The King County Courthouse, part of Seattle's original civic campus downtown, is one of the grandest of local historic landmarks under public ownership today. Designed in the Beaux Arts style by prominent Seattle architect A. Warren Gould, the Courthouse was completed in 1916 after a much-debated public vote. Originally, the marbled main entrance faced a lushly landscaped City Hall Park, giving a "city beautiful" grace to seat of local government.
But an extensive remodel of the building was made in 1967, evidently intended to modernize the outmoded neoclassical look. Regrettably, much of the original stone detailing and windows of the courthouse exterior were masked over with the installation of banal aluminum panels on the east and west facades, and the grand Jefferson Street main entrance was turned into a brutal loading dock. What park in Seattle deserves to have in its foreground the clutter and clank of daily truck loading and parked service vehicles?
So it was particularly disheartening to the local preservation community when King County Executive Ron Sims, citing costs and other concerns, recently vetoed a $109,000 line item in the County Council's 2008-09 approved budget that was intended for a long-awaited restoration study of the building's altered exterior. As Christine Palmer, preservation advocate for Historic Seattle described in a letter last summer to Sims, "the neglect King County government has shown to the courthouse sets a double standard when the county urges private property owners to preserve and restore their historic buildings while failing to properly preserve its own historic building."
The handsome yet defaced historic Courthouse has long awaited attention and funding for a fuller restoration. Local architects Cardwell/Thomas conducted an exhaustive study in 1987 for this purpose. Some small features of the building's interior have been restored, but "most of the study has been ignored," according to Palmer. And while an $86 million seismic retrofit in the 1990s provided necessary structural and mechanical upgrades, nothing has been done to restore the marred original building entrance on Jefferson Street or the exterior facades defaced with tacky metal appliqué.
The good news is there are two preservation proposals out for the Courthouse restoration. The council budgeted $250,000 for design development to re-establish the south-facing main entrance to the Courthouse, and the county won an $800,000 competitive preservation grant from the state for larger restoration of the historic structure.
The county's 2008 adopted budget is $4.9 billion, which begs the question: Why did Sims veto a small potatoes item of just $109,000 to study restoration of the Courthouse? At time when state funds have been awarded, and the long neglected landmark was just beginning to see its day in the sun again? Sims, well known for his strong environmental advocacy, acknowledged the need to study how the renovation would affect energy use in the building. But he asserted in a Dec. 27 veto letter to the council that removal of the metal panels covering the windows would likely result in increased energy usage.
The claim that uncovering the courthouse windows "could have a negative energy impact," as Sims says, is completely unfounded. In fact, it flies in the face of the prevailing view held by most "green building" architects and engineers concerned with climate protection – that increased natural daylighting instead of artificial interior lighting is key to lowering energy demand. This is because artificial lighting uses more electricity, generates internal heat, and requires even greater energy use through mechanical cooling. That is why natural daylighting of buildings is today a key environmental design strategy. The study vetoed by Sims would have provided just the engineering analysis needed to evaluate window treatment and energy impacts.
It's estimated that at least 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions is generated by buildings from their energy use. One of the best sustainability strategies, therefore, is to preserve and restore older historic buildings that were typically designed, in their original state, to rely more on natural daylight and passive (non-mechanical) ventilation provided by operable windows. In the so-called "modern era" of architecture in the 1960s, energy was cheap, so there was heavy reliance on artificial lighting and energy-sucking mechanical systems to cool buildings.
All is not lost. With the 30-day deadline approaching, there's still time for the King County Council to take appropriate action to override Sims' misguided veto of the Courthouse Aluminum Panels project. If not for historic preservation, then for advancing climate protection by reducing energy use – something we should all be concerned about.