Town Hall Seattle

  • By Dotty DeCoster
  • Posted 5/28/2012
  • Essay 10109
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Town Hall Seattle, a venue for a wide variety of cultural events located at 1119 8th Avenue, started life as the city's Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist. The congregation was established in July 1909, during the city's Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, but it was not until 1916 that the congregants began to construct a church building. The structure was built in two stages and was completed and opened in September 1923. It was designed by architect George Foote Dunham (1876-1949), then of Portland, Oregon. The Roman Revival structure served as a church until 1997, when the congregation sold it to Historic Seattle. A feasibility study for its reuse was conducted, with funding from the King County Arts Commission and the Landmarks and Heritage Commission. David C. Brewster (b. 1939), founding editor of the Seattle Weekly, and others organized a group to purchase the building, and in 1998, Historic Seattle transferred title to the newly formed Town Hall L.L.C. The former church was opened to the public in 1999 as a community cultural center called Town Hall. The spacious building, located on First Hill just east of downtown Seattle, is now (2012) owned and operated by the nonprofit Town Hall Association.  After its sale, members of the congregation who had worshiped there joined other Christian Science branch churches in the area.

Christian Science

The Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist in Seattle was formed the year before the death of Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910), who founded Christian Science in 1879. Eddy's interpretation of the King James Bible and her ideas about the true meaning of the life and activities of Jesus Christ as described in the gospels were controversial. But by 1909 her book, Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures, had been revised and republished, and Christian Science churches across the country relied on both it and the Bible.  

Each Christian Science church was a branch of "The Mother Church" (located in Boston), and each branch was organized democratically by its members. Readers (two at a time) were elected periodically by branch members to conduct services by reading from the Bible and from Eddy's book each Sunday. Branch churches numbered themselves by order of appearance in most localities -- thus, the Fourth Church was the fourth Christian Science group to organize a church in the Seattle area.

Christian Scientists also developed their own publishing arm, putting out, among other things, the daily Christian Science Monitor newspaper, which started publication in 1909. Many if not all church branches provided Christian Science Reading Rooms, free and open to the public, where one could read or purchase church publications as well as Bibles and Bible-resource books.

Some aspects of Christian Scientists' faith and worship practices influenced the design of their church buildings and have made them excellent candidates for reuse. Religious services are organized around the reading aloud of the Bible lesson/sermon that Christian Scientists study all over the world each week. There are no religious symbols, no statues or crosses, adorning  Christian Science churches, with the exception of the occasional use of the "Cross and Crown" trademark in some reading rooms. Consistent maintenance and stewardship of the building were hallmarks. Music was a part of each service, and good acoustics were considered a design requirement. Christian Science churches built in the early twentieth century were designed to seat approximately 1,000 congregants for both church services and Sunday school.

Although some Christian Scientists practice spiritual healing and practical nursing (without the use of medicine) as vocations, these practices are not conducted at church. A Christian Science church is reserved for worship; indeed, visiting Christian Science lecturers are often accommodated at other, larger, venues when speaking to the general public. Seattle's Fourth Church occasionally presented its own organ concerts, but in general these churches suffer the wear and tear of heavy use only on Sundays and Wednesdays, as they do not include facilities for social activities and as the Christian Science reading rooms are located off-site.

Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist

Forty-one people were involved in creating the new Fourth Church that began meeting in Arcade Hall in downtown Seattle on July 14, 1909. Christian Scientists were busy that week. Mary Brookins, a member of the Board of Lectureship of the First Church of Christ Scientist in Boston, gave a free lecture at the Moore Theatre on July 11. Visiting lecturers on Christian Science were frequent visitors to the city throughout the early 1900s, appearing in large halls in downtown Seattle. The Seattle Times carried articles that originated from around the country detailing the controversies surrounding the church, as well as long reports on some of the lectures presented here.

In 1914, Seattle's Fourth Church changed its meeting place to the Hippodrome at 5th Avenue and University Street. By 1916 members had formed a building committee, bought land, and commissioned plans for a church building. On June 21, 1916, a building permit was issued by the city for the first unit of the church, to be built at 1119 8th Avenue. This unit was to be the basement construction, a space of 113 by 109 feet, and was estimated to cost between $25,000 and $30,000. The basement would be used as an auditorium until it was possible to erect the entire structure, which was designed by architect George Foote Dunham. By July 9, 1916, contracts had been awarded: Neil McDonald was selected as general contractor and Benjamin Randal as plumbing contractor.

