Edmond Meany Hotel (1930-1931)

  • By Kathleen Kemezis
  • Posted 9/19/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9163
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The Edmond Meany Hotel (1930-1931), a sophisticated and modern structure located in Seattle's University District, emerged from the collaboration of business leaders and citizens of the neighborhood. The organizing committee of community leaders, which became the University Community Hotel Corporation, raised $297,700 in capital to buy a site at the corner of 45th Street and Brooklyn Avenue. The corporation  amassed further funding by issuing stocks and bonds to individuals in the district and in the broader Seattle for the construction and equipment costs. Because of his prestigious reputation as a hotel designer, Robert Reamer (1873-1938) was chosen to create a thoroughly modern and monolithic hotel with luxurious but comfortable touches. The Edmond Meany Hotel represents Reamer’s experimentation with new advances in reinforced concrete construction and modern European architectural styles. Reamer’s innovative design included cantilevered corners, which afforded broad, sweeping views of the surrounding environment from as much as sixteen stories up. In November 1931, the hotel opened with much fanfare. In 1938, Abraham H. Albertson (1872-1964), a colleague of Reamer, successfully nominated the hotel to be part of a national exhibition sponsored by the American Institute of Architects. The Edmond Meany Hotel has traded hands many times in its lifetime and remains an impressive landmark in the University District, since there are few structures of similar height. In 1997 under the ownership of the Starwood Lodging Corporation, NBBJ renovated the hotel to recapture the elegant, modern essence of the original interiors, and today, the Noble House Hotels and Resorts owns the hotel and renamed it the Hotel Deca, Seattle.

Financing a New Hotel

The Edmond Meany Hotel represents a community-sponsored effort to bring a new social landmark and cultural center to the University District. Originally, a committee of 50 people from various industries sponsored and engineered the project. They touted the hotel as a community project and consulted with the prominent Hokenbury System, Inc of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to assess the financial scope of the project and the economic feasibility. Under the leadership of its president, John E. Burkheimer (d. 1952), this committee would become the University Community Hotel Corporation. According to a pamphlet produced by the Seattle Trust Company in 1930, the committee raised $297,700 in capital for buying the site and starting construction. The Metropolitan Building Company, the First Realty Corporation, the University National Company, as well as others contributed money to the capital campaign. The corporation also raised money by issuing $300,000 of preferred stock and $340,000 in bonds to the community; by the end of the campaign, more than  800 people had subscribed to the issue. An article from the November 28th, 1931, issue of The Hotel News of the West valued the new hotel at approximately $1 million.

In another effort to involve the community, the corporation arranged a contest to name the new hotel. Students and citizens of the district sent in an overwhelming number of suggestions, and the ultimate winning entry referenced a beloved professor and citizen, Edmond Meany (1862-1935). According to an article in The Hotel News of the West of November 28th, 1931, the president of the University of Washington noted that the hotel did not honor Meany, but instead Meany has honored the hotel by allowing his name to be used and associating the hotel with an invaluable conservator of Pacific Northwest history and traditions.

Seattle's University District, 1920s-1930s

Throughout America, the economic engine of the 1920s pumped momentum and inspiration into cities and society. This energy influenced the cultural tastes and ushered in the freedom of the Jazz Age in film, music, and art. As fashion freed the human form and art steered away from the historical, the American society clamored for modern designs and the latest in innovative technology. This trend represented an ambition to run towards a society of the future instead of strolling through past cultures.

The new buildings erected in Seattle during the late 1920s and 1930s reflect this shift in culture. Although Seattle witnessed a slower growing economy, the city still enjoyed a construction boom evident in the expansion of downtown farther north, beyond the Metropolitan Tract (11 acres owned by the University of Washington at its original location, the center of downtown Seattle). Commercial buildings in Seattle during the 1920s started out sporting more historical styles of Classical Revival and Eclecticism. By the end of the decade, however, a preference for European inspired, modern styles, like Art Deco, had transformed the cityscape.

