Lift a glass: A Seattle landmark bites the dust

There was plenty of planning and PR. Just the same, residents of Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood this weekend felt like demolition of the historic Rainier Cold Storage building was rushed.
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There was plenty of planning and PR. Just the same, residents of Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood this weekend felt like demolition of the historic Rainier Cold Storage building was rushed.

Jan. 19 was just an ordinary Puget Sound Saturday; the rainy drive to a specialty bookstore in Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood, a latte fetched from right next door, and the strains of eclectic music in the air. Then, from across the road, an interruption that's becoming familiar: another demolition, spewing bricks and concrete into the street. The shock only lasts for seconds, because it's been elaborately previewed on a developer's Web site, in public meetings, and with extensive PR that hammered home familiar themes of renewal and preservation.

Which is surreal considering that the building being torn apart is an official Seattle landmark: the Rainier Cold Storage and Ice/Seattle Brewing and Malting Company. In 1893, as a merger of three earlier Seattle breweries, it would bring Rainier Beer to prominence and evolve into the sixth-largest brewing facility in the world. Now, mechanical claws are devouring the brewery's Stock House section — whose towering façade completes the south end of the 855-foot-long building. Developer Sabey Corp. — a growing presence in the Georgetown area — bought the landmark in October 2006. On its Web site, the company says that after the purchase they learned that the Stock House portion of the complex had a seriously compromised structural integrity. Several aspects of its history as a cold storage and "ice house" facility had led, they say, to degradation that required immediate demolition.

The idea that a developer would make such a purchase without first investigating its full structural state would seem unlikely. But according to the blog written mostly by Sabey Senior Vice President of Investments Jim Harmon (who was on site Saturday in a state of elation that contrasted strongly with that of most onlookers), "we certainly didn't buy the property with this in mind."

With the upcoming demo of the Stock House have come many responses. Some have been surprised or deeply saddened. Some viewed this as fully expected and well communicated. That's a pretty wide spectrum of response and, perhaps, indicative of the independent spirit of Georgetown. At the beginning of the project, we were invited by GT residents to be particularly forthright and open about the project and we have tried to do so. While watching the chat rooms, blogs, etc. and in walking the neighborhood I find the level of speculation alarming.

When locals and preservationists demanded that at least the historic west façade be retained, Sabey Corp. was ready for them. On Aug. 31, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board viewed a Sabey presentation "as to possible designs to save the [west] wall, regardless of cost." But weeks before, Sabey had asked the Department of Planning and Development for an emergency permit to completely demolish of what they termed a "public safety hazard." This, as activists and locals quickly realized, protected them from further actions or demands by the Landmarks Board. The city signed off on it Jan. 4.

On Saturday, Jan. 19, behind the counter in the buzzing Fantagraphics store, art consultant Larry Reid stared as the parapets across the road came crashing down. "That's Seattle history," he said angrily. "It's going away and we can't get it back; it's gone forever. I was born here, I grew up here, and I know you can't save everything. But goddamn it, you can save a wall! It's all going to go in Seattle. It's all going to be gone."

Seattle archivist Paul Dorpat shares Reid's shock. "I've probably never driven to the airport without driving by there, just to enjoy its sheer size and its architecture. To me it's always seemed like a kind of cathedral: to the working man, to his place in our history - and to his beer." Dorpat agreed with Reid that the act seemed a special affront in light of the recent passing of Walt Crowley, the founder of HistoryLink. "If he were here, Walt would have been down there, chained to the wall."

The sentiments were echoed by crowds of morose Georgetowners. They lined the streets, stuck flowers in the fencing, and raised their beers in homage. Those just stopping by Georgetown on a Saturday seemed equally angry. "It's just so Seattle," said painter and programmer John Ohannesian. "They're razing it just to build another concrete and glass atrocity."

On the pavement, a blond man in leather struggled to capture the scene with his cellphone. He said his name was Stan and he was on a visit from Sweden. Then he blurted out, "This is so incredible! I can't believe it! You and your country, you care nothing about nothing but money!"

Back inside the Fantagraphics store, the clerk behind the record counter looked outside the window, sighed, and moved to change the tune. His choice? A plaintive "Let Me Go Home" by Scottish songsters Camera Obscura.


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