Pries, Lionel H.
(1897 – 1968)
Born in San Francisco on June 1, 1897, Lionel H. Pries grew up in Oakland. Through his father’s work at Gump’s, the legendary importer of European and Asian fine art and craft objects, Pries became familiar with a wide range of artistic traditions. He studied architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, receiving his B.A. in 1920. The next year he studied at the University of Pennsylvania under the legendary teacher Paul Cret and received his M.A. in 1921. In 1922 Pries won the LeBrun Traveling Scholarship enabling him to spend the next thirteen months in Europe.
In fall 1923, on his return from Europe, Pries moved back to the Bay Area. He opened his own office the next year. In 1925, after the Santa Barbara earthquake, Pries moved to that city to design projects for the Bothin Helping Fund. He returned to San Francisco in 1926 and designed buildings in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Palo Alto and other Bay Area communities over the next two years.
Pries moved to Seattle in early 1928 to become head designer in Bain & Pries, the partnership he formed with Penn classmate William J. Bain. Over the next several years, Bain & Pries was responsible for a variety of single-family residences, apartment buildings, sorority and fraternity houses, and small commercial and industrial buildings. By late 1931, however, in the depths of the Depression, work dwindled to nothing and the firm dissolved. From October 1931 to April 1932, Pries served as Director of the Art Institute of Seattle (predecessor to today’s Seattle Art Museum).
Pries began teaching architecture at the University of Washington in fall 1928. By the 1930s the five-year B.Arch. program had approximately 100 students and five core faculty. Pries was the inspirational leader of the program who most strongly influenced the students of that era. Pries brought very high standards, but, as an extraordinary delineator and artist, he was also able to show students what he expected. His critiques, in which he would sketch or paint, were legendary.
Pries was familiar with a wide range of traditions in art and architecture. He traveled to Mexico almost every summer from the late 1920s to early 1942.
Pries was an artist as well as an architect and an educator. From the 1920s to the 1940s, he exhibited paintings (oils and watercolors) at the annual exhibitions of Northwest artists and in several gallery shows.
After World War II, Pries began one of his most successful periods of architectural practice, designing a series of notable Northwest mid-century modern houses including the Richard and Ruth Lea residence, Lopez Island, (1946-47); Julia Flett Morris residence, Seattle (1947-48); Lionel H. Pries residence, Seattle (1947-48, third floor added ca. 1980); and Julian and Marajane Barksdale residence, Seattle (1949-50, addition by Pries 1954-55). With their freely composed spatially sophisticated plans, direct responses to their sites and relationships to views, and frequent use of natural materials, these houses are early examples of what has come to be called the Northwest School (or sometimes the “Northwest Style”). Pries houses after 1951, including the John and Dorothy Hall residence, Seattle (1952-53, destroyed 2009); Alonzo W. and Margaret I. Robertson residence, Bellevue (1955-56); and Richard, Jr., and Ruth Lea residence, Seattle (1956-57; destroyed 2006), were often more spatially exploratory in the vertical dimension and frequently made use of the revealed post and beam construction that would become ubiquitous among Puget Sound Modern architects after 1955. Several of Pries’s modern houses were designed as settings for art – for example, his own house featured wall and ceiling paintings based on Native American motifs and other sources. The Lea house in Seattle was designed around a collection of Japanese art.
In the post-World War II years, the architecture program at the University of Washington expanded rapidly. The younger faculty and new students were much more interested in International Style Modernism and the pedagogy of the Bauhaus than in Pries’s romantic version of modernism. Pries became an exceptional figure, teaching an artistic approach to architecture, contrasting with many of his younger colleagues who were much more interested in applying new technology and addressing social issues.
Pries was gay, but deeply closeted in the university community. While on a vacation in California in summer 1958, he was entrapped in a vice sting in a Los Angeles park. Although he paid a small fine and was released, a report was sent to the president of the university. At the end of October 1958, Pries was forced to resign his teaching position. At the time, the reason was concealed; all anyone knew was that, after 30 years of extraordinary teaching, Pries was suddenly gone. It was close to 40 years before the full story was revealed.
Unemployed at age 61, Pries worked as a drafter for Durham, Anderson and Freed from 1958 to 1959, and for at John Graham & Company from 1959 to 1963, when he was able to retire. Thereafter Pries lived quietly, taking on an occasional design project. Two of his late commissions were the Robert Winskill residence, Mill Valley CA (1960-61, 1965); and the Max and Helen Gurvich residence, Seattle (1964-65). Pries died of a heart attack on April 7, 1968.
– Jeffrey Karl Ochsner