Cornish College of the Arts was founded in 1914 as the Cornish School of Music, by Nellie Cornish (1876–1956), a teacher of piano. Cornish would go on to serve as the school's director for its first 25 years, until 1939. The Cornish School of Music began its operations in rented space in the Boothe (or Booth) Building on Broadway and Pine Street.
As Cornish developed the idea of her school, she initially turned to the Montessori-based pedagogical method of Evelyn Fletcher-Copp, but turned at last to the progressive musical pedagogy of Calvin Brainerd Cady, who had worked as musical director with John Dewey as the latter set up his seminal progressive educational project, what is now the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Conceived by Cornish as "an elementary school of the arts — all the arts — with music as its major subject," the school initially taught only children, but it soon expanded to functioning also as a normal school (a teachers' college) under Cady. Within three years it had enrolled over 600 students, expanded the age range of its students to college age, and was the country's largest music school west of Chicago.
Nellie Cornish recruited opportunistically where she saw talent, and the school soon offered classes as diverse as eurhythmics, French language, painting, dance (folk and ballet), and theater. In 1915, the first full academic year, eurhythmics was added and the first studio arts classes taught. Dance, with a ballet focus, became a department in 1916 headed by Chicago-trained Mary Ann Wells. That same year, Cornish became one of the first West Coast schools of any type to offer a summer session. After the closing of their influential Chicago Little Theatre, Maurice Browne and Ellen Van Volkenburg were brought in to found the Drama Department in 1918; the department, with its incorporation of scenic design, music, and dance in its productions, became central to Cornish's plans to ally the arts. Van Volkenburg also began a marionette department, the first such department in the country. By 1923, opera and modern dance had been added to the curriculum as well.
In 1920, in recognition that music was no longer the school's central focus, the school's name was simplified to The Cornish School. By this time, too, the school had expanded its age range, and was offering classes and lessons from early childhood to the undergraduate level. The school gathered a board of trustees from among Seattle's elite, who funded the school through the hard economic times during and after World War I, and raised money for a purpose-built school building. Finished in 1921, the Cornish School building, now known as Kerry Hall, opened for the 1921–22 academic year.
The Cornish Trio of the 1920s—Peter Meremblum, Berthe Poncy (later Berthe Poncy Jacobson), and Kola Levienne—may have been the first resident chamber music group at an American school. In 1935, Cornish established the first (but ultimately short-lived) college-level school of radio broadcasting in the U.S.
Through the 1920s, the school was often on the edge of financial failure, but was of a caliber that prompted Anna Pavlova to call it "the kind of school other schools should follow." Although the mortgage was paid off and the building had been donated to the school in 1929, financial difficulties inevitably grew during the Great Depression. Ultimately, convinced that finances would not allow the school to do more than "tread water," Nellie Cornish resigned her position as head of the school in 1939.
While there were difficult years for the school after 1939, in the long run Cornish did much more than "tread water." With support from local arts organizations and a core of dedicated faculty and staff, the school ultimately "reinvented" itself many times, and in 1977 earned full accreditation as a degree granting college from the Northwest Commission on Colleges. That was one year after the establishment of the Theatre Department as the fifth fully fledged academic department. In 1982, the college received a large Title III grant which was instrumental in establishing the Video Art program in the Art department, and in the genesis of the Performance Production Department, which was granted full departmental status with the graduation of its first class in 1986. The BFA in Performance Production added concentrations in Costume, Lighting, Scenic and Sound Design, Stage Management and Technical Direction. Performance Production was established as an independent department so that it would be able to provide support to major productions of the Theatre, Dance and Music departments and provide its students with experience in all three. Recognizing the vital importance of liberal arts studies as a part of the education of an artist, Cornish established its seventh department, Humanities and Sciences, some years later. Humanities and Sciences had been an important part of the Cornish education even before the accreditation process of the '70s, but the important step of granting department status reaffirmed the commitment to "whole person" education.
Miss Aunt Nellie: The Autobiography of Nellie C. Cornish, was published by the University of Washington Press in 1964, largely with funds from the Cornish School Alumni Association. Produced a decade after Nellie Cornish's death, the book was co-edited by Ellen Van Volkenburg and Edward Nordhoff Beck.
