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Wrecking balls 2017: hippies, bad drivers and gargoyles

A decades-old gargoyle is removed during demolition of the former Seattle Opera building on Mercer street. Credit: Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut

Heritage Turkeys 2017

Developers and their wrecking balls can be some of the worst actors when it comes to tearing down what’s unique about the Northwest. This year, though, they had as much company from others as I can recall in nearly a decade of calling out examples of the worst behavior in historic preservation and cultural heritage stewardship in the Pacific Northwest. The forces of havoc included a surprisingly varied cast of characters: giggling teenagers, gargoyle smashers, car thieves, Oregon hippies and Donald Trump.

My picks for the Heritage Turkey Awards of 2017 show that cultural destruction knows no class or ideological bounds. But one might detect a trend in terms of a lack of intelligent thought on the part of many of these award “winners.” Here they are:

 Giggling while the Gorge Burns

Wildfires tormented the West this year, but the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area along the Columbia River in Oregon was a heritage disaster of the first order. The fire was apparently caused by teenagers tossing fireworks into the tinder-dry forest along a popular hiking trail. The kids were said to be giggling and filming the fire they caused. A witness confronted the teen suspects. “Do you realize you just started a forest fire?” she asked. One of the kids replied, “What are we supposed to do about it now?” Apparently going for help was not on their agenda. One 15-year-old boy from Vancouver, Washington, is facing reckless endangerment and other charges.

The three-month fire (it started Sept. 2 and wasn’t contained until the end of November) burned more than 48,000 acres, including the area around the spectacular and popular Multnomah Falls. While the historic Multnomah Lodge was saved, tourist season in the heritage corridor was disrupted at its seasonal peak, commerce along I-84 was blocked, and ash and smoke spread as far as Portland. The firefighting bill alone is upward of $20 million, not counting restoration costs and lost commerce. The damage to popular hiking trails and recreation areas will take generations to fully recover. This was not an act of nature but one of human carelessness, callousness and stupidity.

The Seattle Center Gargoyle Fiasco

In 1961, Seattle’s 1928 ice arena was rehabbed as an event venue for the Century 21 Exposition, and it has hosted everything from hockey games to rock ‘n’ roll concerts in the half-century since. In recent years the building was targeted for demolition for Seattle Opera’s new headquarters and this year the wrecking crews began to knock it down. The experts said there wasn’t enough of the original structure left to warrant preservation. A consultant concluded that the original ornamentation on the exterior facade from the ’20s had been removed. But the minute the 1961 overlay was breached, it became evident that wasn’t the case.

Turns out the original exterior of the arena, complete with gargoyle-like sculptures, had been kept intact beneath the world’s fair-era bricks. Gargoyles hit the ground and the public hit the roof. Two of four of the original figures — technically they’re “grotesques,” not “gargoyles” — have been salvaged; the others were destroyed. The fact that original façade was intact with its medallions, pedestals and mythical animals strongly suggests that — whether or not the building itself was landmark worthy — a more thorough investigation should have determined they were there. And a plan should have been put in place to preserve or recover the unique architectural features, if not save the entire façade. Finding such treasures in a pile of rubble during demolition is not good stewardship.

What’s wrong with Oregon’s hippies?

Every year, a loose network of folks espousing eco-values and spouting supposed Native American spiritual beliefs called the Rainbow Family congregates in a National Forest for love, prayer and other hippie stuff. They’ve been doing this since 1972. A writer at Portland’s Willamette Week described it as like “Burning Man’s extra crunchy older brother who disappeared for a few years in the sixties and came back a little weird.”

If the Rainbows, as they are called, love the planet, they have a funny way of showing it. This year an estimated 13,000 descended on the Malheur National Forest in Eastern Oregon for their gathering to commune with each other and leave a mess behind. Without permits, they squatted during the weeks of July digging latrines, leaving human waste and trash. The Forest Service said that it would cost them at least $750,000 to police the event and clean up afterward. (Last year, right-wing extremists made the Heritage Turkey list for tearing up the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which is south of the forest.)

Also in Oregon in July is the Oregon Country Fair, a three-day hippie festival in Veneta that has been going since the late 1960s. Noted attendees in years past have included the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Merry Prankster/author Ken Kesey. A big controversy in the past couple of years has been over plans to erect a Native American-like totem or “story pole” carved by non-Indians. The pole sponsors are members of a group that runs the fair’s bathhouse concession, Ritz Sauna and Showers and a related a group calling themselves the Flamingo Clan. Members of a local indigenous group, the Kalapuya people, and others, have strenuously objected to the pole as an inappropriate appropriation of native traditions and art. A Kalapuya storyteller told Eugene Weekly that the pole carvings suggest North Coast style native designs. “And as a Kalapuya I am extremely insulted that this is a Northwest coast totem pole when that sort of thing didn’t exist here.” Members of the Ritz Sauna/Flamingos have pushed back, saying the pole was just art and that opposition to it was censorship. Heated arguments ensued.

A descendant of Kwakwaka’wakw carvers in British Columbia, Wendy Ireland recognized the use of North Coast indigenous designs in the pole carvings and told Indian Country Today that the pole was one of the worst examples of appropriation she’d ever seen. “People think cultural appropriation isn’t an important issue, but seeing aspects of your culture used to decorate a bathhouse is a trigger for historical trauma.” In May, the Country Fair’s board apologized for the controversy and voted unanimously not to raise the pole on fair property.

