Endangered Seattle

Historic preservation? It's just so yesterday.

Art Skolnik is a man with a rapidly approaching—and most intimidating—deadline. Within the next couple of days, he has to raise $2 million to $3 million in order to keep the historic, silver-skinned ferry Kalakala in Seattle or risk seeing what he calls “that magic boat” sold to any interested buyer anywhere. “Make no mistake,” says this executive director of the Kalakala Foundation. “We’re into the last-ditch efforts here. I believe that, ultimately, this community wants the Kalakala preserved. The problem is, unless somebody comes forward quickly with cash, this beautiful old vessel may be preserved in some other community willing to pay for its restoration.”

After hustling for the last six months to find a permanent moorage in or near the city, as well as financing to rejuvenate this long-neglected ferryboat, and receiving mostly well-intentioned but inadequate offers of aid in return, Skolnik might be forgiven a bit of cynicism. Trained as an architect, and having spent much of the last three decades around Seattle preservationists (he served as Pioneer Square’s district manager during that neighborhood’s revival in the early 1970s and was later appointed as Washington’s first professional state historic preservation officer), Skolnik has come to expect a lot from his fellow residents. And he’s disappointed by the tepid public response to the Kalakala‘s desperate straits. The streamlined ferry, which plied Puget Sound from 1935 to 1967 before being auctioned away to an Alaska fish packer, received an enthusiastic welcome when it was finally towed back to Seattle in November 1998. Yet since then, its supporters have run afoul of Coast Guard and Seattle Fire Department regulations, lost their initial bid for a permanent home on the central waterfront, and failed to rouse one or more deep-pocketed local “angels” to guarantee the ship’s survival.

“The Kalakala‘s future is endangered only because of a tremendous lack of imagination among a spoiled population,” intones Skolnik, standing outside on the ferry’s promenade deck and gazing out over sunlit north Lake Union, where the vessel has been temporarily secured. “People are too busy staring at their computers and trying to find time to be with their families. I can understand that they have other things on their mind. But this isn’t just any old boat; millions of people rode on the Kalakala, and many Seattleites have fond memories of it. This is a part of our history.”

At earlier points in our city’s development, statements much like that one became rallying cries for community action. In 1966, for instance, when Mayor Dorm Braman thought he was doing Seattle a favor by promoting plans to tear down decrepit Pioneer Square and put up parking lots, he incited architects and younger, more progressive politicians to save that original downtown core. (It became the city’s first historic district in 1970.) Not much later, when a proposal to flatten the wonderfully eccentric Pike Place Market was floated, the public gave its overwhelming approval to a ballot initiative that created a 7-acre historic district encompassing the multilevel farmer’s marketplace. Other prominent, once- threatened parts of our history have been rescued and revitalized, too, including Interlake School (now Wallingford Center), the exterior of Mount Baker’s Franklin High School, downtown’s Paramount and Coliseum theaters, broad-shouldered Union Station, and the University District’s funky Blue Moon Tavern.


However, such noteworthy successes may actually have helped to breed citizen complacency. “The [preservation] advocacy network that we used to have in the ‘good old days’ of the 1960s and early ’70s, when we were saving Pike Place Market, for instance, has shrunk rather dramatically,” says Walt Crowley, a former city bureaucrat and now executive director of HistoryLink, an online encyclopedia of Seattle’s past. He attributes this contraction in part to the well-intentioned 1973 creation of an official city Landmarks Preservation Board, endowed with the legal muscle to protect designated structures regardless of their owner’s objections. “When you have good-citizen causes institutionalized into government,” Crowley avers, “people assume that these are permanent changes and that the bureaucracy will take care of business. But that’s nothing more than a wonderful fantasy.”

At the same time, there’s been a loss of public faith in the notion that every Seattle landmark worth saving can be protected. The destruction by fire of Queen Anne’s 94-year-old Coe Elementary School in 2001, the sudden and stealthy demolition of Aurora Avenue’s kitschy Twin Teepees Restaurant, even the razing of the disparaged Kingdome—all of these events and more have led locals to question how successfully they can protect their city’s architectural heritage. A recent TV lottery advertisement, suggesting that the Space Needle had been sold and trucked across the Cascades to Moses Lake, unintentionally reflected just what many Seattleites fear: that even the most distinguished elements of their built environment may be transitory.

