Among Washington's most illustrious architects of his generation, Paul Thiry exerted a major influence in the emergence of the "Northwest style" of architecture as an early proponent of modernist design, while also advancing urban ideals. As principal architect of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, Thiry helped craft the ongoing legacy of the Seattle Center and manifested his commitment to effective city planning. His urban advocacy included his service on key local and regional planning bodies, and as an appointee of President Kennedy to the U.S. Capitol Planning Commission and the President's Council on Pennsylvania Avenue. His wide-ranging and much-honored work over a career spanning nearly 50 years includes signature residential projects in and beyond Seattle, the Seattle Center Coliseum (later remodeled as KeyArena), the Frye Art Museum, and the Museum of History & Industry in Seattle, the Washington State Library on Olympia's Capitol Mall, numerous churches located throughout Washington, campus plans and buildings at the University of Washington, Washington State University, and Western Washington University, and planning for Montana's Libby Dam and other large public projects throughout the United States. Augmenting extensive publication and exhibition of his design and planning work, Thiry expressed his thoughts and opinions on a range of subjects in writing published in local and national newspapers, journals, and books and in numerous speaking engagements.
Paul Thiry was born in Nome, Alaska, on September 11, 1904, during the heyday of the Gold Rush. At age 2 he moved to San Francisco with his parents, Hippolyte Thiry, a Parisian mining engineer, and Louise Schwaebel Thiry. After the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed their home, the family moved back to Nome. In 1909, the young Paul and his mother spent the better part of a year in Paris with their family there, and his mother established a business importing French clothing for the wealthy families of Nome and Seattle. Mother and son spent part of each year in residence at Seattle's Lincoln Hotel where she arranged importation and shipping, and also helped dress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) and Isadora Duncan (1878-1927).
Following his father's return to France in 1914 to go to war (from which he never returned), Thiry and his mother moved to Seattle. Previously schooled mostly by his well-educated mother, Thiry began studies at Saint Martin's, a Benedictine boarding school in Lacey. He graduated in 1920, at age 15 and in the same year began pre-med studies at the University of Washington. He soon abandoned that study in favor of architecture where he could exercise his skill in drawing, in part stimulated by his interest in renderings of the Villa de Medici and other classical scenes and expressed in his cartoons for the Sun Dodger (University of Washington student magazine) and Tyee (University of Washington yearbook).
In a 1983 oral history conducted by Meredith L. Clausen, Paul Thiry reflected on his family heritage, noting that his "father's grandfather ... Adrian Thiry, [was] a contemporary of Eiffel and developed many steel structures especially ... greenhouse and ... shaped steel fabrications; at one time they designed a group of greenhouses for the Shah of Persia, and reputedly he also was the inventor of barbed wire" (Thiry/Clausen interview). His lineage also includes the name Mansart, possibly linked to the renowned French architect Francois Mansart (1598-1666).
Thiry began architecture studies in 1923, under the tutelage of the architecture school's founder, Carl F. Gould (1873-1939), and under Arthur Herrman (1898-1933), who taught in the Beaux Arts tradition, rooted in classic architecture forms. Thiry's education included summer internships in the offices of Seattle architects Henry Bittman (1881-1955) and John Graham Sr. (1873-1955).
In 1927 Thiry went abroad to study for several months at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts at Fontainebleau, along with several students from the United States including UW classmate Welton Becket (1902-1969), who went on to a distinguished architectural career in Los Angeles. In 1928 Thiry graduated from the UW with the Bachelor of Architecture degree, also earning the Student Medal given by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and membership in the Tau Sigma Delta architecture honorary society.
Thiry earned his architect's license (Washington No. 110) and opened his own practice in 1929, working alone or with one or two other people. His early designs, such as the Lakecrest/Lake Court Apartments (Montlake, Seattle, 1929) and St. Edwards Catholic Church (Shelton, 1931) referenced historic styles, including French Norman and Colonial revival forms.
