Preservation isn't always about grand landmarks. Many not-so-glamorous buildings have been saved, too — preserving not only our structures but our sense of place.

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FOR THE PAST six years, The Seattle Times has given me the chance to talk about our region’s built heritage and how growth and change have affected the fragile and even the not-so-fragile buildings that are important to us.

I’ve highlighted some of the successes and also some of the lost opportunities we have seen with our homes and schools, community clubs and immigrant halls, retail, commercial and industrial buildings. In doing so, my hope has been to make longtime residents and newcomers alike think about how familiar buildings around them make a difference in our lives. I’ve also encouraged people to speak out when they see threats to buildings and sites they care about. These places cannot speak for themselves. And too often we don’t hear the bulldozer coming until it’s too late.

It is fairly easy to see why significant historic buildings deserve to be preserved and how restoration and/or adaptive reuse can create spaces with the vitality and aesthetic “wow” factors that bring joy to new generations of users. Think about the Paramount and 5th Avenue theaters, the Arctic Club Hotel, the Frederick & Nelson department store, and Union and King Street stations, for instance. Most of these were at one point endangered, neglected or compromised. Now they’re a source of civic pride once again.

But what about less eye-catching contributors to city life?

Preservation isn’t always about grand landmarks. Many not-so-glamorous buildings have been saved, too — preserving not only our structures but our sense of place. That happens here because of commitment. It starts at the top, with the city and its strong historic-preservation program. The Historic Seattle Preservation and Development Authority, the nonprofit for which I work, buys, restores and renovates real estate worthy of saving. But many others show their commitment as well: developers and community groups, people in the neighborhoods and some who simply have a vision.

In 2009, Historic Seattle celebrated its 35th anniversary by establishing an annual Historic Preservation Awards program to acknowledge excellence in the field. Categories include best restoration, best rehabilitation and best adaptive-reuse project. There’s even a “living landmark” award for outstanding lifetime achievement.

The projects and people honored each year represent a geographic, architectural and cultural mix that you could expect from such a diverse place. I’d like to share some of these “unsung heroes” for helping preserve the kind of neighborhood character that keeps a city unique.

Red Mill Totem House

3058 N.W. 54th St.

The owners of Red Mill Burgers recognized the value of saving a unique building. Located just north of the Ballard Locks, the Totem House (inspired by Native American longhouse design) was built around 1939 as a curio shop selling Native American arts and crafts. The Northwesters’ Arts and Crafts Shop closed during World War II, reopening after the war as a restaurant selling fish and chips and chowder. The Totem House became a Ballard institution and remained one until it closed in late 2010. Many in the Ballard community were worried at the time that the building would become yet another victim of redevelopment, especially given the significant amount of older housing that was demolished, and the new mixed-use and multifamily construction that has transformed the area in the past decade.

Red Mill’s John Shepherd and his sister and business partner, Babe Shepherd, stepped in to save the community landmark. After negotiating a 10-year lease with the owner in April 2011, they promptly got busy renovating the structure. The project contractor was Chris Cressman; Mary Hansen of Mary Hansen Design consulted on the interior design.

The basics came first: seismic retrofitting; exposing and restoring the original hand-hewn cedar beams; upgrading and replacing systems; painting the outside. Inside, the challenge was to create the signature “Red Mill” look while retaining the historic totems that gave the original space its unique character.

Most visible and in need of attention was the 32-foot central totem pole, carved in the Haida tradition. Master carver and artist Greg Colfax restored the pole, doing the work on the Makah reservation at Neah Bay. Now its stylized bird and animal figures have been repaired and repainted to welcome people to what had been envisioned, according to an April 20, 1939, Seattle Times article, as a chieftain’s house.

Melrose Market

1501-1535 Melrose Ave.

Wedged into the western edge of Seattle’s Pike/Pine neighborhood, Melrose Market opened in January 2010, introducing a mix of small businesses that have helped transform a neighborhood block that had languished. The project converted two former auto repair and rebuild shops built in 1919 and 1926 into a bustling complex of restaurants, food shops, home décor and record stores and an event space that has drawn residents, workers and visitors alike.

The existing, one-story buildings were solidly built and provided the perfect blank slate for adaptive reuse. Featuring original concrete columns, old-growth Douglas fir beams, exposed rafters, high ceilings, concrete floors and exposed-brick walls, the structures allowed the project team to be creative. Yet many original interior features were kept, and the exterior design retains the original form, brick cladding and transom windows.

The project was developed by Scott Shapiro of Eagle Rock Ventures and Liz Dunn of Dunn & Hobbes, Melrose Project LLC, with Graham Baba Architects, M.A. Wright Structural Engineers, and MRJ Constructors. It’s a true success story of redevelopment and preservation, particularly in a depressed economy.

William Tell Building

2327 Second Ave.

Built in 1924 and designed by architect J. Lister Holmes, the William Tell is a Spanish Revival-style, 51-unit hotel (originally the Hotel Lorraine) on Second Avenue near Battery Street in Belltown. The William Tell was built as both hotel and apartment housing for the MGM studio that was operating in an adjacent building. Situated on what was once Seattle’s “Film Row,” the building features an impressive facade with its original and fully intact terra cotta ornament and tile roof.

Designated a Seattle landmark in 2009, the William Tell retains its original front windows. Building systems, including electrical and plumbing, were extensively updated. Cosmetic improvements were also made, transforming the interior into a pleasant place to stay. The building functions as a European-style hostel, operated by City Hostel, catering to travelers looking for affordable accommodations.

The project team of Gibraltar, LLC, City Hostel, LLC and Boxwood Architects has brought an architectural gem back to life.

