There's no getting around it. The new Hugo House, which is now scheduled to open July 2018, will have none of the old Hugo House's homey charms, despite the fact that some floorboards from the old place were used to construct the bar in this new one.
I prefer this brick, wood, and glass exterior to the cardboard corpse flowers blossoming everywhere else, but the new mixed-use building obviously isn't as delightfully dilapidated as the old funeral home. Inside, brushed cement and bright lights will replace the creaky floorboards and dim lamps, which would, at times, conspire to create the illusion you were hearing a world-class literary talent in the equivalent of your friend's house. And the new 150-seat auditorium won't serve as a cute three-week rental spot for theater any more.
But all that "charming" stuff kinda sucked! I felt so bad walking across the creaking floorboards while someone was giving a reading! And the "cabaret" was more cramped than cozy for big events. The theater was clearly falling apart. The classrooms were awkwardly arranged and semi-depressing. And there were only four iffy commodes in the whole place. There will be NINE beautifully secure, gender neutral bathrooms in the new spot. The climate will be controlled for the first time in Hugo House history. And there will be six spacious classrooms instead of four, which will allow the organization to offer "40 percent more adult classes and [to] serve 60 percent more youth," according to a press release. Check it out:
Hugo House executive director Tree Swenson is excited to show off renderings of the new digs in light of being awarded a $1.032 million Building for the Arts grant from Washington State. "This is just a huge milestone for us. It means that everything starts moving again. We’ve been on hold even in our ability to go out for a bid for contractors," Swenson said.
In order to complete construction of the new place, the Hugo House needed to raise $7.1 million dollars, which amounts to seven times the org's annual budget. With an extremely generous boost from a founder and some earlier supporters—Linda Breneman, Linda Johnson, and Ted Johnson—they launched the campaign to raise the money in 2015. Fundraising and construction efforts were delayed last summer when the Hugo House didn't receive a grant they thought they were going to receive. Delays resulted in increased construction cost and many headaches, Swenson says.
The new Building for the Arts grant puts fundraising efforts back on track. So far the House has scooped up two grants from King County, one from the city of Seattle, and many large gifts from foundations and individuals, but this grant "really puts us within shouting distance" of their goal, Swenson said. "As of Monday we’ll be asking everyone who has ever had everything to do with Hugo House to contribute, whatever amount is comfortable," she added.
After working hard the last couple years to remove possible barriers to entry, Swenson says the number of people who have been involved with the Hugo House has been increasing.
Swenson was concerned the move to the interim spot over on First Hill would result in fewer people taking classes, but she claims the Hugo House has had more class registrations in 2017 than ever before. Offering free creative writing workshops at Seattle Public Library branches, investing in scholarships, and hosting larger events at Fred Wildlife Refuge has helped raise interest, and not only among the crowd of older people who typically populate the classes.
Swenson hasn't finished drawing up the demographics report for 2017 yet, but she's confident there's been a positive "shift" in the number of younger people and people of color attending events. "We're trying to make sure we're living up to our vision, which is opening up the literary world to anyone who loves books, or who has the drive to write—not just those who can afford to attend an expensive MFA program," she said.
For those who've spent years surrounded by piles of books, it can be difficult to communicate fully the importance of a thriving literary institution such as the Hugo House. The tools of writing and literary analysis are so woven into our worldview, so embedded into our brains, that they're hard to separate as discrete, "valuable" skills. But I can't imagine waking up on gray day and walking the long blocks to work, or reading one of the President's terrible tweets, or even doing whatever the fuck a supply chain manager does without the option, at least, to access the levels of personal reflection afforded to me by the practice of reading and writing.
During our phone conversation, Swenson quoted a line attributed to E.M. Forster: "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"
You don't. It's all a swirl of nonsense and contingencies until you write the sentence down, read it back to yourself, and either feel embarrassed for being an idiot or proud of articulating something you actually believe (for the time being), or something that you actually feel (for once).
If you're interested in helping Seattleites learn that skill, check out the new Hugo House website and chip in a few bucks if you you can.