Saving the lesser Seattle landmarks

Laws alone aren't enough to preserve our urban heritage against senseless destruction.
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Laws alone aren't enough to preserve our urban heritage against senseless destruction.

Last month, I attended a meeting of the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board, the group of citizens that sits down and decides which buildings and structures in Seattle are worth preserving for posterity. These include classic waterfront piers, the Space Needle, and scores of office buildings, old boats, grand old theaters and Victorian-era homes. At the meeting, board member Stephen Lee said the board is "trying to recognize buildings that are obvious landmarks." Preserving such historic touchstones is a way of holding our collective memory in physical structures so we can share a sense of history, identity, and place.

But Seattle is much more than old buildings deserving historic markers. While designated landmarks tend to be outstanding — "obvious" — structures (e.g., the Smith Tower), who protects all the lesser ones? Who's looking out for all the old homes, apartment and commercial buildings that are wonderful, functional, livable and charming parts of the city's fabric?

I was recently in San Francisco. From the top of famous Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, two things struck me. One is that San Francisco, dense as it is, is a low-rise city. Four- and five-story buildings sprawl across the hills; big towers cluster downtown and in a few other areas, but they don't dominate as they do now in Vancouver, British Columbia, which has opted for wall-to-wall skinny towers. As big a city as it is, San Francisco suits people who are walking about: The sun is rarely blotted out by concrete and glass.

Secondly, I noticed how old much of the city is. Despite earthquakes and fires, the housing stock has great character.

San Francisco isn't the perfect city — there's not as much greenery as in Seattle, and it's even less affordable. But part of its undeniable appeal is its commitment to its heritage. It's not a museum, but it has the richness of many European cities.

Parts of Seattle also have this quality, but generally, we're younger, rougher and, lately, the wrecking ball has been swinging all too frequently. The pace of growth is altering the face of neighborhoods in favor of developers. We often tear down perfectly good old structures and replace them with newer ones at the expense of the kind of character that makes mature cities attractive.

A case in point. The evening I attended the landmarks meeting, three wonderful Capitol Hill brick apartment buildings, built between 1909 and 1936, were brought forward for landmark review. They were on property Sound Transit wants to use as a staging area for the construction of the new light rail line. Two of these lovely brick boxes, some with art deco or Craftsman-style detailing, featured affordable one-bedroom apartments, studios and ground-floor retail businesses on Broadway. The designs are in keeping with many of the other apartment buildings on the hill. In scale and age, they have that San Francisco quality.

But these structures weren't erected by a famous architect, are not particularly remarkable on their own and didn't meet any of the criteria for landmarks. So they were turned down by the board, allowing Sound Transit to proceed with its plans to knock them down in order to park bulldozers there. I suspect they'll eventually be replaced by mixed-use structures that will be less affordable and have less soul. Our grandfathers built buildings to last, using brick; we often build with particle board.

The landmarks laws are an important piece of the city-shaping puzzle. But they resemble environmental rules that protect only the oldest and finest trees in the forest and not the forest itself. To do that, we need a different development ethic that emphasizes the recycling of older structures and a determination not to tear down sound buildings that are already part of the heart and soul of the city. We need to apply public pressure to preserve use, character and affordability, not simply architectural significance.

Some would argue these old buildings are just the eggs that need to be broken to make a better urban omelet. To me, it's as though we're cooking up an overpriced plate of scrambled eggs.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.