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State moves toward demolishing historic artists’ building

Lauren Olson, left, and Annie Malarkey in their studio at the 619 Western building. Credit: Hugo Kugiya

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the date of a meeting between DOT officials and tenants of 619 Western. The meeting will take place Jan. 18.

In 1979, Edd Cox was a young artist recently out of art school at the University of Washington, looking for a workspace when he found himself on the top floor of a run-down, six-story warehouse on Western Avenue, on the edge of Pioneer Square.

Just feet past the windows of the building, several lanes of cars sped back and forth on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, blocking what would have been a view of Elliott Bay. But what Cox noticed was the height, space, and light in the empty building, which did not then have interior walls. A stairway and elevator shaft ran down the middle of the building, naturally dividing it into two halves. Most of the huge, multi-pane windows still worked, tilting open to let in the air and the sounds of the city and the roadway that, now, will likely bring about the building’s extinction.

“You could stand on the east side of the building above Western,” said Cox, now 63, “and look out all the way across the building to the west side and see the viaduct.”

Cox signed a lease in 1979, becoming one of the first members of an art colony that would become known simply by its address, 619 Western. At first, most of the floors were vacant, but within two years the building was full of working artists who paid about 25 cents per square foot in rent. Today, the building serves as studio and gallery space to almost 100 painters, photographers, and other visual artists, making it one of the largest artist collectives in the country.

If plans go through for the aging viaduct to be demolished and replaced with a billion-dollar tunnel, the roadway will soon be gone — and with it the institution known as 619 Western. The state’s Department of Transportation (DOT) recommended Monday (Jan. 10) that the building be torn down rather than reinforced before the planned construction of the tunnel begins.

“After careful consideration of numerous issues,” the DOT wrote in a letter to the artist-tenants, “including building condition, historic significance and retrofit costs, WSDOT is recommending the Western Building be demolished. While this was not an easy conclusion to reach, we believe it is the best for the safety of the tenants, visitors to the building, and construction workers. We are committed to assisting each tenant financially, as appropriate, and to helping you find a new location within Pioneer Square or another neighborhood if you so choose.”

Whether the building is demolished or fixed, all tenants will have to move out by March, 2012, for at least one year. While 619 Western is not the only building put at risk by the tunnel project, it is the only one recommended for demolition and the only one used as a workspace by nearly 100 artists.

DOT officials invited the tenants to a meeting Jan. 18 at Union Station to discuss their recommendation. Department officials need the approval of the nine-member, city-appointed Pioneer Square Preservation Board before ordering demolition. The preservation board meets Jan. 19 and has a viaduct briefing on its agenda.

Many tenants of the building have already made plans to move before the March 2012 deadline. Many do not know what they will do.

“Some people are already leaving,” said Johnny O’Brady, a longtime lease-holder. “We’re not sleeping. We are panicking. Whether they demolish the building or retrofit it we want the option of coming back at the same rent. Not everyone wants to move. It’s not necessarily the building we’re afraid of losing, it’s the culture. You can’t duplicate this place. There is nothing like this in Seattle.”

The concentration of artists at 619 Western allows them to use the building as a gallery for their own work and others. The building is one of the most popular destinations on the First Thursday art walk in Pioneer Square, when visitors can view art where it was created and meet the artists. As many as 2,000 people have visited the building on a single Thursday. The space is such a draw that owners of other galleries ask to bring in the work of outside artists. Last Thursday (Jan. 6), the lines of visitors barely moved through building’s wood stairwell. 

The space has been cleverly divided into connected compartments, each with its own personality. Even filled in, the building still has a primitive look with exposed electrical conduit and a lathe ceiling. Floors are uneven and scuffed. The interior of 619 Western was featured prominently in the independent horror film, “Son of Terror,” about a Pioneer Square artist suffering from paranoid delusions; it screened at the 2009 Seattle’s True Independent Film Festival (STIFF).

Some studios, like Cox’s, are large, about 1,000 square feet; some are small, less than 200 square feet. Some have windows; some are landlocked by partitions deep in the interior of the building. The current rent, about $1 per square foot, is still within the reach of starving artists, some of whom share studios, making rent even more affordable.

“You’re never going to be able to recreate what we have here,” said Jeff Jacobson, a painter of murals like the one at Second Avenue and Yesler Way, who has worked in the building for five years. “It symbolizes for me where my roots are. It’s like our Mayberry. We’ve turned it into our small town.”

