Housing Nurses and Nuns

Children’s, 1949
Children’s Hospital, 1949

It is hard to believe that comparing two Queen Anne buildings constructed to house single women would involve European Renaissance history, the impact of the Protestant rebellion on the Catholic Church and the exploitation of women workers in American hospitals. The buildings are the 1924 Frances Skinner Edris Nursing Home at First Ave. N. and Boston St., adjacent to the original Queen Anne site of Childrens’ Orthopedic Hospital; and the exquisite 1930 Saint Anne Convent at First Ave. W. and W. Comstock.

The historic link between the two buildings can be traced to the Reformation in the 16th century and the spread of Protestantism in Europe. Before the advent of Protestantism, all the nurses in European hospitals were nuns in the Catholic Church. Where Protestants became predominant, Catholic institutions including schools, universities and hospitals were shut down or replaced. The priests, monks and nuns were served in them were dispersed. As Sister Joseph of the Sisters of Providence Order who founded the state’s first hospital made clear, unlike 16th c. Central Europe or England, there was a place in the United States for hospitals associated with the Catholic Church. By the 20th c. in the United States, the women working as nurses in Protestant-managed and secular hospitals were not unlike the nuns they had replaced, single and in need of training and housing.Most American hospitals built homes for the women they required to care for their patients. As with the original Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Orthopedic Hospital, the hospitals sited the nurses’ homes on their grounds or in their immediate neighborhood. These generally underpaid caregivers received training in the hospitals and served under the command of the male doctors whose ‘orders’ controlled everything. ‘Doctor’s orders’ applied not only to patients but also to the women who served as nurses. Living next door to the hospital meant being on call all the time.

A cynical observer might suggest that housing and feeding the women on site made them available for working extremely long hours and low wages. At the time Queen Anne’s nurses’ home opened in 1924, the women living there led lives quite similar to their cross-town contemporaries at Providence Hospital where nuns cared for patients. Of course, the women working at Children’s Orthopedic were free to marry and raise families, while the nuns at Providence were committed to never marrying and to serving the needy and poor their entire lives. The Catholic Church also assumed full responsibility for the nuns’ personal needs.

Nuns serving in the Catholic schools were no different. They were expected to remain single their entire lives, and the church provided their housing, food, medical care, clothing and care in their old age. Although most school teachers in public schools across the United States at the turn of the 20th c. were women, in many school districts they were forced to leave their jobs if they married. Also, public school teachers received none of the benefits that were automatically given to nuns.

Queen Anne’s Home for Nurses

The Frances Skinner Edris Nursing Home is a simple steel reinforced concrete building with a brick veneer and with classic revival detailing. It was paid for by Seattle’s Skinner family and named in honor of Frances Skinner Edris, a member of the board of Children’s Orthopedic Hospital who died during childbirth the year the home was built. Nurses were housed in the hospital’s original 1907 Fresh Air Cottage following the completion of the first multistory hospital building in 1911.

Sitting squarely on the northwest corner of the hospital block, the home has a rather plain asymmetrical façade facing the neighborhood. The narrow three-bay building is divided in two by a hallway running north-south down the middle of all three floors. On both the first and second floors narrow hallways lead to gathering spaces featuring large fireplaces and decorative mantels. The exterior facades are tied together by a beige terra cotta string courses over the second and third stories. A lovely hip roof rising above copper gutters is set off by red tiles most likely produced in Alfred, N.Y. by the Celadon Tile Company. Bay windows project from the second and third floors but their original purpose is no longer evident. The bay and the entrance raised above the street behind a porch of turned posts are among the rare decorative features of the western façade. Windows on this side also sport the turned posts of the porch. The north and south elevations are a mere three bays wide, while the eastern elevation facing the hospital is the most pleasant one with clearly displayed bays marking the nurses’ rooms. It opened to a lovely lawn before parking lot encroachments.

The southern elevation on Boston Street is purely functional. At the basement level, wide doors suggest that it was the back of the building and probably led to kitchen and laundry rooms meeting the daily needs of the 40 nurses who lived there until 1953, when the hospital moved to Laurelhurst. Some myth makers contend that the doors provided easy access for hearses to a morgue, but the history is confusing. The city’s Historic Building Survey says that after 1968 the county used the hospital buildings for county offices including the morgue. The survey makes no mention of the nurses’ home. Until 1968, the Seattle/King County Health Department maintained offices in the former nurses’ home and in the larger hospital buildings on the site. In 1977, prior to the building’s purchase by the Washington Division of the American Cancer Society, an unsuccessful effort was made to designate the nurses’ home and the two hospital buildings city landmarks.

According to a sign in the entranceway, the Frances Skinner Edris Nursing Home is listed in the National Register of Historic Homes, but there is no such register. The building is not in the National Register of Historic Places.

The Convent

Although nearly identical in plan to the nursing home, the convent at Comstock and First Avenue West tells a very different story. When St. Anne’s Parish School opened in 1923, the parish rented a nearby home for the Sisters of the Holy Name of Jesus and Mary who taught there. By the end of the decade and with the school’s success, more and better housing was needed. On June 26, 1930, Father Thomas Quain, the parish priest, received permission to start construction; ground was broken on September 8; and Fr. Quain celebrated the first mass in the convent chapel on December 24. The building provided a home for up to 12 nuns.

Long lines hold this beautifully detailed clinker brick structure to the ground. Viewed from the corner of W. Comstock and First W., the building strikes an elegant well-landscaped pose above the street. Tudor Revival in style, five gables, two on each end and one above the entry, give this long narrow structure an energetic grace. Above the entry and its cast concrete surround are an oriel window with brackets and three leaded diamond-pane sash. Just inside the entry two rooms provided spaces for the nuns to greet guests. The nun’s dining room, also on the east side, is marked by a wide bay with a copper roof and six diamond-paned leaded glass windows.

Gothic and medieval echoes appear throughout the building with pointed arches suggesting Gothic inspiration for the design. On the south façade, five small windows of stained Norwegian glass are capped by pointed arch cast concrete lintels. A fine detail, they call attention to the chapel they light. With only four pews, this is one of the more beautiful spaces on Queen Anne. The chapel’s altar is slipped into a small five sided pavilion on the building’s west side. A special door on the tiny vestry off the chapel permitted priests to enter the convent and prepare for mass without entering the nuns’ spaces. A flat corbelled bay window above the chapel windows brings bright light into the nun’s community room.

Upstairs, regularly spaced windows reflect the simple cells or rooms where the nuns slept. Not unlike the sleeping rooms at the nursing home, a bed, small dresser, sink and small closet equipped each tiny cell.

The convent is the work of A. H. Albertson (1872-1964), one of the city’s most prominent 20th c. architects. Among Albertson’s best known works are the Northern Life Tower (1927-29), the downtown YMCA (1929-31), St. Joseph’s Church and the former Cornish School (1920-21). His work on Queen Anne includes the 1926 Stuart/Balcom House at 619 W. Comstock and the 1928 additions to the former Children’s Orthopedic Hospital.

After the last sister teaching at Saint Anne’s Parish School retired in 2011, the convent sat empty for two years. The parish has rededicated it as its Spirituality Center, an experiment in adaptive reuse to be tested over the next couple of years.

Both the nursing home and the convent played important roles in our community’s history and merit designation as City of Seattle Historic Landmarks.

The 1977 landmark nomination dates the home to 1915, but it is not on the 1917 Sanborn Insurance Co. map.