Bain, William James Jr. (1930-2019)

  • By Marga Rose Hancock
  • Posted 12/30/2009
  • Essay 9234

William J. Bain Jr.  led design on projects of the Seattle-based firm NBBJ (formerly Naramore Bain Brady and Johanson) over several decades and in locations throughout Washington and the world. Early projects included Cordiner Hall at Whitman College (dedicated 1968) and the United States Pavilion at Expo 74 in Spokane. Later work included the 1981 restoration of Seattle's historic Olympic Hotel, Bagley Wright/Seattle Repertory Theatre at Seattle Center in 1983, Two Union Square (56 stories, 1989), the United States District Courthouse in 2004, and the Four Seasons Hotel and Condominiums, which opened in 2009. In 1997, his colleagues at the American Institute of Architects Seattle noted: "Bill Bain has shaped one of the nation's largest architecture firms [NBBJ] around design excellence and commitment to community. His record of community service in and beyond his native Seattle ... exemplifies a lifelong, passionate, and thorough devotion to cultural and civic well-being" (Medal).

Son of an Architect

William J. Bain Jr., born in Seattle on June 26, 1930, to noted architect William J. Bain Sr. (1896-1985) and Mildred "Billee" Clark Bain (1904-1991) grew up in homes designed by Bill Bain Sr. and located in several Seattle neighborhoods, along with his brother Robert C. (M.D., b. 1925) and sister Nancy (b. 1935, later Lowry). Bain recalls the early influence of living in the Lombardy Court Apartments at 421 Summit Avenue E: 

"I remember clearly the reflecting pool, which was on axis with the entrance, and the Chinese lantern, which made a beautiful termination of the walkway from the street. The tall Lombardy poplars along the side balanced the L-shaped courtyard. I didn’t realize until later that my parents owned and managed the building and that my father designed it" (Building Together).

Bain describes entrepreneurial activities beginning in his Depression-era boyhood, when the family sublet their Lombardy apartment and spent summers at the beach at Saltwalter Park (Three Tree Point) and Fauntleroy. He would spear sole in the shallow waters, then "walk up and down the neighboring streets to sell these very fresh fish" (Rose Hancock conversations). During his early teens, he and his friends occupied three of the four corners of 4th Avenue and Union Street, with Bain’s corner in front of the Great Northern Railway Company (later Men’s Wearhouse), hawking The Seattle Times, the Post-Intelligencer, and The Seattle Star, dispensing change from a coin-belt. Bain also ran several paper routes, aboard a bicycle for which he designed and built a wooden trailer to hold the thick Sunday editions.

Bain recalled many visits to the construction site at 1157 Harvard Avenue E where his father designed a house for their family, and where they lived beginning in 1939. Boyhood summertime adventures included stays at camps on Hood Canal, extended sailing trips crewing aboard a 62-foot ketch named Thetis owned by local photographer Ed Kennell, living with a farm family at White Bluffs in Eastern Washington, and on a sheep ranch in Mountain Home, Idaho.  

Bain attended Lowell Elementary and then Lakeside School in Seattle, at one point purchasing a 1940 Buick coupe and operating a paid carpool service. He held a variety of summer jobs: as a water-boy for Strand Construction, a stockroom worker, and a bank messenger for Washington Mutual Savings Bank, carrying the daily mail in a duffle bag from the post office at 3rd Avenue and Union Street to the bank at 2nd Avenue and Spring Street. 

He took an early interest in architecture, but had reservations about following in the footsteps of his father, who figured prominently in the profession: In 1923 Bain Sr. had received the first architect license (#L1) issued by the State of Washington. As a junior at Lakeside, Bain Jr. conducted a mail survey of notable U.S. architects from beyond the Northwest, seeking recommendations about where to attend school, and "based on this survey and with no other connection" selected Cornell (Rose Hancock conversations).
Cornell and After

Bain entered Cornell with a class of 53 students. There he studied with notable architects Philip Johnson (1906-2005), Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), Paul Rudolph (1918-1997), and Romaldo Giurgola (b. 1920), earning consistent recognition for his design skills. During summers Bain would return to Seattle and work in various capacities at his father’s firm of Bain and Overturf. From the beginning, he and his father, based on mutual respect, decided that they would never work on the same project together. At the time, the firm designed high-quality residential work, mostly single-family residential projects. Bain notes that the work of architects in those days had little glamour about it: "It was pretty hard-scrabble times back then, we focused on getting the job done" (Rose Hancock conversations). Bain recalls a five-day assignment taking measurements of a house next to Viretta Park in Seattle’s Denny-Blaine neighborhood as part of a remodeling project.

