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Heritage Turkeys of the Year

The Benjamin Dudley House, burned down for a movie Credit: Stephen Emerson

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.

It didn't have to happen. A sister ship in San Francisco was saved; there's a growing movement to acknowledge and build on the region's maritime heritage. The Wawona challenge persisted, but it went down on Nickels' watch. Of course, the electorate itself sank Nickels' ship of state during the August primary. Call it the Wawona's revenge.

The next Everett Massacre?

The winner is: Port of Everett

For: Endless war against the historic waterfront Collins Building.

Background: While the future of Boeing in the region is being debated, so too is a building which is the last vestige of the economy that helped to found the pre-aerospace city of Everett, WA, a burg once known as "the city of smokestacks." It is the Collins Building, a state heritage and National Register building that is the sole survivor of Everett's early timber years. Preservationists want the Collins to be saved and re-used, but the Port of Everett has been pushing for its demolition so they can proceed with (eventually) a waterfront redevelopment.

Historic Everett, a preservation group, has been leading the battle to save the building, and believes it has proof that the Port and its now bankrupt development partner have violated rules by failing to consider in good faith adaptive re-use of the building. This year the Port has sped up efforts to bring the building down because, as one commissioner called it, the Collins was nothing but "a termite picnic." Ports are often poor stewards of historic properties, and as native son Peter Jackson has pointed out, the city has a long history (if you want to call it that) of razing its heritage ("City of Buldozers"?) At any rate, the Collins controversy is a classic example of intransigent, developer-friendly public officials who are eager to undermine a community's heritage. Whatever the ultimate fate of the building, this is also a story about the integrity of public process.

Tap dancing to decline

The winner is: City of Vancouver

For: Failing to save the Pantages Theater, Vancouver, BC.

As Vancouver hosts the Olympics this winter, it is also facing a number of heritage challenges. Neighborhoods like Gas Town and Chinatown are being pressed by density, and the city has no budget to fix and maintain historic monuments. But the most egregious failure is the slow death of the 1907 Pantages Theater, the oldest theater in Vancouver and currently on Heritage Vancouver's "most endangered" list (and Heritage Canada's as well). Unfortunately, it is almost certainly headed for destruction.

The Pantages is one of the surviving examples of the famed chain of fabulous and often ornate theaters founded by Seattle's vaudeville mogul Alexander Pantages. Survivors are restored gems in other cities, where they haven't been demolished (as Seattle's was), including Toronto, Tacoma, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis.

Preservation groups have been trying to restore the Pantages and keep it as a working theater to help revive downtown Vancouver's Eastside. They forged a deal with the owner to do so, but could not get the city to approve. As a result of foot-dragging and an insistence on more studies, the theater has gone from viable to condemned. A fire on the roof in May has caused the stage to collapse into the basement, parts of the interior structure (like the balconies) are unsafe; even preservationists are no longer allowed to enter. It's a classic case of demolition by neglect, and stonewalling. The Pantages Theater Arts Society, which has thousands of supporters and worked so hard to become the steward of the theater, officially declared defeat this December.

After January 1, nominations for next year's Heritage Turkey Awards will be gratefully accepted.

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