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Paul Thiry and Ray Eckmann: Two unusual men behind an unusual building at 45th and the Ave

You might know it as the American Apparel building—or vacant space

If you’ve ever lived in the University District—or honestly, even if you haven’t—you may know the conspicuous, midcentury-looking building with the floor-to-ceiling glass facade that stands at 45th and University Way. It’s empty right now and serves primarily as a rain shelter for the bus stop right in front of it. It was most recently an American Apparel, and for many years prior, it was a Pier 1. In the 1980s, it spent a long time as a Foot Locker. You don’t need to have lived in the area for decades to notice the building, though: Amid the U District’s largely Neoclassical and Collegiate Gothic buildings, its modern design stands out.

The story of this building begins one hundred years ago, in 1918, when haberdasher Carroll Martin opened a men’s hat store a few doors south of 45th, at 4335 14th Avenue (the street would be known as “14th Avenue” for only one more year before being renamed to University Way in 1919, although it was originally called “Columbus Way” when it was platted in 1891). Four years later, his friend, a fresh University of Washington graduate named Ray Eckmann, joined Carroll as a business partner, at only 22 years old, and the two begin selling menswear in addition to hats.

The building in its present state at 45th and University.

Eckmann, despite his tender age, was already a well-known man-about-town. He’d been a star quarterback at Lincoln High School in Wallingford—he’s still among the top three state football record holders for most points in a single game and all-purpose touchdown in a single game—and he went on to shine just as brightly as a halfback at UW. A three-time letterman and the team captain in his senior year, he was nominated for the national Football Hall of Fame. He also pulled double duty as a track star at UW, and he went on to work as an assistant coach after his graduation in 1922, which he did while working in the clothing biz. In 1936, Eckmann became the university’s athletic director and subsequently its director of student affairs. All of this made him something of a neighborhood celebrity.

Martin & Eckmann Men’s Clothes shuffled around the area quite a bit before it found a permanent home. The building in which Carroll Martin first opened for business and where Eckmann later joined him is now demolished, but it stood between where Earl’s and Shawarma King now operate. Over the next 20 years, it also lived where the Bartell Drugs on the corner is and, later, down the road in a building since replaced by the the Wallingford Boys & Girls Club.

Martin & Eckmann in one of its earlier homes.
Courtesy of MOHAI, 1983.10.13437

By 1949, with a thriving business in place, Ray Eckmann and Carroll Martin opted to construct a flashy new custom home for their clothing store, choosing 4345 University Way NE at the southwest corner of 45th and University, which had previously been the site of a mixed-use building with apartments above and storefronts below. They picked architectural luminary and fellow UW grad Paul Thiry, later to be known as “the father of Northwest Modernism,” to design the two-floor structure.

An Alaskan of French descent credited with introducing European modernism to the area, Thiry went on to study abroad after graduating from UW, just in time for the Great Depression to kick in. He began his world tour at École des Beaux-Arts in Fountainbleu, France, where he later met modernist pioneer Le Corbusier, and went on to spend six months studying architecture in Japan as well as a handful of other Asian cities, taking a year to travel all the way around the globe via the Panama Canal. Returning to Seattle in 1935, Thiry started his own firm, intending to design private residences. He’d already attained national publicity by 1937 for his futuristic homes, which included details like glass bricks and a precocious, before-its-time use of sunken living rooms. As the Seattle Times noted on April 4, 1993:

By 1939, Thiry had progressed beyond [German architect Walter] Gropius in America. His Albert Kerry residence at Beaconsfield on Sound Washington, of 1939, was a pentagonal-shaped flat-roofed pavilion with large sliding window walls similar to Japanese shoji screens ... . At the beginning of the postwar period, he had already achieved national recognition, and was considered to be the only other well-known Northwest architect besides Pietro Belluschi in Portland. By ... 1946, Thiry had projecting flat roofs to provide shelter from the inclement weather in this area. And toward the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, he had begun to design with large shingled roof forms as in the Francis Brownell, Jr. residence [featured in The Modern House in America] in The Highlands, Washington, of 1954.

