When pondering the final days of the Collins Building, a post-and-beam landmark on Everett's waterfront that once housed the North Coast Casket Company, it's easy to slip into a kind of mortician parlance.
The Port of Everett will not demolish the Collins, a property listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the last remnant of Everett's mill town heritage (think death followed by cremation). Instead, by a 2-1 vote of the Port Commission on June 16, it will be meticulously deconstructed (think death followed by organ donation). As the Port's Mitigation Strategy reads, "[Deconstruction] will provide interested parties with the opportunity to acquire elements from the building."
City of Smokestacks, must you always tear at our hearts?
The campaign to save the Collins culminated in a recently expired 2005 memorandum of agreement between the Port, which has owned the building since 1991, the State Army Corps of Engineers, and two preservation groups, Historic Everett and the Washington State Historic Preservation Office. It's the repeat of a film script activists have tired of: The idealistic and underfunded vanquished by the hard-nosed and deep-pocketed.
Nevertheless, the Collins fight is more complex than Goliath versus the little guy. Like all cultural symbols, the Collins Building has grown into a force greater than itself. The debate, at least among activists, is about the soul of a place. The Collins battle also raises the curtain on problems that will be tough if not not impossible to unscramble, from the limited statutory mission of port districts, to the unbroken past of preservation campaigns, to an indigenous lack of civic imagination.
First, some context.
The Collins is part of a string of landmarks that ring Port Gardner Bay. They include Legion Memorial Park on the north hillside, built with WPA support; the Hebolb archeological site (the Snohomish Tribe's winter village); the schooner Equator which was Everett's first National Register property; and, to the south, the Everett City dock, site of the infamous 1916 Everett Massacre. It's a constellation of historic landmarks ably documented in a HistoryLink cybertour written by historian Margaret Riddle (suck-up advisory: I sit on the HistoryLink board). Collectively, these treasures speak to the value of making Puget Sound a National Maritime Heritage Area, an effort Knute Berger analyzed last month.
Today the Collins building sits squat and broad shouldered on Everett's Port Gardner Bay, the fire-engine twin of Bill Boeing's Red Barn. Unlike the Boeing Barn, however, the Collins was built on pilings above since-filled tidelands, making it essentially impossible to move.
It's an impressive, delightfully incongruous sight. Historic Everett documents its significance:
The lumber of which this building is made is not possible to find in this day and age. Both because of the wood, and the post and beam methods of its construction, the Collins Building could never be duplicated. It's an authentic building from Everett's booming industrial age, and a visual and sentimental reminder of the heritage upon which Everett is built.
There have been enough preservation victories for activists to sustain a smidgen of faith (more in the value of collective elbowing than the judgment of the political class). Wins include saving and rehabbing the old Monte Cristo Hotel, Everett High School, the Commerce Building, and Seattle architect Carl Gould's magnificent Everett Public Library. (The library was subsequently remodeled and expanded in the 1990s by the architects at Cardwell/Thomas and Dykema).
The old Everett Theatre where Al Jolson, Lon Chaney, and Lillian Russell all performed, was also saved and refurbished. However, it's minus the triangular prism marquee, a profile in period 1950s neon, adorned with a saturn-like globe. The sign was designed by Seattle architect B. Marcus Priteca, nationally known for his work on Pantages theatres from Hollywood to Seattle. Priteca's neon diadem was judged too kitschy for Milltown and ripped down.
There are times, nevertheless, when historic preservation in Everett seems to revolve around the production of "It Stood Here Once" plaques. One marks the site of the Old Central Opera House, later re-named the Orpheum and then the People's Theater. It was there that Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs and labor and political radical Mother Jones galvanized audiences. Today residents can loiter in the Bank of America drive-thru, shut their eyes, and conjure the voices of both radicals and performers past. Or, well, something.
In 1976, the historic Colby and Silverstone buildings, the latter housing the last offices of the Everett Land Company, were demolished to make way for a Bicentennial Park. Just like the infamous Bicentennial Freedom Train, however, Everett's Bicentennial landmark rapidly came and went.
The seminal historic-preservation moment was the battle to build the Everett Events Center a decade ago. It was the Hetch Hetchy climax for preservationists, the heartbreak that felt pre-ordained and gave birth to a grassroots organization, Historic Everett.
