‘The Roundabout Queen’: How Phyllis Lamphere Helped Shape Seattle
By Bob Young
Minnie Hagmoe was always inspiring her daughter Phyllis. Plucky and adventurous, Minnie became the breadwinner when her alcoholic husband went missing. Like her relatives, she worked for the City of Seattle, where her long career included dispensing licenses for the 1962 World’s Fair and procuring a truckload of pachyderm manure to fertilize her yard and grow “corn that summer as high as an elephant’s eye.” Her friend Emmett Watson joked in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer column that Minnie never learned the word “can’t.” She built much of her house herself and sewed her daughters’ clothes when she wasn’t working a second job to pay for their dance lessons. In her first retirement, Minnie ordered a new VW Beetle, picked it up in Switzerland and drove it around Europe and as far as India, often scooping up hitchhikers for companionship.
Phyllis, who started dancing before kindergarten, grew tall and lithe. She swam across Lake Washington at 11, with her father rowing alongside. She won a scholarship to Barnard College in New York where she soaked up Broad-way plays, music at Harlem’s Apollo Theater and modern dance studying under Martha Graham.
Tragedy cut in on enchantment. Her father died a vagrant while she was in college. She was widowed at 22, five months after marrying an Army officer. But like her mother, Phyllis didn’t stand still. After working at Boeing and IBM, she married psychologist Art Lamphere and became a leader in the League of Women Voters and Forward Thrust, a massive King County infrastructure upgrade. She leapt into politics and made historic changes to her beloved hometown.
In her first full year on the Seattle City Council in 1968 Phyllis Lamphere helped push through an Open Housing law in sharply segregated Seattle. She had already left a huge, if little noticed imprint on the city before joining the council. She spearheaded a change in state law giving Seattle a “strong mayor” form of government. That shift of power from nine back-scratching council members to a single executive would transform a decentralized, clubby City Hall to one with a unified vision and accountability. Politically, Seattle joined the big time.
But Lamphere’s ambitions weren’t always in synch with Seattleites. She was on the other side of preservationists in their historic campaign to save Pike Place Market from redevelopment. When she reached for her dream job of mayor—after trouncing male opponents in three council elections—she was judged the eminently qualified frontrunner. But voters spurned her in a stinging defeat. She lost, in part, because her own campaign took a back seat to breaking another glass ceiling. She had become the first woman president of the National League of Cities, which required extensive travel.
Wounded, she didn’t stop contributing. She went on to be a driving force in the development of the Washington State Convention Center, built over Interstate 5 in down-town Seattle. Roused by a symphony conductor’s put-down of her hometown as a cultural “dust bin,” Lamphere kept an eye on opportunities for enrichment. More than anyone, she was responsible for the Convention Center’s sophisticated art collection and galleries, one of the largest programs of its kind—free to the public—in the U.S.
Her senior facility apartment is not far from the bustling convention center.
Her activism was all part of the family tradition, says Lamphere, 95. “You didn’t think of anything else. You thought about what you’d do for the city.”
Lamphere’s grandparents traced their roots to Germany, Austria, Norway and Sweden. Both sides of the family came to Washington in the 1890s. One grandfather opened Seattle’s first art glass business. The other was a carpenter for the City of Seattle. Aunts and uncles also worked for the city.
Her parents, Ernie Hagmoe and Wilhemina “Minnie” Smith, married in 1918. They met after Ernie became good friends with Minnie’s brother and frequently visited the Smith home, a gathering place for a gang of outdoorsy, athletic teens. Blue-eyed and hand-some, Ernie climbed Mt. Rainier. Pretty and spirited, Minnie was a starter on the basketball team at Lincoln High School. She once pinned a teammate to the locker room floor for stomping on her uniform.
Phyllis was born in 1922 in Swedish Hospital. Seattle’s population then had swollen to more than 300,000. It would soon elect its first female mayor, Bertha Knight Landes (but not another for 91 years). Ernie and Minnie bought a bungalow in the Wallingford neighborhood. Ernie worked in the city’s Water Department, where he fell in with a “bad” crowd. She worked in the city’s voter-registration office. Phyllis remembers a sunny child-hood with her older sister Eve, full of swimming, biking, softball and dance recitals.
