A historic house on Beacon Hill is on the market, and a $1 million offer to save it from the bulldozer was reportedly rejected as far too low. How much will it take for Seattle to save a piece of its past?
They say money talks. But a million bucks doesn’t have much to say in Seattle these days.
That was the offering price — $1 million — that apparently wasn’t enough for a nonprofit to buy and preserve the oldest house on Beacon Hill, a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
It’s called the Beacon Hill Garden House, and it was built six years before Washington became a state. It became the latest symbol of vanishing Seattle in June, when its owner — a group of garden clubs — voted to sell off the Queen Anne-style house and surrounding orchard.
As I wrote then: “Just how intense is the real estate gold rush in Seattle? Even the garden society is selling out.”
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But since then, two things have happened, both admirable. But both also struggling against the sheer force of the escalating costs here.
One is that Beacon Hillers have rallied to try to save the 4,400-square-foot house, which is used now as an events space. Their efforts culminated in a recent pledge by Historic Seattle, a nonprofit preservation group, to buy it for $1 million — an offer that was rejected as far too low, community members who worked on the plan say.
Eugenia Woo, of Historic Seattle, said “we did make an offer” but would not confirm the price, or that it had been turned down.
“We see it that we still have a chance, and we’re still hoping to meet them on a price,” Woo said.
The other thing that happened is the Washington State Federation of Garden Clubs got blowback from its decision to sell. It was gifted the house and grounds in the 1970s on the promise it would maintain it as a historic site forever, but it went to court recently to get that deed restriction removed. But garden-club officers said recently that even though the house is on the market for $1.75 million, they hope to sell only to a group that will save the 135-year-old house, not tear it down for apartments or town houses.
The hitch is that just the dirt is likely worth $3 million to $4 million, say realtors in the area. It’s three lots in total, plus it’s to be upzoned shortly by the city to allow four-story apartment buildings and town houses.
“There’s so much upward pressure on property values right now that I don’t know how we have anything preserved historically in Seattle,” says Susan Stocking, a Windermere realtor who is a Beacon Hill neighbor.
The gap between the $1 million historic value and the $4 million tear-it-all-down value is overwhelming.
“I don’t know how you bridge that,” Stocking said. “Have a fairy godmother swoop in?”
Woo, of Historic Seattle, said the math on any historic preservation is increasingly difficult. When her group paid $1.5 million in 2009 for Washington Hall, a famed 24,000-square-foot performance hall in the Central District, she says they thought “oh my god, that’s a lot of money. But now, in Seattle, $1.5 million is nothing.”
Added Woo: “There are consequences to all this upzoning. The goal for more affordable housing is a good one, but it can also put anything historic more at risk.”
What should we do about this, if anything? Years ago when farm land was being paved all around King County, voters agreed to tax themselves to buy out the development rights of select farms, saving them as agricultural lands forever. That was called the Farmland Preservation Program. Maybe we need a Seattle Preservation Program now?
“It’s heartening that people will fight to save these community assets,” said Betty Jean Williamson, director of Beacon Arts, who has been leading the drive on Garden House. “But without a civic mandate that says ‘this is important, this is worth saving,’ it’s very difficult. The development pressures are so strong.”
I wrote in June that this was one of the bigger tests yet of whether Seattle places any value on its past. Stay tuned, but so far it looks like our past needs to somehow make the present a better offer.