Every year, preservationists produce lists of the most-endangered properties in their areas, which is a great way to raise consciousness, and alarm, when historic structures are in jeopardy. But this year, I felt it was time to start keeping track of some of the more egregious preservationist failures, places where David lost to Goliath, or where private developers or public agencies breached the trust by trashing heritage with disregard. So, I inaugurate the first annual Northwest Heritage Turkey Awards. Here are the winners:
History burns for Hollywood
The winner is: Washington State Department of Natural Resources
For: Torching an historic farmhouse for a movie.
Background: Last summer, a feature film production company, NxNW, asked permission to burn down a turn-of-the-century farmhouse (see photo) near Medical Lake outside Spokane. The old farmstead sits on Department of Natural Resources land and DNR had been contemplating demolishing it due to asbestos and decay. They had even considered using prison labor to bring it down. But the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation concluded that the property, known as the Benjamin Dudley House, was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places (a DNR consultant disagreed) and urged alternatives to demolition for a film, including changing the script, using computer-generated images, or burning a set instead.
Nevertheless, DNR allowed the house to be burned in early September and says it saved taxpayers a net of about $17,000 in demolition costs. You'll be able to see the burning yourself on the big screen: it was for the movie The Ward by director John Carpenter, known for his horror films and thrillers (Halloween). For preservationists, this horror is no fantasy. As Allyson Brooks, head of the state preservation office, asked: "Why is the state burning down historic sites?"
There's gold in them thar historic houses
The winner is: The Carmack House vandals
For: Gutting a Gold Rush landmark of its original interior.
Background: George Carmack is the man whose bag of gold set off the Klondike rush. He later was a prominent Seattle citizen, and his last local house was subject of a landmark controversy in 2009. The house had been suffering from neglect. Even so, it was nominated for landmark status, over the objection of its owners.
Early this year, before the landmark nomination was decided, someone broke into the boarded-up home and took the original fine woodwork and important architectural elements, from the hand-carved fireplace to a stained glass window. The scale and selectivity of the destruction pointed to people who knew what they were doing. Even with the damage, however, the home was designated a Seattle landmark, but the theft stole value from the owners and left restoring the home to its original condition much more problematic.
School's out (or gone) forever
The winner is: Boise Independent School District
For: Demolishing the Art Deco-style South Junior High.
Background: Take a survey of Northwest demolitions and endangered structures and you'll be amazed at how many are schools, school facilities, or buildings on college campuses. From Vancouver, BC to Seattle to suburban Portland to Boise, Idaho, controversies have raged. South Junior High was a National Register-eligible structure built in 1948 with a distinctive modern style, designed by the respected firm of Whitehouse and Price of Spokane. Even though it was determined that retaining the building was cheaper, and despite the objections of citizen's and preservation groups, the district celebrated the school's 60th birthday by razing it, earning the project a 2009 "Onion" award from Preservation Idaho. The new school opened this year with a chunk of the old property preserved for an amphitheater. Even so, the district flunked Preservation 101.
The Thiry of Negativity
The winner is: Shelton and Mason County, Washington
For: Demolition of a church by a major modern architect.
Background: As I wrote back in October, the month of September '09 was a bleak one for Washington history, featuring fires, wrecking balls, and bulldozers. One was the failure of preservationists to prevent the demolition of St. Edward's Catholic Church in Shelton, WA. Despite heroic efforts and a rescue plan that raised $150,000 to save the sanctuary as an arts and daycare center, the city of Shelton issued demolition permits so the church could be leveled, clearing the way for Mason County to pick up the property from the Catholic church for future use as a county office campus.
That's right, a historic house of God was flattened to make room for government bureaucrats. The church was an early design by Paul Thiry, the "father of Northwest modernism," famed for his progressive church architecture. Despite the prayers of preservationists, the building is no more (see photo).
The Lost Treasure of Luzon
The winner is: City of Tacoma, WA
For: Demolition of the Luzon Building.
Background: The Luzon was one of Tacoma's most important architectural treasures. Designed by the nationally famous firm of Burnham and Root, famed for refining the modern skyscraper, the innovative Luzon was a rarity as a building with both local and national significance. It was on city, state and national historic registers. Though structurally weakened, it could have been saved — hey, the people of Pisa have made their leaning tower a global landmark — nevertheless, the city of Tacoma acted hastily and arbitrarily in ordering the demolition of the Luzon in September.
The No-fun Zone
The winner is: Seattle Center
For: Dismantling the Fun Forest, pushing the demolition of Memorial Stadium, and considering major changes to the historic Armory building (Center House).
Background: Seattle Center is a living civic center of enormous public value and historical significance. Site of the 1962 World's Fair, it's full of important structures and landmarks, from the Space Needle and Pacific Science Center to Key Arena (former Coliseum) and the Mural Amphitheater. But the Center also has been too willing to trash important elements of its own legacy. This year, the Fun Forest, an amusement zone dating from the world's fair period, was dismantled. The Center also reached an agreement with the Seattle School District to demolish historic Memorial Stadium (which some WWII vets consider a "shrine"); and a long-term plan proposed for the Center involves major changes to the Art Deco Armory building, a city landmark. Previously the Center has also eliminated major fairground features and was willing to allow an intrusive monorail route through its central open space (the defunct Green Line).
Not all the proposed changes are bad per se, but as the Center approaches the 50th anniversary of the fair that created it, and as it will likely use the occasion to seek a major bond issue to fund improvements, the Center gets a Turkey to remind it of the importance of embracing, not running away, from its past.
Giving up the Ship
The winner is: Mayor Greg Nickels
For: Sinking the Wawona
The sailing ship Wawona was an important heritage cause in Seattle for some 45 years, the last of our Pacific sailing schooners. Many prominent citizens tried to save her, as did so many in the maritime community. But after decades of trying, her historic hulk was broken up earlier this year. Joe Follansbee, writing in Crosscut, put the blame squarely at the feet of Mayor Nickels and city staff for pushing South Lake Union dreams at the Wawona's expense, and making it nearly impossible to keep her.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!