During his five years at Cornell, Bain joined the fencing team (saber), and also ROTC. Field trips and breaks took Bain to New York "as often as possible." He recalled a memorable stay at the Algonquin Hotel, sleeping in the manager’s office hung with autographed pictures of Round Table notables such as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Hale Broun, Franklin P. Adams, Edna Ferber, and George S. Kaufman. Trips with fellow students took him to many other architectural sites, and in 1952, on a visit to Havana, Cuba.

Bain graduated with the Bachelor of Architecture in 1953, with a class of about a dozen others who'd survived their rigorous studies. Bain's honors at Cornell included the York Prize for Design (1949), the Charles Goodwin Sands Memorial Medal for Design (1953), and membership in the LOgive Honorary Architectural Society (1953). Throughout his career Bain remained active in architectural education at Cornell, as a visiting critic and lecturer and as a member of the Cornell University Council and the Advisory Council for the College of Architecture, Art and Planning since 1994.

Army Service

Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers soon after graduation, Bain took on the assignment of training combat engineers. This work took him to Fort Belvoir near Washington, D.C., to the Yakima Firing Center, and to a year-and-a-half of service in the Post Engineers at the Port of Whittier, Alaska.

There, in a position previously held by a Lieutenant Colonel, he directed the work of 35 enlisted persons and 52 civilians in base repairs and utilities operations. This involved supervising all the major building trades -- carpentry, plumbing, electric, electric line, sheet metal and painting shops -- as well as the port’s entire power, electrical, and water systems. He earned the Corps’s Engineering Certificate of Achievement in 1955.

NBBJ Work and Leadership

On January 1, 1955, after completing his military service commitment, Bill Bain Jr. joined Naramore, Bain, Brady, and Johanson (now NBBJ), founded 1943. The firm had originated as an "ad hoc" combination of three offices -- Naramore & Brady, William J. Bain Sr., and Smith Carroll and Johanson. These three firms retained their own offices for a time while also working at the ad hoc firm, before eventually merging. At the time he began working at NBBJ, the business consisted of some 47 people, a large firm for that time. Then located at 7th Avenue and Marion Street, the firm had previously occupied spaces in the Hoge Building and in Smith Tower. Bain says he joined the firm with his first priority to influence design -- "just as we had talked about in school, delivering value to our clients by expressing their 'design stories' in the buildings we created with them" (Rose Hancock conversations).

Bain held Washington State architecture license No. 894.

The portfolio of Naramore Bain Brady and Johanson began to grow with government, educational, and health-care-facility work. Bain recalled the challenge of working on these different building types since, other than in school, his experience had focused on residential work. He had his first institutional project beginning in 1966 as NBBJ Partner in Charge on Cordiner Hall at Whitman College, Walla Walla. Early on, he did several projects for the University of Washington South Campus, in master planning and building design.

His significant projects since then included:

  • University of Washington Biology and Cancer Primate Research Buildings (Seattle, 1963);
  • Seven separate projects for the Battelle Memorial Institute (Seattle, Sequim, Richland, Columbus, Ohio, 1965-1982);
  • Atomic Energy Commission, High Temperature Sodium Facility and Biological and Life Sciences Laboratory (Richland, 1970);
  • The Design Disciplines Building and the Physical Sciences Building at Washington State University (Spokane, 1971);
  • The United States Pavilion at Expo ’74 in Spokane;
  • Unigard Insurance Company Corporate Headquarters (Bellevue, phased development 1974, 1983, 1992);
  • Honolulu Municipal Office Building (1975);
  • The Four Seasons Olympic Hotel restoration (Seattle, 1980);
  • The Seattle Times Headquarters Office Addition (Seattle, 1980);
  • Bagley Wright Theater (Seattle Center, 1983);
  • Guam Judicial Center (Agana, 1985-91);
  • Key Bank Tower (Seattle, 1987);
  • Two Union Square (Seattle, 1987);
  • Mixed-use Market Place Tower (Seattle, 1988);
  • Bank of Guam Headquarters (Agana, 1988);
  • Sun Mountain Lodge, Master Plan and Major Additions (Winthrop, 1990);
  • Everett Community Theater (Everett, 1993);
  • Paramount Theater restoration (Seattle, 1994);
  • Saitama Demonstration Housing (Japan, 1995);
  • Seattle Tennis Club, Master Plan, Alterations and Additions (Seattle, 1998);
  • Master planning and building design for Seattle’s Downtown Metropolitan Tract (1998-2009);
  • Pacific Place -- the centerpiece of downtown Seattle’s retail revitalization (1998);
  • An office building for Opus Northwest (7th Avenue and Madison Street, Seattle, 2001);
  • Cornell University College of Architecture, Art and Planning, Master Plan of North Quadrangle (Ithaca, New York, 2001);
  • United States District Courthouse (Seattle, 2003);
  • Horizon House West Addition (Seattle, 2007);
  • The Landes apartment building for Harbor Properties (8th Avenue and Marion Street, Seattle, 2008);
  • The Four Seasons Hotel and Residences at 99 Union Street, Seattle (2009).

