Cornish College of the Arts

  • By Mildred Andrews and John Caldbick
  • Posted 11/12/2014
  • Essay 596
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Nellie C. Cornish (1876-1956) founded the Cornish School in Seattle in 1914 and served as its director for the next 25 years. From a one-room studio in the Booth Building on Capitol Hill, the school rapidly expanded in size and curriculum and soon gained a national reputation. Nellie Cornish recruited to her faculty such talented artists as dancers Martha Graham (1894-1991) and Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), painter Mark Tobey (1890-1976), and musician John Cage (1912-1992), all destined to become major figures in twentieth-century arts. In 1921 a new, purpose-built home for the school was finished, also on Capitol Hill, financed in large part by some of the city's leading families. But the Great Depression took a huge toll, and Cornish stepped down as head of the troubled institution in 1939. Despite frequent financial crises, the Cornish School lived on, and in 1977 it became fully accredited as Cornish College of the Arts. In 2002 the college, then scattered among several sites, purchased several buildings in Seattle's Denny Triangle area and was able to consolidate most of its programs in one place. Cornish celebrated its centennial in 2014, stronger, bigger, and more financially secure than at any other time in its history.

Mother to the Arts

No description of Nellie Cornish fails to mention her motherly manner, warmth and generosity, sparkling eyes, quick wit, and enormous energy. Hundreds of students called her "Miss Aunt Nellie."

In her autobiography, Cornish reminisced about her father, a lover of literature and theater who devoted evenings to instructing his children. He questioned teachers for assigning rote memorization of textbooks and was determined that his children learn to think for themselves. His lessons stuck. Nellie began to study music, then to teach it. Questioning traditional pedagogical techniques, she sought out new ideas. She wrote, "As three generations of my ancestors were pioneers, I just had to be a pioneer; life always forced me to use my own initiative" (Cornish, 35).

As a child, Nellie Centennial Cornish (her middle name signified the year of her birth) lived with her family in a sod house in Nebraska, on a sheep ranch in Oregon, and in an apartment above the bank that her father founded in Blaine, Whatcom County, after moving to Washington. The bank was forced to close during the depression of the 1890s and her parents moved to Spokane. Nellie stayed in Blaine and continued to study piano, giving lessons and working as a governess to support herself.

In 1900, Cornish moved to Seattle, where she gave piano lessons in a shared studio in the Holyoke Building on Spring Street. In 1904, she went to Boston to study the new Fletcher Method of piano instruction. She returned to Seattle and teaching piano, then moved to California to take an unsuccessful stab at becoming a professional concert pianist. She decided that teaching was her true calling and studied with Calvin Brainerd Cady (1851-1928) in Los Angeles. Cady believe that music education was a necessary foundation for the development of logic and critical judgment in children. After those studies, Cornish spent time in both Seattle and northern California.

The First Cornish School

In the fall of 1914 Nellie Cornish returned to Seattle from her latest stay in California and that November 14 (the day of her return or one day after it, depending on the source) she signed a lease for a studio space in the Booth Building at Broadway and Pine on Capitol Hill. With the backing of wealthy friends, she founded the Cornish School of Music. She believed that creativity should be developed in the average person, as well as in the talented, and that art's ultimate purpose was enrichment for everyone -- not just the privileged elite -- and she set out to create a school that reflected those beliefs.

Cornish was recognized as having special talent for teaching music to youngsters, and many Seattle families put their children under her tutelage for an arts education beyond what the public schools could offer. Within three years, the Cornish School of Music had expanded to take up the entire third floor of the Booth Building, and an expanded curriculum was evidenced by a new name -- the Cornish School of Music, Language, and Dancing. Helped by the winning personality and humility of its talented founder, Cornish attracted both enthusiastic media coverage and the support of many wealthy benefactors.

With an uncanny instinct for quality and originality, Cornish hired both famous and unknown artists for her faculty. An early recruit was her California mentor Calvin Cady. Before Mark Tobey had gained even local recognition, she invited him to teach painting. Sensing an enormous and unusual talent, she arranged a solo-performing debut for one of her avant-garde dance instructors, Martha Graham, who became an internationally renowned dancer and choreographer. She recruited Maurice Browne (1881-1955) and Ellen Van Volkenburg Browne (1882-1978), founders of the little-theater movement in America, and gave renegade composer John Cage his start.

When White Russian artists fled their homeland in 1917 during the Russian Revolution, Nellie Cornish went to New York to find drama, ballet, and music faculty among their ranks. One recruit was Peter Meremblum, who built the school's chamber-music program and its orchestra. He organized the acclaimed Meremblum Trio (later quartet) of faculty members that performed to appreciative audiences up and down the West Coast. Another refugee, Alexander Koriansky, taught drama at the school for seven years before being lured away to Hollywood.

