University Unitarian Church
6556 35th Ave NE, Seattle, WA 98115
Note: Docomomo US/WEWA produced two past tours of the University Unitarian Church (UUC) on July 29, 2009 and September 10, 2016. The description below is from our 2016 tour brochure, the last time we had access to the building and site. Subsequent to our 2016 event, UUC embarked on a renovation and expansion project, reopening its doors in November 2019. Alterations of the building and site made during the 2018-2019 renovation are not reflected in the description below. UUC’s website documents the 2018-2019 renovation.
In 2014 the University Unitarian Church celebrated its 100th anniversary. Having established its first church in downtown Seattle, it moved to the University District to an Ellsworth Storey-designed Tudor Revival chapel completed 1916. With post-war growth in its congregation and a school with over 800 children, it outgrew these facilities in the early 1950s.
In June 1955 the congregation purchased a 30,000 square foot site at the southeast corner of 35th Avenue NE and NE 68th Street, at a cost of $31,000, and hired architect Paul Hayden Kirk to proceed with plans. The new church was an ambitious project for the congregation, with a projected cost of $250,000, an enormous sum at the time. Ground was broken in 1958 and the building was dedicated on April 12, 1959. In 1961, the Unitarians and Universalists formally merged. The new, modern building served as the perfect setting for the evolving congregation and its changing faith tradition.
Seattle architect Paul Hayden Kirk (1914 – 1995) was a local practitioner of Modernism and one of the most widely published designers in the region. The UUC represents one of the early large-scale works for which he and his firm, Paul Hayden Kirk & Associates, won an Honor Award from the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1960. Other Kirk-designed churches include the Church of the Brethren (1949) in Seattle’s Maple Leaf neighborhood, and Japanese Presbyterian Church (1964) in the north Rainier Valley area. The latter church received a national AIA Merit Award in 1965; its interior shares many features with the UUC sanctuary.
The church’s main (west) facade is dominated by an intricately detailed glass screen and paired vertical wood supports. Geometric metal sculpture elements, designed by Norman Warsinske, ornament the screen and a built-in wood bench extends the length of this facade. The approach to the church is along a concrete bridge, suspended between the street level and entrance doors, and lit from underneath.
Rectilinear forms are repeated throughout the interior, in windows and floor plan. The main entry vestibule originally contained a set of four doors, which have subsequently been removed to open up the space. A smaller vestibule lit by skylights leads to the chapel interior. The chapel ceiling, created by two intersecting vaulted shapes, forms a peak of one half at the far eastern wall and another higher one over the center aisle. On the western walls, the roof beams transfer their weight to shorter vertical supports of evenly spaced bays. The massive, bolted beams emphasize the engineered construction of the church with materials that are natural, industrial, and familiar. Low, rectangular windows are spaced across the east side.
The church’s interior remains largely intact including the Eames-designed molded, fiberglass chairs which can be linked together for pew seating or taken apart and stacked. The ceiling is finished with car decking and the cork flooring survives underneath the chapel carpeting. Even the paint is consistent with the historical color scheme. The balcony/choir loft at the southwest corner has been enlarged; the floating stairs survive unchanged.
Classrooms are located throughout the lower level. Clerestory windows in these rooms afford little glances into the landscape, making a connection between interior and exterior spaces. The interior gardens and courtyards reflect Kirk’s interest in site integration and Japanese architecture. Landscape designer Esther Pearson, a church member, was commissioned to do the original landscaping.
In 1977, the church undertook a three-year capital campaign to renovate the building. In the 1980s, the church hired Bumgardner Architects to design a 6,500 square foot addition to the south, which provided meeting areas and work space. Bumgardner’s design mimicked a similar aesthetic, such as the use of clerestory windows. Other changes include the installation of seismic structural bracing; soundproofing in the common area; and repairs to the chapel beams which suffered from dry rot.
The University Unitarian Church congregation adopted a new mission and vision statement in 2012, creating implementation teams to consider changes to its campus. It went through a strategic planning process and a master plan with architects from THA of Portland and landscape architects Walker Macy. The master plan documents a strong sense of stewardship that UUC has shown for its historic property. “The conceptual vision for the buildings and landscapes in the master plan are respectful of the land and full of natural light. Environmental responsibility and sustainability are at the forefront. There are many flexible, expandable and accessible features that will be welcoming to all. The master plan also illustrates how we will be respectful neighbors to those around us. It is a simple design that peacefully reflects our century-long legacy in the Pacific Northwest environment while remaining compatible with the existing sanctuary.”