Projects directed by Bain manifest his belief that each project, whatever its size and program, has a unique story expressed in its design. For example, Cordiner Hall’s design involves "expressing and translating pure acoustic forms into the external shape of an auditorium building." The United States Pavilion/Expo 74 involved a "a high-powered, fast-track exercise to create a temporary structures expressing our nation’s openness and light footprint upon the environment." The Bagley Wright Theatre expresses "the visual and acoustical connection between the performers and the 864-seat audience where no patron is ever more than 55’ from the proscenium" (Design Stories). 

The Olympic Hotel restoration involved "the complete restoration and upgrading of a civic landmark by providing new guest and public room configurations while retaining its original historic character." At Pacific Place the challenge required "creating a new centerpiece for an ailing downtown with an exercise in fitting a large retail complex into the existing city fabric by breaking down its exterior scale elements." Designing the United States District Courthouse called for "expressing in the Northwest our nation’s formidable strength and judicial transparency through the use of strong solid forms juxtaposed with large areas of highly transparent glass" (Design Stories).

A World-Class Firm

Over the decades of his involvement, NBBJ grew in size and in the quantity and quality of its design projects, recognized by numerous design awards. His colleagues in and beyond NBBJ express great regard for his visioning skills and for his ability to listen to client’s priorities and objectives and translate them into responsive design. The firm’s organization has become strongly collaborative, incorporating a full range of design disciplines able to manifest projects of all types, serving public and private clients and communities throughout the United States and the world.

In 2008, the firm ranked among the world’s largest design firms, employing more than 750 people in offices located in such centers as Beijing, Columbus, Dubai, London, Los Angeles, Moscow, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Shanghai.

Professional Leadership

Starting in 1958, Bain took an active role in the architecture profession through the American Institute of Architects, serving as president of AIA Seattle in 1969 (as had his father in 1941-1943). Bain also held membership in the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and in the Japan Institute of Architecture (JIA).

The AIA recognized Bain with an AIA Seattle Medal in 1997:

"By word, deed, and example, he has nurtured talent and leadership in the hundreds of design professionals who have worked at NBBJ over his years there, and many others who know him through extensive professional activities. A major player in the profession, he served as President of AIA Seattle in 1969 and of AIA Washington Council in 1974, and as CoChair of the 1994 Commission that oversaw the year-long observation of the 100th Anniversary of AIA in Seattle and Washington. Design professionals and business colleagues of every stripe seek his counsel, invariably wise and magnanimously given. For many people across the community -- business and elected leaders and neighborhood activists, architecture students and young professionals, peer colleagues and captains of industry -- Bill Bain represents their picture of an architect" (Medal). 

Community Service and Advocacy

Beginning early in his career, Bain involved himself in volunteer work with numerous community-service organizations. His efforts included extensive activities as a member of the Board of the Corporate Council for the Arts (later ArtsFund) and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, where he served as board president (appointed Lifetime Director 2005); as an organizer and founding director of Pacific Northwest Bank (1987-2001), the Urban Land Institute and its Urban Design/Mixed Use Council -- Green; on the boards of Pacific Real Estate Institute and Lambda Alpha, an honorary professional land economics society; as a member of the Economic Development Council for Seattle and King County; and on the Seattle Rotary's Board of Directors and the Rotary Service Foundation Board; board terms with the Seattle Chamber of Commerce; his long and ongoing involvement in the Downtown Seattle Association and his leadership as chairman of the board 1991-1992; and beginning in 2003 on the Board of Directors of Town Hall. Bain also serves as thesis advisor, instructor, and visiting juror at the University of Washington with the Department of Architecture and with the Runstad Program in Real Estate, and as a national Peer Reviewer for the United States General Services Administration.

In a 1971 statement reported in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Bain advocated for broad public involvement in the establishment of a strong vision and plan for Seattle, and proposed what later became downtown Seattle’s ride-free zone: "What would happen, Bain asks, if the bus system were free for anybody to travel anywhere in the Seattle area. 'A person … could get a job anywhere and wouldn’t have to worry about bus fare,' he said. 'If a person in the suburbs had free transportation to the city, he might question whether he should drive his car or take the bus'" (Glover).