The originally named Brooklyn District became the University District after the relocation of the University of Washington in 1895 to its current location. Eventually, with the growth of the university and Washington state's first world's fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909, the district became the most significant commercial area outside of downtown. During the 1920s, the University of Washington expanded for 7,500 students. The campus grew accordingly with the completion of the liberal arts quadrangle and the first phase of Suzzallo Library in 1927. The university's expansion spurred development in the University District. New apartments and houses began to pop up in the 1920s as more people wanted to live in the district. A “considerable shopping district” blossomed, and Wallin and Nordstrom opened the first branch store in 1924 (Reamer, 17). Most commercial buildings presented a traditional look with brick or terra cotta facing embellished by plain cornices and prominent storefronts. The Edmond Meany Hotel was one of the first skyscrapers in the district and introduced the modernizing trend by employing a new reinforced concrete technology and International Style architectural features.

Reamer and His Design

Prior to the Edmond Meany, Reamer had completed hotel projects throughout the region including the Bellingham Hotel (1930) and the 5th Avenue addition to the Olympic Hotel (1929) in downtown Seattle. From the beginning of his career, Reamer earned a reputation for exploring new architectural styles and innovative construction techniques. His work in Seattle alone included Moorish/Spanish Renaissance style (Skinner Building, 1926), traditional Chinese timber architecture (5th Avenue Theater, 1926), and Art Deco (1411 4th Avenue Building, 1928). Reamer’s adept ability and curiosity to master a variety of styles represented a genuine appreciation for the articulation of architecture. He also closely followed new trends and contributed many early modernist buildings to Seattle’s cityscape.

The Edmond Meany Hotel is one of these early modernist buildings. The main material, concrete, not only gives life to the design, but it influences the modern simplicity of ornamentation throughout the structure. The cantilevered corners allow for a single, wide window in each room. They also soften the austere, monolithic tower of reinforced concrete. The interplay of the windows with the expanse of concrete offers a long and lean verticality, which was emphasized by the heroic setbacks to the penthouse on the top. The sheer verticals of concrete possess a texture of deep fluting, similar to a Greek column. Terminal parapets cap the central verticals on each side with ornaments, which  “exemplify in their easily obtained relief a characteristic concrete form" (Reamer, 18).

At street level, black Minnesota granite graced the façade of the first two floors of retail and public spaces including a grill, coffee shop, ballroom, lounge, and dining rooms. As the social headquarters for the university, the hotel held “ample space for the community events, and University social affairs” (Work on University District Hotel, 6). Additionally, on Brooklyn Avenue, the University Garage Company built a three-story garage, which housed 370 cars. From its stout base, the sleek tower emerged with 12 floors of rooms and the penthouse on top. The hotel included 158 rooms surrounding a central core for elevators and stair shafts. In addition to three types of accommodations, the hotel offered “studio” rooms for students. Evro M. Becket, who originally owned the land on which the hotel was built and served as its president and managing director until his death in 1960, lived that entire time in the rooftop penthouse. After his death, an effort was made to convert the hotel into a retirement home, but was defeated by zoning issues. 

In an article from The Architect and Engineer, Reamer discusses the concept of every room being a corner room. While focusing on the design’s ability to afford expansive views and spaciousness, he noted that it allows for “part of the wide outside to be brought in and merged with the interior” (Reamer, 18). In many of his buildings, Reamer focused on lighting and the ability of light to transform a space. The Edmond Meany Hotel proved almost a culmination of this experimentation with its ability to blur the bounds between inside and out.

Reamer had toyed with this unique hotel design for many years. He had traveled abroad, and according to the November 28th, 1931, issue of The Hotel News of the West, structures in Germany particularly influenced the design of the hotel. Reamer’s creation, according to Larry Kreisman, “bridged the gap between Art Deco and International styled modernism” (Quinn, 120). Both European styles, Art Deco and the International Style, strived for simplicity and a break from the historical tradition. Geometric shapes with taut expanses devoid of ornamentation characterized the International Style as well as planes of glass for letting in natural light. Architects used concrete, steel, and glass most often in International Style structures.