New Places, New Design Views
As the Great Depression slowed his work, Thiry set out on travels that expanded his ideas about architecture and urban design. He attended the Chicago Century of Progress International Exhibition in 1933, which he described as "a museum of new architectural styles and construction techniques, of city plans and new technologies ... . There were some very interesting buildings ... like Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion house, and ... a lot of it was Art Moderne, but just the same it was a complete change" (Thiry/Clausen interview). He noted also: "after seeing the structure at the Chicago Fair, it always seemed to me that form had to follow function, and design had to show structure. I thought that there were so many new elements being developed that there should be a new architecture, but I didn't get much support in that viewpoint ... [from] the people that I was taught by at the University." "All too often the structural system of a building was buried under an alien architecture, whether colonial or Romanesque or Gothic ... . Going on to Japan the following year, I had a chance to build on the things that I had seen in Chicago" (Thiry/McConaghy interview).
So Thiry's travels continued. He related:
"I had a friend that I'd gone to school with, by the name of Matsumoto, who ... had gone back to Japan and he wanted me to come and work with him in Japan. And so ... I went home one day, being thoroughly disgusted when I had lost my last client ... and I said to my mother, 'For two cents, I'd go to Japan and work with Matsumoto.' And so she said, 'Well, why don't you?' And so the next day, anyway, I went down to the ticket office for the American Mail Line. At that time too there were a lot of strikes and ships were all tied up and it was kind of a mess. And so I said, 'I'd like to get a ticket to Yokohama,' a round trip, because I wanted to be sure to get home, and I wanted to have my ticket paid for in advance if I ran into trouble ... . The ticket wasn't too much, as money went -- as money goes now. And so I thought, 'Well, if I'm going to go there, maybe I should get a ticket to Manila and back,' because I could live on the boat and have no problem as far as my daily subsistence was concerned. So the man said, 'Well, if you're going to get tickets to Manila, why don't you get a ticket around the world? It's only a few dollars more.' And so I said, 'Well, how long would it take to go around the world?' And he said, 'Well, the ticket covers about 35,000 miles and it would take about three-and-a-half, four months, if you just stayed on the boat ... . ' So I got a ticket around the world and then I took off for Japan and I worked with Matsumoto for a while" (Thiry/Clausen interview).
During his six months in Japan, Thiry contacted his fellow UW architecture student George Nakashima (1905-1990, later a world-renowned designer of furniture), then employed by Antonin Raymond (1888-1976), a Czechoslovakia-born American architect who had stayed in Japan after working with Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) on Tokyo's Imperial Hotel, introducing the International Style to Japan. Thiry continued on to France where he spent an afternoon with Charles-Edouard Le Corbusier (1877-1966), known for his breakthrough concept of the house as a "machine for living." Later Thiry observed, "I didn't really have the full comprehension of the possibilities of change until after I went to Japan" (Thiry/Clausen interview).
Thiry's journey continued, taking him to cities throughout Asia over several months, with a stint of work with a Chinese architect. He sailed back to the U.S. East coast, stopping in Washington, D.C. and New York City before sailing home through the Panama Canal.
After his return to Seattle, Thiry joined in partnership from 1935 to 1940 with architect Alban A. Shay (1899-1984). As Thiry recalled it: “Alban Shay offered me an opportunity to be a partner with him. I came back imbued with new ways to do things and Shay was willing. ... In fact, when he encountered a new plan he would sometimes say, ‘Do you want traditional or modern mystic?’” (Thiry/Clausen interview). "In the mid-1930s ... Thiry built houses for himself and other clients in traditional neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill, Leschi, Denny Blaine and Madison Park. He and contractor Edwin C. Edwards developed some double lots on the hillside above Lake Washington Boulevard near Denny Blaine" (Kreisman). Increasingly, he applied new design ideas to his work.
In 1940, Paul married Mary Thomas (d. 1986). They had two sons, Paul Thiry Jr., who also became an architect, and Pierre Thiry. Beginning in 1960 the family lived in a home at 1017 E Blaine Street designed by Carl F. Gould, to which Thiry added a sun room.
