Architect who created Museum of Flight dies

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When architects Ibsen Nelsen and George Bartholick strode into a room, heads turned. Tall and striking, they brought drama to the Seattle social scene. Along with their close friend Fred Bassetti, the men also made an indelible mark on the Seattle skyline, helping improve and preserve some of the city's most important landmarks, including the Pike Place Market and many historic buildings in Pioneer Square.

Mr. Nelsen died Thursday (July 19) of complications from prostate cancer. He was 81.

"He and George and I were sort of a troika," Bassetti said. "We were interested in city planning and making things better here." Bartholick, lead architect for the Market restoration, died in 1998.

The three architects kept in touch through their own private lunch club, but during the 1970s Mr. Nelsen also participated in a group called the "Chowder Society," which met over coffee at his Capitol Hill home to philosophize about the future of Seattle. Among the people who stopped by those meetings were Paul Schell, then the city's community-development director and now Seattle's mayor; Seattle Times columnist Emmett Watson; and writer David Brewster, a founder of Seattle Weekly, Bassetti said.

Ideas flew fast among the group — ideas about historic preservation, city planning and local politics. Whether it was talk of a downtown park or ways to save the Pike Place Market, the hope of the visionaries of the Chowder Society was to build a better Seattle.

"Ibsen was the heart of that progressive club," said Brewster.

Notable buildings

In addition to his fervor for preserving Seattle's historic architecture, Mr. Nelsen added a number of his own well-considered buildings to the region. Among his most notable achievements are the Museum of Flight, the Inn at the Market, buildings on the Western Washington University campus in Bellingham, and the elegant Merrill Court Townhouses on Capitol Hill. "The Museum of Flight is probably one of the finest buildings of our time in Seattle," Bassetti said. "It superbly serves its purpose and the vision of flight in which Seattle plays a big part."

A masterpiece among the many private residences Mr. Nelsen designed is "The Lake," the artist Morris Graves' final home in Loleta, Calif. He also led the restoration of the governor's mansion in Olympia. Mr. Nelsen's most recent building, still under construction at his death, is a studio for his son Eric Nelsen, a ceramic artist.

Born in Ruskin, Neb., Mr. Nelsen became interested in buildings early. At age 12, he started doing odd jobs for his father's construction firm. The Nelsens moved to Medford, Ore., where Mr. Nelsen graduated from high school in 1933 before pursuing a degree in architecture from the University of Oregon.

"He was a dust-bowl refugee," said Eric Nelsen. "He fled Ruskin and moved to Medford, Oregon — just like in Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath.' "

During World War II, Mr. Nelsen served 3 1/2 years with the infantry in the Pacific campaign, where he earned a bronze star and a Purple Heart, Eric Nelsen said. Mr. Nelsen met his future wife, Ruth, on a tour of duty at Fort Lewis.

Mr. Nelsen moved to Seattle in 1951 and opened a University District architect's office two years later. He worked part time as an associate professor of architecture at the University of Washington from 1957 to 1965. He later moved his office, Ibsen Nelsen and Associates, to the Denny Regrade. Mr. Nelsen was a leader in the community, whether as president of Allied Arts, chairman of the Seattle Art Commission, or a participant in less formal groups such as the Chowder Society.

Past inspired the future

In the 1970s, Mr. Nelsen worked with the late Victor Steinbrueck, Bartholick, Bassetti and other architects to save the Pike Place Market. In all his work, Mr. Nelsen strived for designs that were aesthetically pleasing for people, said Steinbrueck's son, City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck.

But despite Mr. Nelsen's visions for preserving and building a better Seattle, that dream was only partially realized, said Brewster, the writer. Mr. Nelsen disapproved of the tearing down of many old buildings in the city and he disliked skyscrapers.

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Nelsen retired to Vashon Island, where he designed a home reminiscent of an 18th-century Danish farmhouse that reflected his roots. Mr. Nelsen, said Steinbrueck, moved forward by looking to the buildings of the past.

"It was a generation of architects that has left a legacy in this city that I would say has yet to be matched," he said.

Mr. Nelsen is survived by his wife, Ruth; their four children, Christine Williams of California, Carol Nelsen of Seattle, and Hans Nelsen and Eric Nelsen, both of Vashon Island; and five grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be sent to Vashon/Maury Land Trust, 10014 Southwest Bank Road, Vashon, Wash., 98010.

Frank Vinluan can be reached at 206-464-2291 or Sheila Farr's e-mail address is