It's the ultimate local eco-friendly act: saving the houses that make Pacific Northwest neighborhoods unique.
LAST FALL marked my 20th anniversary of writing about residential design for Pacific Northwest magazine. In my first article, on Oct. 9, 1988, I wrote about Craftsman bungalows. Little did I know then how my curiosity about this pervasive residential building type would lead to establishing Historic Seattle’s yearly Bungalow Fair or co-authoring the book “The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest.” But it is indicative of how thoroughly this work has led to my own education as an observer of urban life.
As I’ve tried to educate people here about the value of the region’s history, its built heritage and the many good stewards of older homes, I have also gained a great deal of knowledge about buildings, neighborhoods and personalities that I might otherwise have missed. In particular, it has been a privilege to talk with homeowners whose love for their homes mirrors my own passion.
They may be first-time homebuyers struggling with unknowns — the quirky plumbing, stuck windows, squeaky floors and leaky roofs. They may be seasoned homeowners in their fourth or fifth house, seeking in each move to reach closer to their dream. Sometimes, houses call out for help and people who were perfectly content in one house give it all up to tackle what often seems an impossible renovation project in another one. I catch them at the end of the process when the rewards are finally at hand and the house is once again a welcoming place.
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No matter what the scenario, there have always been colorful stories that offer readers advice before they follow a similar path or support for those already into a remodel, and applause once the project is behind them. The stories justify my belief that for many people a house is more than its parts. It is the spiritual, social and aesthetic expression of the people who inhabit it.
Unfortunately, for all the older homes in the Puget Sound area that have worthy stewards, many more are neglected or insensitively remodeled. Others are razed for bigger, more up-to-date, but not necessarily better, fits in traditional neighborhoods. Hardly any of the houses I have written about in 20 years are designated city landmarks or are in historic districts, either of which would offer some degree of protection and oversight for their futures.
Preserving our residential heritage is everyone’s business. It’s not simply a regulatory function of city government. Landmark designation and historic-district protection are only partial solutions for addressing the broad-based challenges of preservation in a market economy that sees dollars in the developable land — not the building on top of it. The question of how the landmarks process affects land use will continue. I’m hoping that, with education, property owners will not see the process as punitive but as stimulating to both creative ideas and a better ethic of neighborhood planning.
Every day we see valuable examples in our community of how important a home is:
An elderly woman holds tenaciously to her century-old Ballard cottage in the face of a commercial development that engulfs her property. . . .
A realtor, fearing that one of West Seattle’s oldest log homes might be sold for a tear-down, buys it, restores and renews it with her business partner. . . .
A Queen Anne Hill architect moves a house scheduled to be demolished to a new site blocks away as the new neighbors cheer. . . .
A vernacular turn-of-the-century house in Fremont is designated a city landmark — the first residential property to receive designation there — because of that community’s research, landmark-nomination preparation, letters of support and help from local and statewide preservation organizations. . . .
Concerned residents in the Roanoke Park neighborhood band together to prepare a State/National Register District nomination. Though the intent is to stave off intrusions from expanding the 520 bridge, its side benefit is in acknowledging the value of a traditional, cohesive residential district — though not necessarily stopping changes, tear-downs or inappropriate remodels. For that, it would have to be a designated district within the city of Seattle’s landmarks program. . . .
During its 35-year history, Historic Seattle has played a role in preserving vestiges of the city’s housing types, such as a rare-in-this-city 19th-century frame row apartment building — moved during street regrading in the Chinatown International District to its present home at 1234 S. King St. A group of 1890s-era workers’ cottages has also been moved out of Chinatown and into the Ballard Avenue Historic District.
In 1986, Historic Seattle was instrumental in moving what was considered at the time the oldest remaining residence in the city, the Italianate Ward House, built in the 1880s, from 1427 Boren Ave. near Pike Street to 520 E. Denny Way, where its exterior was restored and its interior became offices for attorneys. But it wasn’t the oldest remaining house in the city.
Author Paul Dorpat believes that claim belongs to the Hanson-Olson home on Alki, portions of which date from the 1860s when it belonged to pioneers David and Catherine Maynard. Is the oldest structure in the city — and likely its oldest residence — a protected landmark? No. Today the house is considerably altered and would never be recognizable by those who owned it in the past.
Last January, I included the Carmack house at 1522 E. Jefferson St. among buildings with uncertain futures. This rundown but largely intact Dutch Colonial with clapboard and shingle siding was built about 1900 by and for George Washington Carmack, the Yukon prospector who for many years was believed to have discovered the gold that set off the Klondike Gold Rush. While his Native American brother-in-law may have deserved the credit, this is the last tangible link to a person whose pioneering spirit had an enormous impact on Seattle, turning it into a boomtown and stimulating its growth from a backwater into a sophisticated metropolis with international-trade links.