Advancing Modern Design
"Beginning with his own house in 1936 [330 35th Avenue E in Seattle's Washington Park], his startlingly modern buildings departed radically from the tradition of historicism prevailing in the region. The bare, flush surfaces, white stuccoed walls, stark cubical forms, flat roofs, and clean, mechanical look of his houses in the late 1930s and 1940s shocked local sensibilities accustomed to natural brick and wood, gentle sloped roofs, picturesque forms, and Tudor or colonial detailing" (Clausen, PNW Quarterly). He had originally created a more radical design for the house, but could not secure financing for it. He sought to reduce construction costs through the use of off-the-shelf mass-produced products. Architectural Record, a national magazine directed to architects, featured the house in 1940.
"By 1939, Thiry had progressed beyond Gropius in America. His Albert Kerry residence at Beaconsfield on Sound Washington, of 1939, was a pentagonal-shaped flat-roofed pavilion with large sliding window walls similar to Japanese shoji screens ... . At the beginning of the postwar period, he had already achieved national recognition, and was considered to be the only other well-known Northwest architect besides Pietro Belluschi in Portland. By ... 1946, Thiry had projecting flat roofs to provide shelter from the inclement weather in this area. And toward the late '40s and early '50s, he had begun to design with large shingled roof forms as in the Francis Brownell, Jr. residence [featured in The Modern House in America] in The Highlands, Washington, of 1954" (Kubota).
Gradually, modernism and Thiry's ideas took hold in Seattle. He spoke frequently to various clubs and groups around Seattle and beyond about new ideas for homes and public spaces and urban planning. As he recalled: "I gave a talk at the Athletic Club, and it was well attended, and of course I went into great depths of modern thought and so on, and most of the ladies that attended the lecture were really distraught ... with some of my ideas ... [about] living Japanese style, with uniform garments, uniform tatami, uniform this, and storage, and sit on the floor, and maybe just on a bench. Then I got into all these environmental things, and of course they didn't understand all that." "I remember one time I was invited to speak at the Women's University Club ... . I spoke of flexible spaces, of the practicalities of flat roofs, of overhangs, and letting the sun in, and keeping the sun out, and building to accommodate the breeze in the summertime, and to discourage the wind in the winter, and to keep out of the rain. And then I got into subjects like building reflecting surfaces, and the dark inner parts of houses, and of sliding screens and shojis, and you know, it really denounced the American home" (Thiry/Clausen interview).
Working With Churches
Thiry's early work, originating with referrals from his teachers at Saint Martin's, included the Catholic Archbishop's Chancery and Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church and School in Seattle. His Church of Christ the King merited a 1950 design award from the American Institute of Architects Seattle Chapter. Later he designed Mercer Island Presbyterian Church (1960-1961) and Saint Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church (1964), in Seattle's Montlake neighborhood. Thiry observed: "I think the one that was most noteworthy from the standpoint of change in church design was Christ the King [Greenwood, Seattle 1948-1950] in Seattle, which was a semicircular design and no person in the congregation in attendance at mass would be more than 50 feet from the priest."
As architect Edward Burke recalls: “Paul was Catholic, and had received many commissions from the Archdiocese including the design of the classic Chancery. One day while I was working for him, he received a call from Archbishop Connolly [Thomas A. Connolly, 1899-1991] saying that the church was going to expand the building by adding a second floor, and inviting Paul to be the architect for the work. Paul declined the offer, saying that the addition would destroy the character of the original building. He also went on to say that if the church would concentrate on its primary mission and forget about all the social programs they were getting into they would not have to expand their space to accommodate a proliferating number of administrators. Knowing Connolly, I can imagine his reaction. Needless to say, Paul never received another commission from the church" (Burke).
In 1953, Thiry co-authored Churches and Temples. He recalls: "Reinholt Publishing Company called me one day and asked me if I would write the Catholic section of a book they termed Churches and Temples, and Richard Bennett was asked to do the Jewish section, and Henry Kamphoefner the Protestant. So we all agreed and each one wrote actually a book in itself and combined the three books into one book, Churches and Temples" (Thiry/Clausen interview).
