HISTORY IN PERSPECTIVE | Housing nurses and nuns: Two historic QA buildings

This is a two-part series comparing two Queen Anne buildings constructed to house single women (Part 1, this month; Part 2, next month). It is difficult to believe that such a comparison 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 Avenue North and Boston Street and the exquisite 1930 St. Anne Convent at First Avenue West and West Comstock Street. The nursing home is adjacent to and part of the original Children’s Orthopedic Hospital, now known as Queen Anne Manor. The convent faces First Avenue West, just behind St. Anne Parish School, where the nuns who lived in the convent taught. 

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 who 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-century Central Europe or England, there was a place in the United States for hospitals associated with the Catholic Church. By the 20th century, 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 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. Living next door to the hospital meant being on call all the time.

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 schoolteachers in public schools across the United States at the turn of the 20th century were women, in many school districts, they were forced to leave their jobs if they married. Also, public schoolteachers 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. 

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 with 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 Co. 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 and clinics in the 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, either. 

Although it is speculation, the similarity in plan between this building and Saint Anne’s Convent (the subject of next month’s column), coupled with Abraham H. Albertson’s documented work in 1928 on the additions to Children’s Hospital, lead to the tentative conclusion that it was he who designed the nursing home. 

MICHAEL HERSCHENSOHN is president of the Queen Anne Historical Society (www.qahistory.org). To comment on this story, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.

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