No (Gold) Rush to judgement

Seattle nominates the old home of the Klondike strike's originator as a landmark, but the debate over George Carmack's place in local history is far from settled, and landmark status is not assured.
Crosscut archive image.

The George Carmack House in Seattle's Central District. (Vintage Seattle)

Seattle nominates the old home of the Klondike strike's originator as a landmark, but the debate over George Carmack's place in local history is far from settled, and landmark status is not assured.

It was April Fool's Day and the Seattle Landmarks and Preservation Board couldn't make up its mind whether the nomination of the George W. Carmack House was a joke or not.

George Carmack was the man credited with starting the Klondike stampede by filing the first gold claim. The ensuing Gold Rush is often credited with putting Seattle on the map. Carmack moved to Seattle and lived in a home in Squire Park for a dozen or so years.

But just because someone famous once lived in a house doesn't necessarily make it a landmark or guarantee it will be saved. The recent demolition of Jimi Hendrix's boyhood home in Renton, despite a $100,000 multi-year effort to save it, is a case in point. This is where young Jimi pretended to play guitar on a broom since he couldn't afford the real thing. One sad suggestion that's been made: someone could make a real guitar out of the home's debris.

Carmack House is relatively intact still, though the interior was roughly vandalized and damaged earlier this year. No one has been caught in what appears to be a systematic stripping of the house's interior architectural elements. But preservationists argue that its exterior architectural integrity is still there and that it can be restored. The 1902 house is at risk of being torn down because the owners want to sell the valuable property underneath it. It lies in the footprint of Swedish Hospital's expansion zone near the old Providence Hospital in the Squire Park neighborhood.

The board voted 7-2 to nominate the house as a landmark. Sounds like strong support, but the board actually seemed quite divided and ambivalent. Some of those voting in favor of the nomination did so saying they needed more time to study its worthiness and seemed to regard Carmack House as iffy. The board is scheduled to take up consideration of formal designation of the Carmack House on May 6, which gives them time to digest what they've heard so far.

On the surface it would seem that the Carmack House is a slam dunk for preservation. The nomination was presented by respected preservation consultant Mimi Sheridan. A representative of the Squire Park Community Council described it as "very important" to the neighborhood. The National Park Service, which runs the Gold Rush National Historic Park in Seattle, has identified it as one of the last important structures associated with the Gold Rush still standing outside of Pioneer Square that is unprotected. Researchers have deemed it eligible for listing on the National Historic Register of Historic Places and the park's superintendent, Karen A. Beppler-Dorn, let it be known that if Carmack House is saved, the Park Service would love to work with the owners in making it part of their interpretive program. In addition, Historic Seattle, the public development authority and non-profit group that rehabs and finds new uses for important historic structures, is eager to find a way to save it.

But the owner, the Irena Jewdoschenko Estate, opposes landmarking. The estate wants to sell the lot. They hired preservation consultant Art Skolnik to make the case against Carmack House, and he did. Skolnik testified saying, in essence, that the Gold Rush wasn't that significant, that Carmack's role in how it impacted Seattle was minor (or, rather, miner?), that Carmack only lived a dozen or so years in the house and did nothing significant while he was there. Skolnik also argued that the home was no architectural gem, but rather an early but hardly precious example of the kind of pre-fab, catalog homes people once ordered from various turn-of-the-century catalog companies like Sears & Roebuck. Many people did just that during the post-Gold Rush boom years in Seattle, which grew 6,000 percent between 1880 and 1910.

Skolnik spoke for a long time in making his broad and ambitious attack against the nomination — so long, he says, his car was towed. The board seemed to grow restless with his testimony as the hour grew late. But he buried them with papers, exhibits, opinions, and facts and managed to succeed is getting them to second-guess Carmack House. Their vote for nomination was tinged with uncertainty.

The Landmarks Board staff had recommended approval of Carmack House, and the staff judgement often holds great weight, but at least two new board members, Steve Savage and Meredith Wirsching, expressed outright opposition to the nomination. Others were on the fence and a few strongly supported the nomination. Which means the designation meeting in May should be lively and hard fought as advocates and opponents try to sway the undecideds.

Proponents will make the case that the house itself is architecturally interesting, a kind of cutting-edge hybrid between the Shingle and Dutch Colonial styles. Exterior photos show the home is little changed. Opponents will argue that it's is a dime-a-dozen home, "a cute house, but just another house," Skolnik says. The vandalism to the interior, it will be argued, has wrecked its integrity anyway.

Proponents will press to show that George Carmack was more than a passing symbol of the Gold Rush but in fact left his mark on Seattle. In addition to being a major figure in town because of his Klondike-found wealth, he was a local investor, developer, mine operator, and figure about town who drove one of the city's first private automobiles. Opponents will argue that he was a phony will made little impact locally and that it's a bit of a sham to even call the home the "Carmack House" because he lived there for only about a dozen years out of the home's 100-plus-year life. He didn't even build the house.

Proponents will argue that the Gold Rush was a transformative even in Seattle's history, kicked off boom times, and is an historic event commemorated and memorialized from Seattle to the Arctic, indeed around the world. It created Seattle's first millionaires and led directly to another important event, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909, which celebrates its centennial this year. Opponents will say that the Gold Rush was largely just a PR campaign, that the people in Seattle who profited from it were everyone but miners like George Carmack, and that Carmack himself was a man of low character who was used as a figure head and publicity tool. His fame, it will be said, was also based on a lie: He may not have been the actual discoverer of gold, though no one disputes the rush started after he brandished his gold dust in a Klondike bar. But the question will linger: Why would Seattle want to commemorate a link to a possible fraud?

One funny moment in the testimony came when Skolnik was asked by a board member if there were any other prominent Seattle figures who played a role in the Gold Rush. Skolnik replied that the mayor of Seattle had run off to the gold fields. "Mayor Nickels?" the astonished board member asked. The room erupted with laughter to the vision of mayor Nickels panning for gold in the Yukon. Skolnik has been referring to Mayor W.D. Wood, who quit his job and headed north upon hearing news of a gold strike in 1897.

If the Carmack House is landmarked, the owners hope it can be removed from its location on East Jefferson Street. There is an interested buyer and Historic Seattle says it is trying to help them secure a nearby lot so the building can be moved there, at least keeping the house in Squire Park. Relocating it in turn might even help the owner by clearing the land of a structure they cannot be secured from vandals, and it would eliminate any demolition controversy.

The nomination is giving a higher profile to the Central Area neighborhood where it sits. Sklonik says that, while he disagrees about Carmack House, the landmarks nomination document has a good section on the history of Squire Park and that he thinks a good case can be made to turn it into an historic district. The area has long been multi-cultural (an enclave for African-Americans, Jews and the Japanese, among others). It has been rapidly transformed lately, posing a risk to many older homes. It is also the site of other important landmark buildings like Washington Hall and the old Coca Cola plant. Historic district status would help set standards that could save the neighborhood's unique character.

As for the unique character and contributions to history of George W. Carmack: the jury is still out.


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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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