Then the Great Depression hit. People couldn’t pay their mortgages or rents. Clusters of improvised shacks, or shantytowns, sprouted around Seattle. The largest, dubbed “Hooverville,” occupied an expanse of tidal fl ats south of downtown, where an NFL stadium now stands. Its population peaked at more than 2,000. Ernie lost his job and the family lost their house, as he spiraled deeper into depression and alcoholism. The family moved from one apartment to another. For Minnie and the girls, ketchup sandwiches were a staple.
Minnie taught her girls self-reliance at an early age, putting Eve on a train to Portland alone at 4. “Mother didn’t believe in corporal punishment, but boy, could she deliver a lecture,” Lamphere says in her memoir, The Life of a City Girl. She stressed the importance of excelling in school and the arts. Phyllis took her first job with the city at 13, dishing out ice cream at a Woodland Park concession. She made the honor roll at Lincoln High School and choreographed dance routines. In the yearbook she described her ideal life as “dance, eat, sleep, have fun.”
Older sister Eve had won a scholarship to Barnard College, the women’s undergraduate college of Columbia University. Phyllis was spellbound by tales of Eve’s adventures in upper Manhattan. Barnard was the only college she wanted to at-tend. She too won a scholarship and headed east.
A math major, Phyllis kept her grades up to hold on to her scholarship. But the real learning often happened outside the class-room. She studied with modern dance maven Martha Graham (around the time Sir Thomas Beecham, the world-famous English conductor, made his cultural “dust bin” dig at Seattle). Barnard students got dis-counted tickets to The Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall and Broadway theaters. On weekend nights they’d hop on a subway, go to downtown hotel ballrooms and nurse beers while dancing to Big Band swing. They ice skated in Central Park and heard Ella Fitzgerald’s jazzy scat-singing in central Harlem.
Lamphere was deputized to greet Eleanor Roosevelt when the First Lady came to speak on cam-pus. Pacing anxiously outside Barnard’s main gate, Lamphere was surprised that the president’s wife emerged from the subway station at 116th Street. No limousine for her. “I remember mostly the intensity of her deep blue eyes and the softness of her voice as contrasted to the stridency that had been described in the press,” Lamphere later wrote.
Barnard proved the turning point in Lamphere’s life, the ideal setting to hone her leadership skills. All class officers and leaders were girls. “We didn’t have to make way for the handsomest boy or the best male athlete to take the helm, which was the unwritten rule of the day in most colleges.”
After graduating, Lamphere had promised her-self she would go home to save her father. But he died of pneumonia, a vagrant, during her junior year. He was 47.
In 1943 Lamphere headed back to Seattle and moved in with her mother in the house she was building in the Laurelhurst neighborhood. Lamphere went to work for Boeing where she helped create her own job: Director of Women’s Activities. The goal was to prop up the spirits of women who had come from all over the country to work on assembly lines, often without any family or friends to lean on. “We set up every conceivable activity a Boeing employee might crave,” Lamphere says, including sports, socials and volunteer work.
One night while volunteering downtown she met a handsome soldier with a southern accent. David Grady Arnold was an Army cargo officer on a Navy ship. After an eight-month courtship the charming Georgia native and Lamphere were married. Five weeks later Arnold shipped out. After several months, his letters stopped coming and her queries went unanswered. Lamphere heard rumors that Arnold was last seen running for cover when a Japanese kamikaze suicide pilot plunged into the ship off the Philippines on December 28. “I was told he was right where it hit,” she says. But the story was unconfirmed officially. Desperate, Lamphere quit her job and went to Washington, D.C., to get answers. She learned he was the only Army man on a Navy ship. His death had slipped through the usual reporting channels.