“This should be a great time for preservation to occur,” says Heather MacIntosh, the preservation advocate for Historic Seattle, a nonprofit organization committed to saving our town’s architectural heritage. “There was a lot of introspection during the 1990s about the state of this city. A lot of people here came into a lot of money really fast, and suddenly they had enough to transform or tear down buildings and houses all over town. Those threats raised awareness of just how fragile our past really was.” But, she adds, national and state economic declines of the last two years have pretty much dried up money for “good works,” leading to a “loss of momentum” for preservation activism.

The Kalakala isn’t the only conspicuous element of our civic inheritance that’s currently endangered by these forces. Also under threat are downtown’s elegant First United Methodist Church, the existing Westlake Center-to-Seattle Center monorail, and a miscellany of less-familiar structures, together validating Crowley’s contention that “no matter what people may think, we still haven’t saved all the good stuff.”


“This vessel represents 20th-century progress,” enthused observers of the Kalakala in 1935. Built atop the iron hull of a San Francisco ferry that had burned to her waterline two years earlier, the aerodynamically designed Kalakala—its name translated from Chinook Indian jargon as “the flying bird”—was then the largest and swiftest ferry on Puget Sound. With its massive, 3,000-horsepower diesel engine, it could achieve speeds of 17.5 knots in its daily crossings between Seattle and Bremerton and carried up to 2,000 passengers on five decks plus 100 automobiles. (By comparison, the biggest ferries now cruising the sound are equipped with four 13,200-horsepower engines, can travel at 18 knots, and carry as many as 2,500 passengers plus 218 cars.)

Skolnik calls the Kalakala “the poor man’s ocean liner,” recalling how it once boasted a double-horseshoe lunch counter, three large observation rooms, and 500 velvet-upholstered easy chairs for the public. The vessel even had its own eight-piece orchestra, the Flying Birds, whose music was piped shipwide for evening dancing. Although it was known for its noise and vibration, and seemed disposed to minor collisions with docks and other watercraft, the Kalakala became a popular attraction. “By the time of the 1962 World’s Fair,” Skolnik explains, “this was one of the city’s icons. For years, if you saw a postcard of Seattle, it had the Kalakala on it.” As automobiles grew in size, though, reducing to 60 the number that could squeeze onto the ferry’s car deck, and fewer passengers came aboard on foot, the Kalakala became more expensive to operate. Its sale for $101,551 in 1967 was deemed preferable to spending the money for a major overhaul. Not until the mid-’80s, when Fremont sculptor Peter Bevis discovered the ship aground on Alaska’s Kodiak Island and began a crusade to rescue it, did anyone think it would be seen again in Seattle.

From a distance, the Kalakala now appears dilapidated, as if it might sink into the Lake Union mud while your back is turned. But wandering about inside this ferry, from its dark and rusted car deck to the vast, sunlit cavern of its forward observation cabin, reminds you of the engineering expertise that went into its construction. “Not only is this boat not going to sink,” Skolnik remarks, “it’s going to be the last thing to sink.” He insists that the Kalakala‘s steel-plated superstructure could be brought back to “its Buck Rogers brilliance” within five months for a bargain price of $750,000 to $1 million, and that a complete restoration—taking about 18 months—would cost between $5 million (for a basic overhaul) and $16 million (“to do it up to the T’s”). He imagines the craft being occupied by two restaurants, an Art Deco cocktail lounge in place of the former ladies’ lounge, a 4,000-square-foot exhibition hall, and a grand ballroom. Tied up at one of the piers on Elliott Bay, “this could be a major tourist draw,” Skolnik raves.

Yet there’s still that matter of the $2 million to $3 million, which Skolnik says is needed to pay off creditors and move this prodigal vessel from Lake Union to a longer-term moorage. With the security such money would bring, the Kalakala Foundation could begin selling tax-exempt revenue bonds to pay for the ferry’s restoration. If sufficient funds cannot be obtained locally, the Kalakala might be sold to another community interested in making it a waterfront attraction. (Port Angeles has previously expressed some interest, as have parties from San Francisco.) Skolnik’s biggest concern right now is that his foundation’s creditors will lose confidence in the future of this ship, perhaps relegating it to the scrap yard.

