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Weyerhaeuser move: A modern landmark’s future in question

Weyerhaeuser headquarters in Federal Way. Credit: Bethany Weeks/Flickr

The announcement that Weyerhaeuser is moving its headquarters from Federal Way to Pioneer Square raises surprising questions about heritage.

The timber giant is locating next to Occidental Park, site of controversies over the removal of its trees in the past. That might make Pi-Square preservationists want to do something akin to hiding the arboreal silverware. But seriously, there's no reason the "tree growing company,” as its old slogan had it, cannot be a good urban citizen.

Perhaps they could be tapped to help with plantings around town to improve Seattle's tree canopy.

Historian/geologist David Williams points out, however, that the new company headquarters will be located on some of the worst land in the historic district. Not that anyone minds getting rid of the overpriced parking lot there, but Williams points out that this particular spot was originally a mushy tidal marsh area and one of the first such to be filled by settlers — especially by a guy with a wheelbarrow named Dutch Ned. The ground is said to contain sawdust from Henry Yesler's sawmill and debris from the Great Fire of 1889. Williams points out the squishiness of the land can be seen in pictures of the buckling parking lot (check his map and images here). Core samples have found wood chips, creosote, brick, asphalt and mortar, among other materials.

Such are the foundations of modern Seattle, at least in some locales. Williams blogs that "these cores and early maps do give one pause to consider Weyerhaeuser’s decision to move." Perhaps Weyerhaeuser could also help fund some good historic archaeology on the site while establishing a firm footing for its new HQ.

Weyerhaeuser confirms that its entire 430-acre campus and its buildings in Federal Way are for sale, which gives another cause for pause to wonder what will happen to the fabulous, award-winning Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed headquarters it will leave behind. Opened in 1971, the horizontal concrete structure is an early example of eco-design (it received a conservation award in 1973). It has long been considered a modern architectural masterpiece.

There is also the fate of the company's gardens. The widely admired Bonsai garden was donated earlier this year to the non-profit, the George Weyerhaeuser Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection and the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation. There's also an impressive Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden, likewise managed by a private foundation. Weyerhaeuser spokesman Anthony Chavez says “The Bonsai and Rhododendron Gardens will not be affected by the announcement of moving our corporate headquarters to Seattle.”

Eugenia Woo, a board member of the mid-century modern architecture preservation group, Docomomo-WeWA, says the Weyerhaeuser headquarters' future is a concern. "Red flags are up," she says. "The setting cannot be beat. It's a spectacular property and one of the best examples of modernism in the state."

University of Washington professor and architectural historian Jeffrey Karl Ochsner in a Facebook comment writes that the building "clearly deserves to be recognized and protected. Under the 50-year rule it is not yet eligible for the National Register, but I think a good case could be made for the exception given to especially meritorious buildings."

Allyson Brooks, the state's chief preservation officer, says she will reserve comment until more is known. "It's a great building, but let's wait to see what Weyerhaeuser has to say about its future."

While the freeway-adjacent Weyerhaeuser campus might be ripe for redevelopment if viewed as a large blank canvas, from an historic landscape and architectural standpoint, it's a gem. It's as yet unclear whether the building would be protected or repurposed by a new owner, but it is certainly landmark-worthy. Indeed, its design was meant to be a modernist showcase — a landmark in a literal sense — visible to millions of I-5 commuters.

The Puget Sound Business Journal reports there is a lot of potential interest in the site. The grounds and building with ivy terraces, rock sculptures, ponds and Zen-feel do suggest possibilities as a kind of luxury hotel and spa property. Or maybe a building for some public purpose, like a school, or a corporate campus for some other prosperous company. How about a McMenamins?  Using some of the land for housing is another possibility.

Jim Ferrell, mayor of Federal Way, says he'd like to see the building preserved. "I agree that the current Weyerhaeuser building is an architectural masterpiece and certainly one worth preserving. From our perspective that would be our primary approach, and we will do whatever we can in this transition and help them locate an interested party to occupy that site."

Ferrell touts the potential for his city. "While we were disappointed by the decision [of Weyerhaeuser] to move, it was not unexpected and provides a unique opportunity for the City of Federal Way. With no B&O tax, and situated on the I-5 corridor with a prime location between Seattle and Tacoma, the possibilities are limitless with this property.”

In any case, Federal Way — not know generally for its architectural character — would certainly benefit from retaining a world-class property. Let's hope the Weyerhaeuser doesn't turn into another Wild Waves!

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