Seattle Buddhist Temple
1427 S. Main St., Seattle, WA 98144
The content below was written by Valerie Stewart for Docomomo US/WEWA as part of her Summer 2023 research project focusing on Asian American designers in the Northwest.
Seattle has long been home to many different religious communities, and a variety of religious structures. Japanese Buddhism became more commonly practiced among Japanese American men in Seattle starting in the early nineteenth century, when the first service of Jōdo Shinshū (“The True Essence of the Pure Land Teaching;” also known as Shin Buddhism), was performed in Seattle in 1901.
The origins of the Jōdo Shinshū school of Buddhism can be traced back to the early thirteenth century in Japan. Its significance in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest emerges with the arrival of Japanese immigrants to the region in the late nineteenth century. In the very beginning, Japanese men would gather wherever they could for Buddhist worship—in restaurants or noodle shops, and other small local shops. By 1909, the Buddhist community grew large enough to commission architects Charles W. Saunders and George Willis Lawton to design a Buddhist temple.
Sadly, this temple was demolished in 1939, only 30 years after its completion, with the construction of the Yesler Terrace housing project (Washington State’s first public housing development). In 1941, a different architect, Kichio Allen Arai, was commissioned to design a new Japanese Buddhist temple—the Seattle Buddhist Church (historic name), also known as the Seattle Buddhist Temple.
The Building and Site
In the design of the Seattle Buddhist Church, Arai demonstrates his ability to fuse Japanese architecture with modern, American materials. The most notable Japanese characteristics of the building can be seen in its subtly ornamented cornices, gabled upturned eaves, latticed detailing on the pediment, and decorative gables. Overall, the materials used in the building – for example, the brick facade – lend an American feeling to an otherwise Japanese temple. Kichio Allen Arai’s interpretation of this temple – a combination of American and Japanese influences, set in the 20th century – is what makes this structure so unique. Incorporating contemporary materials such as wood fired brick and asphalt shingles in a Japanese Buddhist temple present a new, modern take on an otherwise stylistically recognizable type of building, due to its deep historical and cultural roots. Arai’s design here set a precedent for many of his later Buddhist temples.
In 1954, this temple was elevated to the status of betsuin, which recognizes the building as having a direct connection to the mother temple, and holds a special role of spreading Buddha’s teachings to other nearby temples; hereafter, the church was known as the Seattle Betsuin.
In 1963, the Seattle Betsuin gained a community hall addition that is connected to the original building through an enclosed corridor, designed in part by Kichio Allen Arai. The accessory hall is known as the Shinran Shonin 700th Anniversary Memorial Hall—it was built in honor of the late Shinran Shonin, founder of Shin Buddhism, 700 years after his passing. Inside the memorial hall are classrooms, a chapel, and a columbarium, or nokotsudo. This building has a modest, reserved expression: the two-story rectangular form emphasizes horizontality – a common trait in American architecture – in its roof, continuous band of windows, and horizontal strip of brick veneer. Traditional Japanese traits in this building are emphasized through a low-gabled hood on a wooden post-and-beam structure.
The Seattle Buddhist Church was designated a Seattle Landmark in 1976.
The Architect, Kichio Allen Arai (1901-1966)
Kichio Allen Arai was the first Asian American architect in Seattle to design projects under his given name, and is most well-known for his variations on Buddhist temple designs. Arai was born in Port Blakely, Washington in 1901, and moved to Seattle eight years later. He completed his undergraduate degree in Architecture from the University of Washington in 1925, and earned his Master’s degree in Architecture from Harvard University in 1930. Arai returned to Seattle in the 1930s, as the Great Depression was in full effect. The timing of this commission aligns with what many consider the peak of Arai’s career; the bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred just two months after the temple was dedicated, and Arai was taken into an internment camp shortly afterwards. He never got to realize the full potential of his architectural career.