Hard Times

The post-World War I recession caused a financial crisis for the Cornish School as many families of moderate means found it no longer possible to pay the tuition. In 1920 a group of prominent, wealthy, and artistically minded women and their husbands came to the rescue and formed the Cornish Realty Company to gather financing to build a new home for the school. The membership was a Who's Who of Seattle high society and included Agnes H. Anderson (d. 1940), David E. "Ned" Skinner (1867-1933) and Jeanette Skinner (d. 1952), Edgar Ames (1868-1944) and Anne Ames (d. 1956), C. D. Stimson (1857-1928) and Harriet Stimson (1862-1936), Albert S. Kerry (d. 1939) and Katherine Kerry (d. 1938), Horace C. Henry (1844-1928), and others.

A $50,000 private bond issue was placed, other money came in the form of gifts, and construction began at a Capitol Hill site nine blocks north of the existing Booth Building location. In 1921, Cornish School moved into the picturesque new Spanish-baroque building at Harvard Avenue E and E Roy Street designed by A. H. Albertson (d. 1964), Paul Richardson (d. 1939), and Gerald C. Field (1885-1965). When neighbors objected to the noise emanating from the school and sued to have it closed, the judge suggested that they move to the country.

Miss Aunt Nellie

"Miss Aunt Nellie" lived in an upstairs apartment at the school with her daughter Elena Miranova, a Russian orphan whom she had adopted at age 10. She welcomed students into her home and frequently invited them for coffee, home-baked cookies, and informal meetings with famous guest artists. She was also quick to help students with tuition costs, believing it unacceptable that artists should have to justify themselves economically. This was great for the students, less so for the institution. Without an endowment and largely dependent on income from tuition, the school struggled year after year, almost always ending each with an operating deficit.

But even as its financial condition worsened, the Cornish School's artistic vitality flourished, and this helped ensure continued support. When the Cornish Realty Company, which leased the new building to the school, was unable to pay the mortgage, a group that included most of the original benefactors formed the non-profit Cornish School Foundation to manage its finances. Nellie Cornish was named lifetime director of educational programs. In 1929, Agnes Anderson, a member of the foundation's board of directors, paid off the mortgage balance, rescuing the school from financial doom.

By the late 1930s, few of the original trustees remained on the board. Nelly Cornish wanted to continue to move the school ahead artistically, but could only tread water within the constraints of the budget. She informed the board that she would need $15,000 per year above earnings to "carry forward the standard I have maintained" (Cornish, 256). The money was not forthcoming, and the board accepted her resignation in August 1939. It was front-page news, and Nellie Cornish was gracious, saying:

"I feel that I have given the people of Seattle my best efforts for a quarter of a century, but now I want to have some fun -- all by myself. Oh, I'll return to Seattle frequently, but I want to write and lecture and have time to myself, so I can't continue as director" ("Nellie Cornish Leaves School ... ").

She was replaced by Sarah McClain Sherman, who hailed from the East Coast. Nellie Cornish herself moved east and continued her career, managing a children's radio program in New York and becoming director of a music school in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. She never married, and after her retirement she lived with her daughter Elena and Elena's husband, an airline pilot, in Connecticut and then California. They traveled extensively, visiting former Cornish students and faculty wherever they went. Cornish frequently returned to Seattle to visit, including for a gala celebration at Cornish School marking her 75th birthday, and then spent the last few years of her life in the city. Nellie Cornish died in April 1956, almost 80 years of age.

Cornish Without Nellie

Operation of the school following its founder's departure was overseen by the Cornish Foundation, which had been formed in the 1920s and was composed mostly of wealthy Seattle women. With the country's attention riveted by World War II, the challenges of the immediate postwar years, and the onset of the Korean War, the Cornish School, still without an endowment, struggled along from year to year in relative anonymity, always running a deficit.

In 1954, with Cornish facing possible closure, ownership of the school was transferred to the Music and Art Foundation, a much larger group that had started life as an off-branch of the Cornish Foundation. The purpose of the change was to try to "run the school on a self-supporting basis" -- the foundation claimed that it did "not intend to become an 'angel' to Cornish," but rather "uses its broad influence to draw financial and moral support" to the institution" ("Music and Art Foundation Takes Over Cornish"). In 1955, to better reflect the range of its offerings, the school was renamed Cornish School of the Allied Arts. Advertisements the next year show that the curriculum included, in addition to the traditional fare, courses in interior design and French, maintaining the founder's insistence on broad liberal-arts education.  


Frederick J. Patterson (1907?-1988), a Seattle native, Cornish graduate, and assistant program director at the city's KOMO radio station, was appointed to lead Cornish in 1958. When he retired in December 1972, he could boast that, for perhaps the first time in its history, the school was operating in the black, if barely. Also during Patterson's time, the Cornish School's board of trustees, long an advisory group, took over from the Music and Art Foundation direct responsibility for guiding the school's fortunes. The school was not exactly printing money, but it appeared to have slowed and even stopped the annual financial bloodletting.