The entire church building was designed in 1916, although only the first unit was built that year. An enthusiastic writer for The Seattle Times, who must have been reviewing the plans, since construction had not yet begun, reported:

"The new church will be classic in style ... . one of the special features of the structure will be a large foyer where the entire congregation may move without restriction. The directors' room, circulating library and offices for the church heads will be in the rear. An elevator electrically operated, will be installed between the foyer and the main auditorium, which also will be reached by wide stairways ascending from the foyer ...

One of the most attractive features of the church will be the dome above the auditorium which will be designed to accord the church excellent acoustics. A cove system of lighting will be installed and the interior of the church will be finished in gray and ivory with windows of amber and flesh opalescent glass. The structure will be of hollow tile faced with cream-colored brick. W. K. Sheldon is chairman of the building committee" (The Seattle Daily Times,  June 8, 1916).

On March 3, 1917, the Times announced that the first unit was completed -- a Sunday-school auditorium that would seat 1,000 people. The walls and chairs were gray, with ivory-toned woodwork overall, and the readers' platform was blue. Because the site was on a rather steep grade, the "basement" is actually a day-lit space, with the roof being at approximately ground level on 8th Avenue, which was the high point of the site. The entrance to the church was on Seneca Street.

It was not until June, 18, 1922, that additional work on the church structure was announced. Neil McDonald was again the general contractor. On September 22, 1923, The Seattle Times announced that the completed church would be open for services the following day, with a special meeting to honor the opening at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. The report described the pews and readers' desks as being made of brown mahogany, which contrasted with the light finish of the interior. The windows were touted as "the largest single panes of leaded glass in the state." The Sunday-school room was equipped with new chairs and kindergarten chairs. 

An Austin "American Romantic" (Opus 1155) pipe organ was installed in the church 1923. As described by James R. Stettner:

"It was 3-manuals and 29 ranks, 35 speaking stops, and 2,023 pipes ranging from 16' tall to about 1/4" speaking length. Pipes were of both wood and metal - though mostly metal. The metal was zinc for the big bass pipes, and either canvas lead or spotted metal (tin/lead mix) depending on the stop. 9 of the 29 ranks were of wood. 6 of the remaining 20 ranks were reed ranks. The rest were Diapasons, strings, and flutes" (Stettner email February 27, 2012).

And a congregant of the former church, Caroline Harlow, said that the organ

"is especially ... valued as an organ designed to support and encourage congregational singing with its warm and lush variety of sounds. Several organ concerts were performed throughout the years. The last two organ concerts presented by Fourth Church were performed by the well-known Seattle organist, pianist, and choral director, George Fiore" (Scott email, March 28, 2012.

As was usual with Christian Science churches, the Fourth Church was not formally dedicated until July 1937, when the construction cost of $300,000 was paid in full. The structure's electric elevator was not installed until the 1960s, although it was included in the  original 1916 plans.

The Architect

George Foote Dunham was born in Burlington, Iowa, which was also the home of architect Charles A. Dunham (1830-1908), renowned for designing buildings throughout Iowa. They were not closely related.

George Dunham studied in Chicago, graduating from the Armour Institute of Technology, and the Chicago Art Institute in 1900. He worked as a draftsman with Solon Spencer Beman in Chicago from 1900-1906, then moved to Portland, Oregon, where he drafted for Whidden and Lewis (1907-1908) before moving on to become a designer with Kable and Kable architects (1909). He went into business himself in 1910. Dunham was a member of the Portland Architectural Club in 1913, and joined the Portland chapter of the American Institute of Architects (A.I.A.) in 1924, continuing membership throughout his lifetime. He married Violet Alta Webster (1877-1974) from California in 1915, and they lived in Portland until 1929, when they moved to Orlando, Florida.

It is not clear how and when Dunham became involved in designing churches for the Church of Christ, Scientist. Richard Ellison Ritz in Architects of Oregon suggests that

"One can speculate that the construction in Portland of the First Church of Christ Scientist, designed by Beman and completed in 1909, may have had something to do with Dunham coming to Portland" (Ritz, 118).

