Heritage Turkeys of the Year

The worst developments in Northwest heritage and historic preservation for 2010.

Crosscut archive image.

Gov. Chris Gregoire.

The worst developments in Northwest heritage and historic preservation for 2010.

A year ago, we published the first Heritage Turkey Awards. Now it's time for a look at a sampling of this past year's preservation fiascos, scary trends, and unnecessary demolitions. The list is hardly comprehensive, though I have broadened the scope to include non-preservation heritage issues. Nor do I highlight success stories (and there were some). It does give an idea of the kinds of heritage challenges the region faces, especially in light of tough economic times.

The war on heritage

Winner: Proposed budget of Gov. Chris Gregoire

I was going to leave budget-cutters off this year's list because everyone's been slashing heritage programs, from President Barack Obama on down to your local mayor or city council. But Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire becomes the new poster child for the war on heritage. Her latest budget for the 2011-13 biennium makes a lot of tough choices, but it also makes some really bad ones. Notably, subsuming the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation into the Department of Natural Resources, an agency whose mission is, essentially, to grow and cut trees. It makes a strange new home for the urban-renewing Main Street program, and a demotion for the state's single most important heritage agency. Gregoire's budget also proposes to shut down the state's public history museums in Tacoma, Spokane, and Olympia.

It gets worse. Gregoire has suspended Heritage Capital Projects funding, slashing $10 million in grants around the state. She also cuts programs for restoring historic barns and county courthouses and eliminates out-reach programs for local historical societies. To add insult, her budget includes $6.3 million to demolish an historic building. The General Administration Building is a National Register structure on the Capitol campus, and money for its demolition could be used to fund at least some restoration projects during the current crisis. However the governor argues that the aging GA building is a money pit.

The GA demolition clears the way for something new, and oft proposed, which is the not-yet-fully-unfunded scheme to build a new state Heritage Center proposed by the Secretary of State's office. This center would bring together the state library, expanded state archives, and new state worker offices, and create exhibit space and a "welcome center" at the Capitol. The cost of the new facility is estimated at between $100 million and $140 million. Many heritage advocates believe the Heritage Center is an expensive boondoggle that should not come at the cost of destroying an historic structure, much less be contemplated when we're closing the museums we already have.

All in all, Gregoire's proposals are of historically bad proportions for Washington heritage.

Recipe for Ignorance

Winner: The Seattle Times

One would think in a time of difficulty, a newspaper occupying an historic landmark building and with a strong sense of its own past would sound the drum for heritage. But the Seattle Times editorial board is an enthusiastic proponent of downsizing government, not raising taxes, keeping its own tax breaks, and letting heritage be damned. In a recent editorial praising Gregoire's draconian cuts, the newspaper questioned the need for history museums, listing them as "nice but not necessary." Not necessary? Does the Times think closing The Burke Museum or the Henry Gallery at the UW would also be a good idea? For more than a century the state has helped to fund the Washington State Historical Society as a basic function of government. It even received additional government support during the Great Depression when public investment in heritage (via the WPA) was rightly seen as part of the solution to the nation's problems, not part of its cause. We still benefit from that legacy today. 

Is history now moot? Is the state's commitment to heritage (enshrined in law by legislative declaration) null and void? Are we to quietly accept cuts to schools, teachers, libraries, and heritage institutions that are the bedrock of public history as being essential to the "reset" of government services? The notion that museums are "nice but not necessary" is a recipe for promoting ignorance. Let's hope the legislature sees it differently.

Sign of the times?

Winner: University of Washington Tacoma

Tacoma is having a rough heritage year, from questions about the future of the landmark old City Hall to Gov. Gregoire's plan to close the Washington State History Museum downtown. Historic preservation has been key to Tacoma's renewal. An essential part of that has been the UW Tacoma campus, and it's painful to see them stumble badly. The campus incorporates a number of historic buildings, some with the remnants of turn-of-the-century signage, which is supposed to be preserved. Thus architects and preservationists were shocked last spring when it turned out a contractor hired to pressure wash the exterior of the Joy Building hosed off a fragile artifact: an historic Alt Heidelberg Beer sign, the last of its kind in Tacoma. Alt Heidelberg was a popular brew produced by Columbia Brewing and the sign featured "the Student Prince," a German-style youth shown happily hoisting a stein. A paint conservator was supposed to have been hired to look at saving the sign, but that didn't happen. Preservation consultant Michael Sullivan, of Artifacts Consulting, told the Tacoma News Tribune, "The design team just absolutely blew it. They never should have turned it over to the masonry contractor. No one should have been hitting that wall with a pressure washer." A UWT spokesman said: "We're deeply saddened and dismayed and heartsick over this."

Good-bye, Rosie

Winner: City of Tukwila, The Boeing Co.

There are few historic buildings that could match the importance of Boeing Plant #2 in Tukwila. This was where Boeing mobilized to help win World War II by retraining lumberjacks and housewives to run the assembly lines that produced bombers like the B-17. This was the home of Rosie the Riveter, a building so important during the war that it was camouflaged by a fake neighborhood being built on its roof to deceive Japanese spy planes. This was the plant where the know-how was generated that spawned Boeing's post-war run at building commercial jets, which wound up ushering in the Jet Age and led to Boeing's dominance of commercial aviation. This was the place where, in many ways, modern Seattle was born and set in motion events that changed the world. Says preservationist Art Skolnik, Boeing Plant #2 is "a world monument if there ever was one!"