Large-scale Projects and Campus Work
Teaming with others, Thiry took on early large-scale public housing projects including Holly Park defense housing in 1940 (Jones, Thiry, & Ahlson). During World War II, he worked on local military projects, such as 6,000 dwellings and community buildings in Port Orchard 1940-1944, and a Naval Advance Base Depot in Tacoma 1943-1944, and a town plan for Hanford, Washington (1944) with Jones, Bouillon and Sylliaasen. In 1962, he consulted on the Montana Libby Dam Project, creating a comprehensive plan and design for the extensive operation.
Thiry also prepared campus plans and designed buildings for the University of Washington: Electrical Engineering Building 1947-1948 (later destroyed) and Wilson Ceramic Laboratory, 1946; for Washington State University: a master plan and Regents Hill Dormitory, 1952; and Western Washington University: a new science building, library additions, Highland and Higginson Halls; and a plan for the Washington State Capitol Campus in Olympia, in 1959. Later work included the Agnes Flanagan Chapel at Lewis and Clark College (Portland, 1972).
After the war, Thiry designed a number of high-profile public buildings that generated design awards and widespread publication, including:
- The Museum of History & Industry in Seattle, 1948-1950
- The Charles and Emma Frye Art Museum in Seattle, 1952
- Seattle Public Library North East Branch, 1954
- The Washington State Library in Olympia, 1954
He designed his own office at 800 (now 804) Columbia, Seattle, which Architectural Record featured in 1946. He gained international recognition in the 1950s for his design of the U.S. Embassy residence in Santiago, Chile.
Working with Paul Thiry
Over the years Thiry worked for, partnered with, or employed other Seattle-area architects who had productive careers of their own, among them Frederick Ahlson, Fred Bassetti (1917-2013), Leonard Bindon (1899-1980), Henry Bittman, Lincoln Bouillon, Ed Burke, Arne Bystrom, Harry Cummings, Roger Jacques Gotteland (1914-1999), John Graham Sr. (1873-1955), James Greco, Donald Greve, Morris Jellison, John Paul Jones (b. 1892), Johnpaul Jones, John Ridley, Alban Shay (1899-1984), John Sproule (1908-1993), Butler Sturtevant (1899-1970), Melvin Sylliaasen, Daniel Streissguth, and John Van Horne (1918-2003) (PCAD).
Johnpaul Jones (b. 1941) worked at the firm for a couple of years, early in his Seattle career, and noted, “Thiry really worked on the cheap, he paid beans, he didn’t heat the office, and he was always grumpy -- but he produced phenomenally creative designs (Jones/Rose Hancock conversation).” L. Jane Hastings (b. 1928) recollects applying for a job with Paul Thiry early in her career: “We knew he wouldn’t hire a woman, but requested an interview anyway, just to watch him squirm. He used the excuse that the language in the drafting room wasn’t suitable for a young woman’s ears" (Hastings/Rose Hancock conversation).
Based in part on his connection to his Alaskan birthplace, Thiry sustained an interest in Native American art and architecture. At the time of his design work on the Museum of History & Industry, by chance he got involved in crafting an exhibit of the Museum's holdings of Native artifacts, which Thiry also collected. Several of his buildings incorporate totem-like figures, often in relief forms impressed in concrete panels.
He acknowledged the influence of longhouse structure in his design, particularly in several pavilions created for the World's Fair and later demolished, and in the longhouse at Seattle Pier 51 that housed Ye Olde Curiosity Shop from 1963 to 1988. He also co-wrote with his wife, Mary, Eskimo Artifacts: Designed for Use, a 337-page volume picturing more than 1,000 items from Native culture.
Thiry on the Freeway and Viaduct
As his architectural practice flourished, Thiry also became involved in city and regional planning issues. He first engaged in planning advocacy at the time of the original proposal for Seattle's waterfront viaduct, in the mid-1940s, which he opposed. "'A two-deck viaduct will be so high, it will block off all bordering buildings from the bay. And I've never seen an overhead construction in any city that didn't create slum conditions all around it,' Thiry told The Times in late 1947. 'Most cities are trying to eliminate elevateds, rather than creating new ones. … Don't ruin the whole community just to make it easy to get to and from work,' Thiry advised" (Mapes).