Celebrated landscape/zoo habitat architect Johnpaul Jones briefly worked for Paul Thiry’s firm in the late 1960s and recalls: “Thiry really worked on the cheap, he paid beans, he didn’t heat the office, and he was always grumpy—but he produced phenomenally creative designs.”

Two and a half decades later, Thiry would go on to win more fame and acclaim as the supervising architect of the Century 21 Exposition at the Seattle Center, directing the effort that gave us projects like the Pacific Science Center and its distinctive arches (designed by Minoru Yamasaki) and the Coliseum (which would later be better-known as Key Arena). He also was the mind behind the Frye Art Museum building on First Hill, the very glassy original MOHAI building in Montlake, the former longhouse-inspired Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe on the waterfront, and the super-swingin’ Christ the King Catholic Church in Broadview. (A Catholic, Paul designed a number of churches throughout Washington State.) His work on the Century 21 Expo earned him “Man of the Year” citations from both the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the the Seattle City Council in 1962.

Thiry’s vision for Martin and Eckmann resembled his design for the MOHAI building: glass and more glass. The north and east faces are lined completely with windows, and the flat roof and right angles makes the whole thing resemble two stacked glass display cases (or coffins?), with a thin layer of brick between them to form a sort of brick-and-glass club sandwich. Martin & Eckmann Men’s Clothes was all moved in by September of 1949, and those fabulous windows, of course, were loaded with menswear merchandise on display. It was an arresting sight among the neighboring buildings, most of which were either squat, nondescript commercial box stores or brick-and-stucco-fantasy apartment buildings. You can view the building in its original, full glory in photographs from the Seattle PI and in the University of Washington archives.

Ray Eckmann, in the meantime, had been staying busy himself. He resigned from his directorial positions at the University in 1942 in order to devote more time to the clothing shop, eventually becoming president of Martin & Eckmann Men’s Clothes, rather than just a partner. The year after M&E moved into its new digs, Eckmann was appointed as the first Seafair Prime Minister, which involved doing cool stuff like, along with the Seafair Queen, helping to cut the ribbon for the opening of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. In 1964, he was elected to the Seattle City Council, taking City Councilman James d’Orma “J.D” Braman’s spot, who went on to become Seattle’s mayor. He retired from the city council in 1967, although he filled in for two months in 1969 after the death of councilwoman Myrtle Edwards. Eckmann was considered at times a mayoral candidate himself, but apparently he never got around to running.

Perhaps he had his hands full with Martin & Eckmann Men’s Clothes, as it seems to have stayed successful; the store remained in the 45th and University location for 24 years after it moved in. Carroll Martin died in 1971 and Eckmann ran the business on his own thereafter. Martin & Eckmann Men’s Clothes closed in 1973 when Eckmann retired. He passed away in in 1979 at Swedish Hospital, five days before his 79th birthday. In his Seattle P-I obit, he was hailed as an affiliate of “the Shrine, the University Rotary Club, the University Commercial Club, Seafair, the American Automobile Association, the Seattle Yacht Club, and Seattle General Hospital.” The PI also noted that he’d enjoyed “half a century as one of Seattle’s most prominent citizens.” He was posthumously admitted to the Husky Hall of Fame in 1982.

The building in 2018, with its rows of windows covered up.

Today, this historical relic is a bit of a sorry sight. Listed as the Bienes Raices building (after its current owners’ surname), it’s been vacant since the ill-fated American Apparel split in 2016. That last tenant did a number on the upstairs, blocking out all but two of the lovely signature full-length windows in order to plaster huge ads along the exterior. Now that the building’s empty, those windows have been boarded over and painted gray. There’s no available word on whether it’s got any prospective new tenants right now, or if it’s being considered for landmark status or what. With new zoning in the University District aiming to create increased density, the future of this short, vacant building seems even less clear.

But hey, with the twin legacies of architectural visionary Paul Thiry and beloved local muckety-muck Ray Eckmann attached to it, maybe it can get cleaned up, have its windows unborded, and be preserved for many more years to come. Fingers crossed that the site doesn’t become an apartment building. Er, again.

This article originally stated that Thiry designed the Pacific Science Center and its distinctive arches. That was actually Minoru Yamasaki. We regret the error.