A New Chapter For Hugo House

After two nomadic years, the nonprofit Seattle writing center is ready to open its new, expanded home.

Perhaps this is self-evident, but Hugo House just hasn’t been the same without its house. The local nonprofit writing center has been without a true home since closing its quaint Capitol Hill abode across the street from Cal Anderson Park in May 2016 to prepare for an eventual move to a shiny new home. Sure, the organization still maintained its programming—classes, workshops, readings, and the Hugo Literary Series in various off-site locales over the past two years—but there hasn’t been that same homey community connection.

That all changes this week, as Hugo House opens its new 10,000-square-foot expanded home at the same Capitol Hill location (but now on the ground floor of a multi-use apartment building). With a modern business-leaning design, it certainly doesn’t feel as lived-in or have the cozy personality of the old house, but what’s important is it’s home. Boasting more classrooms, a bigger auditorium, and other sleek details, Hugo House hopes the space can further its mission of nurturing a rich literary community for published authors and amateur writers alike.

Hugo House hopes to spark that spirit this Saturday, Sept. 22, with its opening celebration. In addition to being the public’s first formal chance to check out the new digs, the evening will feature local literary luminaries Maria Semple and Nancy Guppy, pop-up readings from locals (including Hugo House writers-in-residence), bookish music from The Bushwick Book Club, a Works in Progress open mic, and an afterparty with music courtesy of KEXP’s DJ Gabriel Teodros. It’s gonna be lit (… sorry).

In anticipation of the opening celebration, we chatted with Hugo House executive director Tree Swenson about it.

Donor books spines line the walls of the new Hugo House. Photo by Seth Sommerfeld

Donor books spines line the walls of the new Hugo House. Photo by Seth Sommerfeld

Is there any aspect of the new Hugo House space you’re most looking forward to?

This is the realization of a long-held dream to ensure that Hugo House will be part of the Seattle cultural scene indefinitely. And owning our own space ensures that that will be the case.

What are some of the things you can do in the new space that you weren’t able to do in the old building?

One of the first things is that we have 50 percent more classrooms—from four in the old space to six. And there has been just surging demand for people who want to write; whether it’s poetry or someone who wants to write their memoirs for their grandchildren, it’s all across the map. More and more people in recent years have been interested in creative writing, which doesn’t surprise me because writing is really a way of tapping into your inner life. Richard Hugo wrote in The Triggering Town, “Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life.” And in a culture that’s gotten as busy as ours has, just making time for the reflection that writing entails grounds you in a way that little else in our busy culture gets you grounded.

Will there be a direct correlation between the expanded space and more programming offered?

We really see the new Hugo House as a literary hotspot. It’s a place for writers to gather and talk about their writing. It’s a place for writers to come find a quiet corner to write. It’s a place where we’ll hold book-publication celebrations. We’ll have panels and interviews. We’re going to be covering the writing life from every possible perspective: everything from individual writers—who are more than welcome to come find a space at Hugo House to write—through to presentations by nationally known writers, and everything in between.

How does the aesthetic architectural design feed into making it a writer-specific space?

The architecture firm was NBBJ, and they really tuned in to the way that writers seem to need to tap into an inner vision. And there are little nooks and corners all over the new space that people can slip into.

One of the classrooms in the new Hugo House. Photo by Seth Sommerfeld

One of the classrooms in the new Hugo House. Photo by Seth Sommerfeld

What will the new auditorium allow you to do that you’ve been unable to do in the past?

Our auditorium will seat about 150. And the great thing about this new space is it’s built to be extremely flexible. So we’re going to be able to have a scrim that will cut it in half size so that we’ll be able to have fairly intimate readings in there without it feeling like an echoing ghost chamber. There will also be a movable wall, which won’t be up for the grand opening, but will be coming so that we can expand and have even more people if we have events that are particularly big.

Following the grand opening, we’re going to have one of the densest, most lively seasons of programming we’ve had since the founding of the House. In the first week we have three events, and we’re doing some more thematic readings. So, for instance, the first event after the opening is on the topic of memoirs. It’s called “Writing the Personal.” It’s three memoir writers talking about how the personal is universal. So we haven’t done many thematic readings of that sort before, but it’s something we want to do more of. And then we have a reading of South Asian writers, and then the first Literary Series in the space includes Jim Shepard, Cedar Sigo, and Sabina Murray. So those are scheduled for Sept. 26, 27, and 28. Pulling off three events three nights in a row—that’s some pretty dense programming. And it continues. The next week we have [events] Oct. 3, 5, and 6. We just have some fabulous events lined up.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Just that the vision of Hugo House is to open the literary world to everyone who loves books or has a drive to write. It’s very important to us that everyone feels welcome in this new space. A great writer can come from anywhere. You don’t have to have a fancy education or have been raised in a house full of books. You can start from wherever you are.

Hugo House Opening Celebration

Saturday, Sept. 22, from 5–8 p.m. | Hugo House | Free

A Richard Hugo quote currently adorning the entrance of the new space. Photo by Seth Sommerfeld

A Richard Hugo quote currently adorning the entrance of the new space. Photo by Seth Sommerfeld