Historic Seattle's program director Larry Kreisman gives history buffs several keys to the city, and they trust him to take them on tours into parts of the city they could never see on their own. But Historic Seattle's true role is not just saving old buildings, but making sure notable structures are put to a...

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Say the words “historic building tour” and what comes to mind is stately homes, swank hotels, venerable churches and vintage office buildings.

You don’t think “cement plant.”

Yet earlier this year, I found myself following a band of Historic Seattle members as they hoofed it up, down and all around the Ash Grove Cement plant on the grimy banks of Seattle’s Duwamish River. Our guide was Ash Grove’s genial maintenance superintendent, Craig MacVeigh, who “gave good tour,” clearly explaining the cement-making process, the history of Ash Grove, its contributions to Seattle-area construction, the environmental concerns being addressed by the company, and more.

The guru of this outing, however, was Historic Seattle’s program director Lawrence Kreisman (“Larry” to his friends and followers). He initiated the visit to Ash Grove Cement. He also, while we were waiting for the tour to start, pulled off a most unlikely feat by making ladies of a certain age, who looked to my eye more like potential operagoers or arts patrons, sigh with pleasure at the news that a delayed tour of the Nucor Steel Mill was finally going to happen.

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Kreisman clearly has his fans. They trust him to give them entree into parts of the city they could never see on their own: mansions, apartment buildings, industrial facilities. And they’re up for going just about anywhere he takes them.

A resident of Seattle for close to 40 years, Kreisman knows the city inside out — not just its buildings and infrastructure, but its social history. He has shared his knowledge in articles he’s written for The Seattle Times’ Pacific Magazine and in books that touch on everything from Anhalt apartment buildings to “The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest” (his latest work, co-authored with Glen Mason, and the subject of an upcoming exhibit at the Museum of History & Industry).

With some notable Historic Seattle events coming up — including a celebration of the organization’s 35th anniversary and lectures commemorating the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition — this seemed a good moment to query Kreisman about the organization and his role with it.

Historic Seattle, he stresses, is not solely a tour organization.

“It was really set up and driven by an interest in actual preservation of historic buildings,” he says. “The city’s intent in setting up a public-development authority was to do work that it couldn’t do: to go into negotiation and buy property and redevelop it and sell it, and put it back into the local economy.”

Historic Seattle, in other words, is a developer with an education/preservation agenda. It’s also, in some instances, a landlord. Among its holdings are The Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford, rented out to artists and nonprofit organizations, and the Egan House, that modernist wedge tucked into a wooded Capitol Hill ravine below St. Mark’s Cathedral.

The tours are intended to impart to the general public — especially newcomers to town — “why something that’s old really has a value to be preserved.” The ultimate aim is to encourage Seattleites to participate more in advocacy for building preservation.

Before joining Historic Seattle on a professional basis in 1997, he volunteered there. His background includes a consulting stint at Seattle Architecture Foundation, where he directed the tour program. His interest in historic preservation was sparked when he was an architectural graduate student at the University of Washington and took a work-study position with the urban conservation division of the city. Kreisman also worked on a citywide inventory of buildings. “So I got a lot of firsthand experience with our neighborhoods, and different kinds of residential architecture and commercial architecture.”

His tours are often packaged with lectures, but it’s getting out in the field that can trigger the “aha” moment Kreisman is after: “There’s nothing quite like being on site and being able to experience something — just like when we went to the cement plant. I myself would never have dreamed of taking myself to a cement plant to tour it. But once we were there, it was fascinating.”

On-site experiences, Kreisman adds, make tour-goers “appreciate where they’re living and what the infrastructures are, what the underlying components are that make a place livable or that make it workable.”

Kreisman is as much a tour coordinator as a tour guide. He holds yearly brainstorming sessions to get feedback from members on what they liked and didn’t like. Sometimes he faces snafus of a logistical nature. A long-planned tour of the renovated Fremont Bridge, for instance, had to be postponed until the project reached “a stage of completion where they felt comfortable taking a group around.”

The payoff for Historic Seattle’s decades-long effort has been 40-odd buildings preserved. Along with the Egan House and Good Shepherd Center, the organization has helped find new uses for Queen Anne High School (now apartments), the former Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist (now Town Hall) and the Cadillac Hotel (badly damaged by the 2001 earthquake, now home to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park).

Kreisman cites architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable’s philosophy of preservation as an inspiration for Historic Seattle’s agenda. “It’s not worth it to save a building just because you’re saving a building,” he says. “It’s only worth it if you can put it back into useful life.”

Kreisman isn’t just talking about historic landmark material but small-scale buildings, too, such as the fast-disappearing bungalow courts on Capitol Hill.

“Individually, people may say, ‘Oh, that’s not that critical. We can do without.’ ” The result can be the loss of your whole sense of a particular building type.

“How do you save things that are not the best,” Kreisman asks, “that actually are the reason why Seattle is like it is?”

Here’s where Historic Seattle can, with any luck, step in: “There aren’t that many organizations that will seek out and try to find reasonable solutions to saving a building, to putting it back in the marketplace, and will go the extra mile. And that’s what I find very exciting about what we do.”

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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