Washington Hall moves toward landmark status

The historic old theater may find a future use for arts groups, though money would still have to be raised to purchase and renovate it.
The historic old theater may find a future use for arts groups, though money would still have to be raised to purchase and renovate it.

Good news this past Wednesday for those trying to preserve Washington Hall, the historic but now dilapidated building in the Central District that has been home to the activities of many Seattle ethnic communities and arts organizations over the last 100 years. 4Culture, the cultural services agency for King County, put forward a nomination to landmark the building before the Landmarks Board, which is administered by the Department of Neighborhoods of the City of Seattle.

After stirring testimony from several community organizations and individuals, the board accepted the nomination unanimously and with great enthusiasm. A spontaneous round of applause from those in attendance broke out after the decision was announced. The next and final step is a public hearing on January 7 at which the board will vote on final determination of landmark status. Based on Wednesday'ꀙs meeting, a positive decision seems likely.

4Culture, along with Historic Seattle, has been the leader in trying to preserve Washington Hall for renovation and future use by Seattle arts organizations. The building contains a number of offices, gathering spaces, and other rooms, but the crown jewel is the wonderful second floor theater, cherished over many years by performers and audiences alike.

The Sons of Haiti Masonic lodge, the current owners, put the building up for sale over a year ago, and Historic Seattle, with an assist from 4Culture, has been in negotiations to purchase it. Historic Seattle has an $8 million renovation plan in place should they be successful in their acquisition. In the current economic climate, that plan may be a hard one to achieve on top of the needed cash for the purchase.

Jim Kelly, head of 4Culture, estimates that $300,000 of improvements to the building would make it ready for occupancy by arts groups. According to Kelly, Historic Seattle can pursue a 'ꀜbuy and hold strategy'ꀝ taking time to amass the funds needed for the full renovation. As owners, at least for the first several years, they would lease out the building to interested arts renters. The state, through either its Heritage Capital Projects or Building for the Arts programs, has indicated a readiness to fund these interim improvements, contingent on availability of money from the budget — a big if in these hard times.

Landmarking the building does not assure that it still won'ꀙt be torn down, if Historic Seattle is not successful in its bid. Kelly calls the landmarking a 'ꀜpro-active'ꀝ act. Says Beth Chave, the coordinator of Seattle'ꀙs Landmark Board, 'ꀜanyone entering into the process of purchase of the property knows that because of its [projected] landmark status there is strong community support for this building.'ꀝ


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