Welcome to 'Destroy History Month'

September's demolition of state landmarks leaves Washington preservationists reeling.
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Luzon Building, Tacoma

September's demolition of state landmarks leaves Washington preservationists reeling.

April might have seemed cruel to T.S. Eliot, but it's September that's got Washington's historic preservation community in the dumps. Last month was the "perfect storm for preservation," according to Chris Moore of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation in Seattle. Fire, neglect, old age, development, and bad judgment all conspired with the Great Recession to help bring down, damage, or severely stress a number of landmarks and historic structures.

Moore is keeper of the Trust's "most endangered" list that tracks important structures that ought to be saved. It's not surprising that some on the list would become extinct, but Moore can't remember another month like this past September for so much bad news around the state. Here's a (partial) list of the dead and wounded:

The Luzon Building in Tacoma: Described by Tacoma preservationists as "one of the city's foremost architectural treasures," this landmark was demolished by the city ostensibly for safety reasons. Designed and built in 1891 by the one of the most important architectural firms of the 19th century, Burnham and Root (they oversaw the 1893 Columbian Exposition), the Luzon was a six-story building with an incredible pedigree that played a role in the development of the skyscraper. Burnham and Root designed it with a steel structure that was key to being able to construct taller buildings. The Luzon was a rarity that played a key role in the history of architecture and modern cities, and was recognized on city, state, and national registers.

The owners and preservationists worked hard on a rehab plan; permits and tax credits were in hand, but financing couldn't be found thanks to the recession. It was structurally weakened, so the city of Tacoma demolished the Luzon on Sept. 26. Despite having survived the Nisqually quake (and others) it was deemed a public safety hazard, though some preservationists and consultants believe the risks were exaggerated and that it could have been saved. The money used to demolish it, for example, might have instead been used to shore it up, some argued. The net result of demolition was a huge loss for Tacoma and preservation in general. Wrote Tacoma's preservation-minded columnist Peter Callaghan, "Demolition does great legal and psychological damage to Tacoma's preservation ethic." If you can't save the Luzon, what can you save? The reverberations could be felt far outside the City of Destiny.

Waitsburg Mill: On Sept. 6, the founding structure of the southeastern Washington town of Waitsburg went up in flames, the 1865 historic mill that gave birth to the agricultural community that surrounds it. Not far from Walla Walla, Waitsburg is a charming rural burg with a Mark Twain feel that has been undergoing a revival from wine and food — think of it as a mini-Eastern Washington Port Townsend. The mill was made of irreplaceable fir and heartwood, and the city was preparing to restore it. It was placed on the state's endangered list in 2005. The 144-year-old building, the town's most important historic structure, was gone in an hour.

Paul Thiry church: The timber town of Shelton in Mason County is also home of St. Edward's Catholic Church, a 1930s building designed by Paul Thiry, who has been dubbed the "father of Northwest modernism." This is an earlier example of his work and local preservationists have been working hard to save the old Norman-style sanctuary (a new church has been built elsewhere). The Washington Trust put the church on its 2009 endangered list. Mason County is buying the property from the Catholic Church, but on condition that it be demolished first. Preservationists with a rescue plan raised some $150,000, according to Chris Moore, and proposed converting the site into a community resource for day care and local arts, but the city of Shelton issued a demolition permit on Sept. 19 and its destruction is imminent. Mason County has no immediate plans for the property but has been assembling parcels for a county office campus as part of a long-range plan.

Vashon Island Gymnasium: Also on the 2009 endangered list, the Vashon Elementary Gymnasium next to the Harbor School, dating from 1919 was one of the largest and most important non-farm structures on the island. Preservationists wanted to relocate the structure as the island's Park District wanted room for athletic fields, but those efforts "fizzled" according to the local Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber. The building was taken down in September, though some of its parts were salvaged to be recycled for other uses. Nevertheless, it was essentially demolished.

Miner's Hospital in Cle Elum: The Cle Elum-Roslyn Beneficial Association Hospital, built around the turn of the century, was an early effort at health-care reform. Miners and members of the United Mine Workers from Roslyn decided to provide for their own care instead of relying on the mining companies. Thy raised money for their own hospital in nearby Cle Elum. The structure is run down, and renovation options are limited by the caveat that the property must be used only for health care. A local hospital district has decided to demolish the structure, despite its being on the National Register. Permits were sought in September. An effort by the mayor of nearby Roslyn to move the old hospital did not pan out.

Alki's Homestead Restaurant: In January, this historic lodge was damaged by fire and subsequently listed on the endangered list. The restaurant was a longtime West Seattle favorite that served comfort food (such as its famous fried chicken), but the building (also known as Fir Lodge Estate) is a city landmark. Owner Tom Lin says it's now too far gone to restore, both because of fire damage and aging. In mid-September, he proposed moving and "reconstructing" it while also redeveloping the property with a reopened restaurant, bar, spa, and bed & breakfast. But preservationists worry that Lin plans to ask the city's landmarks board to allow him to demolish the lodge in order to develop the site without being burdened by having to steward the historic structure. Last week, a group, including representatives from the Washington Trust, King County's 4Culture, the Southwest Seattle Historical Society, and the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce, wrote a letter to Lin outlining their concerns and requesting that he move to "take immediate action to prevent further decay by securing the property and building from vandalism and protecting it as the rainy season approaches," and to restore the structure to its pre-fire condition.

There is no single factor that explains the rough fall for state heritage. While the weather had been good, the climate for preservation has been marred by the Great Recession. Normally, Moore says, recessions can be helpful to preservation by removing development pressures and favoring smaller projects, like adaptive re-use of old buildings. But this recession is so bad, few projects of any kind can get financing, including ones that would breathe new life into buildings like the Luzon.

On top of that, the recession has meant budget cuts. The state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation barely managed to avoid being merged out of existence earlier this year. And Seattle preservationists are alarmed at a proposed staff reduction at the city's Department of Neighborhoods that would slow down both the landmarks process and development projects by reducing technical assistance for property owners. The cut is proposed in Mayor Greg Nickels' 2010 budget. Jennifer Meisner, executive director of the Washington Trust, calls the position to be trimmed critical to the landmark process.

But the economy alone isn't to blame. Aging, disaster, politics, and changing cityscapes also play a role. So do the slow-motion, multiyear efforts to actually get community-based preservation projects underway and funded. One upside is that preservationists, frustrated by what's happened, might get fired up. Often, terrible losses can turn into inspirational moments. The demolition of New York's Penn Station in the 1960s, for example, helped launch the preservation movement nationwide. "Remember the Luzon" could be a rallying cry in Tacoma, as well as a reminder that the work of saving our history, even already designated landmarks, is never done. At the very least it might be useful to remember a September some would like to forget.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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