• Flora Tempel

Hugo House, a History: New City Visionaries

In our last history post, we talked about the use of 1634 11th Ave as a mortuary until about 1978. So what happened in the twenty years between the closure of the mortuary and the opening of Hugo House in 1998? We reached out to Charlie Rathbun (pictured below), the Arts Program manager at 4Culture who helped found the theater that filled the house in those years.

“Sometime around 1980,” he told us, “they leased it, then sold it, to a community theater group called The Conservatory Theatre Company specializing in restoration comedies, etc. In 1982 they advertised for a new artistic director. Mary Ewald, actor, and her husband, John Kazanjian, were working in Seattle in a show at the Empty Space. John applied for the director job and was hired.” John and Charlie had been friends in the arts community on the East Coast, where Charlie was still living with his wife.

The small Conservatory Theater Company was not faring well after its first couple of years, and hiring John marked a turning point for the direction of the theater.

Charlie described how things changed. “John invited us to move from New York to join him in Seattle to work with the theater. We leapt at the opportunity and arrived in July 1982 to start a new theater organization, which eventually became the New City Theater. I became the manager and John the Artistic Director.

“John created a new model for a theater organization in Seattle by eschewing the six-show subscription model so prevalent at the time and opening up the theater to the community through play festivals, residencies, artistic partnerships and rentals, as well as producing its own ambitious season of contemporary plays. For the next decade the New City maintained a niche status as the avant garde kid on the block. It provided a first home and/or launching pad for a number of artists and organizations in Seattle, including the Fringe Festival, Earshot Jazz, Alice B Theatre, New City Late Night Club, Off the Wall Players, annual Directors' Festival and Playwright's Festival, and numerous guest artists from around the country as well as Seattle.”

There were many small theater companies in the city at the time, including On the Boards, Empty Space Theatre, Group Theatre, and COCA. Other arts organizations were nearby on Capitol Hill, like 911 Media Arts and Seattle Mime Theatre in the Oddfellows Building.

The Conservatory Theater Company had already completed the main renovations to transform mortuary into theater, but John and Charlie finished the work to bring the building into the arts community. “They had kept most of the décor from the funeral home, including the silver embossed wallpaper, silver chandeliers, carpeting, etc. Our first production was a dark musical comedy called Coming Attractions about a media star serial killer. We tore out all of the funeral home trappings and revealed much of the grandeur of the original 1904 apartment complex—gas fireplace, fir floors, plaster walls, etc. It was a gorgeous place to spend the day in the sunny offices upstairs. We did a major capital campaign (for us) to put a new roof on the building, restore the exterior, and commission a snazzy pink paint job by designer Foster Mayer in the Painted Ladies, San Francisco style.”

New City Theater continued to foster and produce new contemporary theater productions until about 1994. “As funding stagnated and declined and small companies began to close shop, John decided to sell the facility and become an itinerant organization,” Charlie said. The building was then purchased by Linda Jaech (who later divorced and returned to using her maiden name—Breneman), one of the cofounders of Hugo House, in 1997, a year after the literary organization started. The house underwent more renovations before its official opening in October 1998.

Today, New City Theater is still a visionary theater company and has found a new home at 18th and Union, a few blocks over the hill from Hugo House. Their mission statement is, “to commission and produce language centered plays that grapple with the socio-political issues of our time.” The time they spent in 1634 11th seems to have bestowed some creative history into the building, inspiring many adventurous storytellers to follow in their forward-thinking footsteps.