Top Pot Doughnuts

6845 35th Ave. N.E., Wedgwood

Top Pot partners Michael and Mark Klebeck and Joel Radin have a commitment to preserving and adaptively reusing modest existing buildings as centers of neighborhood social and economic activity. Founded in 2002, Top Pot Doughnuts has made a name for itself with its addicting doughnuts. With the company’s beginnings in a modest brick storefront on Capitol Hill, Top Pot has grown to a number of locations in Seattle and Bellevue. Its Downtown, Wedgwood, Queen Anne and Capitol Hill cafes have become social hubs for each neighborhood. The Capitol Hill and Queen Anne cafes are in one-story, brick-clad commercial buildings constructed in 1920 and 1913, respectively. Top Pot’s renovation of these spaces with its signature retro-modern aesthetic continues the tradition of serving the neighborhood.

Top Pot also has great appreciation for Midcentury modern, as evidenced by its adaptive reuse of two 1950 buildings. The downtown cafe, with its dramatic, slanted, front facade of full-height windows, is in a building originally occupied by the Hunley Engineering Co. The Wedgwood cafe is in a former garage/car-repair building.

With backgrounds as general contractors, Michael and Mark design and build Top Pot’s interior spaces themselves. As described on its website, “With no cookie-cutter design templates, each of our locations is individually designed to complement the existing structure and historical elements of the building. That said, certain iconic elements connect all of our cafes, such as custom-made bookshelves and doughnut cases as well as our retro Top Pot brand touches.”

Cadillac Hotel

319 Second Ave. S.

Ron Murphy, SMR Architects

Ron Murphy’s outstanding achievements in the field of historic preservation have helped shape Seattle’s and Washington state’s built environment, preserving our architectural heritage for the future. Those achievements over a career of 38 years earned Murphy Historic Seattle’s Living Landmark Award in 2011.

He started his career with Ralph Anderson & Partners Architects and, while there, was project manager for the rehabilitation of Seattle’s Pioneer Building, among others. In 1977, he co-founded Stickney & Murphy Architects, which is now known as SMR Architects.

Murphy’s professional emphasis has been in affordable, multifamily housing and commercial projects, often involving federal historic tax credits. Among his many projects were the restoration of the Arctic and Alaska buildings (1982) and the Josephinum Apartments (1991).

Of all the projects, the restoration of Pioneer Square’s Cadillac Hotel must count as the most challenging. One of the first masonry buildings constructed after the city’s Great Fire of 1889, the unreinforced brick hotel building provided low-cost housing but had been unoccupied above the first floor for many years, because it could not meet code requirements. The positive trade-off was a virtually unchanged interior light court, stairs and woodwork.

After the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, the building faced a precarious future: the exterior was severely damaged; and though its interior was surprisingly intact, the building was scheduled for demolition. Fortunately, a number of individuals and organizations collaborated to save it, including Historic Seattle, which bought the building. Renovation priorities were to keep the building’s remaining original architectural features and to use as many existing materials as possible in adapting the building to new uses.

The rehabilitation work included salvaging, evaluating and integrating existing masonry with new masonry to rebuild the exterior walls; repairing and restoring original wood-frame windows; seismic reinforcement with steel brace frames; parapet reconstruction; wall ties; additional roof and floor sheathing, and new interior framing.

The building also got a new roof, skylights, storefront windows and doors. The building’s basement and first floor were adapted for the Klondike Gold Rush National Park — Seattle Branch, while the second and third floors house offices.

401 E. Pine St.

Michael Malone, Hunters Capital

A developer with a progressive “can do” approach is the keystone for preserving our past while making buildings economically viable. Over the past 30 years, Michael Malone has epitomized that approach, earning him Historic Seattle’s 2012 Community Investment Award.

Born and raised in Seattle, Malone graduated from the University of Washington and went on to found AEI Music Network Inc., building it into the world’s leading multinational music-programming and distribution company before selling to Liberty Media in 2001.

Malone has been involved in real estate development since the early 1980s. He bought and renovated the landmark Sorrento Hotel in 1981. Today, he operates under Hunters Capital, LLC, which he established in 2001, with a focus on historic preservation and growth in the Pike/Pine neighborhood. Its goal has been to renovate buildings that contribute to neighborhood character while providing rental space for a diverse mix of uses and tenants — all of which adds to the vitality of a great urban community.

Some of these preservation projects include the 1912 building that housed the former REI store at 1000 E. Pike St., and the 1918 warehouse at 1521 10th Ave., which was transformed for the Elliott Bay Book Company in 2009-10.

Perhaps the most dramatic recent transformation has been to 401 E. Pine St., which longtime city residents may remember as the former home of the Petroleum Museum, a remarkable collection of car and service-station memorabilia that filled its second floor.

Built in 1916 in the fast growing “auto-row” area of the Pike/Pine corridor, the original tenant was Stanley Automobile Agency, “Stanley Steamer,” in 1917. Stanley used the location as a distribution house for its “pleasure wagons, delivery cars and mountain wagons” throughout Western Washington. The building’s facade consists of brick columns and large expanses of multi-paned windows to allow maximum light into the main-floor showroom and workspaces above. The crowning tin cornice is supported by sets of carved wood brackets.

The building’s first-floor facade had been covered over and inappropriately modernized. Hunters Capital bought the building in early 2012 and restored the building’s exterior to its original appearance. As Malone pointed out in a March 30, 2012, article in the Daily Journal of Commerce, “These old buildings tell stories about the history of Seattle, about neighborhoods (and) about how trade and commerce was carried out.”

These stories are at the root of what makes Seattle special. In saving buildings, we preserve much more than bricks and mortar. We preserve our collective memory of the places that add meaning to our lives.

Lawrence Kreisman is program director of Historic Seattle.