The change in the role of the board seemed to revivify Cornish, which had become sort of a backwater of education in the city, not exactly off the public's radar, but somewhat of a cipher to most. Beyond the arts communities, no one paid much attention to the school. Under the leadership of board chairman Max Gurvich (1915-2009), Cornish made major changes. It sought and received approval by the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges as a candidate for formal accreditation, which would give it the status of a college. Gurvich told the press in 1975:

"Cornish's goal is to surpass in a quantum leap within the next five years the achievements of Cornish in its first 61 years. That is our promise to the community in return for its support ... . The faculty -- and the board members -- are now out selling Cornish. That's something new and good" ("The New Cornish ... ").

In 1977, the school, then called the Cornish Institute, became a fully accredited college, offering bachelor of fine arts and bachelor of music degrees. But with success came new problems, albeit of a less dire kind. Within just a few years, Cornish had badly outgrown its space at Harvard Avenue and Roy Street, the main building of which, Kerry Hall, had been given federal historic-landmark status. In 1981 it purchased the former Lakeside Middle School at 1501 10th Avenue E, near St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral some five blocks north of Kerry Hall. Headed since 1973 by Melvin Strauss (1929-2012), a respected orchestra conductor, the college moved all but its administrative offices and its music and dance programs to the new building.

Strauss retired in 1984, to be replaced by Robert Suderburg. In 1986 Robert N. Funk became president and the school was renamed yet again, becoming the Cornish College of the Arts to reflect its accredited status. An intensive fundraising effort was undertaken, and by 1989 the college was able to pay off the mortgage on the Lakeside property, with an additional $800,000 on hand to improve facilities and finance new and existing programs. Much of the impetus behind the drive, and the source of a significant amount of the money raised, was Ned Skinner (1920-1988), who had supported the school for decades but died before the campaign's successful conclusion. Among other large donors was the Kreielsheimer Foundation, which paid to renovate Kerry Hall while preserving its traditional (and now legally protected) Spanish Mission-style appearance.

Once scattered among at least five different Capitol Hill sites, mostly leased, the Cornish College of the Arts now had two fully owned locations within an easy walk of each other. But it was not done growing, or changing, and more challenges and opportunities lay ahead.

The New Century

In April 1994 Sergei P. Tschernisch, a founder of the California Institute for the Arts and the dean of the College of Communication and Fine Arts at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, became the new head of Cornish. After assuming his post, he explained what he saw as the role Cornish should play:

"At this point in American history we desperately need to train artists to work in society. The arts confront reality, they make us wiser, they give us hope. All great cities are remembered for their culture, not their politics or their economy. I would love to see Cornish as an important part in the Seattle arts community, a vital part of this mixture" ("Cornish President Hopes to Break Down Barriers").

Tschernisch built on the school's relationships with the individuals and foundations that had helped sustain it over the years, and in 2000 it was announced that $7 million had been pledged for scholarships, improvements, and the purchase of additional space. Both the Kenneth and Marleen Alhadeff Charitable Foundation and James and Sherry Raisbeck gave a million dollars, and a whopping $7 million came from the Kreielsheimer Foundation, which was winding down its affairs after handing out nearly $100 million over its 25-year life. The Kreielsheimer gift was split into $3 million for a scholarship endowment, $1 million for an existing administrative center and $1 million for the purchase of a parking lot near the campus, previously owned by the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, a site on which the school wanted to build an "arts and technology center" ("Cornish College Gets $7 Million").

But plans change. Despite earlier consolidations, Cornish's facilities were still scattered around Capitol Hill and beyond, including its main campus on E Roy Street, the north campus on 10th Avenue E, buildings on Pike and Pine streets, and a downtown site on Westlake Avenue. The school's leaders very much wanted to combine many of its operations in a single place, and a perfect location soon became available -- the recently restored, seven-story, 1928 art deco Lenora Square Building, at Lenora Street and Denny Way in downtown Seattle's Denny Triangle neighborhood. Although the asking price was $25 million, the building's owners made a $7 million gift to the school's relocation fund, reducing the cost to $18 million. St. Mark's Cathedral agreed to purchase the school's north campus, and Cornish planned to sell much of the property at Harvard Avenue and Roy Street, while retaining the original Kerry Hall building.

Cornish was not done with its efforts to consolidate. In 2002, it purchased two additional properties in the Denny Triangle, the nearby Sons of Norway and Orion buildings. In 2003 it added yet another, the Denny Triangle Building, which was planned to eventually house several experimental theaters, a scene shop, and the college's music and dance department. That fall five of the college's seven departments moved to the new locations, shortly before massive redevelopment began taking place in the adjacent South Lake Union neighborhood.

