It's a grim task, but someone has to do it, right? For the fourth straight year, I am presenting the Heritage Turkey Awards, examples of the worst in Northwest heritage and historic preservation during the last year. Some are for just plain dumb decisions, others raise flags on worse disasters yet to come, still others are the result of economic hard times or policy trends (and loopholes) that make preservation more difficult. In any case, we can do better, and each year the Turkeys offer proof of that.
The Thiry of Devolution
Winner: Paul Thiry office demolition and KeyArena doomsayers, Seattle, WA
Another year, another demolition of a Paul Thiry structure. Perhaps it's because he was so prolific for so long, or maybe it's because the Northwest's fabled "father of Northwest modernism" is cursed by familiarity which we're told breeds contempt, but whatever the reason the architect's work always seems to be facing the wrecking ball, whether it' a church in Shelton or a modernist long house in Normandy Park, or in this year's case, an office building on First Hill. And not just any office, Paul Thiry's own office.
The building at 800 Columbia was built by Thiry in the late 1940s. From there, the architect worked on many of his well-known projects, including St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, the Museum of History and Industry, and the Frye Art Museum. The property was sold this year by the Thiry family to Alecta, a Swedish pension fund with plans to build a high-rise. Seattle preservationists were upset, in part because the building was likely eligible for city landmark status, however, according to Eugenia Woo of Historic Seattle, a loophole in the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) allowed the Thiry family to obtain a demolition permit for the building before it was sold. Perfectly legal, it simply meant that the new high-rise development could move ahead without any public review of the building's historic significance. The old Thiry office's square footage was too small to trigger an automatic review. Thus, Thiry's office was doomed before anyone knew it was endangered. Woo points out this was the same loophole that resulted in the much lamented demolition of the Twin T-Ps Restaurant (later called the Twin Teepees diner) near Green Lake. So, the office has been torn down. A high-rise will go up on adjacent property, and the Thiry site will be turned into open space under an easement granted to the Seattle Parks Department. The city is looking for ways to get much-needed open space on an already dense First Hill, so that's some consolation. But the loophole in the law remains to be closed.
This won't be the last Thiry project to face demolition. The Thiry-designed MOHAI at Montlake will be razed for the 520 highway expansion project. And red flags are being raised about the long-term future of the Thiry-designed Coliseum (KeyArena) at Seattle Center, which Thiry also planned. The architect once said the Coliseum, initially used as the Washington State Pavilion during Century 21, was a "workhorse" structure and it has been just that in the last half-century. It has hosted conventions, sports teams, political rallies and major concerts. But with a new basketball arena in the works, the Coliseum/KeyArena is edging toward white elephant status. City council member and mayoral candidate Tim Burgess, who played a key role in finalizing the new SoDo arena deal, has pronounced that "KeyArena is essentially doomed" and state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, whose district includes the Center, has said, "KeyArena is dead and done the day the new arena opens."
The Coliseum/KeyArena is a literal landmark if not yet an official one, and its success and survival is vital to the future of the Center. In terms of its architectural legacy. The pyramidal structure —some say it looks like a Northwest Indian hat — remains a functional and visual anchor. Preservationists are getting motivated to save the building, and city council member Jean Godden, chair of the city's Libraries, Utilities and Center committee, says reports of the Key's death are premature. She's exploring adaptive re-use alternatives. It's a good time for collective thinking on the topic of whither the Coliseum. Let's hope the same kind of brilliance Thiry showed in designing the incredibly adaptable structure can be employed to create a new chapter for this essential Seattle landmark. Ignore the doomsayers; it's too early to write it off.
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