Bain played a key role as the architectural adviser throughout the six-and-a-half-year process that resulted in the siting, architect selection (of Rem Koolhaas), design, and construction of the The Seattle Public Library's Central Library, which opened to the public in May 2004.

With his positive attitude and charm, Bain established strong working and personal relationships with individuals from a wide range of backgrounds and interests. His cordial personality was a major factor in his strong influence, through NBBJ work and professional leadership, on the urban form and character of Seattle and other cities in Washington and around the world. 
Home and Family

On September 21, 1957, Bain married Nancy Hill. After three years of apartment living, he designed and together they built their first home in Seattle’s Canterbury neighborhood at the end of Madison Street (in a subdivision Bill Bain Sr. had earlier developed with realtor John L. Scott). The Bains hired day workers from the missions to help with the construction. Over the next six years their children arrived: David (b. May 22, 1960), Stephen (1963-1983), and twins Mark and John  (b. March 21, 1966). The family occupied a home in Medina designed by Bain before their 1989 move to the Market Place Tower, a mixed-use office/condo project co-developed by Bill and Nancy Bain, and the third home Bain designed for his family. There their home overlooked both Puget Sound and the Seattle skyline, with several NBBJ-designed buildings in view.

One of Bill and Nancy Bain’s sons, John, also pursued an architecture career, graduating from Cornell and the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). Two others of the extended Bain family also continue the architectural heritage established by Bill Bain Sr., both practicing in Seattle: Bain's niece, Brodie Bain (State of Washington architect license No. 7030, issued 1996), the daughter of Robert C. Bain; and Lesley Bain (State of Washington architect license  No. 8584, issued 2004), the daughter of Bill Bain's first cousin William Allen Bain of the Seattle real-estate firm Coldwell Banker Bain.

Honors and Awards

Recognizing his service to the profession of architecture, the AIA elevated Bill Bain to the College of Fellows in 1976; and in 1997 his AIA Seattle colleagues presented Bain with the AIA Seattle Medal, its highest honor to an individual for lifetime achievement, noting these qualifications:

“In Seattle and beyond, Bain’s projects have enriched the city’s urban character and become 'owned' by its citizens. His honorable personal and professional attributes have played a substantial role in the creation of NBBJ's extensive and important local, regional, national, and international portfolio, and the firm's reputation for making places that contribute delight and value to the urban experience" (Medal).

In 2003, he received the Robert B. Filley Jr. Award of Excellence from Lambda Alpha International, a professional land economics society. In 1987 Lakeside School recognized Bill Bain as its Most Outstanding Alumnus, and in 2005 the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks (NAIOP) inducted him into the organization’s Hall of Fame.

According to Bill Bain

On receiving the AIA Seattle Medal in 1997, Bill Bain shared these observations:

"So we have to ask ourselves, ‘Is there anything we can do to take advantage of this special moment in time?’ Well, first we could always try to do even better work. A really good piece of work by one firm actually benefits all firms. Outstanding projects increase everyone's respect for architects and the profession ... . Second, we could try to support each other’s firms even more. When you get right down to it, we are all on the same big team, trying to do the best job for our built environment. If we can support each other in the process, everyone will benefit. As we compete hard for work, we could also collaborate more on practice issues and share ways of doing things better ... . Third, we could try to do even more for our community. Since the founding of Seattle, lots of decisions have been made that have affected Seattle's physical environment. Many of these were good, but some were not. There are many more decisions that are either before us now or coming up soon including the Library location, the Government Center, downtown zoning, and the football stadium. Architects could be even more involved.

"There is probably no profession better trained or more uniquely qualified to work with and advise our civic leaders. Sorting out complex situations and organizing solutions while working with large numbers and a wide variety of people is something that architects do well. With their high ideals and visionary skills, architects are a natural choice for more responsibility regarding these decisions" (Medal).

Bain died June 8, 2019, at age 88. 


Marga Rose Hancock conversations with Bill Bain, Seattle, 1985-2009; William J. Bain Sr. and Mildred C. Bain, Building Together: A Memoir of Our Lives in Seattle (Seattle: Beckett Publishing Co., 1991); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Bain, William James Sr. (1896-1985) (by Heather M. MacIntosh); (accessed December 7, 2009);   “AIA Seattle Medal 1997 to William J. Bain, Jr.,” The American Institute of Architects (Seattle) website (; Bill Bain Jr., “Design Stories,” notes prepared 2009, in possession of Marga Rose Hancock, Seattle; NBBJ website (; Darrell Glover, “An Architect Speaks: Definition of Goals Urged,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 21, 1971.
Note: This essay was amended on April 19, 2011 to include licensing information on Brodie Bain and Leslie Bain, and updated again on June 11, 2019. 

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You