The executive director says, though, that he’s encouraged by recent events, including “the very good chance” that it will soon find dry-dock space on Lake Union, where restoration of the ferryboat could begin. Skolnik mentions, too, that a not yet publicly identified but “longstanding private business” on Seattle’s central waterfront “is very interested in moving the Kalakala to it, and using the boat as a supplement to their own business.” In the works as well is a request for financial aid from the St. Louis-based beer company Anheuser-Busch, which built the ship’s Busch-Sulzer engine during its Prohibition “holiday” from spirits production, and might now be persuaded to fund restoration of the engine and car deck. “Sometimes,” Skolnik concludes, “these sorts of ventures can be pulled off in the last moment. I’m more hopeful than I’ve been in a long time.”


Facing a less immediate, but perhaps no less daunting, challenge are folks allied to protect what was once Seattle’s premier symbol of progress: the jet-sleek, 1962 Seattle World’s Fair monorail. It is poised to be sacrificed in the name of further “progress.” Ed Brighton, a retired former Navy officer and member of the advocacy group Friends of the Monorail, says that “when we talked about extending the monorail system, we never had the idea of tearing down what already exists.” However, a shortage of details in the $1.78 billion monorail ballot measure narrowly approved by voters last November may well result in the original monorail’s demolition.

Backers of that monorail had originally envisioned erecting an automated, 14-mile-long “Green Line”—the first stage of an elevated, citywide mass-transit system—that would travel from West Seattle to Ballard, slicing through downtown along Second Avenue. But that route was eventually reconsidered, after Belltown merchants and residents objected and businesses in the city’s shopping core groused that the system would carry passengers too many blocks west of their doorsteps. The alternative was to run the Green Line north up Second, but then turn it east at Stewart Street and on to Fifth Avenue, along which the existing, driver-manned monorail operates. Rather than demolish the present monorail, the Downtown Seattle Association and others have suggested creating a double-decker system on Fifth, which would allow the current trains to continue their 1.9-mile circuit between Seattle Center and Westlake Center (a profitable arrangement for Westlake, which welcomes 2.5 million potential shoppers to its third-floor monorail stop each year) but let the new monorail’s smaller cars pass on some sort of parallel track. These two lines would diverge again at Seattle Center, with the new system either swinging around the center (to preserve that site’s preferred open and airy ambience) or shortcutting through it (an option that, according to one estimate, could save 30 seconds of travel time and $4.4 million to $7 million in construction costs).

While a dual-layered monorail cruising over Fifth may sound like a reasonable compromise, preserving history but still making way for the future, monorail officials estimate that it could also add up to $25 million to the Green Line’s price tag, because the existing system’s concrete guideway and supporting pylons would have to be replaced or retrofitted in order to bear the additional weight of new trains. Though the money is budgeted, many believe this is an expensive, problematic solution that might preserve the original monorail route and current stations but certainly not the historic structure we know today. Mayor Greg Nickels has put in his two cents, dismissing a double-decker monorail as an eyesore, and others submit that separate monorail operations through Belltown would steal each other’s riders and income, hurting the viability of both.

Brighton suggests that Seattleites have been the victims of a bait-and-switch scheme. Blame, he says, lies to a large degree with the Elevated Transportation Company, which before the November election was charged with putting together a plan for a broader monorail system. “When the ETC did its community outreach, they always left people thinking the original monorail might be saved or that the old cars might be able to at least run on a new guideway,” recalls Brighton. “I don’t think it was at all clear to people that by endorsing construction of this new system, they were dooming the old bug-eyed monorail, with which the city has become so well associated.” So why didn’t he and others who realized the breadth of this public misunderstanding say something before last November’s vote? “Because,” Brighton concedes, “we didn’t want the Green Line to lose. We thought maybe we could make an issue out of this after the election.”

