Falling in love with a city is not so different from giving your heart away to a person. You hunger to know every detail about your new beloved; the idea of leaving is unbearable. Then, after many years, as sometimes happens in any long relationship, there may come a shock. The object of your affection, the one you thought you knew so well, turns out to have been keeping a secret from you.
So it was for me in March. The revelation came when I joined a team of volunteers who have just finished documenting &mdash in writing and photographs &mdash the handsome architecture of Fremont, the city's quintessential neighborhood-in-the-middle.
To be included in his inventory, a residential structure (single-family, duplex or tri-plex) must have been built before 1962; possess identifiable design characteristics of its period; and be seen as retaining the integrity of its original design. A small city grant will finance the report on what was found, under the direction of some of the region’s most experienced historic preservation professionals.
I confess, I started out smugly assuming that there would not be much for me to learn. I am a native Seattleite with decades of work in the city as a journalist, historic preservationist, and political activist. I’ve walked, bicycled, driven, door-belled, flown over and boated through its every corner. My grandparents even lived briefly in Fremont at the Hawthorne Square Apartments when they arrived from Chicago in the 1920s.
Survey leaders had divided Fremont’s territory into 14 sections. I was awarded a northwestern corner where a sort of boundary détente has been reached with Ballard and Phinney Ridge, defining where those communities officially end and Fremont begins. Clipboard in hand, armed with forms to be used for each structure thought to have merit, pages of instructions and a digital camera, I set out.
Fremont’s commercial sections don't dazzle, let's be honest: block after block of new "compact" condos, edgy apartments, and office buildings. Fremont also has had 40 years of starring as Seattle’s bohemia, best known for its Volkswagen-grasping Troll, "Waiting for the Interurban," defiant Lenin. Naked street fairs are all well and good, mind you, but when it comes to legacy-quality domestic architecture in the Seattle I know and love, it’s Queen Anne, Wallingford, the Lake Washington and Puget Sound shorelines, or Capitol Hill that come to mind.
But once I turned off Fremont’s arterials, I entered a place as unfamiliar to me as Bozeman, Montana.
My reliable and recent guidebook was unexpectedly vague. Streets that existed were missing. Streets that were not in the guidebook stretched before me. After a block or two, some of Fremont’s mapped avenues just run off a cliff or into a dirt bank. Streets with numbers cross each other and then announce “no entry” as they zig one-way, uphill or down, alongside massive concrete bulkheads that hold back the clay banks. So much for the Seattle native's keen sense of direction.
Soon into my wanderings, I spied the first of Fremont’s many surprises: a well cared-for, expansive, century-old Craftsman-style farmhouse, surrounded by beautiful orchard trees just coming into bloom, and a grand full porch with a panoramic western view of the Olympic Mountains. Fremont’s taverns, software companies, and 21st-century condos and townhomes were nowhere in sight.
When I looked through a photo collection from 1937, produced by photographers hired by the Works Progress Administration, I learned more about this surprising find. It verified the integrity of the farmhouse that I learned was built in 1911. It still proudly possesses the original porch, style, and roof line photographed 72 years ago. I took photos from several angles, hoping our survey will be as helpful to those who survey the place in 2109. (Using tools we can't even imagine.)
Deeper into my survey area I found blocks of mature houses: grand, small and in-between. Shoulder to shoulder, lovingly cared for, hundreds of venerable homes, each appreciated for individual style, decoration, and for what our English cousins call homeliness — that is, comfortableness.
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