Students returning to campus after winter break found the doors to the historic café closed indefinitely.
In 1951, UW students opened a café in the basement of the Art Building. At first they sold art supplies and drip coffee, and directed the revenues toward scholarships. The spot, which they named Parnassus, quickly became a fashionable hangout, a gallery and event space. It was famed for having the best coffee on campus.
Parnassus was always packed, its tables crowded with people sketching, studying or debating Descartes. In the late 1970s, when Jamie Walker, now director of the School of Art + Art History + Design, was an undergraduate, he was a regular. “It was student-run. It was popular because of its ambiance. And it was probably one of the first places in Seattle that served good dark roast coffee,” he says.
When Walker came back to the UW to teach in 1989, he was glad to find the café still running. “It had been cleaned up a bit,” he says. “It was super popular and seemed to always be very, very busy.”
But students returning to campus after winter break this year found the doors closed indefinitely. “There was no warning,” says Winnie Wine, a senior majoring in design. If they had known, “maybe there would have been a call for action,” she says.
Wanting to do something, Wine researched the venue’s story. “Hearing about its history made me want to save it even more.” She also learned about rising food prices, wages and the business of running a café. A meeting with UW Housing and Food Services, which has managed Parnassus in recent years, revealed that “Basically, no cafés on campus are making a profit,” says Wine. “And often they’re subsidized by the school that they’re in.”
A subsidy is more difficult for the School of Art + Art History + Design, which has a tight budget, says Walker. “We investigated every possible way to keep it open,” which included a one-year bailout, he says. But the school’s leaders couldn’t find a long-term solution for the café.
Now students hope to find a future for Parnassus. The goal is to reopen the space in some form, maybe as a gallery, a lounge with a coffee vending machine or an event space. “Maybe it’s all those things,” Wine says. “We’re really just trying to get the doors open again.”
Pictured at top: In 1954, Ray Jensen captured the scene at the UW’s hippest café. Today, students have set up Reimagine Parnassus, a GoFundMe account, so they can continue serving coffee in the space.