It seems like stating the obvious to say that the Victorian homes of Port Townsend — many of them painstakingly restored and maintained like the "painted ladies" of San Francisco — now seem old-fashioned, but they do.
At one time, the preservation of these wonderful homes was at the center of the Port Townsend revival. In the '70s, Seattleites would venture forth for a weekend at B&B's like the James House to soak up the turn-of-the-century atmosphere and treat themselves to dinner at one of those "Best Places"-type destination restaurants, like The Farmhouse.
Driving around the town now, the venerable homes seem like a dated version of heritage tourism: a bit precious. I was in Port Townsend recently for the Washington Museum Association's annual conference and when it came to accommodations, some attendees — professional history folk, mind you — said they booked rooms with an eye to avoiding doilies. One professed suffering from "doily phobia." Some people, apparently, are anti-antimacassars.
I count myself among them, especially after an experience back in the 1990s on a business trip to San Francisco when I stayed in a B&B where my room was literally choked with throw pillows. If Laura Ashley made chintz cluster bombs, one had gone off in my room. Every night, I felt like a homesteader laboring to clear his stump farm as I tried to make space on the bed so I could lie down.
Fortunately, Port Townsend is more than doilies. The downtown is lively, bike- and pedestrian-friendly — there’s even a skateboard park — and the maritime orientation is visible and accessible; both ends of town are anchored by marinas. It also seems to be filled with people who want to be there, either kicking back or reinventing themselves, wearing those “We’re Here Because We’re Not All There” T-shirts. As I drove downtown, my way was blocked by a beer truck parked in the middle of the town's main drag, Water Street. As I waited to get around it, the air was filled with the fragrance of pot. That was cool. My errand was equally non-urgent: I was on my way to eat oysters and sip beer on the deck at Doc’s.
Don't get me wrong, I love the preservation work, which is ongoing. Port Townsend is like a vintage wooden boat: It’s a constant project to maintain and restore, and undoubtedly a money pit for some. But it is loved and it’s looking good. Northwest history here is palpable, and not just in the architecture. Right now, at the downtown Northwest Maritime Center, you can peer through the window and see an old-time anchor (in a T-shaped wooden bathtub) that was just recently brought to the surface and might be a relic left behind by Capt. George Vancouver's famed expedition to Puget Sound in 1792. Some have called the anchor the "holy grail" of regional maritime history and it will soon be off to Texas A&M for tests. Whatever it is — and there’s a good chance it is the lost anchor of the Chatham, a vessel that accompanied Vancouver’s Discovery — it presents an opportunity for everyone to brush up on the first Europeans to explore and map our part of the Salish Sea. Vancouver’s men prowled this very part of the Peninsula. Down the way at Discovery Bay, the expedition’s naturalist had his first chance to study one of our region’s icons, what we now know as the madrona tree.
As always, the scenery in Port Townsend is terrific. Luke Burbank, the brilliant radio podcaster and fellow regular on KUOW’s “Week in Review,” is a newly arrived Port Townsendite and an enthusiastic convert to their ways. He took me for a ride in his new, funky (what else) wooden (of course) boat along the waterfront. We had views of the Cascades and Olympics on either side, Admiralty Inlet was calm and blue, the crabbers were busy and the ferry boats picturesque. On another afternoon the top of Mount Rainier seemed to float atop a bed of clouds like the City of Cream Puffs.
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