With World War II winding to a close, a friend arranged an interview for Lamphere at IBM. In no time, she was on a train back to New York for a job at a “magnificent wage.” Lamphere, the math major, was assigned to a salesman with major accounts on Wall Street. She helped prepare monthly statements and convert accounts to punch cards, which stored data for reading by a processor. She then moved up to a research lab where she worked on an early relay computer.
Seeking the marriage she felt cheated out of, she wed IBM salesman Walt Cowan in 1947, although she was concerned about his drinking and temper. In 1949, Lamphere delivered a daughter, Deborah. But Cowan’s temper had not improved and the couple parted five months later. Lamphere was a single mother. And she had been bitten by the political bug.
Coming from a family of Democrats, she was excited about Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 presidential campaign. On election night Phyllis watched results at her sister and brother-in-law’s house with a few of their friends. Television was in its infancy. So was computer technology. That night Walter Cronkite and CBS news, aided by a UNIVAC computer, called a victory for Republican Dwight Eisenhower.* Not a good night for Democrats, but Phyllis met Art Lamphere, a graduate student completing his Ph.D. in psychology. They married the next year. Soon Art had built a patient base for his practice and Phyllis was pregnant. She gave birth to Barbara on January 13, followed by Claudia on December 30. The family was complete.
As the girls grew, Lamphere got involved in the Democratic Club of the 34th District. She also joined an effort by the League of Women Voters and other civic groups to advocate a “strong mayor” form of government in Seattle.
Lamphere called herself a “fanatic” about structure. You couldn’t succeed with-out the right structure, said the former IBM systems analyst, and Seattle’s was all wrong. The mayor was largely a figurehead. The council held the real power. Each member controlled he budget for a different slice of the government. One oversaw police, another transportation, another City Light, and so on. “The problem is that’s decentralized government,” she says. “There is no straight line of authority. There’s always a power struggle if you don’t have the structure to act in unison.”
Lamphere became the league’s chief lobbyist in Olympia for a strong mayor bill. City officials fought back. Lamphere and the Committee for a Strengthened Seattle Government didn’t succeed in their 1965 effort. But she kept at it for two years, driving to Olympia every day the Legislature was in session. Her dedication led The Seattle Times to say “the words ‘league’ and ‘Lamphere’ are synonymous.” State lawmakers grew more receptive. Lamphere’s bill said any city with a population over 300,000 would be required to put budget authority in its mayor’s hands. Lawmakers from other cities could grasp the rationale. “It’s a growth issue and power issue that they could see themselves confronting at some point,” Lamphere says. She also thought Seattle would attract a higher caliber mayor with such a change.
Others took note of Lamphere’s growing stature. Mayor Dorm Braman appointed her in 1967 to the organizing committee of Forward Thrust, which was readying a bond issue package for the 1968 ballot. She would become the group’s vice-president. Running for office seemed the next step. She was advised, however, to wait for the “woman’s” seat on the council, held by Myrtle Edwards, to open up. Lamphere scoffed at that.
It was time to sweep out the chummy old council. She declared herself a candidate with the slogan, “She’s Bright, She’s Knowledgeable, She Cares.” The Municipal League rated her “outstanding.”* Her campaign was supported by a young bipartisan group determined to modernize city affairs. The energetic activists of Choose an Effective City Council, or CHECC, also backed Tim Hill, a progressive young Republican. Lamphere dis-patched the incumbent, Ed Riley, in the primary, winning almost four times as many votes. She walloped another male opponent, George Cooley in the general election. Hill and Sam Smith, a Democrat seeking to become the first African-American on the council, were also propelled into office by voters ready for change. “New Blood Will Shake Up City Council,” declared one headline.
AT thestart of 1968, when the new council members were settling into office, it was still legal in Seattle to discriminate against minorities when renting apartments or selling houses. And discrimination was rampant. Restrictive covenants and deeds blatantly barred minorities from living in large swaths of the city.* Bias in the real estate industry kept brokers from even showing houses to minorities in most areas. In 1960, more than three-quarters of Seattle’s black population lived in one neighborhood, the Central Area.