Later his professional activism extended to committee engagement with the American Institute of Architects Washington Chapter, and as its President 1951-1953. Seattle Mayor Allan Pomeroy appointed him to the Seattle Planning Commission in 1952, and Thiry served until resigning in 1961 in protest of the planned extension of the freeway through Seattle's urban core. In keeping with his urban ideals and vigilance, Thiry opposed the plan for location of the I-5 corridor through the center of Seattle's downtown, proposing an alternate parkway that would disperse the traffic along several routes. He joined with the First Hill Improvement Club in promoting a plan to lid the downtown portion of the freeway between Madison and University Streets and between Pike Street and Olive Way, for an attractive and functional linkage of downtown with First Hill. He lost this battle, though later this idea informed the 1976 construction of the freeway lid incorporating Freeway Park that partly addressed the issue of urban connection.
Thiry also served on the executive committee of the Puget Sound Regional Planning Council from 1954 to 1957. This was a group comprising representatives of AIA and other private organizations seeking to advance concepts of coordinated urban and regional planning, similar in intent but distinct from the governmental organization that originated at about the same time, known as the Puget Sound Regional Council.
One of Thiry's lasting contributions was his work as principal architect of the Century 21 Exposition, a position he held from 1957 until the conclusion of the World's Fair in 1962. Thiry's work with the Century 21 Exposition combined his interests in city planning and architecture. As the 50th anniversary of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (held in 1909 on the University of Washington campus) approached, Thiry and a group of architects, landscape architects, and planners including John S. Detlie (1908-2005), Robert Dietz (1912-2006), Lawrence Halprin (1916-2009), Perry Johanson (1910-81), John Spaeth (1912-89), and Minoru Yamasaki (1912-1986) began meeting and talking about advancing a civic and cultural center for Seattle, possibly taking advantage of city-owned properties on First Hill. Operating as the mayor-appointed Design Standards Review Board, this group advised the World's Fair Commission on design and siting concepts for the fair.
Following his appointment as principal architect of the fair, Thiry assisted in the decision-making process that selected the site at the base of Queen Anne Hill, in part based upon the Bogue Plan, commissioned by the City of Seattle but defeated by Seattle voters in 1912, that had called for a civic center at that location. With his family, Thiry traveled to Europe to visit sites of earlier World's Fairs.
As principal architect, Thiry prepared the site plan which incorporated reuse of some existing buildings, established and carried out the intention to leave a permanent cultural center as the fair's heritage to the city, and coordinated the work of public and private entities that developed the fair's facilities for entertainment and exhibition. He also designed a number of fair buildings both temporary and permanent, including the dramatically engineered Washington State Coliseum (later Seattle Coliseum and then KeyArena) which housed the fair's World of Tomorrow and other exhibits. Including the Space Needle and the Monorail link to Seattle's urban core at Westlake, the cumulative effect of the fair introduced futuristic design concepts to some 10 million visitors.
Historians recognize the influence of the fair on the shape of Seattle and the design consciousness of citizens and visitors:
"Between 1955 and 1962, a nondescript Seattle neighborhood was transformed into a glittering international tomorrowland, then into an urban campus. After the fair, Seattle Center remained -- the opera house, the science pavilion, the International Fountain, the theatre, the coliseum, and the Food Circus and midway -- the city's great plaza. The Space Needle had become Seattle's icon in the eyes of the world. But as Seattle people gazed from its observation deck, they were dazzled by their hometown that spread from Everett to the University of Washington to Mount Rainier, from Elliott Bay to the Cascades. Century 21 empowered people to look critically and creatively at their city, their surroundings" (Boswell & McConaghy).
Recognition of Thiry's work on the fair included "Man of the Year" citations in 1962 from both the Seattle City Council and the Seattle Chamber of Commerce.