Cornish College of the Arts operates a three-part campus in the Capitol Hill, Denny Triangle, and Seattle Center areas of Seattle, Washington.
Cornish's historic campus is composed of its original 1921 building on Capitol Hill and its grounds. The building, now known as Kerry Hall, contains the 200-seat PONCHO Concert Hall. Kerry Hall was designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style by leading Seattle architect A. H. Albertson and is on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) as the "Cornish School."
Cornish opened its new Main Campus in 2003 in the Denny Triangle area of downtown Seattle. The 1928, Art Deco-style Main Campus Center is listed on the NRHP as "William Volker Building." Other buildings of note are the Raisbeck Performance Hall constructed in 1915, a Seattle City Landmark under the name "Old Norway Hall,"  and the 1929 Notion Building. In 2015, the college opened the new 20-story Cornish Commons, which contains a residence hall, studios, and meeting rooms.
Located on the Seattle Center grounds is the Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center, the college's premier performance venue. Built for the Century 21 Exposition of 1962, the Playhouse was leased to Cornish by the City of Seattle in 2013. Along with the 440-seat main stage, the complex includes the 100+ seat Alhadeff Studio Theater and a scene shop.
|Location||710 E. Roy St., Seattle, Washington|
|Area||less than one acre|
|Architect||Alberston, Abraham H.|
|Architectural style||Other, Spanish Colonial Revival|
|NRHP reference #||77001337|
|Added to NRHP||August 29, 1977|
Volker, William, Building
|Location||1000 Lenora St., Seattle, Washington|
|Area||less than one acre|
|Architect||Bittman, Henry & Adams, Harold|
|Architectural style||Art Deco|
|NRHP reference #||83004236|
|Added to NRHP||October 13, 1983|
The library at Cornish College specializes in art, dance, design, music, performance production, and theatre. As of 2011[update] it held 4,700 CDs, 40,000 books, has 2,200 videos, and subscribed to 154 periodicals. Its special collections include an image collection and 35 mm slides.
- Aleah Chapin, who graduated in 2009, became the first American painter to win the prestigious BP Portrait Award from the National Portrait Gallery, London.
- Heather Hart, graduated in 1998, is best known for her large art installations.
- Kumi Yamashita graduated with a B.F.A. in Art 1994.
- Mary Lambert, a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, debuted on Capitol Records with her album Heart on My Sleeve.
- Catherine Harris-White, aka SassyBlack, is best known as half of Thee Satisfaction, recording artists on Sub Pop Records, graduated from the Music Department in 2008.
- Reggie Watts, musician and comedian, studied music at Cornish in the early 1990s.
- Merce Cunningham is the best known alumnus in the dance department, matriculated in 1937 and was lured away by Martha Graham and her dance company in 1939.
- Dancer and choreographer Robert Joffrey, studied at Cornish at some point, and is listed as a member of the alumni association.
- Berson, Misha. "New name, same theatre at Seattle Center." The Seattle Times, May 6, 2013.
- Cornish, Nellie C. Miss Aunt Nellie: The Autobiography of Nellie C. Cornish, Ellen Van Volkenburg Browne and Edward Nordhoff Beck, eds. Seattle, University of Washington, 1964; pp. 89-91.
- Mildred Andrews, Cornish School, HistoryLink Essay 596, December 26, 1998, updated on June 28, 2006. Retrieved 2010-05-25.
- Cornish, Nellie C. Miss Aunt Nellie: The Autobiography of Nellie C. Cornish, Ellen Van Volkenburg Browne and Edward Nordhoff Beck, eds. Seattle, University of Washington, 1964; pp. 66-69.
- Cornish, Nellie C. Miss Aunt Nellie: The Autobiography of Nellie C. Cornish, Ellen Van Volkenburg Browne and Edward Nordhoff Beck, eds. Seattle, University of Washington, 1964; pp. 73-75.
