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Originally published January 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 7, 2008 at 10:04 AM

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Lionel Pries: Rebuilding a legacy

It's never too late to make amends for harm done. Fifty years after a dark episode in University of Washington history, a new book on the late Seattle architect Lionel Pries goes a long way to restore some of the honor that once surrounded his name.

Seattle Times art critic


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It's never too late to make amends for harm done. Fifty years after a dark episode in University of Washington history, a new book on the late Seattle architect Lionel Pries goes a long way to restore some of the honor that once surrounded his name.

Pries was one of the region's foremost architectural designers and instructors, an old-school Beaux Arts advocate who also led the way in Northwest modernism, designing some of the region's most distinctive and progressive houses in the 1930s to '50s.

Pries (pronounced Prees) taught at the University of Washington during that time, helping shape the thinking and the skills of many of the Northwest's top architects: Paul Kirk, Roland Terry, Victor Steinbrueck, Fred Bassetti, Robert Shields and Wendell Lovett, to name a few. But after 30 years of exemplary service, Pries was forced to resign when University of Washington administrators learned that he was gay.

"He lost everything"

UW professor and architectural historian Jeffrey Ochsner's book "Lionel Pries: Architect, Artist, Educator: From Arts and Crafts to Modern Architecture" (UW Press, $60) spells out why and how, at the age of 61, Pries was turned out with no pension. Mortified and in need of money, he had to accept demeaning positions as a draftsman and designer, working for former students and associates.

At the UW, students and faculty were told that Pries left because he was ill and did not want to hear from any of them. Ten years later, when Pries died in 1968, there were no obituaries at the university touting his architectural achievements or spelling out the legacy of his brilliant teaching career. Seattle newspapers published perfunctory notices.

"He lost all his retirement. He lost everything. It was outrageous," said Keith Kolb, a UW professor emeritus and longtime friend of Pries'. Kolb studied with Pries in the 1940s and later returned to UW to teach. Yet even though Kolb and his wife lived near Pries' Laurelhurst home and continued to visit him often after he stopped teaching, Kolb never found out until after Pries died why he had left the university.

The story came as a shock. Kolb — along with many other architecture students — had boarded at Pries' house while in school. Several students each year would rent Pries' spare rooms and, Kolb said, felt honored to do so. Kolb never had a clue that Pries was homosexual. "I concluded that the university was at fault, not Spike," Kolb said, using Pries' nickname. "We had no idea. None of us knew he was in the closet. One friend who lived there still doesn't believe it to this day."

"There was a story here"

No written record was kept of Pries' forced resignation, says Ochsner, who first became aware of Pries' career when he edited the 1994 book "Shaping Seattle Architecture." After reading the essay by Drew Rocker on Pries' work, Ochsner went to the UW Libraries Special Collections to see what other information was available. What he found piqued his curiosity: Among Pries' papers were signed blueline drawings by Mexican architect Juan O'Gorman (who designed innovative connecting houses for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in the early 1930s). What were those doing here?

Ochsner decided to do a little digging. He talked with Pries' old friend, Kolb, and got a research grant to go to California, where he explored Pries' early life and work, and visited his heir Robert Winskill.

"It was very clear there was a story here," Ochsner said. "The more I interviewed, the more all these aspects of Pries' life came together." Ochsner discovered Pries had been director of Seattle's Art Institute before it became Seattle Art Museum; he was an accomplished watercolorist as well as a collector of Japanese art, ancient textiles and Northwest Native American artifacts; he had traveled extensively in Mexico and was friends with O'Gorman, whose ideas helped inform Pries' thinking about modern architecture; and Pries was friends with (and had done design work for) renowned Taxco, Mexico, silver designer and manufacturer William Spratling.

Still, at the beginning, Ochsner couldn't have foreseen how far his fascination with the material would eventually lead — or imagine that years later he would be seated beneath a row of Lionel Pries oil paintings in the expansive living room of a Pries-designed house that he and his wife now own.

Ochsner admits he's become a little obsessed with his subject — and it's easy to see why.

Pries' early days

Born in San Francisco in 1897, Pries grew up in a modest house in Oakland. One of his vivid early memories was watching across the bay in 1906, as San Francisco went up in flames after the great earthquake. Pries' father worked in the city at Gump's, an import store specializing in Asian artifacts, and visiting the showrooms no doubt was a formative experience for young Lionel, who showed an early aptitude for drawing, color and design.

