Monday, January 16, 2012

Dudley and Virginia

The Art Deco panels have been hanging on either side of the escalator at Macy’s since 2000, when Federated Stores, which had purchased the homegrown Bon Marche in 1989, was rebranding the store to Macy’s, first with a remodel and then with a name change to Bon-Macy’s.  A year later, the Bon Marche name, synonymous with Seattle’s middle class consumer, was gone completely.
It’s hard to understand why I hadn’t stopped to notice these panels, but on a Christmas shopping cruise through the store this past year, I did.  It sent me on another cruise, through the thirties and forties art world in Seattle and to an unexpected family tragedy.

The panels are made of some kind of composite material, died a bronze color, and are named “The Spirit of Northwest Industry” and depict personifications of the region’s economy.  They are copies of the original bronze panels made seventy years previous to decorate a bank door. 

The composite panels have updated the economic news, adding a computer scene to symbolize the growth of the region's economic tech sector as well as a nod to Josephine Nordhoff, a co-founder of the Bon Marche with her husband, Edward.  Their creations would make the Bon the largest department store on the west coast, with annual sales of $8,000,000 a couple of years after Josephine died, in 1920.

The creator of the original eight panels was Dudley Pratt who, working with his wife, Virginia, became a locally famous sculptor.  They also teamed up as a locally famous couple – accomplished, clever, modern.  They were people who not only taught people about art, but about how to live life.  They were the darlings, for a time, of the Seattle Times Society Editor from 1932 to 1942, Virginia Boren. 

The panels were created for the entry way of a new bank, The People’s First Avenue Bank, subsidiary of the People’s Bank and Trust Company, founded by Joshua Green, who was successful first in the marine transportation business – his ferry company dominated Puget Sound and became the Black Ball Line after he sold it -- and in banking.  He did pretty well in the breathing department as well.  He lived 105 years. 
The bank was an anchor tenant of the remodeled Colman Building and was located where the Irish bar Fado is today.  The architect Richard Loveless decided to go all in with an Art Deco look, added the green marble decoration at the front and the ironwork over the sidewalk, all of it capped off by the intricate brass work done by the Pratts throughout the exterior and interior of the building. 

Dudley Pratt was the son of an internationally famous sculptor, Bela Lyon Pratt, whose works are prominent in Boston, where Bela Pratt was the head of the Sculpture Department of the Museum of Fine Arts.  Dudley was born in France where his father and mother, Helen Pray, also a sculptor, were studying for a year.  

University of Washington 
In 1924, the Pratts were students at the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston, both studying sculpture, just like Dudley’s parents were when they met.  Dudley, like his father, was preparing for a year of study in France and when he received a fellowship, he and Virginia decided both of them could go.  They married in September and went off to their honeymoon in Europe and study in France.
Virginia was also from an accomplished family, the Claflins – one brother a composer and banker and a cousin was Victoria Woodhull, the suffragette.  Another cousin was a mistress to Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The couple moved to Seattle in 1925 where Dudley found a part time teaching position at the University of Washington and where Virginia would shortly become the arts teacher at the brand new Helen Bush School.  She would create the Art Department at the school and would teach the arts to the children of Seattle’s wealthy from 1926 to 1938.  Later, when those children had babies, she would specialize in sculpting images of their kids.

Dudley Pratt was also a mentor to his better students, like sculptor and painter George Tsutakawa and the beautiful Jean Johanson, wife of architect Perry Johanson, the "J" in NBBJ, a useful connect for Pratt.  Sometimes they would go collect soapstone on the Skagit River, a five hour one way trip in the thirties.  Pratt knew where the mines were.

Gargoyle at UW
For Dudley Pratt, coming west was a must if he was to get out of the shadow of his famous father.  In a 1937 portrait of them by Virginia Boren, they had clearly succeeded.  Boren has them together “in their cunning white house” in Wallingford, in the studio they shared, preparing for a showing of both their work at the Seattle Art Museum.