The first buildings on Hewitt Avenue, including the historic Stovie Building and the Scottish Rite Temple, were razed to make way for Cher and the Everett Silvertips. The loss of those landmarks diminished the historic character of the city, although the Events Center itself has been a boon to Everett's somnolent downtown.
It's those collective losses, brick by brick, that inform the visceral response to the Collins decision. Think of the festering resentment of the Irish from centuries of British hegemony. Then dial up those feelings a couple notches and you have the unbroken memory of Everett preservationists.
Emotions circle back to the story's bete noire, the Everett Port Commission. Port districts were conceived as populist instruments to break up concentrated capital. Give the waterfront to the people not the fat cats, the argument went. Legislators passed the Port District Act in 1911 and Everett organized its port in 1918. Over the decades, however, most port districts have embraced a credo that holds sacred economic and real estate development. Historic preservation is not a statutory priority.
"Ports have a very slim mission," Commissioner Connie Niva said. "It's not quality of life but to serve as an economic engine." The Collins Building, she noted, "sits on the site where we're building a boat yard," and is not connected to Everett Maritime, the North Marina development company that filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy on May 20. Niva emphasized the port's record of environmental stewardship. "We're the cleanest and the greenest," she said.
(A side note: Everett is the consummate small town where degrees of separation narrow with time, as seen in this sample excerpt of our conversation. Niva: Your Mom and I use to talk about your love life, did you know that? Me: Oh. Translation: I'm blood bound to tamp down snarky asides.)
The limited-scope notion of ports was echoed by Eric Johnson, the executive director of the Washington Public Ports Association. "We're not historic preservation districts; we're job-creating entities," Johnson said. When asked about other values and the potential of changing port statutes to incorporate historic preservation, Johnson said, "I don't know how it would be viewed [by port districts statewide.]" Ports do everything they can to preserve historic structures, Johnson added, "But if it's not financially feasible, what do you do then? Ports do what they can and they do a pretty good job."
Commissioner Michael Hoffmann, the sole anti-deconconstruction vote, is more philosophical. "There's no rush. If it's not a pressing issue with ramifications and not having a negative impact, then why?" While the outcome is uncertain, "[the Collins Building] could be a robust part of our community."
Hoffmann advocates a program of "community capital" where issues of historic preservation, public access, and the environment are assigned a value and integrated into the port's economic calculus. The oft-used "quality of life" factor, however defined, would also be an index.
A community-capital notion merits consideration, but like all good ideas it will need to be force fed. Some neck-extending soul in the Legislature will need to sponsor legislation, call it "The Collins Building Act," to incorporate historic preservation and other qualitative values into the statutory mandate of port districts.
Activists Valerie Steel, David Mascarenas, and members of Historic Everett, the champions of the Collins Building, remain steadfast. They've not only invested money, time, and sweat equity but also raised more fundamental questions regarding community, place, and civic imagination. "The point of cities is multiplicity of choice," the urban historian Jane Jacobs wrote. Steel, Mascarenas, and other Collins boosters manifest that belief.
Collins supporters have embraced an incremental battle plan that could still work. The approach concentrates on process details including the residency of Commissioner Niva. Four days after the Collins vote, Niva announced her resignation from the commission because her newly purchased condo sits outside district lines. As a result, Steel and others are challenging the validity of her June 16 vote. Niva says it's a nonstarter, "It's where you sleep" and that she and her husband have yet to move into their new, out-of-district home.
On July 10, Collins supporters, under the banner of the newly formed Collins Building Coalition, received a two-week restraining order as they work on an appeal. The Coalition claims that the Port is violating the 2005 memorandum of agreement, including a dispute-resolution clause, the potential for restoration given the reduction in construction costs, and the value of reuse to bolster tourism. A follow-up hearing is set for July 24.
If the stars fail to align and the deconstructionists come, I'll plan to lie down with the rest of the pro-Collins protesters. Some sensible voices, including the editorial board of the Everett Herald, will respond, "Historic preservation is fine, but this tinderbox? It will cost millions to rehab."
And I'll say, "Yeah, I'm here for this tinderbox, but I'm mostly here for the Scottish Rite Temple, the Colby and Silverstone buildings, and multiple other Everett landmarks that I complacently watched fall to dust.
"This is big because Everett's past has a purpose. This big because the Collins Building is now, for many of us, a force greater than itself."