If you have the chance to visit the Washington State Capitol Campus in Olympia, Washington, you may notice a distinctive structure near the Legislative Building with a sign proclaiming “The Joel M. Pritchard Library.”
Beholding such a Mid Century Modern architectural gem, you might be surprised to learn that the building is in danger of demolishment.
The Joel M. Pritchard Building Once Housed the Washington State Library
The Joel M. Pritchard Building is sometimes known simply as the Washington State Library. This is because it was originally designed to house the library by architect Paul Thiry. You may be familiar with the work he contributed to the Seattle Century 21 Exposition.
Indeed, Thiry is one of the best-known names in Pacific Northwest Mid Century Modern architecture. Construction took place between 1957 and 1958.
Docomomo quotes the 2002 Washington State Library Historic Structures Report as explaining that the building is “among the most important regional archetypes of mid-century architectural design and thought … a textbook on how Washingtonians looked at the future in the 1950s and how public buildings reflected that vision.”
Design and Features
Docomomo points out that “this building is an elegant Modern interpretation of Neoclassicism.” Indeed, one can see this in the general shape of the building. As is common with neoclassical structures, it features a set of front columns beneath the awning. Also note the rectangular attic with the narrower profile above—another feature you will sometimes notice on neoclassical buildings.
But the materials—Wilkeson sandstone and glass—as well as the simple minimalism of its façade—are quintessentially modernist, offering a perfect bridge between the styles. In doing so, it is a complement to the older buildings around it. But it was also a nod to future possibilities at the time of its construction.
The bronze sculpture you see out front of the Joel M. Pritchard Building is the Du Pen Fountain by Everett Du Pen. Like Thiry, Du Pen was another contributor at the Century 21 Expo. For that event, he designed the Fountain of Creation.
The old library building is home to a number of other impressive artworks as well. Along with the Du Pen Fountain, you will find a bronze sundial by John W. Elliot. Inside the building is a mosaic by James FitzGerald along with side and coffee tables. All are marble. There is also a mural by Mark Tobey and a variety of paintings on the first floor. Additional color transparencies and murals are located in the basement.
Can the Joel M. Pritchard Building Be Saved?
The Joel M. Pritchard Building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. But despite its architectural significance, this structure is under threat.
There are a couple of reasons the building may be demolished. One is its location. It is on a slope, and if there is an earthquake, it may not be stable. Additionally, the structure fails to meet office space standards, so it is mostly empty.
Thankfully, there are individuals and organizations who are working to try to save the Joel M. Pritchard Building. They include advocates such as the US/WEWA chapter of Docomomo as well as the Washington State Department of Energy Services (DES).
The DES has a page for the Joel M. Pritchard Library Project. On that page, you can learn about the Pritchard Building Rehabilitation/Expansion Validation Study. Conducting the study is Seattle-based design firm Mithun.
It is necessary to find a way to improve the stability of the structure in order to keep it. The study also is assessing possibilities for rehabilitation for the windows, cladding, roof and walls. The presentation from the Sept 8 – LCM Stakeholder Meeting #1 provides a good overview of the building’s history and present status. It also details the goals of the study and the plan for the work ahead.
What Happens Next?
The team working on the project will complete their study over the coming months. The State Capitol Committee will then review their recommendations by March 31, 2022. The LCM Project Executive Team will have the final say about whether the building will be demolished or saved.
Eugenia Woo, treasurer for Docomomo US/WEWA says, “Personally and professionally (I’m a historic preservation professional with 25 years of experience), I believe the building is one of the most significant modern public structures in Washington State. It stands out on the Capitol Campus and should be treated with respect, not looked upon as a building with a laundry list of problems. I’d like to see some creativity in its rehabilitation and reuse.”
We hope that the study team will be successful in finding a way to preserve and protect Paul Thiry’s historic work. If they bring the same passion to the table as advocates like Docomomo, they surely will come up with the creative solutions required to ensure this beautiful building continues to grace the Washington State Capitol Campus for many decades to come.
Looking for more Mid Century Modern gems in the Pacific Northwest? Read on for more such as The Parkade: The Parking Garage That Revitalized Downtown Spokane and A Road Trip in Time: Pacific Northwest MCM Gas Stations. And of course, don’t forget to follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest for more Atomic Ranch articles and ideas!