Hugo House, a History: The Future Is Now
New City Theater left their theater space, full of smoke and sweat, in 1997, at the exact moment that Hugo House needed to find a home.
When discussing the inception of Richard Hugo House on its opening, Linda Jaech (née Breneman) told The Seattle Times that she developed the idea for a literary center in Seattle after seeing the successes of other centers around the country. Indeed, at the official opening of Hugo House in 1998, The Seattle Times reported that that the National Association of Independent Literary Centers had found "between 70 and 90 such animals out there, but they're typically so strapped they tend to come and go quickly." Some organizations were thriving, like Poet’s House in New York City, Thurber House in Columbus, The Guild Complex in Chicago, and The Loft in Minneapolis.
The Loft in particular has been one of the most successful organizations, and the executive director at the time, Linda Myers, mentored the creators of the young Hugo House. She has pointed out that the struggles The Loft experienced were not a challenge to Hugo House because of some of the unique circumstances that put Seattle’s lit hub at 1634 11th Ave.
Linda brought the idea, but she also brought the means to make it happen. She and her fellow-philanthropist Linda Johnson found a mansion on 10th Ave on Capitol Hill and began the formal process to get it approved as an arts space. However, the neighborhood and the city disagreed with the attempt to use the family property as a conditional-use site—the literary center, they insisted, would not be able to hold classes or have events.
Faced with these setbacks, the Lindas, along with Andrea Lewis, and Frances McCue began planning, looking for funding, and waiting for the right location to come along. "We were holed up there in the mansion, and we invited everyone we could think of to give us advice: business people, lawyers, arts managers—everyone," recalled McCue. "We spent a lot of time forming a business plan, developing a mission statement, establishing ourselves as a nonprofit, putting together a board and establishing policies on how to run the organization." All the work left them in a great position before even opening their doors.
They received funding, and John Kazanjian of New City Theater called them to offer them his space. The Lindas bought the building and rented it out to Hugo House. Frances McCue became the founding director and would lead the organization for ten years, even spending several of them raising her family in the apartment over the lobby.
Classes began, but the organization decided to go big for its grand opening. Richard Hugo House created a weekend celebrating the brilliance of their namesake’s work, supported by his family and friends. Hugo's widow, the poet Ripley Hugo, supported the choice to name the house after him. Born in Seattle, many of Hugo’s friends, writers and colleagues such as David Wagoner, Madeline DeFrees, JT Stewart, Stanley Plumly, Colleen McElroy and Ivan Doig attended, as well as those from Montana such as William Kittredge, Lois Welch, Annick Smith and James Welch, and his West Seattle friends like John Popich, Vivian McLean, John Mitchell and Ken Gifford. Other local writers, like Timothy Egan, and Hugo scholars like Donna Gerstenberger also attended.
In the years to come, many famous writers would walk through Hugo House’s doors. Frances brought “the energy and vision to really carry through with it.” She chose the name Richard Hugo to represent the organization because, "Richard Hugo was not a haughty guy; he was a humble man who wrote beautifully about people and places often overlooked.” He built his world into his poetry from the ground up, showing us how incredible the world was from his point of view. It was a perspective that respected all people, envied them even.
Richard Hugo House was built from the ground up and brought the future of literature to modern Seattle, encouraging writers to look around and create their own perspectives. We learn to create envy for every walk of life, and we relish in the imperfections. We are building our imperfect universes from the ground up. The ramshackle house might be torn down, but in the life of Hugo House, the future has always been now, and we are rushing keep up, to lay the next floorboard so that new universes can grow in our halls.