In the summer of 2009 Cornish announced that it would open its first-ever dormitories for students, housed in two former hotels near the main Denny Triangle campus. It would now be a residential college, with freshmen required to live in the housing provided.  

Changing of the Guard

Also in the summer of 2009 Sergei Tschernisch, having guided Cornish through its period of greatest growth and financial success, announced that he would retire at the end of the 2010-2011 academic year. Under his tenure, enrollment had increased from 500 to about 800. He had overseen an unprecedented expansion and consolidation and spearheaded efforts that had raised more than $47 million. Teachers' salaries, which had long lagged behind those of similar colleges, had reached near-parity.

The Cornish board's chairman, John Gordon Hill, praised Tschernisch as "the most influential figure in the history of this institution since Nellie Cornish herself." Another admirer, Jim Tune, CEO of Seattle's ArtFund, concurred, characterizing Tschernisch's service as "transformational" and crediting him as "the savior of Cornish College" ("Cornish College President Is Set to Retire ... ").

In August 2011 Tschernisch was succeeded by Nancy J. Uscher, a classically trained violist with years of performance experience and, since 2004, provost of the California Institute of the Arts. Uscher had long been interested in Cornish College and its practice of exposing all its students to both visual and dramatic arts. When her appointment was announced, a Cornish spokesman noted that the school hoped to increase its enrollment to 1,200 within the next decade.

Facing the Future

Uscher took over an institution that, after years of struggle and financial shortfalls, had at last come into its own. The list of Cornish's former instructors and alumni ranges from seminal arts figures like Martha Graham and John Cage to broadcaster Chet Huntley (1911-1974) and singer Ann Wilson of the rock band Heart. Artists-in-residence over the years have included such well-known names as Mark Morris in dance and Imogen Cunningham in photography. The school both taught the arts and fostered public support for them, allowing Cornish to boast without exaggeration that:

"Cornish students, alumni and faculty are working artists -- theater directors, visual artists, set and lighting designers, dancers and musicians -- making art in and for our community. They are also innovative designers, business leaders, teachers, passionate and supportive audience members and torchbearers for the arts" ("The Cornish Revolution").

A century after Nellie Cornish leased a one-room studio on Capitol Hill to start the Cornish School of Music, what she began endures as a unique and thriving Northwest arts institution. She would be proud.

Sources: Mildred Tanner Andrews, Woman's Place: A Guide to Seattle and King County History (Seattle: Gemil Press, 1994), 269-272; Richard Berner, Seattle 1921-1940: From Boom to Bust (Seattle: Charles Press, 1992), 247-252, 256; Berner, Seattle 1900-1920: From Boomtown, Urban Turbulence, to Restoration (Seattle: Charles Press, 1991), 92-94; Nellie C. Cornish, Miss Aunt Nellie: The Autobiography of Nellie C. Cornish ed. by Ellen Van Volkenburg Browne and Edward Nordhoff Beck (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964); "New Companies Formed," The Seattle Times, November 9, 1923, p. 22; "Nellie Cornish Leaves School; To Live in New York," Ibid., August 18, 1939, p. 1; "Mrs. Sherman New Director at Cornish," Ibid., December 14, 1939, p. 28; Louis R. Guzzo, "Music and Art Foundation Takes Over Cornish," August 1, 1954, third section, p. 2; Wayne Johnson, "The New Cornish: 'A City of Hope,'" Ibid., October 2, 1975, p. B-6; Melinda Bargreen, "Cornish Relocation Is Moving Experience," Ibid., July 5, 1981, p. E-14; Bargreen, "Cornish President Hopes to Break Down Barriers," Ibid., October 2, 1994, p. M-4; "Cornish College Gets $7 Million," Ibid., April 27, 2000, p. E-2; Bobbi Nodell, "Cornish College Making a Move -- It's Close to Buying 7-Story Building," Ibid., May 11, 2002, p. B-1; Frank Vinluan, "Cornish Buying Land for Move Downtown," Ibid., May 30, 2002, p. E-1; "Business Briefs," Ibid., May 6, 2003, p. C-3; Misha Berson, "Cornish College President Is Set to Retire In 2011," Ibid., July 2, 2009, p. B-5; Katherine Long, "California Arts Educator New Cornish President -- Violist to Succeed Retiring Leader," Ibid., December 2, 2010, p. B-3; "The Cornish Revolution," Cornish College of the Arts website accessed November 10, 2014 (; Laura Fleischmann, "Cornish College Purchases Lenora Square," CoStar website accessed November 11, 2014 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Nellie Cornish signs lease for space in Seattle's Booth Building, where she will soon open Cornish School of Music, on November 14, 1914" (by John Caldbick), (accessed November 12, 2014). Note: This essay, originally written in 1998, was substantially expanded and updated on November 12, 2014.

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