When it came time for college, Pries (called Spike, because he was so thin), enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, studying architecture from a curriculum based on the program of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

After finishing at the top of his class in 1920, Pries went on to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania to study with Paul Phillippe Cret. There he won a number of design awards and barely missed the Rome Prize — a great disappointment. But with the LeBrun Fellowship in hand, Pries was still able to take a leisurely "grand tour" of Europe before settling back in California to practice architecture in 1923. Ochsner's book details all Pries' known projects around the Bay Area and Southern California.

In 1928, an offer from a former Penn classmate, William Bain, lured Pries north to Seattle to become a partner in Bain's firm. Pries began teaching at UW the same year.

Bain and Pries thrived for the first two years of their practice and turned out lots of roomy, handsome, tastefully detailed traditional houses in multiple styles (a number of them in the gated Broadmoor development), as well as a landmark Capitol Hill apartment building, The Bel-Roy (at 703 Bellevue Ave. E.). They kept working after the stock market crash of '29, but eventually economic hard times caught up with them and the firm dissolved in about 1931. Pries began to accept residential and design projects independently while continuing to teach at the UW.

Work reflected Northwest

Several things make Pries' design work stand out. Perhaps because of his extensive travels in Mexico, where modern architecture embraced both indigenous art and contemporary murals, Pries was likely the first in Seattle to incorporate Northwest Coast Indian and Asian design motifs into his houses and interiors. He designed to fit the specifics of each site, with tall windows and living spaces wrapped around gardens hidden from the street. Using shoji screens, mosaic work, wood paneling, seared cedar siding, open floor plans and horizontal geometries, Pries houses combine concrete block and industrial materials with handcrafted detailing — models of what we now think of as classic Northwest regional architecture. It's just that we usually associate those attributes with Pries' students instead of him.

In his book, Ochsner tries to do it all: outline Pries' biography, account for his known buildings and designs, record the history of UW's architectural department and place it all in the context of the times. As Ochsner unfolds the story, he pans in and out, from details about Pries' life and work to the way architectural education developed in the U.S.

If occasionally things bog down in information, most of the book is surprisingly juicy. "Lionel Pries" is packaged as a coffee-table book — with loads of illustrations showing Pries' houses and artwork — but at times it reads more like a thriller. You immediately care about Pries and his work, and want to know what happened to him.

"A Renaissance man"

Beyond the houses he built and the interiors he designed, Pries was a masterful watercolorist and draftsman. In 1936, his watercolor "Volcanoland" won first place in the popular vote at SAM's Northwest Annual exhibition. (Second and third place went to two prominent Seattle artists, Eustace Ziegler and Malcolm Roberts.)

"Spike had the amazing ability to sit down and effortlessly draw anything that he was looking at," said Winskill, Pries' friend and heir. "He was really a Renaissance man, in that he could draw, he could paint, he could design." He was also a skilled engineer and an avid craftsman, Winskill said. Once when visiting the house Pries designed for himself in Laurelhurst, Winskill noticed that the floor-to-ceiling living-room windows had no draperies. The following week when he stopped by, the windows were covered with shoji screens that Pries had built himself.

"His genius at work"

This isn't the place to spell out the repressive political and legal environment of the 1950s that led to Pries' dismissal from the University: Ochsner does all that in the book. But Winskill says that if any good came of the painful ending to Pries' teaching career, it was a degree of freedom in his personal life. After decades of excruciating care to keep his students and colleagues absolutely in the dark about his sexuality, Pries was able to be at least a bit more open about his gay relationships in the final years of his life. And for people who wanted to know why he quit teaching? "He wouldn't lie. He just wouldn't talk about it."

One day in 1968, while Pries was in the hospital recovering from a heart attack, his old friend Kolb visited him. Pries told him: "Well, I'm through with architecture. I'm not going to do it anymore. All I want to do is work in my garden."

The following day, Pries died. In a newspaper notice about Pries' memorial, architect James Chiarelli reportedly spoke for a crowd of a hundred friends and associates when he said: "The minute you stepped into the courtyard of the house he designed, you could feel his genius at work."

Now, with the publication of Ochsner's book, the rest of us can get a sense of it, too.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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