In addition to this International modern architecture, the Art Deco movement, first introduced to American architects in 1925, informed Reamer’s design. Primarily an urban phenomenon, Art Deco architecture reflected the momentum of a nation rebounding from World War I. Art Deco commercial buildings were distinguished not so much by their height as by their stylized ornamentation and tapering silhouettes. Other Art Deco buildings in Seattle include the 1411 4th Avenue Building (1929), the Washington Athletic Club (1930), the Exchange Building (1930), and the Seattle Tower (1929).

Art Deco, named for the 1925 Parisian “Exposition des arts Decoratifs,” influenced the applied arts universally including fashion, interior and industrial design, and architecture. In commercial buildings, this style conveyed an energy and visual dynamic by emphasizing verticality and stylized motifs, often of regional flavor. Abstract classical forms, machine imagery, lightning zig zags, unfurling ferns and florals embellished the silhouetted towers of Art Deco buildings. Often designers employed intense, contrasting colors, unique or innovative materials, and elaborate patterns from exotic cultures in the interior spaces. The new use of color and pattern originated from more frequent contact with non-European cultures, like African tribes and Far Eastern cities. Additionally, through archaeological digs, reconnection with the art of ancient civilizations, like the King Tutankhamen and the Egyptians, contributed unusual motifs to the designer’s palette.

Reinforced Concrete Construction

The construction technology also contributed to the modern and innovative appeal associated with the new hotel. One of the first continuously poured concrete structures in the Pacific Northwest, the technology conveyed the dynamic sophistication of modern architectural styles popular at the time. With the surrounding businesses cloaked in traditional and historical styles with brick and terra cotta, the Edmond Meany Hotel would have certainly seemed futuristic with its reliance on concrete, stark ornamentation, and soaring stories. 

Reamer’s design required only two steel columns, connected by a steel girder on the first floor, to support the structure; he employed reinforced concrete in the frame and the 12-inch-thick exterior walls. To achieve the fluted texture of the exterior planes, specialty built wooden panels with metal linings, one story in height, were used in the pouring of the concrete. When the panels were removed, the undulation in the concrete remained.

In an article in Architect and Engineer, Reamer noted that “inadequate supervision” often hindered the employment of concrete at the time (Reamer, 19); the workmen constantly encountered reminders of the need for careful attention in their work. Their superiors also held each worker accountable for particular sections of the concrete work. Reamer attributes this attitude to the building’s success and proudly points out that “very little patching was necessary” (Reamer, 19). 

Up-To-Date and Modern

With the whirl of vibrant colors, geometric patterns, and exotic materials, the interior designer complemented the modern appeal of the structure. The Hotel News of the West touted the new hotel “as up-to-date and modern as any downtown hostelry” (Work on University District Hotel, 6). Striking and expertly coordinated color combinations dominated the public spaces; in the lobby, hues of silver, crimson, and gold conveyed luxury while also exacting a modern touch. High ceilings with a bold, geometric snowflake pattern softened the sentry-like square columns of the lobby. Elegant drapes broke up the long, rectangular corridor of the lobby and reduced the scale of the room to a more human level.

The designer avoided using “period pieces” to furnish the hotel. He employed the General Furniture Company of Seattle to produce the unique furnishings of the hotel such as dressers with four types of inlaid wood (maple, ebony, mahogany, and gum). In addition to traditionally luxurious materials, he chose the innovative and streamlined look of aluminum. Furnishings in the guest rooms included aluminum lamps and coffee tables with aluminum supports and glass tops.

The main dining room welcomed visitors with an unusual marine theme. Undulating shades of green set the tone in the room; the customized wainscoting was decorated by the “beautiful, varied and bizarre forms,” and suggested sea life with “odd shaped fishes, seaweeds, mollosks (sic), devil fish, and even an ancient sunken galleon” (Hotel Set New Standards, 6). In addition to the seafloor imagery, the collaborative use of glass and aluminum contributed an underwater texture and lighting to the large room.

