40 years on, Padelford Hall continues to mystify

The University of Washington’s imposing architecture has inspired students and faculty for more than 100 years. Some buildings on the Seattle campus evoke awe or nostalgia, but others elicit a different kind of response: confusion and frustration. One building that has earned this kind of notoriety is Padelford Hall, home to such varied departments as English, comparative history of ideas, and mathematics, among others.

When the structure opened in 1967, it received an American Institute of Architects Seattle merit award for design. Over time, however, the building’s idiosyncrasies—such as dead-end hallways and disconnected towers—have earned it the scorn of many faculty as well as the hordes of lost and intimidated students attempting to navigate it.

“I have had my office in Padelford for 21 years now, and I still find myself giving directions and explaining the building’s layout to lost students and visitors,” says Cynthia Steele, acting chair of the comparative literature department.

English Professor Maya Sonenberg agrees. “I was originally confused by the building’s plan, and only recently, after 13 years, realized that all the wings have a ‘PL’ level; it’s just impossible to get from one to the other.”

The hall was named in honor of Frederick M. Padelford, who came to the UW as an English professor in 1901 and taught for the next 41 years, eventually serving as dean of the graduate school.

When Spokane architectural firm Walker & McGough began planning the building in the mid-1960s, the designers faced a unique challenge. Ever since the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909, the building site had been home to a bowl-shaped amphitheater.

Whether inspired by a monastery or a prison, Padelford’s most striking visual quality is its contrast with the traditional structures on campus.

“It is a rather unusual site,” explains Architecture Professor Emeritus Norman Johnston, ’42. “There was a bowl, and the building answered, in part, to the unusual natural environment in which it was placed. It didn’t lend itself to a typical dorm or office-like structure.”

The project also occurred during a time of experimentation in Northwest architecture; Paul Kirk was introducing modernism to campus with structures like Haggett Hall and the UW Club. This architectural trend called for a simplification of form and the elimination of ornament. Johnston believes the University’s architectural design committee may have gotten swept up in the 20th-century movement when it approved the Padelford plans.

Well-known architect Eero Saarinen had recently designed a pair of dormitories on the Yale University campus. The Ezra Stiles and Samuel Morse Colleges were “neo-medieval,” inspired by old monasteries, Saarinen explained. Although Walker & McGough never claimed them as their influence, Johnston believes Saarinen’s dormitories were the models for Padelford Hall.

“They had the same idiosyncratic irregularity, somewhat confusing for people to get used to. I never had any contact or reference by the architect, but the fact is that the hall at Yale was quite unusual in its character and there’s a similar character in Padelford,” Johnston says.

It may not come as a surprise to the building’s critics, then, that Walker & McGough’s architectural focus was designing prisons. John W. McGough, who established the firm in the 1950s, designed state buildings and correctional facilities in Washington, Montana, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Kentucky.

Whether inspired by a monastery or a prison, Padelford’s most striking visual quality is its contrast with the traditional structures on campus. “I think that Padelford does not fit in well with the ‘Collegiate Gothic’ style of architecture on campus,” says Mary Sheetz, administrator in the mathematics department. “It fits about as well as Sieg Hall.”

On sunny days, Padelford does offer the denizens of its eastern offices a little bit of compensation: a fantastic view of the Cascades. “In my current office I have a terrific view of Lake Washington and Mount Rainier,” explains Steele, “and it is well worth the inconvenience of the layout.”