Hold the wrecking ball for historic Harborview Hall

A 1931 Art Deco building by a leading Seattle architect is slated for demolition, to create a plaza at the Harborview Hospital complex. Now, wait just a minute!

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Harborview Hall at Harborview Hospital

A 1931 Art Deco building by a leading Seattle architect is slated for demolition, to create a plaza at the Harborview Hospital complex. Now, wait just a minute!

The Art Deco “Harborview Hall” is located at the top of First Hill, at 326 Ninth Avenue.  This remarkable building is a 95,000-square-foot, 10-story structure owned by the citizens of King County as part of the Harborview Hospital complex.  At a time when “sustainability” of resources is a top priority, does it really make sense for King County to spend $6.6 million of public money on demolition of this grand building to build a new plaza?

Based on my experience in the restoration and redevelopment of historic buildings, I strongly believe that if this building was privately -owned, demolition would likely not be on the table.  The owners would instead be exploring historic-tax-credit options and other incentives that historic buildings offer. 

Contrary to what Harborview Hospital has stated publicly, Harborview Hall appears to be a strong candidate for historic renovation, adaptive re-use, and a good return on investment.  This robust building is constructed in reinforced concrete, faced with excellent brickwork, stone, and cast stone.  It was designed by Harlan Thomas, architect of the Sorrento Hotel, the Corner Market Building, and the Chelsea Hotel, and one of Seattle’s most prominent architects of the 1920s-1930s.

This property’s profile is one that historic building developers would get pretty excited about.  The building has no debt.  It has a great floor plan for many uses, with a high ratio of window wall to floor area.  It is historically intact in terms of the basic architectural elements.  It is located in the middle of First Hill, within walking distance of downtown.  Harborview Hall could potentially be renovated for housing, hotel, office, educational space, or medical offices.  Instead of spending over $6 million on demolition and creating a “plaza,” that money could contribute to the renovation of this great building to create a valuable asset that would benefit taxpayers for generations to come.

Let's take a look at the building's history.  Built in 1931 and designed by Harlan Thomas of the firm Thomas, Grainger & Thomas, the building housed University of Washington nursing students for decades. Harborview Hall was designed by the same architects, in the same Art Deco idiom, and at the same time as the main hospital building directly across Ninth Avenue.

Working as a cohesive part of the overall hospital complex, Harborview Hall provided nursing residences and training space that was focused and comprehensive, an innovative, state-of-the-art relationship of hospital, teaching facility, and residences. This historic building largely remained a nursing student residence and educational facility until the late 1950s when the UW's on-campus medical complex was built.  The 1931 building was then converted to mixed uses, including office and research laboratories designed by noted architect Fred Bassetti.

Is it a potential candidate for listing on the National Register of Historic Places?  In our work involving the renovation and redevelopment of historic buildings, we look for buildings that could be eligible for listing on the National Register. Such buildings qualify for federal historic rehabilitation tax credits that can make otherwise infeasible projects pencil out. When others run away from these buildings, our clients often run to them.  It appears to me (and others in the Seattle preservation community) that Harborview Hall could be eligible for listing on the National Register, making it eligible for substantial tax credits that could make that renovation more attractive. 

To be eligible for listing on the Register a property must meet at least one of the following criteria: be associated  with broad historical patterns; embody distinctive architectural characteristics of a type or period; or be the work of a distinguished architect. It looks like Harborview Hall could satisfy at least one, and probably two, of these criteria. 

The structure is architecturally intact and skillfully designed in its use of brick, terra cotta, and cast stone, with many original details still intact, including some in the historic lobby and theater space. It is a fine example of restrained art deco architecture. In spite of extremely subjective, derogatory comments about the building made by Harborview consultants, the building is a dignified example of the work of Harlan Thomas and his firm.  The building’s role in the development of nursing education and hospital development likely qualifies it for listing, based on its association with historic themes andevents that have made a significant contribution to local history and beyond.

In August 2009, the Seattle Landmarks Board, in a 7-2 decision, indicated that it was poised to designate this significant building as a Seattle landmark. A month later, in a September 2009 public hearing, the hospital put on a full-court press of hired guns to denigrate the building and persuade a narrowly divided board (4-3) to deny landmarks designation. The Seattle Landmarks Board staff had made recommendations in support of that historic designation. 

The Seattle Landmarks Board's negative decision would have absolutely no effect on the building’s potential for National Register listing, however. The National Park Service, which maintains the National Register of Historic Places, would look at this building anew.  The substantial merits of the building point to a strong likelihood that the building could be listed on the National Register.

A typical argument when a historic designation is fought is that the building needs an expensive seismic upgrade, making it infeasible to renovate.  But what building constructed before 1975 doesn't need a significant seismic upgrade?  The seismic rehab argument is the standard line of attack in landmarks review when your other arguments are weak.

We have seen very challenging buildings that have undergone seismic upgrades as part of profitable redevelopment projects. One recent example is the Arctic Club Hotel project in downtown Seattle.  I was part of the owner group that purchased that iconic Seattle landmark from the City of Seattle for conversion to hotel use.  The redevelopment included an extensive rehabilitation and conversion to hotel use, including substantial seismic upgrades.  With creativity and efficient structural design, the cost of the seismic upgrades was significantly lower than original estimates.  Part of the rationale for programs like the federal historic rehab tax credits is to help pay for seismic and other upgrades – and to avoid demolition of our cultural heritage. National Register recognition made thos historic tax credits possible.

King County is a strong advocate of environmental sustainability.  But the demolition of this historic structure is anything but sustainable.  The energy wasted in this demolition would be enormous.  The dumping of tons of debris is anything but sustainable.  Sustainability is about conservation of energy, but also about preservation of cultural and historic resources. Historic preservation is the ultimate re-cycling.

For all these reasons, I believe the county should go back to the planning table and seriously analyze this building as an adaptive re-use candidate, exploring all available incentives and using consultants who know how to make these projects work. Citizens should push the authorities to do all that is possible to avoid this proposed waste of public assets, cultural resources, and public money. 


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