The artists crafted their studios at their own effort and expense. Each room is different, and when put together side by side, floor by floor, form a density of creativity found in few places. Imagine an office building but with studios instead of cubicles. That density is the main reason artists are drawn to 619 Western.

“You have such freedom here,” said painter Lauren Olson, 23, who moved in about a year ago. “This is my first studio. I’ve found mentors here. I’m a hostess at a restaurant. I couldn’t justify renting a studio if the rent was not so cheap.”

While the state will provide relocation assistance for people displaced by the tunnel project, it is unclear how many will qualify, and for how much money. Even if most of the artists settle in another building, it will likely not be in Pioneer Square.

“There’s no real space in Pioneer Square that could absorb all of us,” Cox said. “We have to fragment to stay in the square.”

That is a choice they will likely face: Leave the square and stay together, or stay in the square and scatter. One way or another the cultural institution of 619 Western will probably not survive as it is.

“It’s frustrating for me because I just moved in a few months ago,” said Annie Malarkey, 23, a photographer who shares Olson’s studio space. Malarkey used to work for the photo editing site Picnik, which was acquired by Google earlier this year.

“I was excited to join this community,” she said. “To see them not even considering how we feel is frustrating.”

Early photographs of the building, which was built in 1910 out of concrete and heavy timbers, suggest 619 Western was used to store a variety of materials like soap, sails, baking powder, fishing nets, coffee, tools, cookware, tents, and canned food, near what was then a working, industrial waterfront. Railroad tracks ran alongside the building. The Alaskan Way Viaduct was constructed much later, in 1953.

The 619 Western building, attached to a nearly identical loft building to the north, has survived many changes to the surrounding area — including the construction of the viaduct. The waterfront it was built for has become a recreational destination rather than an industrial one. Restaurants and other businesses, even the venerable Elliott Bay Book Company, have come and gone, but 619 Western has survived. Even the Nisqually earthquake of 2001 did little damage to the building.

As Pioneer Square gentrified and property values rose, 619 Western remained an affordable home for artists mostly because its owners, Benjamin and Lois Mayers of Bellevue, chose not to make upgrades that might have driven up the rent.

Decades ago, the Mayers used 619 Western to store inventory for their company, Ace Novelty. They relocated the business to Bellevue in the 1970s (they have since sold it and retired) and planned to rent 619 Western to the artists indefinitely.

“The matter is really out of their hands,” said the building’s property manager Stanley Piha.

The state contacted Piha and the building’s owners almost one year ago, letting them know the tunnel-boring machine would potentially impact the future of the building. They did not pass word onto their tenants until a few months ago, Piha said, because “we did not have any news to report…we knew there was a tunnel coming through. The transportation department was doing all their investigatory work to determine the building’s fate…Some people have been there a long, long time and being relocated is an emotional issue.”

The Polson building just to the north, also owned by the Mayers, was also once rented by artists until a fire in 1996 made it uninhabitable. The fire forced the Mayers to renovate the Polson building, which is now leased to several architecture firms that pay considerably more rent than the artists. While the Polson building, which will not be affected by the tunnel’s construction, was worth rebuilding, 619 Western is not.

“The Polson building does not have the same (structural) issues or concerns,” Piha said. “The Polson had much better bones. It was well designed, well constructed…The Western building was like the ugly stepsister. It was a less expensive endeavor and it has reacted to age that way. It has not aged gracefully. There is settlement that you don’t see in the Polson building.”

Even an untrained eye can see the settling with just a glance at the front of the building. The southeast corner sags considerably. Inside, the floors dip this way and that; empty chairs roll by themselves. Doors that opened a week ago no longer do. Those imperfections have kept the building affordable for artists all these decades; ironically, they are now part of what is driving them out.

If 619 Western is demolished, the artists will probably not be able to afford what is built in its place, nor will they likely want to return once they have settled elsewhere.

“I’m not going to wait (until 2012),” Cox said.  “I want to be somewhere else by this summer.”

With help from a real estate agent, Cox found a similar building not too far away. It is far from a done deal, he said, so he does not want to get his hopes up. He hopes most of the artists will stick together, wherever they end up. Only one thing is certain. The viaduct will no longer be their neighbor.

“It was a little bit noisy,” Cox said, “but it really doesn’t bother me at all. I like the energy of it. It’s like a river going by.”

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