Graham, John | (2024)

(b. 8 May 1908 in Seattle, Washington; d. 29 January 1991 in Seattle, Washington), architect who designed the first regional shopping center and the Seattle Space Needle.

Graham was one of three children born to John Graham, an architect, and Hallie Corrine Jackson, a homemaker. His father had moved to Seattle from his native Liverpool, England, in 1900 and started an architectural firm that became one of the largest on the West Coast.

Graham attended the Moran School but graduated from Queen Anne High School in Seattle in 1927. He owned and sailed small boats during his childhood, and during the summer after his high school graduation he worked on a ship that sailed between Seattle and Nome, Alaska. He then entered the University of Washington at Seattle to study naval architecture.

During his other summer vacations Graham worked at his father’s firm, John Graham and Company, as a draftsman. In his sophom*ore year he won an award of the Beaux Arts Institute of Design in New York and transferred to the Yale University School of Architecture, where he won further awards.

After graduating from Yale with a B.F.A. in 1931, Graham spent a year working in his father’s firm. He then joined the statistical merchandising division of Allied Stores, a national department store chain. Graham later transferred to the chain’s flagship store in Seattle, the Bon Marché, which his father’s firm had designed in 1916. He was assistant general merchandise manager for merchandise control systems and later became divisional merchandise manager for the main-floor accessory departments. During the four years Graham worked at the department store he spent evenings and weekends designing office buildings and department stores at his father’s firm.

In 1937 Graham moved to New York City, where he and William Painter set up the architectural firm Graham and Painter and specialized in department store designs. After the United States entered World War II, Graham attempted to join the U.S. Navy but was declared ineligible for service because of an old arm injury. Instead he designed housing for defense industry workers during the war and built housing projects in New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. While in the District of Columbia, Graham met Marjorie Belle Clark, a merchandising specialist at the Office of Price Administration. They married on 20 February 1943 and subsequently had three children.

After the war Graham returned to Seattle and took over direction of his father’s firm. Later renaming it John Graham Associates, he expanded its operations by adding offices in New York City; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Toronto, Canada. Under Graham’s leadership the firm pioneered new commercial complexes that became known as regional shopping centers. Differing from older shopping centers, they were on a much larger scale, were set well back from public roads in the middle of an extensive parking space, and attracted one or more major department stores to “anchor” the rest of the specialty stores in the mall.

In April 1950 the first regional shopping center in the world, the Northgate Mall, opened near Seattle’s Route 5, anchored by a Bon Marché department store. At the direction of James B. Douglas, the department store owner who commissioned the mall, Graham minimized the ornamentation. Many architects criticized it as a collection of unadorned boxes resembling Boeing aircraft factories. Douglas responded: “Some centers spend a lot more on frills, but they’ll never get their money back. The main thing is that Northgate make money.” Northgate was a financial success from the time it opened, taking in twice the expected sales revenues and undergoing several expansions. Graham subsequently added more color and variation to the architecture of his later malls, including the Bergen Mall in Paramus, New Jersey; Westchester Plaza in New Rochelle, New York; Cottonwood Center in Salt Lake City, Utah; Gulfgate in Houston; and Wellington Square near Toronto.

Graham constructed his first-generation shopping centers as open-air malls. He and his developers believed it would be too expensive to enclose them, which would add the costs of heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning. In 1956, however, the architect Victor Gruen designed an enclosed mall for Northland Center in Detroit that, owing to its popularity, became the model for the nation’s second generation of regional shopping centers. Graham subsequently enclosed his early malls in later renovations. He also expanded the concept of shopping centers to include office buildings, hotels, and other institutions, as exemplified by the Lloyd Center in Portland, Oregon.

During 1959 Graham designed the Ala Moana Shopping Center in Honolulu, which included a building with a revolving restaurant on its top floor. Graham later applied this concept to the Seattle Space Needle, which he designed in collaboration with the architects Victor Steinbrueck and John Ridley for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. The Seattle Space Needle was commissioned by the hotel executive Eddie Carlson, who formulated the idea after a visit to a Stuttgart television-tower restaurant. Carlson asked the architects to model the structure on a teak native carving in his home. They devised a three-legged skeletal tower rising 600 feet with a revolving restaurant and observation deck on top.

The Kings County commissioners, who controlled most of the World’s Fair development, initially rejected the proposal. Carlson, Graham, and the builder Howard Wright then purchased a 120-foot square plot of land within the fairgrounds and erected the tower as a private venture. Life magazine reported on its construction weekly with extended photo essays. The Space Needle became the most popular structure at the fair and continued operating after the fair closed. The best-known feature of the Seattle skyline, it is shown in The Parallax View (1974) and other films. Most media viewers, however, know it from the title logo and background balcony shots of the popular 1990s television comedy Frasier. The Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board designated the Space Needle a historic landmark on 15 April 1998.

In 1986 Graham sold his firm to a nationwide architectural firm, the DLR Group. The firm operated under the name DLR John Graham Associates until 1998, when it was renamed the DLR Group. Graham died of heart disease at the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. He is buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Seattle.

Graham’s fame as an architect is based primarily on two accomplishments, his design of the Seattle Space Needle and his conception and development of the first regional shopping center. The latter dominates the American suburban landscape as strongly as the former dominates the Seattle skyline. The architectural historian Meredith Clausen noted that Graham’s success “was acknowledged only reluctantly by the architectural community,” since “his approach to design was economic, not artistic.” The fact that both Northgate and the Seattle Space Needle were located in a remote and relatively ignored region allowed later shopping center designers like Gruen and Benjamin Thompson to overshadow Graham’s reputation as an innovator.

Graham’s papers are in the Seattle Museum of History and Industry. For discussions of the Space Needle see Harold Mansfield, The Space Needle Story (1976); and Don Duncan, Meet Me at the Center: The Story of Seattle Center from the Beginnings to the1962 Seattle World’s Fair to the 21st Century (1992). Many of Graham’s Seattle projects are also mentioned in John Graham and Company, The First 80 Years (1980); Roger Sale, Seeing Seattle (1994); Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide, Seattle: America’s Guide for Architecture and History Travelers (1998); and Richard C. Berner, Seattle in the 20th Century, vol. 3, Seattle Transformed: From World War II to Cold War (1999). The best works on Graham and the evolution of modern shopping centers are Meredith Clausen, “Northgate Shopping Center—Paradigm from the Provinces,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 43 (May 1984), 144-161; and Meredith Clausen, “Shopping Centers, “in Encyclopedia of Architecture: Design, Engineering & Construction, edited by John A. Wilkes (1988-1989). Northgate is discussed in Geoffrey Baker and Bruno Funaro, Shopping Centers: Design and Operation (1951); “Markets in the Meadows,” Architectural Forum 90 (March 1949): 114-124; and Victor Gruen and Lawrence P. Smith, “Shopping Centers: The New Building Type,” Progressive Architecture 33 (1952): 1-109. An obituary is in the New York Times (1 Feb. 1991).

Stephen G. Marshall

Graham, John | (2024)


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