The hotel proudly installed top of the line catering facilities, which could serve 450 people daily. Helen Swope (1893-1970), a veteran entrepreneur, brought her employees from the Wilsonian Hotel (located immediately down the street on University Way) and oversaw the catering operations of the Edmond Meany Hotel. Three kitchens, one on the ground, mezzanine, and basement levels, served the private dining rooms and grill. They included the latest technologies such as Garland Gas ranges in the Main Kitchen.

Accolades and Honors

The Edmond Meany Hotel was one of his most acclaimed designs, but Reamer did not live to hear the praise. After his death, Abraham H. Albertson, an architectural colleague, successfully nominated the design to take part in a national exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art. For the exhibit, the Committee of Education -- American Institute of Architects chose 149 designs out of more than a thousand entries. With a uniting theme, the exhibit was titled “A National Exhibition of Representative Buildings of the Post-War Period.”

The Edmond Meany Hotel attracted international attention as well at the Fifth Pan-American Congress of Architects held in Montevideo, Uruguay. The Congress awarded the design a Silver Medal and Diploma, praised received by only 29 other American architects at the event.

Recent Renovation and Ownership

Since its construction, the Edmond Meany Hotel has changed hands three times. After buying the hotel in 1995, Starwood Lodging Corporation started reclaiming the hotel’s past by keeping its original name. Additionally, it sponsored a $5 million renovation conducted by NBBJ in 1997.  NBBJ sought to freshened the interiors and capture the original modern essence of the hotel interiors. Through different phases of construction and destruction, NBBJ found treasures that had been hidden away behind walls and under carpets. They restored the looming square columns and original Italian terrazzo floors of the lobby. Whenever possible the architects reused existing materials, but they also introduced new furnishings and artwork sensitive to the elegance of the 1930 décor.  

A few years later, the owners changed the name to the Meany Tower Hotel, and then, under the management of the Best Western International, Inc, to the University Tower Hotel. The Edmond Meany Hotel runs successfully now under the name Hotel Deca by Noble House Hotels and Resorts. Despite updating the 158 guest rooms with modern amenities, this new owner also retained a consciousness of the original design in the interior of the hotel. Dark polished stone paneling contrasts with the burnt cream color of the walls. Stylized iron railings and art pieces of various metals give an edge to the lush fabrics and bright colors. With energy and elegance, the flavor of the interiors still relies on stylized sophistication to impress visitors.

Sources: “U. District Will Have Two Hotels,” Hotel News of the West, Vol. 27, No. 5 (February 1, 1930), p. 4; “Work on University District Hotel to Start Immediately,” Hotel News of the West, Vol. 27, No. 50 (December 13, 1930), p. 6; “Edmond Meany Hotel Sets New Standards,” Hotel News of the West, Vol. 28, No. 48 (Noveember 28, 1931), p. 5-8, 10, 14; Rysia Suchecka, “The New Meany: A Sense of Place” Daily Journal of Commerce Design ’97 website accessed August 25, 2009 (http://www.djc.com/special/design97/10032231.htm); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “1411 4th Avenue Building (Seattle)” (by Kathleen Kemezis), http://historylink.org/ (accessed September 1, 2009); “Historic Hotel Deca Evolves “Artfully” -- Seattle Washington,” Hotel Deca  website accessed September 1, 2009 (http://www.hoteldeca.com/deca_history.aspx); David L. Leavengood, "Robert C. Reamer," in Shaping Seattle Architecture ed. by Jeffrey Ochsner (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994), 186-191; Ruth Quinn, Weaver of Dreams: The Life and Architecture of Robert C. Reamer (Gardiner, Montana: Leslie and Ruth Quinn, 2004); Robert C. Reamer, “The Edmond Meany Hotel at Seattle, Washington,” The Architect and Engineer, Vol. 108, No. 2 (February 1932), pp. 16-21, 23; "Evro Becket, Head of Hotel Meany, Dies," The Seattle Times, February 4, 1960.
Note: This essay was amended on February 3, 2012.

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