State lawmakers attempted a fix with a 1957 law that outlawed discrimination in home sales that involved federal or state funds. One African-American family decided in 1959 to test the law. Robert L. Jones and his wife put down a down payment and a signed earnest money receipt offering to buy a house from seller John O’Meara. Their check and receipt were returned by O’Meara. The Jones family filed a complaint with the state. Their case made it to the state Supreme Court, which sided with O’Meara. Although he had a loan insured by the Federal Housing Authority, the justices said that did not constitute “publicly assisted housing.”
Civil rights activists tried a local route, proposing a city ban on discrimination. Owners of apartments argued that such a law was “dictatorial” and “confiscatory.” The City Council and mayor stood pat. After a long public hearing one day in 1963, a group from the Central District Youth Club occupied the mayor’s office, in what was believed to be Seattle’s first sit-in. But all they got was an ordinance creating the Seattle Human Rights Commission.
Under continuing pressure, the council punted the decision to voters. Property owners advertised heavily for their freedom. Four council members appeared in ads as opponents of a new law. When ballots were tallied in the 1964 election, Seattle had shot down the Open Housing law by more than a 2-to-1 margin.
Attitudes began to change with the advent of the federal Civil Rights Act, scenes of police brutality in southern states, and voluntary integration programs by some Seattle sellers and landlords. But housing discrimination remained legal in Seattle until April 19, 1968, two weeks after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Led by Sam Smith, the new council members pushed through an anti-discrimination law. “That was our biggest move,” Lamphere says, “and bitterly fought within the council.”
Then they were on to opening up City Hall. “Until we came along, there were no open meetings,” Lamphere wrote in her memoir. “Public testimony, if any, was ‘invited’ at the discretion of the committee chair. Most decisions were reached in council officers and merely ratified at the official Monday City Council meeting.”
She and CHECC set out to change the rules of operation. All the meetings became public. Hearings were held in council chambers and anyone could testify. Agendas were published in advance.
Lamphere soon found herself embroiled in a battle over revitalizing Pike Place Market.
City planners had crafted a strategy in which the core of the market would be maintained but new development would encircle it. Opponents saw a threat to the market’s charm, its low-income housing and the very soul of Seattle. Led by Victor Steinbrueck, a University of Washington architecture professor, opponents rallied around the slogan, “Save the market.”
Lamphere said her plan would do just that in the long run. But Steinbrueck, who had worked on her campaign, was soon leading picket lines, hoisting a sign that said, “Is Phyllis Lamphere really a friend of the market?”
She tried to develop a compromise. But a citizen initiative pushed the decision to Seattle voters. On November 2, 1971, they resoundingly approved a seven-acre historic district around the market, killing the urban-renewal plan she supported. A “victory for the people,” Steinbrueck called it.
After winning a third term with 75 percent of the vote, Lamphere became the first woman (and first non-mayor) elected president of the National League of Cities. In 1977, she decided to run for the open mayor’s seat. The publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Robert E. Thompson, touted her credentials. He wrote an endorsement headlined, “One Whose Name Must Lead All the Rest for Mayor.” Lamphere was the only one of the qualified candidates born and raised in Seattle, wrote Thompson. She had a keen mind, an “awesome” depth of knowledge, a firm handle on the city’s problems. “And she has national stature.”
That last point, however, would prove double-edged. National League of Cities duties had her leading a conference at the United Nations, lunching with Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham and crisscrossing the country. What’s more, the “outsider” trend that dominated elections the year before—launching a quirky scientist, Dixy Lee Ray, into the Washington governor’s mansion—lingered. But with a twist of sexism. Ray’s abrasive persona and creeping unpopularity led some to say they wouldn’t vote for another woman. “This is ridiculous,” the P-I endorsement of Lamphere said. But it was a view Lamphere campaign volunteers said they encountered among some voters.
Another problem was that four council members had entered the race, splitting votes for the “insiders.” Charley Royer, a TV journalist, and Paul Schell, who oversaw the preservation of Pike Place Market, were the leading “outsiders.”
