakfast nook and sunroom were added to the rear of the house. In 1987, the master bedroom was extended further, above a new main-floor library and a basement guest room.

Widmeyer used Thiry's vocabulary of simple boxes - punctuated with corner industrial sash windows, varied ceiling heights and raised areas, curved walls, metal railings and occasional glass block - to make his addition read like the original while allowing it to grow to approximately 3,800 square feet.

New aluminum thermal windows were installed with the same proportions as the original metal sash, and the mullions are painted black on the outside to read as closely as possible to the originals. The original glass block in the living room was matched for the adjoining sun room. A curving glass-block wall defines a breakfast nook that replaces an exterior brick patio. By using glass French doors to separate the living and dining rooms from the sunroom and library, the architect succeeded in retaining the open feeling of the original house.

The exterior facade, painted taupe instead of the cool white of the original, is less strident in its assertion of "modern" But it remains a remarkably crisp, clean, and fresh piece of architecture, as up-to-date today as it was ahead of its time in 1936 Seattle. It is a credit to Thiry's vision. ----------------------------------- SPRING LECTURE SERIES

Historic Seattle's Annual Spring Lecture Series and Tour will focus on Seattle architecture during the 1920s and 1930s.

The series runs weekly April 14 through May 5 (Wednesday evenings 7 to 9 p.m.)The four scheduled sessions include:

April 14 - Seattle Between the Wars: An Overview.

April 21 - Commercial Architecture: Buildings with a Future.

April 28 - Residential Design of the '20s and '30s.

May 5 - Decorative Arts.

On Saturday, May 8, there will be a tour of 1920s and 1930s residences.

Registration for the program is $45 for Historic Seattle members, $50 for nonmembers. For information and registration, contact Historic Seattle Lecture Series, 605 First Avenue, Suite 100, Seattle, WA 98104; 622-6952.

Lawrence Kreisman is author of six publications on regional architecture and historic preservation. He is participating in Historic Seattle's spring lecture series. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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