Hemmed in by Swedish Medical Center/Cherry Hill, its ability to survive was questionable without community interest and perhaps a move to another location. A landmark nomination is now winding through the city process. But even if it is designated, that does not assure a happy ending. Let’s hope for the best solution: that the house is allowed to remain on its original site in the Squire Park neighborhood.
A landmark is of no use if it has no viable purpose, cannot be refurbished on site or moved and repaired somewhere else. Moving buildings is expensive, especially when vacant land is hard to find and city-trolley wires and traffic signals need to be temporarily relocated.
But moving is far from impossible. It worked for the Ward House. Size is not a deterrent. I vividly recall the slicing in half of the University of Washington Penthouse Theater and the festive parade-like atmosphere as the two parts were trucked north up 15th Avenue Northeast and set atop a new concrete basement at the northern edge of the campus. More recently, the media covered the story of the English Tudor Revival mansion in Hunts Point that was moved off its foundation and barged to Vancouver Island.
What seems to be missing for the average homeowner are affordable ways to save buildings they love that are in the way of development. This September I talked to a woman whose daughter in Tukwila had been desperately trying to save a 1913 bungalow that retains many of its original features. She received bids from three moving companies, but the exorbitant cost of relocating the house, even though she had the money and the land to do it, was far beyond her expectations. Government, utility companies and landowners offered no creative solutions, reduced pricing or incentives to make the move possible. Salvage companies stripped the house of usable parts, and it will be razed, along with other buildings on the block. The once-cohesive neighborhood that it represented has virtually disappeared.
The irony of this predicament can be seen not only in new housing cropping up in older neighborhoods but also in new suburban developments. Architects and builders borrow freely from the design features of the early-20th-century homes that are being razed for the developers’ larger and far more expensive houses. These features include wide overhangs, pitched roofs, covered front porches with square or pyramid wood porch posts, river rock or stone, brackets and window bays. Interiors include wainscoting, beam ceilings or half-wall dividers between the living and dining areas.
The allure centers on the desire of people facing stressful careers and commutes to escape that in their homes. The design movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was all about the value of the home as a grounding place, retreat, shared experience and memory.
I have mixed feelings about incorporating traditional stylistic details into contemporary homes. When knowledgeable designers who understand the period make these choices, the results can be quite pleasing. Unfortunately, a large number of speculative builders are taking advantage of every possible inch allowed on the lot and constructing buildings that are taller and more massive than their neighbors. They combine poorly proportioned window, porch and trim elements into a facade that focuses attention first and foremost on a two- or three-car garage and a wide swath of concrete driveway. This mix-and-match attitude doesn’t lead to a well-integrated, harmonious design that will weather well over time.
Recently the Seattle City Council modified land-use and zoning to limit the impact of new development on existing homes and on the character of single-family neighborhoods. Will this give us a better pattern for integrating new construction into existing neighborhoods? That remains to be seen.
When my January 2008 cover story on endangered buildings appeared, The Seattle Times received about 20 online comments to its questions to readers: “Is the city’s landscape changing for better or worse? Are we losing buildings we shouldn’t, adding developments we’ll regret, or building a better place after all? How do we define what matters, and who should get to decide?”
One Phinney Ridge/Greenwood resident responded:
“I recently accompanied a friend on some errands. While out we headed east on 65th Street and returned heading west on 45th Street. I commented to my friend that the recent buildings on those streets looked so similar as to render the streets unrecognizable from a historic perspective. While I’m not against all growth and renewal, I was saddened and aghast at the ‘homogenization’ of Seattle. Aside from a few changes in paint colors and an occasional clever balcony design or railing, much of the new condos and apartment homes going up look all the same. We are trading some of our architectural charm for cheap ‘sameness.’ Part of Seattle’s allure has been its varying types of building and design in our unique neighborhoods.
“I read articles concerned about the obesity of our youth as they seem to be less inclined to venture outdoors in favor of playing video and computer-related games. I think we are creating a catch-22 with our building when new houses no longer have yards for kids to play in or trees for them to climb.
“Seattle used to be called ‘the Emerald City’ because of all the trees. Interesting how I rarely hear Seattle referred to in that way anymore. Now I hear us referred to as ‘the Jet City.’ “
That brings me back to an essential question. Why don’t we put as much energy and creative problem-solving into saving the solid, usable housing that we already have in place as we do in permitting new developments that don’t always measure up? Restoration and rehabilitation are the most effective measure of green, sustainable growth, and we can no longer ignore the damage we do to our historic infrastructure as we plan for a livable future in the region.
Larry Kreisman is program director of Historic Seattle and author of “Made To Last: Historic Preservation in Seattle and King County.”