As I've been
reporting on historic preservation, I've noticed something interesting. Despite active federal, state, county and city heritage and landmark programs, there are high-profile cases where public entities pose a threat to historic preservation. It's often easy to blame profit-motivated private developers for ripping down significant structures, but the government can be just as bad.
Exhibit A is the proposed re-design of Seattle Center. The proposed changes suggested by the mayor's Century 21 Committee are big
: get rid of the Fun Forest, transform Center House, and knock down Memorial Stadium.
The Center is a preservation mine field dotted with significant structures like the Space Needle, Monorail, the Science Center's gothic arches, and Key Arena's pyramidal roof, to name just a few. Nevertheless, we've been invited to treat the center as a blank slate. Check out the Seattle Times
' form that encourages readers to submit their own center remodel
(by March 31). You'll notice Key Arena, the Fun Forest, Memorial Stadium and Center House are all conveniently missing from the map
(pdf), as if airbrushed out of a Stalin-era photograph. The center's own visioning process has encouraged such thinking.
In practical terms, what's wrong with this picture? For one thing Center House can't just vanish because it's a designated city landmark (along with the Needle, the Monorail, the Paul Horiuchi Mural, and the Kobe Bell). It is valued both for its role in the Seattle World's Fair but also for its former life as a military armory and as an example of 1930s architecture. Larry Kreisman of Historic Seattle, author of the book Art Deco Seattle
, says that Deco era architecture in the city "is in danger of extinction." He says that despite numerous interior alterations, the integrity of the exterior of the Armory/Center House has been kept (who doesn't love those federal eagles at the north entrance?)
The committee's center plan envisions an open structure with a new atrium roof, a roof-top restaurant, and one of the Center House's thick exterior walls removed. Such a concept is creative, but the Center House/Armory met five of the city's six landmark criteria when it was designated, a strong showing. So, while the interior can be altered, all changes would have to be approved by the city's preservation officer. It can't be erased or gutted at will. A number of the proposed changes are problematic and exceed what would normally be allowed.
Key Arena also vanishes from the Times
picture, not because the city is suggesting it, but I suppose because King County Executive Ron Sims did. He issued his own Seattle Center vision
in 2007 calling for KeyArena to be demolished and replaced by open space — native plants and a waterway. This was one ambitious articulation of the idea of turning the center into a "Central Park" by removing its inconvenient history. While the interior of KeyArena has been — and likely will be — extensively remodeled, and while tenants like basketball teams may come and go, many would consider the familiar exterior structure to be sacrosanct.
The wrecking ball is being seriously proposed for Memorial Stadium, which the city proposes to tear down
because it's "in the way" of their redesign. It also has deterioration and seismic issues. It would be replaced with a new sports field (a kind of Memorial Stadium Lite) and an open-air amphitheater atop an underground parking garage.
Razing Memorial Stadium will not be easy. It belongs to the school district, for one thing. Plus it almost certainly meets multiple criteria for city landmark status. Not only is it historic, but the 1940s field is regarded nostalgically by several generations of city high school grads, athletes and Bumbershoot concert goers. More importantly, it's an actual war memorial commemorating Seattle high schoolers who died in WWII. Some, like Seattle Post-Intelligencer
columnist Robert Jamieson, have rallied to its cause
. Preservation consultant and landmark-process critic Art Skolnik tells me he has no doubts that Memorial Stadium is worthy of landmark status. "It has to stay," he says. At least one group of citizens is moving forward with a landmark nomination.
Another eyebrow-raiser is in Olympia. The state is moving ahead with a request for proposals to design a new so-called Heritage Center and Executive Office Building for the Capitol Campus, according to an article
in the Daily Journal of Commerce
. A driving force behind the idea is Secretary of State Sam Reed. The new building would have 120,000 square feet of office space for state bureaucrats on the upper levels, and down below, it would house the state library and archives, a conference center, cafe, display space and visitors' facilities. According to the DJC
, it would be the first building built on the campus in 50 years. Preliminary estimates put construction costs at $145 million. Total costs would likely be much higher.
Beyond the issue of whether the state really needs grand new offices is this problem: It would require the demolition of a building on the site which happens to be one of Washington's rare examples of International Style modern architecture, the 1956 General Administration Building. Worry over its possible demolition led an Olympia preservation advocate, Annamary Fitzgerald, to nominate the building for the State and National historic registers. The building is listed by the modernist preservation group DoCoMoMo-WeWA as "endangered
The GA Building is significant, she argued, because of its architectural style — it's said to resemble a "decorated layer cake" of concrete — but also for its importance in the history of Olympia and the capitol campus. It was the first campus building built after World War II, and it represented the concentration of power in Olympia and expansion of state government during the post-war years. Experts agreed, and last year the GA Building was added to both the State and National Registers. That may not be enough to save it, but the irony of the state tearing down an existing National Register building to build a Heritage Center is not lost on preservationists.
The state's historic preservation officer, Allyson Brooks, is attempting to make this lemon into lemonade. In response to losing the GA building, she says, her office is working with other state agencies to see if their office needs can't be met by other vacant historic buildings in Olympia. "Hopefully, we will save more historic buildings locally even though we have to lose the one," she says.
And there's more activity at the University of Washington, a public institution that is exempt from Seattle's landmarks ordinance. The UW can pretty much do what it likes with buildings. I've written about the race against the wrecking ball for More Hall Annex, the Husky Union Building
, the HUB. According to the Daily Journal of Commerce
, the UW is looking at a $112- to $188-million revamp by 2012. Depending on the extent of the work, the remodel could feature major new additions to the building, an atrium and more day-lighting of rooms, and environmental and seismic upgrades.
The HUB should be functional for modern campus needs — and it has undergone numerous remodels, alterations, and additions in the past. But redo could have a big impact on the Collegiate Gothic exterior of the HUB. Saving that old character could be saved hardly seems on the agenda. The UW's capital projects manager Randy Everett told the DJC
in January, "One of the things we found with talking with the community is even though the building has been around for a long time, it isn't one that's real memorable to people. That gives us a lot of flexibility in the design because we're not dealing with something that's near and dear to them."
Destruction of historic public buildings can be somewhat mitigated through documentation or the reuse of materials. And the public may benefit from the new use. Seattleites generally accepted the idea of tearing down the old Monorail if it would get them an expanded new one. And the Alaskan Way Viaduct, very possibly landmark and National Register-worthy, could come down for the sake of safety and an open waterfront.
There's always a tendency for government to cloak its doings in the mantle of the public good. But we grown-ups know that decisions can also be the result of bad policies and bureaucratic empire building. Good intentions can't be assumed.
To the extent that public historic preservation programs have any clout, it comes from the idea that preservation is a public good. A National Register plaque is mostly honorary and is pretty meaningless unless its spirit is honored. When public entities undercut that by bulldozing historic structures, one consequence is eroding faith in the premise of preservation. It raises doubts: If they don't take historic preservation seriously, why should the rest of us?