To now head off any attempted removal of Seattle’s present, notably profitable monorail, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last April, supporters have applied to win it protective city landmark status. Their case seems easily articulated: Today’s city-owned system is intrinsically associated with an important event from Seattle’s past (having been built for the Century 21 Exposition by Alweg International of Cologne, Germany); it “contributes to the distinctive quality or identity of its neighborhood or the city,” as required by the local Landmark Preservation Ordinance; and it represents a conspicuous step in transportation technology. While the first monorail went into operation in England in 1825, it wasn’t until the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 that a system was created specifically to carry passengers. Seattle began toying with monorail proposals during the 1890s (an early conception had elevated trains rattling above Second Avenue, just like the voter-approved Green Line), but it wasn’t until after a small system was built at Disneyland in 1959 that a citywide monorail development seemed realistic. Capitalizing on the space-age theme of the ’62 fair, Alweg offered to construct the present monorail with its own money ($4.2 million) as a way to promote this “ideal form” of rapid transit. “This was the baby that started it all,” Brighton says of Seattle’s present system. “There will never be another one quite like it.”

Architect and former landmarks board member Susan Boyle agrees that our historic monorail represents an important moment in time. “[Removing it] certainly would detract from our knowledge of what was happening in Seattle in the 1960s, when there was an effort to put this town on the map,” says Boyle, who co-authored (with fellow architect Andy Phillips) the monorail’s landmark application.

On the obverse side of this issue is monorail activist Peter Sherwin, who maintains that the new system shouldn’t be hobbled by complications involved in protecting the sanctity of its predecessor. “I’m not suggesting that we turn the present monorail to rubble and turn the current cars into planters,” he says. “I certainly think the monorail cars should be preserved in some way—but without preserving the whole system. One of the present stations could be turned into a museum instead, or you could create a monorail museum at Westlake Center, with an existing car or two, and make it a big attraction like San Francisco’s Cable Car Barn Museum.”

But while history museums play an essential role in sustaining a community’s attachment to its past (see “Remodeling Seattle’s Attics,” p. 22), Boyle asserts that the “static nature” of a museum would not serve the monorail well. “This is a kinetic object that’s best appreciated as it moves around the city. To still it,” she says, “to trap one of the cars and a piece of guideway behind a sign explaining its former purpose, would mean destroying part of the interest we now find in [the monorail].” She suspects that members of the landmarks board will agree with that assessment and that the monorail “will be nominated [as a landmark]; I just don’t know whether it will ultimately be designated.” A hearing on the application isn’t expected until February or, more likely, March. In the meantime, monorail preservationist Brighton has proposed that the Green Line’s route along Fifth Avenue be subject to a citywide revote.


Of course, structures of historical or cultural merit can be saved even without landmark designation. That was certainly proved in 1990, when the Blue Moon Tavern on Northeast 45th Street failed in its bid for designation yet was saved by myriad tavern supporters and neighborhood leaders who couldn’t imagine the quirky, poorly lit watering hole—once the hangout of literary legends such as Theodore Roethke and Allen Ginsberg—falling before a wrecking ball. (The property’s developer wound up scaling back its plans, extending the tavern’s lease until 2034, when it will turn 100 years old.) And landmark status doesn’t necessarily guarantee a structure’s protection. It is possible to legally overturn such a ruling, as owners of the once-beloved Music Hall (formerly at Seventh Avenue and Olive Way) did in 1992, pleading economic hardship to win permission for the leveling of that 1928, Moorish-arched movie palace.

A battle over landmark restrictions has also put in serious doubt the future of the First United Methodist Church, which was built on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Marion Street between 1907 and 1910. In the mid-’80s, that house of worship (designed by renowned architects James H. Schack and Daniel R. Huntington and melding Byzantine form with classical detailing) was designated a city landmark. But in 1996, the Washington State Supreme Court reversed the designation, agreeing with church officials that such status for the building infringed on their right to freedom of religion. Those officials are now moving forward with plans to replace their graceful brick-and-terra-cotta edifice with a 37-story office tower, at the base of which they hope to see installed a modern church.

“This has been a gut-wrenching decision for us,” says Kurt Armbruster, co-chair of the church’s building advisory committee. “We wanted to find a way to save this building. But over the past 10 years, if not 20, we’ve come to realize that what’s most important here is not the structure—it’s our mission. We had to decide between spending our money on the church as it stands or on the ministry as we see it.” First United Methodist not only serves its members, he points out, but operates a day shelter for homeless women and children and a night shelter for about 40 men. In addition, it dishes up Sunday breakfast once a month to 300 or 400 people in need of food.

