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Hidden treasures of Fremont

The Fremont house with modern turret

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.

Lewis Mumford, the 20th century urbanologist, wrote, “Cities are time become visible.” Nowhere in Seattle today is that any truer than Fremont. Almost every block in my survey area displayed the changing tastes, technologies, and lifestyles across Seattle’s past century-plus. This is possible in one relatively small area because, unlike our 21st century’s home-building industry, Fremont was built by small contractors, a few homes at a time, resulting in diversity of fashion and materials.

Several times I thought I’d ventured into a Brigadoon world of Seattle’s past: April of 1919, perhaps. Then a group of boys would skateboard past, or neighbors would appear to share pleasantries. (And express delight that I was not from the assessor’s office.) This was not a museum of old houses; it was a modern Seattle neighborhood where residents talked worriedly of “upzoning” that would wipe them out with condos and apartments, as had happened not so far away.

It was sometimes tough to keep my mind on the just-the-facts mission. I wondered what tragedy caused a lovely home, pictured in 1937 with elegant leaded-pane windows and a large front porch, to be utterly obliterated, while its neighbor, built the same year, lives on as today’s trophy restoration. But I was charged with documentation, not writing a romance novel about Fremont, so off I went to the next place.

Uphill on Market from the 1911 Craftsman farmhouse, an entire bank of turn-of-the-20th-century wood frame family homes, photographed in 1937, are long gone, replaced by 1960s walk-up apartment blocks with windows closed tightly against the roar of 24/7 traffic. No inventory forms to fill out there.

Then I spot it &mdash and who wouldn’t?

A few blocks away, behind a small triangular piece of land providing protection from the busy arterial, is a majestic three-story beauty, built, according to the tax records, in 1900. It gleams with new shingles, windows, paint and trim. In the rear is a handsome back garden and a large detached garage. I particularly admire the imposing turret with pointed roof and fish-scale shingles. Amazing that such a fine home with such dramatic details has made it intact all the way into this century.

Except something was just not quite right. In this part of Fremont, there are Tudor Revivals, ranch houses, an infinite variety of Craftsmen, Queen Annes, Foursquares, even a classy Mid-century Modern. But nowhere did I see a house with a turret. Then sure enough, a check of the home’s 1937 photo revealed the truth: Today’s stunning “restoration” was originally built as a conventional Foursquare with no turret. The tax records report a major rebuild in 2003 when owners decided it should get a more flamboyant look for its next century &mdash and good for them. It is a glamorous home, terrific historic details, but for inventory purposes, alas, it is classified as “significantly altered.”

Sadder are the historic houses that are authentic, but neglected. But they too have had their pictures taken, their characteristics recorded and their integrity verified against the WPA photos and tax records. There is always hope.

This isn’t tourist Seattle or mansion Seattle, but it certainly isn’t down-on-your-luck Seattle either. Venturing into this new-to-me environment, I discovered loving care of the past and delight in its present. I am now disabused of the idea that one ever completely knows any city.

Every day in a city things change. Wrecking crews wipe away the past. A crane soon raises something new, or worse luck, a vacant lot is left. This is true of any metropolis, especially the cities one cannot help loving — unfaithful, polygamous, profligate, heart-breaking and flamboyant as they may be.

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