Paul Eli Ivey, a historian of Christian Science architecture, notes that there was a progression of architectural interpretation for Christian Science churches over time:

"Central to these debates was Solon Spencer Beman [1853-1914], who became the chief theorist of Christian Science architecture, whose classical revival churches were being built across the United States. By 1907, Beman had joined the Christian Science church and defended the classical style for which he was gaining popularity. To Beman, Christian Science represented a rational approach to spirituality, classicism oriented the denomination with the time of primitive Christianity, and the predominance of the classical in Christian Science commissions indicated that the church was progressive" (Email, March 19, 2012).

Certainly, Dunham's churches in Washington State -- Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist in Seattle (1916, 1922); Second Church of Christ, Scientist in Spokane (1921); and Third Church of Christ, Scientist, also in Seattle (ca. 1920) -- were all classical revival in style, as was his nationally renown First Church of Christ Scientist in Orlando, Florida (1928) and  First Church of Christ, Scientist in Victoria, British Columbia (ca. 1919). Like Beman, Dunham also became a Christian Scientist, joining the church in 1910.

Dunham is best known nationally for his churches, but he is known in Portland, Oregon, for his residential architecture. It is in his residential design that he seems to have had the opportunity to learn and grow as an architect. In Portland there are a number of Dunham-designed homes still in use, including a classical revival at 1526 NE Thompson Street in the Irvington neighborhood (1914); the John A. Bell residence at 1408 SW Vista; and the W. S. Jones house (now at 3008 SE Tolman) (1925).

The Jones house was featured in an article in The Architect & Engineer of October 1925 titled "The House Between -- Being a Home That is More Than a $5,000 Bungalow and Less Than a Millionaire's Mansion" written by Dunham's wife, Violet, and illustrated with numerous photographs by George Dunham:

"A large, naturally wooded corner in the exclusive Eastmoreland district, Portland, Oregon, with magnificent old maples and firs and natural shrubbery of vine maple and elder berry, afforded the ideal setting. No tree or shrub was to be injured or disturbed, and the house was designed for the setting, the maple tree at the entrance being the central motif. When the plan and site were ready, craftsmen were selected to carry on the construction. Work was done under separate contracts, and the craftsmen worked together with mutual understanding, bringing out the thought of the old guild, with keen enjoyment of the work, and impelled by the thought that this home was to express an ideal, the best in craftsmanship, and a model for future work. Naturally with this impetus progress was spontaneous and to mutual advantage" (The Architect & Engineer, p. 79).

Adaptive Reuse: From Church to Town Hall

During the late 1980s, a group of music lovers in Seattle began looking to create a new music venue in central Seattle. Led by Seattle Weekly founding editor David Brewster, the group explored several older buildings as possible locations. As early as 1991 group members began negotiations with the City of Seattle to determine what would be required to convert Fourth Church Christ, Scientist into such a venue. The church, like so many houses of worship throughout the country, was struggling with declining membership and increasing costs for upkeep and maintenance. The prospect of selling the building was difficult for the church members; its purchase and renovation were daunting to the music lovers.

In 1996, church membership decided to sell the building. Although Brewster already had made numerous offers, they had not been accepted. The Historic Seattle Preservation and Development Authority stepped into the breach and offered to save the building for adaptive community reuse. In applying to the King County Resources Division on December 16, 1996, Historic Seattle noted:

"The property is threatened with total destruction. In March of this year the Church received five proposals. The two selected for further consideration were for rehabilitation by Historic Seattle and demolition by the adjoining property owner."

A key part of the preservation strategy was the preparation of a building-feasibility study, led by Bassetti Architects, which included an extensive acoustical review. This was funded by a $75,000 emergency grant made jointly by King County's Arts Commission and Landmarks and Heritage Commission. Church members, sympathetic to the prospect of the building's reuse, accepted the Historic Seattle bid, although it was lower than that of the adjoining landowner.