Church communications director Steve Poole says that the cost of retrofitting the historic building and bringing it up to current code could exceed $8 million, “and there are no guarantees that it wouldn’t be further damaged by the next earthquake.” Besides, he notes, the existing sanctuary—designed to seat 1,200—is much too large for its congregation, which currently comprises 700 people, less than half of whom attend regular services. And, adds Armbruster, parking is at a premium: “Our volunteers now have to spend $14 a day [in off-site parking fees] just to help us out.”

Tearing down the almost- century-old church, Armbruster explains, would let the congregation employ its most valuable asset—the one-block parcel of Fifth Avenue along which that domed structure now reclines, valued at more than $16 million—as leverage with a building developer. The strategy has the congregation exchanging its coveted property for construction within a larger office complex of a seven-story church facility “that would better serve our needs,” to quote Poole. Such a deal would not only save the congregation the cost of buying or building a new church, but would keep its ministry downtown, where, the communications director says, “we can continue to cater to the poor, as we hope to.”

Tuomi Joshua Forrest, director of programs with the Philadelphia-based Partners for Sacred Places, a nonprofit, nonsectarian organization that provides assistance to America’s older religious properties, says that many congregations around the nation are bedeviled by dilemmas similar to those facing First United Methodist. “Their congregations have shrunk and their building repair needs have grown substantially. This is especially typical,” he notes, “in cities that have a lot of growth pressure and high real-estate values—like San Francisco or New York or Boston. I’m not surprised to hear of it in Seattle.” Forrest explains that some large churches have been sold to other congregations or have been recycled as gyms, nightclubs, and community centers. (An example of such recycling can be found right here in Seattle, where in 1998, a group of civic investors led by former Seattle Weekly editor David Brewster bought the 76-year-old Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist at Eighth Avenue and Seneca Street and turned it into Town Hall, a performance and lecture venue.) Others, he says, “have found innovative ways to partner with community organizations and hold fund-raising efforts. I would say that with a church as prominent in its community as [First United Methodist], they would have a strong case to use in getting outside funds to maintain the structure.”

Historic Seattle has already expressed interest in helping the church raise money to pay for deferred maintenance and in working with it to explore alternatives to demolition. “But,” says preservation advocate Heather MacIntosh, “the church’s thinking right now is dominated by its belief that it can’t save its sanctuary and have its programmatic needs met. Certainly, a solution will be very complex—perhaps including the creation of a parking structure underneath the church and maybe building an office tower on the site that incorporates the sanctuary into its design somehow— but it isn’t impossible.” She holds out hope that, at the very least, the church’s determination to tear down its building might be slowed, if not stopped, by the legal necessity of an environmental impact statement. The sanctuary’s historical importance will be judged during that EIS process, as will the effects of a 37-story tower being raised behind the 1904 Kirtland Cutter-designed Rainier Club, the church’s downslope neighbor to the west. For its part, the exclusive Rainier Club has already lent its support to the church’s removal, hoping that will open up more parking for its members. But the Rev. Dennis Andersen of Green Lake’s Bethany Lutheran Church, a former chair of the city landmarks board, contends that a skyscraper looming behind the Rainier Club can’t help having a deleterious influence. “The new building would dwarf the club and permanently destroy the ensemble character of those two existing, historic structures together on the block.”

First United Methodist officials say they’re willing to listen to suggestions of how downtown’s last historic church might be preserved. However, they’re skeptical that a solution can be found to satisfy both their congregation and the preservationists. “We’re not closing our door to any good ideas,” Armbruster insists. “But we’ve been looking at this for the last decade, and we haven’t come up with an alternative—one that we can afford and that keeps us downtown. I think that all the concern you hear right now about this building’s future has to do with the community working through the same grief process we’ve already been through in accepting this change. We just have to keep an eye on our priorities.”

