On November 14, 1914, Nellie C. Cornish (1876-1956), just returned from a nearly year-long stay in California, signs a lease for a one-room studio in the Booth Building at Broadway Avenue and Pine Street on Seattle's Capitol Hill. Cornish, who had been teaching piano and playing professionally in the city since 1900, will soon open the Cornish School of Music and take over the building's entire third floor. The school is an immediate success but will be plagued later by financial troubles. In 1921 it will move to its own building, farther north on Capitol Hill at Harvard Avenue and Roy Street, financed largely by several of Nellie Cornish's society friends and other supporters. Despite enduring repeated artistic and financial crises over the years, a century after its founding the school, now called the Cornish College of the Arts and with a main campus in the Denny Triangle neighborhood of downtown Seattle, remains a mainstay of arts education in the Northwest.
Beginning a Life in Music
Nellie Centennial Cornish was born in November 1876 in Nebraska, the first of two daughters of Nathan Cornish, an attorney, and Jennetta Parrish Simpson Cornish (1865-1895). After spending some time on a sheep farm in Oregon, the family moved to Blaine in Whatcom County in 1889. In December 1890 Nathan Cornish was elected mayor, the first to hold the office after the town was properly incorporated, and he was reelected the following year. The family lived above a bank that Nathan Cornish had started, but it failed in the financial meltdown known as the Panic of 1893, leading all but Nellie Cornish to relocate to Spokane.
While in her early 20s and still living in Blaine, Cornish worked as a governess and tried to survive on that and income from giving music lessons, but met with little success. She moved to Seattle in 1900 and rented a small space in the Holyoke Building at 107 Spring Street, already home to many musicians and artists, where she both lived and taught piano. She advertised her lessons in the local newspapers and performed at recitals, both for the general public and at society soirees. A combination of personal charisma and teaching skill soon made her a favorite of the city's elite. She built a reputation as an accomplished pianist and an innovative and effective teacher, and she soon hired and trained others in her methods.
In 1904 Cornish traveled to Boston to study the new Fletcher Method of piano instruction, which was tailored to the teaching of children and represented a rather radical departure from the rote learning that had long been the norm. She returned to Seattle in 1905, but in 1907 left again for an extended trip east, during which she engaged "in not a little study with American and foreign masters of her art" ("Miss Nellie Cornish Returns ... ") before returning again to Seattle.
In September 1908 a piano school was started in Seattle by a noted Northwest pianist and instructor, Boyd Wells (d. 1929), and Nellie Cornish was hired as director of the children's department. A news article announcing the school's opening noted that Cornish "has gained much favor in Seattle through the results she has obtained in teaching the little folk" ("Teachers in New School ..."). In 1911 she traveled to Los Angeles to study with studied with musical educator Calvin Brainerd Cady (1851-1928), then again ran her own teaching studio in Seattle. Not too many years later, the favor she had gained teaching the children of some of the city's wealthier citizens would prove to be of huge benefit.
Miss Nellie Starts a School
Before long, Cornish again left Seattle for another stay in California. She had definite plans in mind when she returned to the city on Friday, November 13, 1914 (according to the society pages of that Sunday's Seattle Times -- Cornish wrote in her autobiography, and the school's website in 2014 stated, that she returned on the morning of the 14th). Right away, on November 14, 1914, backed by a few wealthy acquaintances, Cornish signed a lease for studio space on the third floor of the Booth Building, located at Broadway Avenue and Pine Street, at that time still a relatively underdeveloped neighborhood. By January 1915, regular display advertisements were appearing in Seattle newspapers for "Cornish School of Music, Nellie C. Cornish, Director." Her school, she said, would be "an elementary school of the arts -- all the arts -- with music as a major subject" ("The Cornish Revolution, Part III").
Having abandoned her own performing ambitions, Cornish concentrated her considerable energies on education, and not merely piano lessons. She embraced the idea that all students, including music students, needed broad learning in the liberal arts, and that the goal of musical instruction was far more than simply developing facility with an instrument. On March 24, 1915, speaking at a meeting of the Musical Art Society in Seattle, Cornish explained her philosophy of teaching:
"[E]ducation is not an accumulation of facts but has to do with every-day human experience. It is not the subject studied, but what it does for us that is important. Every subject studied should have a direct bearing on the development of character and good citizenship.
"The teacher of music should be an artist and a teacher of art. All the fundamental principles of art and of teaching in general apply to music in particular. To teach a pupil to sing or play a few pretty pieces is not teaching music any more than teaching a pupil to recite a few pieces of poetry is teaching literature. Literature is the putting into words and in a permanent form an expression of the deepest emotions of which humanity is capable, and music is nothing less" ("Musical Art Society Listens ... ").
Music, Dance, and Whistling
The Cornish School of Music enjoyed immediate success. In May 1915 The Seattle Times noted that in addition to many who returned to Cornish's tutelage upon her return from California, the school had attracted 85 new students since its opening. And big plans were afoot:
"On July 1, Miss Cornish will take over the third floor of the Booth Building ... . The new quarters, which will be elegantly decorated and furnished, include ten classrooms and a big recital hall" ("Cornish School Has Made Rapid Growth").
Cornish was putting into practice the educational philosophy she had outlined in her speech to the Musical Art Society less than two months earlier. Along with the physical expansion, the Cornish School of Music promised:
"A department of languages will soon be opened ... . Mrs. Juva Adams Johnston will direct the dancing department, with several assistants in advanced piano work, music appreciation and methods and materials for adults" ("Cornish School Has Made Rapid Growth").
