Hugo House—the writing center that has existed in a gray-green house looking out on Cal Anderson Park for as long as anyone can remember—is moving. Beginning in June of 2016, it will partner with the Frye and operate out of a multiple-occupant residence built by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle on the corner of Boren and Columbia.
Hugo House will make use of its proximity to the Frye by holding its full schedule of readings there, while also using the new space, Elliott Bay Book Company, and the Sorrento Hotel for additional events. Meanwhile, the old funeral home that currently houses the literary organization will be demolished in June. It will be an event. Hugo House cofounder Frances McCue, who's working with filmmaker Ryan Adams on a full-length documentary about her life and times at Hugo House called Where the House Was, will have a camera crew there to film the teardown of the adorably homely home. There will be "lawn chairs lined up," she told me in an interview about the project, which, you should know, is in no way officially affiliated with Hugo House. McCue told me that she doesn't want the documentary of the property's destruction to be a "sad sack nostalgic" film about the property itself: "That building is done; it's over," she said.
Trying to portray the destruction of a rickety old building that aesthetically aligns with the idea of the rough-but-lovable Seattle of yore as NOT nostalgic sounds like a challenge. And even if the film doesn't turn out to be a drooping sack of nostalgia that feeds dogmatic antidevelopment sentiments, it's difficult to resist the urge to generally curse the Solowheeling tech set and the developers who build Tupperware condos for them. But from what I can tell from speaking to her, Where the House Was will ultimately be much more about McCue's understandable nostalgia than the literary organization she cofounded, which makes sense. She held a memorial service for her husband in that house. However, and as far as the rest of us are concerned, I can hear the "There goes the neighborhood" refrains echoing around Capitol Hill and in my own head already, and I'm already annoyed by them.
It's important to separate the nostalgia for positive experiences at Hugo House from the nostalgia for the building at 1634 11th Avenue. The nostalgia for the positive experiences part is necessary and good—it's the lifeblood of any organization. Those stories and memories guide institutions into the future by reminding them what's worked and not worked in the past. But the nostalgia for the building, the houseyness of it, the rough-but-lovable-idea-of-Seattle-ness of it, seems misplaced.
Hugo House's current old-timey exterior makes it easy to forget that the organization was founded on first-wave tech money. In the late 1990s, Linda Breneman (then Linda Jaech, partner of Jeremy Jaech, founding member of Aldus Software, which became Adobe) bought the place on 11th and let Hugo House run programs there without paying rent. The current ownership team—Hugo Properties LLC, which is composed of Breneman and Linda and Ted Johnson—is now making it possible for Hugo House to own a permanent space in the new building. According to Joel Aslanian, a principal at the investment firm that's managing the development, upon completion of construction, Hugo Properties will "sell" Hugo House its new facility, which will be in the same spot at 1634 11th Avenue, "for a significant discount to cost (not to mention value)." So Hugo House will own its new facility thanks to sympathetic tech people (who, in Breneman's case at least, also happen to be literary people) with tons of money.
Moreover, the organization was named after a poet who never stepped foot in the house itself, a guy whose life's work involved reimagining ghost towns gutted out by the decline of the Pacific Northwest's natural-resources economy. You should hear what the people of Dixon, Montana, have to say about the way Richard Hugo characterized their town in his poem "The Only Bar in Dixon." (They didn't like it.)
But the lesson here isn't that there's not much of a "there" there at the house on 11th Avenue (though really there's not much), or that nothing's sacred, or that people in small towns don't appreciate poetry, or that you shouldn't name buildings after people. Hugo, after all, was a scrappy kid from White Center with mean, alcoholic grandparents, and the better part of his spirit, his poetry, embodies HH's mission in a meaningful way. The lesson is that the world is more complex than the amber world of nostalgia, and that arts organizations such as Hugo House that champion necessary but bizarrely culturally maligned art forms are smart to appeal to and work with the wealthy tech people with philanthropic bents.
Moreover, the new building is going to be better for the people who spend the most time at Hugo House—the workers and the students—than the current house is. "I've walked into a classroom and seen people with coats on," said Tree Swenson, executive director of the organization. She claims Hugo House has tried to fix the heat multiple times, but the building is old and uninsulated, so nothing really worked. "The air conditioning doesn't do its job, either," she said.
I asked Kristen Steenbeeke, marketing director for Hugo House, if she'd ever struggled with the building before. "One time it took six of us to open a window," she said, before adding, "and I have one working outlet in my office."
Compared with their corporate corollaries, people who work for nonprofits are already taking a pay cut for the sake of making a difference in the world. They don't need the added, nearly cartoonish injury of having to wear a coat in their office. The same goes for the students who attend classes there. Not shivering or sweating profusely in a classroom tends to help lessons stick.
If you have any nostalgia for the building that houses Hugo House, try to transfer those feelings into gratitude for the angel investors who want to live in a city that's enriched by literary arts.
The move to the Frye will do some good to that end. Since Hugo House will, for the time being, host readings in the Frye's crisper digs, the interim situation aesthetically bridges the gap between Hugo House in the old funeral home and Hugo House in the fancy new six-story, mixed-use building to which it will return by 2018, assuming all goes well. And, unlike the soon-to-be-bulldozed house, this new building will embody what Hugo House has been for the last few years: a sophisticated literary organization designed to support Seattle's writing community. If nothing else, it will at least contain a sufficient number of outlets.