In the Nation's Capital
Thiry's local AIA leadership led to his work with the national AIA organization as Chancellor of the AIA College of Fellows honorary society, and as Chair of the AIA Committee on the National Capitol. In 1962, President Kennedy appointed Thiry to the National Capitol Planning Commission, which drew up and executed comprehensive plans for the capitol campus. "Thiry, known for his strong opinions, became embroiled in the controversy over whether to extend or preserve the West Front of the Capitol Building" (Clausen, Shaping), and resigned from the Commission.
He served on the President's Council on Pennsylvania Avenue from 1963 to 1975. In 1964 Jacqueline Kennedy appointed Thiry to the Kennedy Library Design Advisory Committee, along with internationally recognized architects Alvar Aalto (1898-1976), Pietro Belluschi (1899-1994), Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974), I. M. Pei (b. 1917, eventually selected to design the Library), Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), and Kenzo Tange (1913-2005), among others.
Accolades and Awards
Thiry's designs and his thinking merited numerous awards, and publication in major journals across the fields of architecture and planning. In 1955, the American Society of Planning Officials named Thiry as an Honorary Lifetime Member. The American Academy in Rome hosted Thiry as Architect-in-Residence in 1969. In 1984 AIA Seattle honored Paul Thiry, along with Paul Hayden Kirk (1914-1995), as the first recipient of its highest honor, the AIA Seattle Medal.
In 1980, a colleague summarized Thiry's career: "The name of Paul Thiry is synonymous with Pacific Northwest architecture, although his influence in the field of design is far more than a regional matter. ... Since he began his practice in Seattle 50 years ago, Thiry has matched his contributions to design with those to his profession, to his community and to his country .... While he often appeared to be a voice crying in the wilderness, he was found later to be speaking about the most feasible solution to the issue at hand" (Koehler).
Thiry's World of Building and Planning
A typically critical and challenging article by Thiry appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in December 1965, during the time of his service on the paper's Forum Northwest, with the title "How can we do this to ourselves?" addressing the deleterious effects of inadequate regional transportation planning. Later Thiry wrote: "If there is to be physical and mental betterment on earth it most assuredly rests with the world of architecture to give direction and to take steps to lead the way. The world of architecture is a world of building and of planning. It is the privilege of the architect to provide man with environment. It is singularly his duty to look at situations objectively ... because architecture is the direct result of man's occupation of space. It would seem significant that architecture is of prime importance to the lie of man and that it is his inseparable companion, for surely without it, he reverts to the primitive state. We are faced with a new pace in architecture, one which does not reconcile itself with the past. It follows no historic pattern nor does it find compatibility in form or appearance with structures of our traditional inheritance" (Emanuel, 1980).
Though architects and architectural writers speak repeatedly of Thiry's role in the shaping of U.S. modernism, the advancement of the International Style, or his influence on Northwest architecture, Thiry asserted, "I don't do it as a style; I do it for what the so-called style accomplishes" (Thiry/Clausen interview).
A Continuing Legacy
Thiry worked rigorously until the late 1980s, continuously experimenting with materials and building technology. In 1993, he died of congestive heart failure after years of public service to the Pacific Northwest and the nation. In a Seattle Times obituary, biographer Meredith Clausen described him as "a feisty individual known for his strong opinions" (Anderson).
As a testament to the lasting influence of Paul Thiry's work and its place in the community, The Seattle Times edition of March 11, 2010, included a front-page feature story on the future of Seattle Center related to a proposed glass center featuring the work of Dale Chihuly (Hefter) and also an urgent "Can historic home in Normandy Park be saved?" (Ramirez) referring to the possible imminent demolition of a Normandy Park waterfront home designed by Thiry in 1962 and featured on the cover of Sunset magazine in April 1967.
Commemorations of the 1962 World's Fair in the years leading up to its 50th anniversary in 2012 again focused broad public attention on the "design moment" -- how buildings and cities reflect social ideals, and how succeeding next generations of people and places will address changing aspirations and emerging realities. The original design vision of architect Paul Thiry continued to offer an example of the expressive power of urban form, and of the value gained by following a courageous course of progressive thought and action.