On top of that, Lamphere lagged behind others in fundraising and her campaign didn’t seem connected to neighborhoods. The candidate herself created some problems. In an interview with reporter Ross Anderson of The Seattle Times, she demonstrated “the same pleasing blend of earthy sophistication and humor, the same highly expressive face, the same mastery of words.” But Lamphere also called herself a “systems person” and her jargon-laden vocabulary had a tendency to “drive Council, staff and reporters literally to distraction.” Voters too, apparently.
Lamphere finished a distant fourth in the primary election. The outsiders, Royer and Schell, advanced. “Chalk me up as a little old lady whose bubble burst when she failed to become mayor of the city she loved,” Lamphere later said.
Crushed by the rejection, Lamphere quit the council the next year to take a job in Seattle with the U.S. Department of Commerce. Her territory as regional director of the Economic Development Administration included the western states and American territories in the Pacific. But when President Ronald Reagan took office he slashed her agency’s budget and wanted her to move to Denver. She quit in a scorching resignation letter.
Lamphere was back to being a civic activist. In 1981 the state Legislature authorized the governor to appoint a nine-member board to design, construct and operate a convention center, financed by the hotel and motel tax. Lamphere was among the select team that included Jim Ellis, the mastermind behind Forward Thrust.
The goal was to attract meetings of scientific and professional organizations to Seattle to boost tourism and the regional economy. Lamphere believed Seattle needed to establish itself as a global center but wasn’t even on the list of possible meeting places for groups such as the Red Cross and World Bank. The board boldly decided to build the convention center over Interstate 5 in downtown Seattle—without ever closing freeway lanes.
From the beginning Lamphere insisted that the building feature public art. She saw it as an opportunity to offer free art appreciation and education in a central part of the city. Her big break came when a private partner, who was going to construct shops along the center’s escalators, went bankrupt. Suddenly, open storefronts were replaced by meeting rooms with bare outside walls. Looking at those nice corridors, she said, “Oh my gosh, that’s an art gallery.”
She put together a group of art experts. They tapped the state’s Percent for Art requirement for public construction budgets. They installed sculptures, paintings and photos inside and outside the $186 million Washington State Convention Center, which opened in 1988.
Lamphere recommended creating a nonprofit Convention Center Art Foundation to provide the means for obtaining works as gifts or long-term loans. The center’s public art program has showcased both permanent works and more than 150 rotating exhibits. The four-story gallery ex-hibits have displayed Northwest artists such as Ann Gard-ner, Hilda Morris, Kenneth Callahan and Guy Anderson. Each year some 600,000 convention center visitors, both tourists and locals, have free access to art, one of Seattle’s underappreciated troves.
“You can’t miss the art when you go to this place,” Lamphere says.
Take that, Sir Thomas Beecham.
Lamphere would serve on the convention center board for just over 20 years, stepping down after an expansion of the center was completed in 2001 and new art exhibits were dedicated the next year.
Lamphere had lost her husband Art to a heart attack in 1987. She later lost her most profound influence when Minnie passed away just short of her 101st birthday. But Lamphere kept trying to make her city better. In her 80s, as a board member of Seattle Parks Foundation she helped lead a dramatic makeover of Lake Union Park with the cornerstone addition of the Museum of History and Industry to Seattle’s fastest growing neighborhood, teeming with Amazon workers and vertical cubicle farms.
How does she feel now that Seattle and its 700,000 residents have gained some of the recognition she sought? “I am of mixed minds,” she says. She’s concerned about over-population and the soaring cost of housing. She’s hopeful that thoughtful development will maximize the positives and ameliorate the negatives. “That’s the real test.”
This much is certain. She’s delighted that Seattle voters in 2017 elected Jenny Durkan, the city’s first female mayor since 1926. “About time,” Lamphere says. “I think she’s going to do well.”
Originally published by the Washington Secretary of State, “1968: The Year That Rocked Washington“, to the public domain.