PRIORITY-SETTING IS essential to historic preservation, too. We simply can’t protect every bit of our built past, which is why even a one-time tourist attraction like the Kalakala may, sadly, be on its way out of town. It’s also why there are more applications for landmark status than there are designations. (At present, Seattle harbors more than 230 individual properties with city landmark designation, plus several hundred others that are covered within historic districts or special review districts.) Every week seems to bring news of familiar sights and structures that are newly endangered, whether it’s a water tower on Queen Anne Hill, an aged but fire-damaged hotel in Ballard, views from the Pike Place Market, or the primate house at Woodland Park Zoo, a 1911 pile that once housed monkeys, birds, and crocodiles. Sometimes, as in the case of the Blue Moon, what makes the difference is just people speaking their minds, letting their support be known. “Seattleites have shown that they’re interested in historic preservation,” says MacIntosh. And they’ve proved that they’ll act to prevent a crisis. The worry always is that they won’t act without one.


J. Kingston Pierce is a Seattle writer and editor whose latest book, Eccentric Seattle—a collection of essays about this city’s past and presence—is to be published this fall by Washington State University Press.


While some of the city’s most familiar landmarks face demolition, four local museums are looking at major expansions.


It’s just over the last decade or so that the Burke has shed its image as an eccentric trove of dusty artifacts to become a more sophisticated facility on the University of Washington campus, and already it is developing a strategy for expansion. Not that associate director Denis Martynowych will commit to significant growth. “We’re still in the early stages, studying what might be done,” he insists. Using a $350,000 allotment from the state, the museum (with help from Seattle architect Walter Schacht) is putting together a long-term plan, scheduled for completion this summer, that may call for changes in the museum’s interior arrangement as well as a physical addition to the structure. For now, Martynowych proposes only a “modest addition,” something in the 8,000-square-foot and $8 million to $10 million range. Talk of raising a Native American-style longhouse next to the Burke has been replaced by suggestions of a simpler addition, providing more display space and quarters for traveling exhibits. A 2001 show of photographs and relics from the ill-fated 1914-1916 South Pole expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton drew more than 130,000 visitors to the Burke—not quite twice as many as its annual visitor count of 85,000. “We could do with a few more of those,” Martynowych jokes. The museum is also looking to establish an environmental learning center at the old Sand Point Naval Station. And Martynowych hints that the Burke might wish to relocate or else expand significantly—even triple in size—”in an eight-to-10-year time frame,” perhaps adding an auditorium and making room to “better represent the culture heritage of our entire state and how those cultures are integrated here.”


In 2004, this underrated storehouse of material relating to the 1897 Klondike gold rush and its impact on Seattle is hoping to move into a two-story, 14,400-square-foot space in the Cadillac Hotel, a landmark at South Jackson Street and Second Avenue South that is set for restoration after being damaged by the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. Acting superintendent Maria Gillette says that “since we don’t yet have full funding for exhibit fabrication,” it’s likely the museum will open first on the building’s ground floor, with work on additional exhibits for the basement to follow. “I’d like to see the museum do a better job in its new space of making the Klondike story accessible to visitors,” Gillette opines. “I think we do fine at telling people the difficulty of making the trek north, but we don’t do as well in explaining how economic conditions of the time drove people to the Yukon and how the gold brought back really shaped modern Seattle.”


Ground was broken last June on the first part of a three-phase, 10-year, $140 million development project that will turn the Museum of Flight into “the biggest air and space museum in the world,” to quote marketing communications manager Craig O’Neill. “Not that bigger is always better, but when you’re displaying aircraft, size does matter.” Phase one (slated for completion in the spring of 2004) is the addition of an 88,000-square-foot Personal Courage Wing, devoted to 23 military planes flown during World Wars I and II. The next phase will enclose the so-called Red Barn, Boeing’s humble 1910 home, in a steel-and-glass structure that will include 22,000 square feet of gallery space and basement classrooms for the 100,000 children who are served every year by this museum’s educational programs. Finally, the museum plans to construct a mammoth Commercial Aviation Wing northwest of its East Marginal Way campus, in which will be housed commercial aircraft, including prototypes of the Boeing 727, 737, and 747. Room will also be made there for a gallery of space-related artifacts, including the Boeing Lunar Roving Vehicle and a section of a Saturn V rocket. “We want to display more of the amazing aircraft in our collection,” says O’Neill, “but also to better show visitors more about the people who sweated blood to bring us—in just 100 years—to where aviation is now.”