Also promised was instruction in harmony, counterpoint, composition, and orchestration, and the addition of faculty to teach violin, cello, flute, clarinet, harp, and other instruments. In a span of less than six months, Nellie Cornish had gone from teaching individual students in a one-room studio to operating a multi-disciplinary educational institution. The Times, just two months later, described her accomplishments:
"For many years the name of Nellie C. Cornish, teacher of piano, has been known in every nook and corner of Seattle, and the spacious, elegantly appointed school in the Booth Building ..., equipped with all the facilities for teaching vocal and instrumental music, language and dancing, is the outgrowth of a one-room studio where, ten years ago, with conscientious, painstaking care the teacher was faithful to her calling" ("Schools and Colleges Beckon ... ").
The article also disclosed yet more areas of instruction -- modern foreign languages, Dalcroze eurythmics (a music-teaching method), solfege (a method of instruction for voice), history, and elocution. Within less than a week, new advertisements were appearing in Seattle newspapers. The name of the school was now "The Cornish School of Music, Language, and Dancing," and it claimed to be "The Most Complete and Best School of Its Kind in the West" (The Seattle Times, September 5, 1915).
Should anyone have doubted the range of Nellie Cornish's musical interests, she announced in October 1915 that Charles B. Hutchins of Seattle, "a remarkable whistler" and popular vaudeville performer, had been hired to offer "a definite and scientific method of instruction by which he teaches twelve different ways of whistling, besides double and treble notes, and the whistling of chords and words." The article included one cautionary note: "Presumably his pupils must have something of a whistle to begin with, just as voice pupils must have something of a voice" ("Whistling Added to Music Course").
Prosperity and Change
Nellie Cornish's school prospered for several years after its blooming in 1915. Summer courses were added to ground Seattle's public-school teachers in musical education, Cornish herself taught courses on the business aspects of the musical life, and students were introduced to some of the most advanced musical-training methods, many emanating from Europe. Recitals were given, both by promising students and by traveling professionals of note. More modern and more exotic forms of performance were introduced, including Egyptian and "Oriental" dancing, interpretive dance, and modern ballroom dancing, including the "French tango" (Advertisement, The Seattle Times, September 17, 1916).
All seemed well at the Booth Building, even as America in the spring of 1917 edged towards combat in the European charnel house of World War I. In August of that year, the school nearly doubled its space in the Booth Building. Plays were staged in a small theater that had been added, marking the embrace of the dramatic arts. The curriculum was further expanded to include courses in diction and public speaking, but there also was trouble on the horizon.
The end of World War I in November 1918 was followed by a worldwide economic slowdown. While it is difficult to judge the effect this had on the Cornish School, its display advertisements became smaller, and by 1920 it appears to have reverted to its original name, the Cornish School of Music, but with the addition of "Inc.," indicating that some reorganization had taken place. In that same year, the first public meetings were held to drum up support for building a new facility for the school. Nellie Cornish told audiences that she had simply outgrown the Booth Building; later accounts indicated that the school was in financial difficulty. It is known that Nellie Cornish, while rapidly expanding the school's operations, was not in the habit of setting aside funds for the proverbial rainy day.
Whatever the cause, or causes, of its need to relocate, the Cornish School was soon to leave the Booth Building, where it had grown from using one small room to occupying much of the building. In December 1920, a 10-day campaign was kicked off to raise $10,000 for the school, spearheaded by 45 "patrons" led by Harriet Stimson (1862-1936), whose husband C. D. Stimson was one of the city's most prominent and wealthy men ("Building Drive Is On"). In March 1921, a private, $50,000 bond issuance was advertised, with the proceeds to be used to build a "large three-to-four-story brick building which has been leased to the Cornish School of Music" (Advertisement, The Seattle Times, March 14, 1921).
The fundraising efforts were successful and the new facility, located nine blocks north of the Booth Building at the corner of Harvard Avenue E and E Roy Street, was built with surprising speed. On July 10, 1921, the school took out advertisements in the local newspapers to formally announce its "removal to the new building" (The Seattle Times, July 10, 1921). Rather than one big dedication ceremony, there was a week of special afternoon and evening events honoring various supporters, city music clubs, the University of Washington faculty, and other groups.
Miss Cornish Takes Her Leave
When the school opened in its new space, it did so under the simplified name Cornish School, with Nellie Cornish as director and her old employer, Boyd Wells, as associate director. But the school had no endowment, and each year seemed to bring new deficits that had to be filled by calling on the generosity of long-time benefactors.
The Cornish School weathered the first two years of the Great Depression, but by 1932 enrollment began to drop as fewer and fewer could afford private instruction. Operating income decreased and the school's financial distress deepened. Finally, in 1939, exhausted by her daily responsibilities and constant attempts at fundraising, she left the school she had founded; moving to back California for what she later described as "three years of rest and gardening" ("The Cornish Revolution, Part V").
Nellie Cornish never returned to the school in an official capacity, but was a frequent visitor, frequently honored. Her last years were spent living with her adopted daughter's family and traveling extensively, often to visit former students and colleagues. She died in 1956 as she approached her 80th birthday. A century after its founding, her school, by then known as the Cornish College of the Arts, lived on, with a main campus at 1000 Lenora Street in Seattle.