The 'American Idol' version of heritage

One million dollars will be doled out to Puget Sound area historic preservation projects, and online votes will help determine which project wins. Is this crowd-sourcing of history a good idea? You bet.
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Washington Hall in Seattle's Central District. (Chuck Taylor)

One million dollars will be doled out to Puget Sound area historic preservation projects, and online votes will help determine which project wins. Is this crowd-sourcing of history a good idea? You bet.

American Express calls it "crowd-sourcing philanthropy," but you might call it the American Idol of preservation. The financial company has teamed with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to dole out $1 million in capitol grants to historic projects in Seattle and Puget Sound. And the public gets a say in sending at least one recipient home happy.

The kick-off of Partners in Preservation took place Thursday, April 15 in what has become a temple of Seattle preservation, the wonderfully preserved First United Methodist Church downtown, now dubbed Daniels Hall. The saving of the church from the wrecking ball a few years ago was a rare win in a city surging during the post-dot-com-bust boom (a description that makes sense if you've been tracking the city's boom-and-bust-cycles).

In the '00s, construction cranes became the city's new church steeples, but developer Kevin Daniels and then King County councilman Dow Constantine (now boss of the whole county) stepped in to help save the church sanctuary while the congregation moved to new digs. On this spring morning, the organ blared muddily and light came through the delicate stained glass windows which have the softness of mother of pearl. For a few minutes, the sun shone on historic preservation.

Here's the deal: 25 worthy preservation projects from around Puget Sound have been selected to compete for a share of the $1 million. Citizens can vote online, up to once per day if you like, and the top vote-getter will be assured of a grant. You have until May 12 to cast your ballots. A committee of local heritage experts will pick another group of projects for funding, so about half of the 25 will walk away very happy. The other half will get $5,000 each for their efforts.

The projects run the gamut from known and unknown, big to small, from ships to public buildings. Examples: King Street Station wants help with their restoration; the wonderful Washington Hall (much covered here) needs help rehabbing; Town Hall has a terra cotta tiles and art-glass windows that need renovation; Seattle artist Paul Horiuchi's Seattle Center mural needs cleaning, fixing, and some new tiles; the schooner Adventuress which introduces kids to maritime history, needs repairs to stay shipshape; the endangered landmark Port Townsend Customs House and Post Office needs to be made accessible to the handicapped if it is to remain in use as it has been since 1893. (It's endangered because the Postal Service is considering selling it off!).

I name these few projects not out of personal bias. There are many worthies. Indeed, one of the advantages of getting the public to vote online is to encourage people to check out the list of candidates. Even historic preservationists will find fascinating projects they'd likely never heard of.

For example, I've never heard of the Anderson Island Historical Society's Johnson Farm, a preserved and functioning 19th century farmstead. That reminds me that I've never been to Anderson Island, so time to add it to the destination list. Others might be intrigued by Tacoma's Spanish Steps or the Bowman Bay Kitchen Shelter, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in deception Pass State Park, or a nifty >VFW Hall on Mercer Island, or the incredible modernist Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks in Kent, which has been described as a "public park, a stormwater detention dam and a modernist masterpiece." People might be shocked that something built in 1982 would qualify for the list, but it certainly does. All the finalists will be open to the public the weekend of May 1-2.

At the Daniels Hall kick-off, fans of each finalist showed up in force to root for their project, and some will run full-blown campaigns to get votes (people wore buttons, waved signs, and gave out stickers, just like at your local caucus). Everyone has a shot to get the most votes, which is the one way to guarantee your grant. The upside is that it helps raise funds for groups and gives them a reason to mobilize their base and reach out to new people. Everyone will get some publicity and a small check. Some will get significant grants of $100,000 or more. The downside is that 25 worthy groups are competing against each other, and hopefully the resulting scrum won't descend to Darwinian dog-eat-dogism. As Kathleen Brooker of Historic Seattle joked, "We don't want to become the last episode of Lost."

I asked Richard Moe, president of the National Trust, who was on hand, if that has happened in other cities. He said the bigger concern is the public not participating. He encouraged the people of the region to show their support "like Chicago: vote early and often." The key to success is engaging the public and getting the word out.

One benefit is that any preservation project with money these days is a beacon of hope. Cuts to preservation grants at the national level are a big concern, and not a few preservationists are unhappy with President Obama. So the American Express philanthropy comes at a time when local groups need more money than is available due to budget cuts, drying revenue streams, cut-throat competition.

In Seattle, some preservationists are also uncertain about new mayor McGinn's commitment to preservation. They see a natural fit with his interest in building dense, livable, and sustainable neighborhoods. The recycling of old buildings is key to that (see Pike/Pine corridor). But many hard greens would rather have new LEED certified condo towers than re-used older structures; some see heritage advocates as geezers holding back progress. As the mayor considers his policies or changes to development rules and incentives, will he be an enthusiastic advocate for recycling the built environment and protecting our heritage? Can historic preservation get the same attention as oh, say bike lanes?

A preservation driven by polls, protests, or success at "crowd-sourcing philanthropy" might save the Lusty Lady sign, but would see a lot of other history wind up as landfill.

The mayor spoke to what amounted to a preservation rally, and cited Seattle's history of standing up for place — the efforts to save Pioneer Square and the Pike Place Market, for example. These causes no doubt appeal to the mayor in part because they were populist uprisings, citizens declaring their love for neighborhoods threatened by the wrecking ball of the power brokers. But not all worthy preservation projects carry that kind of civic heft. Some are small, specialty projects that enrich neighborhoods in the detail; in other cases scholarship might be ahead of popular opinion. A preservation driven by polls, protests, or success at "crowd-sourcing philanthropy" might save the Lusty Lady sign, but would see a lot of other history wind up as landfill.

The National Trust's Moe said he met with the mayor prior to the event, and that McGinn had expressed skepticism that there were that many historic places in Seattle. In this he was expressing a common misconception about the city and the West — that its youth equates with a lack of history. And that misconception is part of what the Partners in Preservation program is designed to address: getting the word out about amazing stuff in our own backyard. While the education of Mike McGinn on preservation might be an ongoing project for preservationists, a number in the crowd were delighted he attended.

The pol who needs no education on the subject was Dow Constantine, also in attendance, who stuck his neck out for a church when there was no particular political benefit in doing so (remember, it was the church members themselves who were willing to see their historic structure sold off and demolished). Constantine said he is frustrated that preservation is so often presented as an either/or choice between history and progress. The two go hand-in-hand. Preservationists always breathe a sigh of relief for an elected who needs no converting.

Money still talks. That a major corporation and the National Trust have walked into town to hand out $1 million to preserve our heritage is a validation, a vote of confidence in our rich history. Previous cities in the program are Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, and San Francisco, towns no one considers unimportant from a heritage standpoint. Keeping such mighty company should impress, even surprise, Seattle skeptics.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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