With the Seattle Public Library relocating its central facility later this year from its interim site in the Washington State Convention and Trade Center to cool new digs on Fourth Avenue, MOHAI—which celebrates its 51st anniversary in February—will take over that Convention Center location, moving in no later than 2007. The 130,000-square-foot space provides twice the room available to the museum in its present Montlake quarters. As executive director Leonard Garfield envisions it, the new facility’s three-story atrium entrance will be filled with “iconic artifacts,” such as William Boeing’s 1920s B-1 floatplane, the old Rainier Brewery’s once-revolving, bullet-pocked “R” sign, and other advertising neon. On the ground level, visitors will receive an overview of Seattle history, while the second floor is to be occupied by learning labs for children. The top story will house MOHAI’s main exhibits, relating centuries of Northwest cultural and commercial development. Traveling exhibits from the Smithsonian Institution and other museums will find accommodations in special galleries throughout the building, and even an on-premises coffee shop must supplement this museum’s mission, acquainting customers with the history of Seattle’s caffeine craze as they queue up for lattes. So what happens to MOHAI’s Montlake building after this move? If it survives a possible expansion of state Route 520, it will house an enlarged research library and provide much-needed storage. “MOHAI always has more relics than it can display,” says deputy director Felix Banel. “If the media are the midwives of history, we’re the undertaker. And the past is dying every day.”


Landmarks Loophole

Seattle has a long preservationist tradition, with more than 230 designated landmarks and seven historic districts scattered through the city. But in recent years, developers aiming to prevent landmark designation have become a common sight at the Landmarks Preservation Board.

Why would developers apply for landmark status for properties they want to demolish? The State Environmental Policy Act, which requires developers to consider whether a property is listed as historic before moving forward on a project, gives them an incentive to make sure their property doesn’t qualify for designation. So does the city’s landmarks policy, which allows anyone to apply for landmark status for a property. Historical status can make it difficult if not impossible for a developer to tear down or alter a building, so developers have a tremendous incentive to file their own applications with the hope that they’ll actually be rejected. Once landmark designation is denied, a property can’t be renominated for another five years. By then, most will be long demolished and redeveloped. “That avenue is closed for any protests or objections,” historian Walt Crowley says.

That’s not always a bad thing. In some cases, the landmark process is little more than a roadblock to demolishing properties that aren’t economically viable or have been renovated too many times to be salvaged. But in other cases, potentially viable landmarks are nominated with what one architect familiar with the designation process refers to as a “straw-man” application. The Hahn building, a downtown low-rise structure that was built around the turn of the century and used until recently for low- income housing, is one example. When the Hahn’s owners wanted to redevelop the property, they submitted what architect John McLaren described last year as a “straw-man” landmark application—one made “on the assumption that it won’t pass.” The application was denied in 1999, and the building will likely be demolished to make way for high-end condos and a hotel.

Sometimes it isn’t so clear which category a nomination falls into. In a recent series of nominations by the Cornish College of the Arts, an independent consultant dismissed the historical value of five turn-of-the-century homes because of “extensive alterations” to the properties, which are used by the school as administrative offices. Cornish wants to sell the homes to Admiralty Development, a real- estate developer, and move to a new location in the Denny Triangle. One of the houses, dating from around 1893, may be among the oldest on Capitol Hill, according to Historic Seattle preservation advocate Heather MacIntosh.

That alone would seem to make it worthy of consideration. But landmark status, particularly for individual houses, is a tough sell. “You’ve got to work hard to make a good case,” MacIntosh says. Alterations, lack of prominent placement in the neighborhood, and nearby similar properties can diminish the odds that a building will be preserved for posterity.

Ultimately, all five landmark applications were rejected, clearing the way for Cornish to move ahead. The school plans to finalize the sale of the houses and move into its new digs around the end of June, according to Cornish chief operations officer Vicky Clayton. Taking their place will be a gated community of new high-end townhomes and condos, to be known as the Harvard Estate, aimed at wealthy empty nesters and retirees.

Erica C. Barnett