Dumb Demo of “Smart” Home

Preservationists in Vancouver, British Columbia, mourned the demolition of a $7.3-million Tudor-style home in the affluent Shaughnessy neighborhood this fall. Such demolitions are not uncommon in Vancouver. A writer for the Globe & Mail newspaper said about Vancouver these days, “[W]e’ve seen the loss of umpteen historically significant buildings over the years, particularly in the past five years, as rampant redevelopment destroys them.” Despite being almost commonplace these days, this demo classifies as “shocking.”

The grand home was special because when it was built in 1922, it was a model demonstrating the value of electricity and the extensive inclusion of electrical outlets in modern times, thus it was known as “The Electric House.” When it was opened for public viewing in 1922, more than 20,000 people trooped through to see the magic of a home designed for the age of electricity. It was one of a series of smart homes of the era built across Canada for this purpose. Despite nomination to the Vancouver Heritage Register and the efforts of Heritage Vancouver it was torn down for a larger single-family mega-home.

Car crashed into Bellevue's historic Burrow's cabin. Credit: Courtesy of Bellevue Police Department
Car crashed into Bellevue’s historic Burrow’s cabin. Credit: Courtesy of Bellevue Police Department

Cabin Bruiser

The Eastside of Seattle isn’t exactly known for 19th-century housing, but it was once a place for non-tech pioneers. One rare survivor is the modest cedar log cabin of Civil War veteran Albert Burrows, who built it in 1883 when he settled in what became Bellevue. Burrows also built the community’s first school. The Burrows cabin is the city’s oldest structure and has moved over the years. It is currently located at Chism Beach Park on Lake Washington, not far from the original homestead that was once called Burrows Landing.

That’s where it had an unfortunate encounter with modern technology. In October, a stolen Kia crashed into it; the diver fled the scene and has not been caught. A spokesperson for the Bellevue Parks Department said the cabin sustained moderate damage with logs shifted on three sides from a few feet to a few inches. There is no estimate yet on the cost of repairs, but it was more than a simple fender bender. If you know or find out who did it, please turn them in to the Bellevue Police Department. A historic log cabin hit-and-run should not go unpunished.

Big Blue House demolished via a loophole, in Cascade neighborhood of South Lake Union. Credit: Courtesy of Eugenia Woo
Big Blue House demolished via a loophole, in Cascade neighborhood of South Lake Union. Credit: Courtesy of Eugenia Woo

Demolition by “loophole”

In January, Seattle’s non-profit preservation authority, Historic Seattle, became aware of a major problem with the way Seattle issues demolition permits. The case was the demolition of an 1898 house in South Lake Union (on the corner of Republican Street and Minor Avenue) that had been identified by a city survey possibly landmark-eligible as one of the last examples of 19th century residential homes that once populated the Cascade neighborhood. Despite its age and relatively good condition, the structure did not go through a landmarks review and was demolished in 2016.

According to Historic Seattle’s Eugenia Woo, the developer’s demo permit application was inaccurate and misleading in claiming that the house was not at least 50 years old (it was 118 years old). Nor was it disclosed that it was part of a larger development of an adjacent property, which might have triggered more scrutiny. So, instead of a landmarks review, the house was torn down, no questions asked. That, Woo says, exposes a loophole or disconnect in city process. How could demolition of a potentially historic structure, identified as such by the city itself, be accomplished so easily? Where is the cross-checking or fact-checking of applications? A spokesperson for the Department of Construction and Inspections says that given the site’s zoning the house was too small to trigger a referral to the Department of Neighborhoods for a review as an older building. Says Woo, “The applicant got away with destroying one of the few historic houses left in the Cascade neighborhood. What’s wrong with this picture?”

Trump’s “Monumentally Bad” Decision

Donald Trump has alarmed heritage advocates with many of his ideas and policies, from pushing for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to proposing reduced access and increased fees at National Parks. His administration recently moved to end to a program to re-establish grizzly bears in the North Cascades.

The Trump administration also proposed the elimination of the Historic Tax Credit program that has fueled preservation in small towns and cities like Seattle since the Reagan era. That program alone is credited with saving and rehabbing over 43,000 structures nationwide and leveraging more than $131 billion in private investment.

One of Trump’s worst heritage attacks is on the Antiquities Act, a law passed in 1906 that gives presidents the power to protect sites of historic and scientific value by designating them as national monuments. In an unprecedented move in December, Trump radically downsized two monuments already designated by previous presidents, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah, with Trump cutting away more than 2 million protected acres between them and putting many Native American sites in jeopardy. Also being considered for radical surgery: Oregon’s Cascade-Siskyou National Monument and at least seven other monuments. Washington’s Hanford Reach was previously mentioned as a candidate for reduction, but that has apparently been back-burnered. Still, Gov. Jay Inslee and other Washington elected officials have vowed to protect it.

For his part, Trump has said his actions “will usher in a bright new future of wonder and wealth.” Expanding potential resource extraction is a goal of Trump’s Interior Department.

Tom Cassidy, vice president for government relations of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., begged to differ, calling Trump’s attack on the Antiquities Act “the most dramatic effort to stop protection of protected areas in our nation’s history.” Declaring Trump’s move “unlawful,” the National Trust has announced it will fight Trump in federal court. So will a coalition of Indian tribes and other stakeholders.

Trump’s attack on the Antiquities Act, said Cassidy, is “a monumentally bad decision,” and likely the most consequential Heritage Turkey of the year.

You can read some of the previous Heritage Turkey Awards stories here.

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