In addition to the feasibility study by Historic Seattle, a fundraising plan was developed and a survey made of potential users of the venue. Although it became clear from the potential-users survey that the project could be successful, it also was clear that Historic Seattle did not have the resources to own and manage the facility. Brewster then organized a group of 17 individual investors, created Town Hall LLC (a for-profit ownership group), and in 1997 took on management of the project himself. Historic Seattle and Town Hall LLC concluded a transfer agreement in April 1998. A nonprofit, Town Hall Association, was also formed then, and over time it has become the owner and operator of Town Hall. Brewster served as executive director until 2006.

A Venue for Culture

Town Hall opened to the public on March 17, 1999, launched with poetry reading by U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky (b. 1940) and civic leaders reading their favorite poems. While numerous renovation projects -- from restoring the pillars out front, to building a kitchen downstairs, to repairing the roof -- have been completed, the hall still looks much as it did in 1997, complete with pews. Both the lower floor and the Great Hall (former sanctuary) are used for events, sometimes simultaneously.

Almost every form of music has been heard at Town Hall, along with lectures, plays, dances, and debates. The notable figures who have spoken or performed at Town Hall include novelists John Irving, Salman Rushdie, and Alice Walker; civil rights lawyer Vernon Jordon; poets Yusef Kuminyaka, Adrienne Rich, and W. S. Merwin; political analyst Doris Kearns Goodwin, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, and scientists E. O. Wilson and Gary Small, among many others. Located near the center of downtown, Town Hall seems to fill the Seattle civic space historically occupied by the Civic Auditorium and, earlier, by Yesler Hall.

Town Hall Presents

Town Hall currently (2012) is run by a staff of 11 and numerous volunteers, and it hosts over 350 events a year. Staff curators have developed ongoing series, including Global Rhythms, TownMusic, Short Stories Live, and Saturday Family Concerts. New partnerships with other local groups provide offerings each year, and older partnerships continue. There are no "typical" weeks of programming at Town Hall, but a list of the offerings for the week of May 28 through June 2, 2012, illustrates the range of events presented there:

  • Monday:  Hari Kindabolu: "Scratch Night" debut
  • Tuesday:  Thai James: "New York’s Year of Anarchy"; Henry Crumpton: "I Spied for the C.I.A."
  • Wednesday:  Terry McDermott: "The Hunt for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed"
  • Thursday:  "Rhythm on My Heels:  A Tribute to Josef Skvorecky"
  • Friday:  David Westin:  "An Insider’s View of TV News"
  • Saturday:  University of Washington and Conservation Magazine: "Conservation Remix"
  • Sunday:  "Short Stories Live! The World of Asian Fairy Tales"; Seattle Jewish Chorale:  "Songs for Hard Times: Music of Humor, Hope and Healing.