But this year, a plan to tear the old plant down was approved by a federal judge and the demolition permits have been issued. The demolition is part of a planned cleanup of the site and restoration of area wetlands, a worthy cause, and the company has been documenting the building's historic importance and will donate money for an exhibit at the new Museum of History and Industry to mitigate its loss. But many preservationists and Boeing Plant #2 vets were frustrated by the process: though many federal agencies were involved, because it came by court order, the plan did not have to go through the federal Section 106 review aimed at preserving cultural and historic resources. In addition, Tukwila has no city landmarks process and paved the way for the demolition to go forward by determining Plant #2 had no "significance." If Boeing Pant #2 has no historic significance, what the heck does?

Big stink at Minidoka

Winner: Factory farm that threatens internment memorial

They're called CAFOs, for "Confined Animal Feeding Operations," in short, massive dairies and livestock operations that are smelly, polluting factory farms that reshape the rural landscape and economy. For some, they're the agricultural wave of the future; for others, they do too much damage to the land, water, and way of life. They are growing in Idaho, and are a source of major controversy too. One that is highly contested is located one mile upwind from Minidoka National Historic Site, a former World War II Japanese internment camp in Jerome county, Idaho that commemorates and preserves memory of a dark chapter in US and Northwest history. A satellite unit of the site is the Nidoto Nai Yoni Memorial to internees located on Bainbridge Island. Many Seattle and Bainbridge internees wound up at Minidoka. 

The Minidoka monument has been listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as endangered since 2007. Preservationists argue that the nearby factory feedlot "would have a dramatic adverse effect on the Monument, and seriously degrade the visitor experience by introducing strong and offensive odors, flies, and other insects. Other risks to the site and visitors include airborne pathogens and dust." While the benefits and regulations over CAFOs continue to be debated, the preservation efforts were dealt a serious setback in court in 2010 when an Idaho District Court upheld Jerome County's permit for the CAFO and concluded that groups like the National Trust had no standing to challenge the permits in the county, a ruling that could jeopardize preservation efforts elsewhere if upheld.

Lights out in Canada

Winner: Canadian government, Department of Fisheries and Oceans

For years, heritage advocates in Canada have been working to preserve the nation's hundreds of fabulous lighthouses, and a new national law took effect this year that would do just that, the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act. The law established a process for designating and preserving Canada's historic lighthouses. But within days of the new law kicking in, the government Department of Fisheries and Oceans unexpectedly circumvented it by declaring all of its nearly 1,000 lighthouses to be surplus. That means they can be sold, even abandoned. The move, say preservationists, effectively guts the new law and has endangered all lighthouses. Coupled with this is an ongoing effort to "de-staff" many lighthouses that are still run by keepers, including some in B.C. The move throws into question the future of these beacons of safety and maritime heritage. The country's lighthouses now top the endangered heritage list.

There is push-back. In British Columbia, home to scores of active and inactive lighthouses, there is a challenge to whether the government can sell off the historic Race Rocks lighthouse on the southern tip of Vancouver Island because it might not own the property underneath it. B.C. lighthouse keepers have also been organizing to fight staff cuts. Still, the move by the Canadian government sent shock waves through the heritage community who saw a law so plainly intended for one purpose subverted for another, completely opposite one, and which has now increased the sense of urgency.

A place with no namers

Winner: Washington Department of Natural Resources

DNR made the Turkey list last year for burning down an historic farmhouse for a Hollywood horror movie. This year, they're on again for eliminating the State Board of Geographic Names. Washington is now the only state in the Union that does not have an advisory board to resolve issues related to the state's own map, to oversee, recommend or turn down new or changed place names, and coordinate such activities with the federal government. Budget cutting by the governor and the legislature has targeted state boards and agencies, but the Names Board had already been slashed to a virtually volunteer effort. And sadly, the elimination of the board came on the heels of perhaps it most major move in decades: leading the international effort to designate the overarching waters of Puget Sound, Georgia Strait, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca as the Salish Sea. Stewardship of the state map has profound heritage and safety implications. To give up this mechanism is sheer foolishness.

Another Thiry demolished

Winner: Destruction of 1962 Paul Thiry house

Last year, the city of Shelton demolished a Paul Thiry Church. This year, one of the famed Northwest architect's spectacular 1960s modern homes was leveled by neighbors who bought the waterfront home to redevelop the lot and improve their view. The home was a 1962 concrete five-bedroom cantilevered structure featuring Northwest Indian motifs. It was built in 1962, a year that also showcased Thiry's work at the Seattle World's Fair. It was a fabulous example of Thiry's contribution to '60s modernism with a wonderful pedigree (including a spread in Sunset magazine in 1967, the bible of Western living). Preservationists tried to find a buyer for it, hoping someone could afford to move the 200-ton concrete structure. The owners cooperated, so did a house-moving company. But sadly the timeline, logistical issues of finding a new site, and the down economy failed to produce a viable alternative.

Chocolate mess

Winner: Paying to preserve in Victoria

If you've taken the Clipper to Victoria, B.C., you're likely familiar with historic Rogers' Chocolates, the charming downtown candy shop. But it was also the site this year of a setback for historic preservation in Victoria. Heritage BC outlines the issue. The shop interior and building are on Canada's National Heritage list. The owners wanted to remodel, but the city rejected the plan and proactively designated the interior to prevent the alterations. Rogers' then decided to seek compensation claiming the designation caused their business to lose value. An independent arbitrator decided the case with an unappealable decision in Rogers' favor, determining that the city owed the confectioner nearly $600,000 plus 85 percent of legal costs. According to BC Heritage, the decision has sent a chill through the spines of preservationists, and it's a first in British Columbia, perhaps in Canada: "In addition to the immediate financial cost to the City, there may be other impacts for Victoria's heritage program down the road as the impact of the settlement sinks in. The case is also very likely to be cited as a precedent in other communities, possibly putting a damper on the use of designation to protect heritage resources." Apparently, preservation is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you're going to get.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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