Historic preservation: There's no gold in them thar hills

Seattle's landmark George Carmack House, a gold rush icon, is in jeopardy again. Finding a savior is proving tough in this recession.

Crosscut archive image.

The George Carmack House in Seattle's Central District. (Vintage Seattle)

Seattle's landmark George Carmack House, a gold rush icon, is in jeopardy again. Finding a savior is proving tough in this recession.

At the beginning of the recession, some historic preservationists saw a possible silver lining to the economic slowdown. Namely, that slowed development would halt a few wrecking balls. But while that might buy some time, the general economic climate also makes it tough to push forward on adaptive reuse and repair projects as budgets are slashed and money isn't available for rehabbing.

Some good news this week: Mayor Mike McGinn wants to use some city money to repair roofs around town, including $5.5 million for historic Building 30 at Magnuson Park's Sand Point Historic District, the site of the Friends of the Library book sale and office complex and a building that needs help. The city has a huge backlog of needs, but any progress is welcome. The bond money for repair would bring the 1930s-era building up to code; its use was ordered restricted by the city in 2010 due to its deteriorating condition. The mayor's office estimates that repairs to the building will result in increased rental revenues to the city.

On the bad news side of the ledger, Historic Seattle, the public non-profit redevelopment group that is key to saving and redeveloping historic structures around town, has announced that it has had no luck putting together a plan to save the landmark Carmack House in Squire Park, a Central District neighborhood located near the old Providence (now Swedish) Hospital. Historic Seattle has purchased and preserved many historic buildings around town, including nearby Washington Hall and Wallingford's Good Shepherd Center. But unlike those, Carmack House is a small, private residence and alternative, commercial uses are limited.

The Carmack House on Jefferson Street was subject of a landmark designation battle back in 2008-9. Proponents argued that it was an important structure tied to one of the key figures in the Klondike Gold Rush, George Carmack, who had lived there. Opponents, led by Art Skolnik, said the building wasn't worth saving and that Carmack was an undeserving historic figure. During the landmark nomination process in 2009, vandals broke in and stripped the house of some of its most important woodwork and architectural detail. It was designated a landmark anyway that spring, but no so-called "controls and incentives" have been put in place, which are guidelines for what can or cannot be done with the historic property. If it is determined that saving it is not financially viable, it could be torn down (as happened in the case of the Ballard Manning's building). According to Historic Seattle, the house remains vacant. It is owned by the estate of a former owner.

The price tag would be substantial for anyone wanting to fix up Carmack House: a seemingly high $1 million asking price from the owners, plus rehab costs. Historic Seattle looked into moving Carmack House to another site, but the cost seemed prohibitive: $100,000 or more in moving costs, plus a new foundation for the structure. Those hurdles makes the project "exceedingly difficult," says Historic Seattle's executive director Kathleen Brooker. Still, older houses are renovated all the time for private homes or offices, and that could still happen here.

Due to the recession, capital funds that were once available for preservation projects have dried up. Historic Seattle was approved for a major matching grant to help with the renovation of Washington Hall, but the legislature gutted the Heritage Capital Grants program this year, slashing it by over 80 percent. The Washington Hall grant was one of those cut. With another round of state budget cuts coming, no one is expecting such programs to be restored fully any time soon. Historic Seattle and others have relied on help from the fund for many preservation projects, and the Carmack House could have been one of those. The National Park Service runs the Klondike Gold Rush Museum in Pioneer Square and was a partner with Historic Seattle in the rehab of the Cadillac Hotel. They have been strongly supportive of protecting Carmack House.

In a statement, Brooker said she is hoping members of the Squire Park community will step forward with some ideas. "We have not given up on saving this important Seattle landmark. We are happy to share all of the specific project knowledge and are more than willing to empower any interested party with our staff’s wealth of creative and active historic preservation experience to save and revitalize this house. Ideally someone from the community would step forward with the vision and ability to help underwrite much of the costs and we would provide technical and preservation support." But Historic Seattle alone will not be able to do it. They've done a good deal of homework, but they need someone else to take up the cause.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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