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Mathes Hall and Nash Hall
The curved, red brick towers of Mathes Hall and Nash Hall at Western Washington University (WWU), designed by Henry Klein with Folke Nyberg, are high-rise residential halls at the north edge of campus. Their location fulfilled an earlier idea from Paul Thiry’s master plan of the 1950s and 1960s, which conceived of a series of towers to mark campus entrances. Perhaps fittingly for a university located atop a hill with spectacular views of the forested and watery surroundings, the towers’ design makes a conscious nod towards the natural environment. The towers are named for the first and second normal school principals and presidents, Edward T. Mathes and George W. Nash, respectively.
The two co-ed towers include bedrooms along interior corridors with men and women separated by floor: double rooms for the nine-story, 300-student occupancy Mathes Hall and single, double, and triple rooms for the seven-story Nash Hall. The buildings take advantage of their site by presenting curved walls, or wings, to the northwest, providing students with views of Bellingham Bay and the Canadian coastal mountain range. Viewed from below, or from the city of Bellingham, the convex towers—the most visible part of campus from downtown—seem to echo the shape of Sehome Hill, which serves as the university’s natural backdrop. Each of the towers also includes a more rectangular wing towards the campus and High Street side, forming a partial enclosure towards the south.
Mathes Hall, the southernmost tower, features a separate, domestically scaled concrete and wood volume to the south that serves as a large meeting lounge for residents and includes a fireplace and kitchen. Staircases wrap around this volume, connecting students to the main part of campus above or surface parking below. Nash Hall, the more northern of the two halls, features a dynamic east-facing concave wing with a variety of volumes, window treatments, and openings within its otherwise red brick mass, including a breezeway through the building on its northern edge. Folke Nyberg, who provided design work and site planning for both towers, hoped the various openings on Nash Hall would provide enough light and also help “de-institutionalize” the dormitory. There is no facade quite like it for any residential hall on university campus in Washington.
Henry Klein, a German-born, Swiss-educated architect from nearby Mount Vernon, was the architect of record for the towers. But their specific articulation, Scandinavian in inspiration and bearing some formal resemblance to the work of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, may have come from Swedish-born Folke Nyberg, who was briefly employed by Klein in the mid-1960s and provided site planning and design for Mathes and Nash halls. Aalto’s work, particularly that of his red brick, serpentine Baker House dormitory created for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1948, would not have been unfamiliar either to Nyberg or Klein; moreover, by the mid-1960s, the internationally renowned Aalto was already in conversation with officials at the Benedictine monastery of Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon to design a library—what would become Aalto’s only work in the Pacific Northwest. Klein and Nyberg may have been aware of this design as well.
Regardless of the precedents, the Mathes and Nash towers mark a distinctive gateway for the northern edge of the Western Washington University campus. The towers earned an urban design award in 1967.
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