Norman Beasley, The Cross and the Crown: The History of Christian Science (New York: Little Brown and Company, 1952); Mary Baker Eddy, Manual of The Mother Church The First Church of Christ Scientist in Boston, Massachusetts (Boston: Trustees Under the Will of Mary Baker G. Eddy, 1936); Mary Baker Eddy, The First Church of Christ Scientist and Miscellany (Boston: Trustees Under the Will of Mary Baker G. Eddy, 1941), v-vii, 177-209; Richard Ellison Ritz, Architects of Oregon: A Biographical Dictionary of Architects Deceased -- 19th and 20th Centuries (Portland, Oregon: Lair Hill Publishing,  2003), 118; Who's Who on the Pacific Coast, ed. by Franklin Harper (Los Angeles: Harper Publishing Company, 1913), 172; Who's Who in Oregon, Vol. 1, 1929-1930 (Oregon City: Oregon City Enterprises, 1930), 74; Violet W. Dunham, "The House Between -- Being a Home That is More Than a $5,000 Bungalow and Less Than a Millionaire's Mansion," The Architect & Engineer (October 1925), pp. 79-95; Geoffrey Castle, "Building's Timelessness in Keeping With Its Purpose," Victoria (B.C.) Times-Colonist, May 30, 1987; "To Build New Church," Seattle Sunday Times, July 4, 1909, p. 19; "Church Asks Permit for $25,000 Addition," The Seattle Daily Times, June 21, 1916, p. 5; "Church Edifice to Be Elaborate," Ibid., July 8, 1916, p. 5; "Contracts Let for New Church," Ibid., August 12, 1916, p. 5; "Fourth Scientists to Occupy New Building," Ibid., March 3, 1917, p. 7; "New Science Church," Ibid., June, 18, 1922, p. 12; "Fourth Church Ready," Ibid., September 22, 1923, p. 5; "Christian Science Lecture is Given," Ibid., November 2, 1927, p. 19; Mary Ann Gwinn, "Voices in Verse -- Poet Laureate Wants to Tease Our Favorite Poems Out of Us," Ibid., March 15, 1999, p. E-1; Pacific Builder and Engineer, Vol. 22, No.  6, August 11, 1916, p. 6; Ibid., Vol. 28, No. 4, June 23, 1922, p. 6; Paul Ivey, emails to Dotty DeCoster, March 19, 2012, in possession of Dotty DeCoster, Seattle, Washington; Jim Stettner, email to Dotty DeCoster, Feb. 27, 2012, in possession of Dotty DeCoster, Seattle, Washington; William Scott email to Dotty DeCoster, April 23, 2012, in possession of Dotty DeCoster, Seattle, Washington;  Reuben McKnight, "Town Hall: A Case Study," Historic Seattle website accessed May 3, 2012 (; David Brewster, "Resurrecting Churches for New Uses," Crosscut, website accessed March 9, 2012 (; Paul Ivey, "Building Respectability: Christian Science Architecture in the U.S.A. and its Influence in Europe," Mary Baker Eddy Library website accessed March 12, 2012 (;  "April 2010 Doing It Project: Holy Temple of Church of God in Christ, 806 W. Indiana, Spokane," Spokane Preservation website accessed March 6, 2012 (; "George Foote Dunham," AIA Historical Directory of American Architects, AIA website accessed March 8, 2012  (;  "Local History and Genealogy Resources -- Notable Burlingtonians: Charles A. Dunham," Burlington (Iowa) Library website accessed March 6, 2012 (; "First Church of Christ Scientist in Orlando," City of Orlando website accessed March 6, 2012, (; "1626 E. Thompson Street", Irvington Home Tour website accessed March 8, 2012 (; "Dunham, George," Pacific Coast Architecture Database, University of Washington website accessed March 5, 2012, (; "Administrative History," Armour Institute of Technology Collection, University of Illinois at Chicago Library website accessed March 6, 2012, (; "San Joaquin County Biographies: Joshua Bertram Webster," Rootsweb website accessed March 8, 2012, (; "Town Hall Association: 1119 8th Avenue, 98101, Parcel Number 197920-0050," King County website accessed February 21, 2012 (; "About Town Hall," Town Hall website accessed February 16, 2012 (; "4th Church of Christ, Scientist, First Hill, Seattle, WA.," Pacific Coast Architecture Database website accessed February 18, 2012 (; "Austin Organ Co., Opus 1155, 1923," Organ Historical Society website, accessed May 2, 2012 (;  "Orlando -- First Church of Christ Scientist (St. George Orthodox Church)," Florida Heritage website accessed March 20, 2012 ( FullImage&id=523); "Historic Seattle Concert Hall, Phase One: Feasibility, Design and Acquisition," Application Form to King County Cultural Resources Division, December 16, 1996 by Historic Seattle Preservation and Development Authority, with attachments, on file at Historic Seattle; "Mary Baker Eddy," Christian Science website accessed May 9, 2012 (; Emily-Jane Dawson (Multnomah County Central Library), email to Dotty DeCoster, March 8, 2012, in possession of Dotty DeCoster, Seattle, Washington; "Historic Seattle Concert Hall, Phase One: Feasibility, Design and Acquisition," Application Form, King County Cultural Resources Division, December 16, 1996, on file at Historic Seattle, April 2012; "Christian Science Churches" in "Seattle Churches As Known Through Seattle Newspapers," typescript compiled by Ida Grace Corey, 1938, pp. 382-383, Seattle Room, The Seattle Public Library; "About Town Hall," Seattle Town Hall website accessed May, 2012 (; Mary Ann Gwinn, "Voices in Verse -- Poet Laureate Wants to Tease Our Favorite Poems Out of Us," The Seattle Times, March 17, 1999, p. E-1; "Town Hall Association,"  Seattle Foundation website, accessed April 24, 2012 (

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