M otel odor is different from hotel odor. This is what separates the two. A hotel smells, if you smell it at all, like effort: the effort to cleanse or to cover over everything that smells. The particular magic of a hotel is that, through a certain overall system of strenuousness, it subtracts residue with every guest rather than adds it. (Full disclosure: I used to be a hotel maid.) When the residue begins to build up in a hotel, that's when it becomes a motel. A motel is like a body. Lying down in it, you're lying down with someone. Who is it? You could spend all of your time in a motel just lying there and thinking about this question if it weren't so unsettling. Touching things feels too personal. "I sho did wear flip flops in the shower," someone who identified himself as David M. wrote in a review posted to the internet of the Eighth Avenue Inn, the motel located in the no-man's-land between South Lake Union and the retail core downtown. David M. tried describing the deathy smells: The AC was a "urinal," the heater was "burnt human hair," and somewhere was "ferret carcass."
David M.'s fetid room may be the same room where, now, an angel-faced, delicate teenage boy in purple pants sits nervously on his first day away from home. "I always wanted to leave Texas—"
His mother interrupts him: "He announced it when he was 4."
They smile at each other. The boy's father, stepmother, and older sister are also in the room, and the boy, named John Pyburn, is the family oddball—the sister has a finance degree and all three parents work at oil companies, while he's at art school—but in what seems like a peaceable way. "We're afraid to tell people on the West Coast what we do," the mother says, and they all laugh. Laughter is in the air all up and down the smelly corridors of the motel, as parents like John's drop off their babies at what was until very recently a dingy motel, surrounded by other fetid "inns," car-rental lots, a liquor store, a Midas, and a 24-hour greasy spoon painted forest green and camel/vomit called the Hurricane Cafe. It's an unsightly little valley—an anti-neighborhood—with an almost sarcastically good view of the Space Needle. This valley is the cradle of the first dorms that Cornish College of the Arts, in its 95 years of existence, has ever had.
The historic move-in day was last Sunday, kicking off even before the 9:00 a.m. start time because there were already families lining up around the block of Cornish's main building. All day, 200 students and their parents carted in boxes and suitcases and refrigerators and guitars and amps and cameras and printers and lamps and posters. What used to be the Eighth Avenue Inn gradually transformed into the Eighth Avenue Residence Hall. Across the street, what used to be the Days Inn became the Seventh Avenue Residence Hall. (They need better names, obviously.)
The block changed overnight. It's like two ant farms were plopped down in a deserted alley. Until now, the students at Cornish—a private art school with departments in theater and performance production, art and design, dance, and music—had to find their own housing. Most of them still will, since the college is only requiring first-year students to live in the dorms. But the dorms are a step toward a long-term plan for a unified Cornish, rather than its current split model (half the campus is on Capitol Hill). They also make Cornish more attractive in the endless bid to keep enrollment up.
In the last two months of scrambling renovation, the carpets have been changed, but certain things are still the same. The former motel signs haven't been removed—only emptied of logos and words. Where once there was a giant sun rising over the words "Days Inn" along Seventh Avenue at Blanchard Street, now there's just a giant white sunrise shape that glows like a pointless false moon at night. To avoid freaking out the students, only RAs live in the rooms that look out on the radiant alien. It may be freaky, but it's also the best thing about the entire block.
Inside on moving day, cuteness and enthusiasm rule. In hotel-motel terms, Cornish is a Four Seasons: Tuition is about $30,000 a year, and the room-and-board plans add something like $9,000. But nobody is complaining about the lingering motelness of the buildings and their location. Every door is decorated with signs of the students' names according to the floor's set theme (old-school video games, bug-virus creatures, literary figures like Yeats and Beckett, trees). Cornish staff and RAs wear unbelievably bright blue T-shirts to distinguish themselves. There seems to be an undue amount of clapping. New roommates are making a second level of assumptions about each other, most having met on Facebook already. There's no overarching style: In one room, Erika from Covington is in all black (black Mohawk, black trench coat in closet, black sheets on bed); her roommate, Miranda from Sun Valley, is in a short white dress and has white sheets. (It's weird.) They were matched based on a short application form. ("Neither one has body-odor issues," Miranda's mom says. "They discussed that.") In another room, two ready-for-TV-pretty best friends from Colorado have replaced their motel odor with "essential oils," set up an herbal-tea station, and stashed their organic lollipops. Susanna Daly, a musical-theater hopeful, leads her mother, Betsy, into her room (it's a theater family: Betsy was on Broadway "a hundred years ago" and her husband, Joe, is an acting teacher), and they agree it's a palace compared to the dorm rooms in New York. It's big. It has its own bathroom—a universal perk of the motel-dorm. The Dalys wanted Susanna to go to Cornish, but worried she'd have to get her own apartment. When Cornish announced it would have dorms, the deal was done.
After-hours, parents (and everyone else) are banished. There's a mandatory 9:00 p.m. meeting in each hall. From the door of the Hurricane across the street, an entirely new scene is visible in the dorm windows. The man lodged between the legs of a lady at the diner's entrance does not notice this yet, nor does the lady. They remain there for a while, then disappear into the bar side of the restaurant.
By 10:00 p.m., a handful of students are eating burgers in the sticky red booths beneath framed photographs of the destruction caused by Hurricane Andrew. An espresso machine on a cart near the door hasn't worked for more than a year because nobody liked it enough to clean it. Two regulars (holding positions 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 on the high-score list of the video game Time Crisis inside the door) are not thrilled that the place is about to become an art-school hangout, but they don't elaborate, they just shrug. Outside, under the great pointless false moon, two art students light cigarettes as they cross the street to the Hurricane. On the sidewalk behind them, a homeless man with a pit bull pretends to hit another homeless man in the head with a pint carton of milk. Welcome to art school.
Full disclosure: Jen Graves teaches contemporary art history on an adjunct basis at Cornish.
This story has been updated since its original publication.