In about 1909 or so, Eda and Fanny Buddecke moved across the country to Seattle from Baltimore, after receiving an invitation from a group of wealthy families. The sisters had been hired to run a private school for girls that had begun in the home of timber magnate Richard Dwight Merrill—and Merrill and others hoped to expand to include more rich Seattleites’ daughters.
The school they were to run led to the construction of a Jacobethan-style building in the mid-1920s that would eventually house not just their school, but Lakeside Middle School, Cornish College of the Arts, and Gage Academy of the Arts. But the academy started a few blocks to the south, at Broadway and Roy.
Originally from Louisiana, Eda and Fanny had taught in Virginia and Maryland and developed a nationwide rep as first-class educators who could equip young girls with the skills needed to transition into high society. The idea was to educate girls according to the high standards and refined style of East Coast prep schools and to ready them for admission to East Coast universities without making them travel across the country. Fortunately, the Buddecke sisters were willing to make the move instead.
North Capitol Hill, Seattle’s most affluent neighborhood at the time, was chosen as the school’s first location. A lot was purchased at what’s now Roy Street Coffee and Tea for $7,600 just around the corner from fashionable Harvard Avenue, and the deed was transferred to Eda on January 10th, 1910. Eda was to be the school’s headmistress, with her younger sister Fanny serving as second in command. Although the school was nonsectarian, it was perhaps appropriately named after St. Nicholas, a fourth-century Turkish bishop who was said to leave bags of gold for young girls who needed dowries so they could attract well-to-do husbands.
Construction apparently went quickly, and The Saint Nicholas School (as it was styled at the time) opened its first home just nine months later on September 21, 1910. An article that ran in the Seattle Times the week following the building’s opening reported that curricula would be modeled after Baltimore’s Bryn Mawr Seminary—which just happened to be the alma mater of Edith Dabney, the school’s English teacher, who was educated back east but had grown up on Queen Anne Hill.
More from the Seattle Times’s September 30, 1910 edition:
The guests were shown through the building. Miss Buddecke was assisted in entertaining by her staff of teachers and the patronesses. Tea and refreshments were served. … The school house has two stories and a basement and is thoroughly modern, utilizing the latest scientific ideas for educational structures. On the first floor are classrooms for the primary pupils, a glass enclosed recitation room, gymnasium, dressing room, and lavatories. On the second floor are the large study hall, the classrooms of the main school, a teachers’ room, and a roof room to be used for recitation and for play.”
Seattle historian Paul Dorpat wrote in a History Link of the aforementioned gymnasium: “Some gym classes were also devoted to practicing poise: walking smoothly, maintaining sufficiently straight posture to balance a book on one’s head, sinking gracefully into chairs, sitting with ankles crossed neatly and knees together.”
The Saint Nicholas School had a strong arts bent, more so than girls’ schools at the time did. Glee Club and pageants were a big deal (especially the three, count ‘em, three Christmas pageants, as Christmas was also celebrated as St. Nick’s saints day, get it?), and the annual May Festival included a whole operetta. Students learned Latin, Spanish, French, as well as German prior to World War II (the better to sing operettas in) and later Russian. The manifold arts classes taught there also included drawing, dancing, and eurhythmies: “a method of developing rhythm and concentration by giving the true feeling of music through rhythmic movements of the body,” according to Saint Nicholas alum Juanita Fisher Graham.
Not to fear, though, as the sciences weren’t neglected: mathematics, history, geography, “domestic science,” and logic were also taught to Saint Nicholas’ students.
Interestingly, although it was the first to do so, the school later came to be located smack in the middle of an unusual-for-the-era district of woman-run educational institutions. In 1921, Nellie Cornish moved her Cornish School just a block away at 710 East Roy Street, which is still there today. Then in 1925, both the Rainier Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Woman’s Century Club built chapter houses at at 800 East Roy Street and 807 East Roy Street respectively. (You probably know the WCC building better as the former Harvard Exit Theatre.) By 1918, the Saint Nicholas School was showing up on best-private-schools-in-the-nation lists.
