- If current plans work out, this building will be gone by the middle of 2016 and a new building will be under construction in its place.
Hugo House Executive Director Tree Swenson has not made a secret of the fact that the literary nonprofit is facing some big changes. Early this year, she floated the idea of expanding the House into a conglomeration of literary nonprofits, along the lines of Minnesota's Loft Literary Center. It was clear that she wanted to start a conversation about what the future of Hugo House will look like. Today, an important part of that future has become official: Hugo House announced that its property on 11th Avenue will be undergoing development in the very near future, and that once construction is done, the House will be located in the new building.
To understand the news, you need to understand the House's current relationship with its property. For two decades now, Hugo House hasn't paid any rent or facility costs to the owners of the property. As Capitol Hill development has exploded over the last decade, the House's future has been in doubt. "The ownership group is devoted to Hugo House, but trying to figure out a way to allow us to stay here has not been easy," Swenson says. Earlier this year, she was in conversation with the Office of Arts and Culture about Capitol Hill's recent designation as an Arts District. Swenson was delighted to be part of the discussion, she says, but "I didn’t know for sure we’d be here" on Capitol Hill over the next few years.
Real estate investment firm Meriwether Partners LLC is developing the project, which will include up to 15,000 square feet of commercial/retail space on the first floor and up to five stories of housing above. Joel Aslanian, a principal at Meriwether, confirms that an architect has yet to be chosen for the project, but the goal is to "have the entire design team on board prior to the end of the year." Once that happens, Aslanian says, "the public process, sort of the official city process, should begin in the first quarter of next year. if things progress as we expect, the project would be fully designed over the course of next year and ready to start production at the beginning of 2016."
The House will continue operations up until construction begins, and then it will host classes and events in locations all over the city before moving into the new space. They plan to employ all their staff members through the construction process. "We’re going to have this new facility across the park from a new light rail station," Swenson says. "How great is that?"
Swenson is quick to point out that "Hugo House is not doing this project"—that they're only the beneficiaries of the decisions of the ownership group. She has no idea at this early stage what the new Hugo House will look like. "We want spaces for classes, a space for readings, a place where writers can gather and have intense conversations, but beyond that it’s all to be determined." As the design process gets under way, Hugo House will start bringing in teachers and writers and readers to talk about what they'd like to see in the new location. "Nonprofits belong to the community so I believe that the community has to be involved in the decisions," she says.
Hugo House has been home to thousands of events through the years—book launch parties, memorial services, open mics, book fairs, pizza parties, write-a-thons—and many will miss the building when it finally comes down. The building was slowly falling apart—Swenson says one of the most exciting aspects of moving into a new building is that "we won’t have to be distracted all the time by things that are breaking and broken" they way they are now—and some kind of change was inevitable. When the time comes, Swenson and Hugo House staff will throw a party to give the space a proper sendoff.