Blogging about your bungled bungalow

In Seattle and Olympia, new blogs are trying to reshape public opinion about historic preservation by focusing on successes, failures, and hidden architectural influences. Who knew the prevalence of the geodesic dome?
Crosscut archive image.

From <i>P-I</i>'s 1920s-era sign to a 2010 blog's name: The MAIN phone exchange.

In Seattle and Olympia, new blogs are trying to reshape public opinion about historic preservation by focusing on successes, failures, and hidden architectural influences. Who knew the prevalence of the geodesic dome?

Historic preservationists are sometimes criticized for being stuck in the past, but they have embraced the web, Facebook and Twitter. Two groups have recently launched blogs to keep people updated on preservation successes, failures, news, and opportunities.

Historic Seattle, the non-profit public preservation authority that works to save, adapt, rehab, and re-use historic structures in Seattle, has just launched this week a blog called MAin2. The name derives from the old MAIN telephone exchange prefix for downtown Seattle (a system that ought to be revived!). MAin2 "strives to become the pulse on preservation." Chief blogger is Eugenia Woo, who is Historic Seattle's director of preservation services and is a co-founder of Docomomo-WeWA, the preservation group devoted to modern architecture.

MAin2 launches with a variety of items, including a fascinating Pioneer Square success story, the restoration of the Furuya Building, whose top floors were removed after the 1949 earthquake but have now been restored so the structure looks like its turn-of-the-century self again. Pioneer Square needs more good news like this, and often such projects occur under the public's radar. A successful restoration is something that might not be readily noticeable because of how it integrates and repairs the streetscape. At the opposite end of the spectrum is a feature looking at remodeling fiascoes, called "What not to do: When bad things happen to good buildings." The first installment features a mangled Queen Anne Hill bungalow. You know there's one on your block.

Another blog, this one by a state agency, was launched last year by the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, with the motto of "protect the past, shape the future." It includes lots of news and information on grants, fellowships, classes, programs, and other resources for preservationists. Coordinating between local groups, the state and the federal government is part of the agency's mandate.

But the blog also includes some educational material that is fascinating, especially because of its statewide focus. For example, a current item is part of a series called "Style Guide" and looks at architectural features showing the influence of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, from a bank in Vancouver to a business center in Kennewick. An earlier piece in the series looked at geodesic domes around the state. It's amazing what you can find roving the byways with a digital camera. I hope one day they will tell us something of the history of the Quonset hut, the squat, rounded galvanized steel structures you see on farms and along Aurora-style strips statewide.

They also link to preservation stories in the media, from Crosscut (Heritage Turkey Awards) to a recent piece in the The Herald of Everett on the jeopardy the state's Main Street program is in (funding was slashed during the last budget cycle, and it faces elimination entirely in the new round of cuts). This is a slow-motion tragedy, cutting a program that is part of the answer to economic hard times rather than a useless state-funded flub-dub or another subsidy for the haves. Main Street provides a proven process for economic development through historic preservation and is successful nationwide (some, like Seattle developer Kevin Daniels would even like to see it adopted to help revive Pioneer Square). Main Street especially helps mom & pops and locally owned business that are deeply invested in place. Interestingly, one proposal for saving the program is to put it under the state's Department of Archaeology.

In the current media climate, many public and non-profit groups are having to take more responsibility for getting their own messages out: there are fewer papers left with room to print press releases. Blogs can be effective, like newsletters, to inform interest groups and rally the troops (along with Facebook groups). But public agencies and non-profits might have to tread carefully: what often makes blogs work best is opinion, attitude and a willingness to take some risks.

MAin2, for example, hopes to post items from more opinionated contributors, which would be an asset, but could be awkward when controversies divide a group's members. The Historic Seattle board was split painfully over what their official stance should be to the Ballard Manning's/Denny's landmark proposal, for example.) On the other hand, blogs that educate and help inform the public seem very much on-mission for preservationists. They can add layers of transparency, become media and public resources, and direct readers to ideas and information that would never make it into the general media.

Too, they can begin to help recast the perception of preservation as something stuffy, snooty and academic by reaching out to a broader public, using visuals, and hopefully injecting some fun and attitude into the subject. A good sign: already a MAin2 reader has complained, thoughtfully, that the blog was too harsh about that Queen Anne remodel. That kind of discussion can kick these blogs from being merely institutionally informative to being essential in shaping the 21st century preservation landscape, starting with the house next door.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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