“The Pratts are the most genuine, natural people.  To put it bluntly, they are not the least bit ‘arty,’” Boren wrote.

 “They have four adorable children,” Boren continues, “children with personality and individuality and talent.  The Pratts are very fond of folk dancing and the entire family takes part in the activities of the Folk Dancing Association.  Mr.  Pratt also has a small cruiser and the Pratts spend quite a bit of time dashing around the Lake and Sound.  They also are ardent ‘trailers’ and this summer the six Pratts journeyed clear across the Continent to the Bay of Fundy.”

“But perhaps the thing which Mrs. Pratt calls ‘play’ but which I (using poetic license which I’m not entitled to use) call ‘joy of living’ is the very thing which dominates the Pratt’s life and has brought them recognition far and wide.”

“A look at the works of Dudley and Virginia Pratt is a new refreshing slant on life, a renewal of faith in this thing called living, and certain conviction that the Pratts are going far in the world of sculpture … and living!”

By now, both Pratts were getting solid commissions.  She generating business from the Helen Bush connection -- portraits of Douglas Stimson, Katherine Baillargeon, Rosemary Ostrander and the two sons of Mr. and Mrs.  William Bell Cook – and he tablets at both Harborview and Children’s Hospital – then called Children’s Orthopedic – decorations for the new library in Everett, those doors at the Colman Building, the Hoquiam and Bellingham city halls.

Smith Hall
University of Washington
It was to Dudley Pratt whom the Seattle Realty Board turned to create a suitable bronze plaque to give, in 1939, to Seattle’s First Citizen who, in that year, was Dr.  Richard E.  Fuller, then President of the Seattle Art Museum.  The Realty Board recognition was as good as it got in Seattle during the 40s and 50s.

In 1940 Dudley Pratt was asked to render the gargoyles that would decorate the new Smith Hall and several other buildings.  These are among the most remembered of his works. 

WSU Libraries
After World War Two, Pratt was asked to make a decoration for an otherwise blank wall at Washington State University's Holland Library.  He came up with “The Reader” evoking what he called those tall, rangy farm boys he imagined attending the school.

In 1949, Pratt was asked to add a sculpture to the World War II Memorial on the east side of the new Public Safety Building.  He fashioned a grieving "Gold Star Mother" who hovered above the long list of war dead from Seattle carved in granite below.

University of Washington
Without Virginia Boren to coo over them, she left town in 1942, the Pratts were less frequent guests of the society page of the Seattle Times.  The commissions slowed down and Dudley was just part time at the University. 

Virginia Pratt was no longer working at the Bush School and had taken a job in the University of Washington dental school using her metal working skills to fashion crowns, posts and bridges in the school’s basement.

She was discovered there on Saturday, August 2, 1952 at 6:30 in the evening by a security guard, the Bunsen burner in front of her turned on but not lit.  The Coroner’s Office called the death a suicide, noting the presence of “two notes indicating despondency.”

The Times also reported that friends were trying to get in touch with Dudley Pratt who “was said to be visiting on an Island in Puget Sound.”

Pratt left Seattle very soon, going to Croton Falls, New York, where he lived with one of his married daughters, Janna Goodspeed.  He turns up periodically in the Seattle Times, but mostly with work that he had done before, though a sculpture for blind people at a Capitol Hill branch library caught some attention. 

The following year, 1955, he was in Seattle for the marriage of his youngest child, Rachel, better known as Tuckie.  He would also marry that year, to Colette Finch Halvorson, a widowed artist he met in Croton Falls.  They soon began visiting the little Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende, a spot with a large expatriate artists community located in the center of the country.  By 1965, they were living there full time and it is there Dudley Pratt died in 1975. 

Putting your art on buildings can be risky business.  The wonderful doors on the Colman Building are now gone, two of the panels were stolen in the thirties and the doors then removed.  You can find one panel residing in the Seattle Architecture Foundation gallery at Rainier Square.   The Gold Star Mother sculpture at the World War II Memorial is gone as well, the Public Safety building torn down and a new memorial created at Benaroya Hall without Pratt’s sculpture.  It is now on permanent loan to Evergreen Washelli’s Veteran’s Cemetery.  Further, much of the artwork at the Warren G.  Magnuson Health Sciences Center is obscured by subsequent additions as are the decorations on the Henry Art Gallery.