- Cornish, Nellie C. Miss Aunt Nellie: The Autobiography of Nellie C. Cornish, Ellen Van Volkenburg Browne and Edward Nordhoff Beck, eds. Seattle, University of Washington, 1964; p. 91.
- Berner 1991, pp. 92–93
- Nate Lippens, short item on Cornish as part of "People Who Shaped Seattle", Seattle Metropolitan, May 2006, p. 59. Brenden Fraser went to Cornish and graduated with honors.
- Cornish 1964, pp. 89–113
- Berner 1991, pp. 93–94
- Cornish 1964, p. 97
- Cornish, Nellie C. Miss Aunt Nellie: The Autobiography of Nellie C. Cornish, Ellen Van Volkenburg Browne and Edward Nordhoff Beck, eds. Seattle, University of Washington, 1964; p. 121.
- Cornish 1964, p. 109
- Cornish 1964, pp. 133–134
- Cornish, Nellie C. Miss Aunt Nellie: The Autobiography of Nellie C. Cornish, Ellen Van Volkenburg Browne and Edward Nordhoff Beck, eds. Seattle, University of Washington, 1964; p. 120.
- Cornish 1964, pp. 112–113
- Cornish 1964, pp. 170–171
- Cornish 1964, pp. 160–161
- Cornish 1964, pp. 245–249
- Cornish 1964, pp. 154, 161–162
- Cornish 1964, p. 163
- Cornish 1964, pp. 204–205
- Cornish 1964, p. passim.
- Cornish 1964, pp. passim, esp. p. 252–261. The reference to "treading water" is on p. 255.
- WASHINGTON – King County (page 2), National Register of Historic Places. Accessed online 31 January 2008.
- Campbell, R.M. "After years of looking for room, it's all coming together for Cornish" Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 17, 2003.
- WASHINGTON – King County (page 5), National Register of Historic Places. Accessed online 31 January 2008.
- Landmarks Alphabetical Listing for O Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine, Individual Landmarks, City of Seattle. Accessed 28 December 2007.
- Porter, Lynn. "Cornish College is opening a $50M 'living room' in the Denny Triangle." Daily Journal of Commerce, August 18, 2015.
- "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. July 9, 2010.
- American Library Directory. 2 (64th ed.). Information Today, Inc. 2011–2012. pp. 2568–2576. ISBN 978-1-57387-411-3.
- Halpern, Lisa (February 10, 2005). "Fraser's Edge". Cornish College of the Arts. Archived from the original on December 31, 2007. Retrieved December 27, 2007. Cite journal requires
- Nude painting wins BP Portrait Award 2012. Staff, BBC News. June 19, 2912. Web.
- Delia, Sarah. Artist Heather Hart Brings 'Radical Archiving' To Charlotte. WFAE Charlotte's NPR News Source. March 8, 2016. Web.
- Y-Jean Mun-Delsalle. "Kumi Yamashita Plays with Shadows to Create Art". Forbes.com. Retrieved September 6, 2015.
- Bennett-Smith, Meredith. Mary Lambert, Singer Featured On Macklemore's 'Same Love,' Talks Songwriting, Lesbians, Vulnerability. Huffington Post, Queer Voices, February 2, 2016. Web.
- Brodeur, Nicole. Reggie Watts: 'I like using my voice to do really dumb things. The Seattle Times, June 3, 2012. Print & web.
- Becker, Paula. Cunningham, Merce (1919–2009). Historylink.org, June 08, 2009. Web.
- Alumni News, Cornish School of Allied Arts, unpublished, The Cornish School Archives, University of Washington Special Collections, 1953.
- Mildred Andrews, Cornish School, HistoryLink Essay 596, December 26, 1998, updated on June 28, 2006.
- Berner, Richard C. (1991), Seattle 1900–1920: From Boomtown, Urban Turbulence, to Restoration, Charles Press, ISBN 0-9629889-0-1
- Cornish, Nellie C. (1964), Browne, Ellen Van Volkenburg; Beck, Edward Nordhoff (eds.), Miss Aunt Nellie. The autobiography of Nellie C. Cornish, foreword by Nancy Wilson Ross, Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press
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