Walking into Hugo House's new (and permanent!) home on 11th Avenue, I expected a wave of sadness to wash over me. The old house was a sagging, gray-green former funeral home with creaky boards, undulating carpet, chipped paint, horrific bathrooms, strange corridors, and a baby coffin in the basement. It was lived-in. A place only a writer could love.
Now it is a ginormous-feeling, climate-controlled facility with 17-foot windows in the lobby, sleek booths where writers can plug away at laptops, quiet nooks for reading, multimodal event spaces, incredible bathrooms, and a leafy courtyard on the ground floor.
"The whole idea is flexible, flexible, flexible," says Hugo House executive director Tree Swenson, who for the last two years has been fundraising (for the new space) and running the organization out of a (can we say it now?) cramped and dismal temporary location on First Hill. (No offense to the Frye Art Museum, which was kind enough to lease the space in a pinch.)
Design firm NBBJ took inspiration from Richard Hugo's inimitable book of poetics The Triggering Town. In it, Hugo bucks conventional writerly wisdom by arguing that poets should write what they don't know. This way, they'll write with the sense of exploration and wonder that comes when you plunge into the unknown. "In the world of imagination, all things belong," Hugo writes.
You'll find that line painted on the ceiling of one of the new classrooms, each of which has its own slightly different personality. All the classrooms have the same smart screens, tables, and white boards, but outside they're different heights, different colors, and wrapped in different materials.
Each provides a different little window for students who want to escape the four walls of the classroom. One window looks out onto a wall of books, while a window in another classroom is cut into the ceiling, revealing the Hugo quote. Looking at the rooms from down a hallway, they do resemble a row of houses in Hugo's Triggering Town.
I'm also happy to report that—like the new classrooms—the new auditorium rules. Approximately 150 chairs can fit in the main space. The ceilings are high and the stage is mobile. Staffers can manipulate scrims and a big door to shorten the space for more intimate readings or expand it to fit 200. The new place also allows them to run multiple readings and classes at the same time, which was impossible with the thin walls and leaky doors of yore.
Still, Swenson says she doesn't really know how they'll use the space until they start getting students and writers through the doors.
Everyone will get their first look on Saturday, September 22, at the grand reopening celebration. Seattle civic poet and former Hugo House poet-in-residence Anastacia Reneé will headline the evening. Fantastic local poets Quenton Baker and Amber Flame will join her, along with memoirist Nicole Hardy and current Hugo House writer-in-residence Kristen Millares Young, who is a mind-blowing nonfiction writer. Bushwick Book Club will transform a book into song, and KEXP's DJ Gabriel Teodros will oversee the evening dance party.
If you're feeling too nostalgia-sad to dance, be sure to grab a drink from the bar. It's built with the wood from the floors of the old Hugo House.