Pratt’s building decorations at the University of Washington remain on several buildings – Smith and Miller Halls as well as the Gerberding Administration Building, the corners at the Henry Gallery and largely define today's public knowledge of his work.  "The Reader" still looms over undergraduates as they make their way to class in Pullman.

The shock of Virginia Pratt’s suicide precluded much summing up of her career, though a couple of weeks after her death, Kenneth Callahan, the artist and then the Curator of the Seattle Art Museum, wrote:

“She has quietly and without fanfare (in fact, in recent years seldom exhibiting her work) produced sculptures in stone, lead and other materials, not great works of art, perhaps, but good, solid, well conceived portrait sculptures of children.  In these, she customarily achieved a sensitive, sympathetic, child character that was most appealing.  Virginia Pratt's death means a very definite loss to art in this region, for in her specialized field of sculptural child portraiture, she was an artist.”

Amazing Website of Bela Lyon Pratt

HistoryLink's History of the Bon Marche

Everything you'll ever want to know about the Colman Building

George Tsutakawa interview by Martha Kingsbury, expert on art in the Thirties


  1. Very nice piece, Bob. On this day--Martin Luther King Jr.--one cannot help but think of another Seattle Pratt connection--two families brought together in history by tragedy, and in a way, Art.

    Here's an excerpt from Pratt Art Center's website.

    Pratt Fine Arts Center is named in honor of Edwin T. Pratt, who served as Executive Director of the Seattle Urban League from 1961 to 1969. His assassination in that year by unknown assailants was deeply felt by the many Seattleites who had come to depend on Pratt's calm leadership during a period of social upheaval.

    Edwin Pratt was born December 6, 1930, in Miami. He graduated from Clark College in Atlanta and later received his master’s degree in Social Work from Atlanta University. He worked for the Urban League in Cleveland and Kansas City before coming to Seattle in 1956. It was in his role of Executive Director, which he assumed five years later, that he developed the Triad Plan for the desegregation of Seattle schools, and later led an initiative to create equal housing opportunities.

    Pratt Fine Arts Center is proud to serve as a lasting tribute to a man who devoted his life to improving the quality of life for all people.


  2. Dear Bob:

    The minute somebody starts tracking down the back story on a building or its decorations, they’ve got me. I felt like I was on trail with you, having one clue lead to one connection and then another and another. A darn good reminder to us to pay attention to preservation and an even better reason to praise all the people like you who are recording history.

    Rose in Oregon

  3. Dudley was my Grandfather-My Mom's Dad, My Mom Susan was his 3rd child. I wish I had known his better. I did get to visit him once in San Miguel deAllende and another time in Seattle. I have a couple of wonderful small sculptures by Dudley. I learned some things I did not know form your article. Thanks!

    Heidi Svendsgaard
    Oakland, CA

  4. I ran across your name in my research. I'm glad you found some value in the story. I really enjoyed working on it.

  5. I ran across your name in my research. I'm glad you found some value in the story. I really enjoyed working on it.

  6. Dudley was my maternal grandfather. My Mom, Susan, was his 2nd youngest child. How amazing to read about my own family. I have heard these stories from my late Mom. To read the details of my gramma's death...sad but cool. I wish i had known her. Her death was very hard on my Mom. She was honest about it-I always knew my gramma committed suicide. Their art is amazing and lives on through a family full of artists and musicians, writers and great thinkers.. I have 2 small sculptures of Dudley's on my piano. My nephew named Dudley Svendsgaard-named for Dudley Pratt is an accomplished artist in Amsterdam.

  7. These reasons, although not as important as the actual quality and content of the couriers system software, are beneficial when choosing a courier management software. FedEx weekend hours