A year earlier, though, the Buddeckes sold the school to a handful of students’ parents—including the influential Bloedel, Blethel, Merrill, and Henry families—and moved to Virginia to open another school, leaving Edith Dabney as headmistress. By 1925, with the city’s population growing fast, these families determined that the school needed a larger facility, and they purchased a 2.5-acre lot from Judge Cornelius Hanford about half a mile north at 501 10th Avenue East at Galer, in what was known as the “Hollywood” neighborhood at the time, thanks to its many lavish mansions. The old Saint Nicholas facility on Broadway and Roy was turned into apartments and later demolished.
Charles Bebb, an English architect who’s been credited for bringing the production of architectural terra cotta to Washington State and designed the first building, was once again brought in to the design the second incarnation of Saint Nicholas School. Bebb and his sometime-partner Carl Gould are known for designing such other eminent Seattle landmarks as the UW’s dazzling Suzzallo Library, the ornate terra cotta Hoge Building on Second and Cherry, and the distinctly triangular Times Square building at Fourth and Fifth avenues, where Stewart splits off into Olive Way.
Bebb designed the building in the so-called Jacobethan style, a blend of architectural features found in buildings constructed during England’s Jacobean and Elizabethan eras of the early 1600s. The new school was three stories tall, although the top story was left unfinished as long as the school inhabited the building, and could house 200 students (by then only girls were admitted). It was completed in 1926. The school’s course catalogs in the second half of the 1920s stressed that the school could be conveniently accessed via streetcar.
It incorporated some Norman and Roman details as well, particularly in the arcade near the main entrance, which is composed of high Roman arches supported by Norman-era French columns with scrolled capitals, a theme that’s repeated in the facade’s ground-level windows and doors. The wall inside the arcade also contains a striking marble frieze of carved human figures. Other interesting architectural details include the first floor’s exterior brickwork, which is set in a running bond that breaks into checkerboard or basket-weave patterns here and there, multi-paned windows framed in set-back concentric arches, and a series of bas relief cartouches embedded above the classroom windows on the bottom floor. It’s also noteworthy that the lot on which the building sits is slopes severely downward to the west and surrounded by heavy forest, underscoring the school’s unique setting.
A single-floor south wing was added in 1955, designed by iconic Seattle architectural firm John Graham and Company, and made of concrete and brick. The addition was an significant milestone, as it added seven sunlight-drenched classrooms with large windows facing both east and west.
In 1930, St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral was built right next door, just to the south. Although the Saint Nicholas School utilized St. Mark’s facilities at times for ceremonies and such, it remained a secular institution and stayed totally separate from the church, despite its saintly name.
In 1971, the all-girls school merged with Lakeside, which formerly only admitted boys and which had long been chummy with the Saint Nicholas School. The old name was ditched and the building became the middle school of the still-private, now-coeducational Lakeside School, housing grades five through eight. The building remained part of Lakeside until 1981, when it moved its middle school to the former Haller Lake Elementary building near the northern Seattle city limits.
The same year, the Saint Nicholas building was then sold to Cornish College of the Arts, its former neighbor back on Roy Street in the 1920s. Cornish continued to operate its original Roy Street building, Kerry Hall, but moved its visual arts, theater, and performance production to the St. Nicholas building, which it dubbed Cornish North or “CoNo.” Almost immediately after purchasing it, Cornish set about securing landmark status for the historic school, which was approved by the City of Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board on July 29th, 1981.
Cornish sold the building to its neighbor, St. Mark’s, in 2003. Today, the church rents the building to two tenants who share the school: Bright Water Waldorf School and Gage Academy of Art. In keeping with the building’s whole overall theme that it’s maintained throughout nearly a century of history: quirky, expensive fine arts.
This article has been updated to expand the list of Cornish programs that moved into the building.