Book City: Historians read the heaviest books

Larry Kreisman, Program Director of Historic Seattle, explains his lifelong fascination with architecture, his efforts to preserve historic Seattle buildings and his taste for heavy books.
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Director of Historic Seattle Larry Kreisman.

Larry Kreisman, Program Director of Historic Seattle, explains his lifelong fascination with architecture, his efforts to preserve historic Seattle buildings and his taste for heavy books.

Lawrence Kreisman is an architectural historian, author, preservation consultant and Program Director for Historic Seattle. He co-authored “The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest,” and curated the exhibit of the same name that circulated throughout Washington state from 2009 to 2011. His passion is decorative arts, and for years he has dedicated his writing and his time to preserving Seattle’s architectural heritage.

Valerie Easton: What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?

Larry Kreisman: Many of the books piling up at home focus on First Hill, as I’m working on a book about it. One is “Rome Express,” a 1928 fictional work by Bertrand Collins, son of John Collins, a one-time Seattle mayor. Bertie and his family lived on Minor Avenue in the home built for T.T. Minor. The book is a fictionalized account of the Carkeek family, whose Victorian mansion stood at Madison and Boren. A few classic quotes from “Rome Express” will undoubtedly be incorporated into the new book.

How long have you been with Historic Seattle?

I’ve been Program Director at Historic Seattle since 1997, where I produce about 25 lectures, tours and special events each year to draw attention to architecture, design arts and built heritage. We want to encourage longtime and new residents to understand the value of historic building and interiors in defining our city’s character, and the importance of being good stewards of them for future generations.

Historic Seattle has done its part for nearly 40 years, purchasing, restoring and reusing significant buildings that might otherwise have been demolished.

Which of the buildings you’ve saved are most recognizable?

Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford, the Cadillac Hotel in Pioneer Square and Washington Hall in Squire Park. But we’ve also been a catalyst for saving churches (Town Hall Seattle), schools (West Queen Anne Elementary School, Queen Anne High School), fire stations (No.s 18 and 25) and residences.

Is there a book or two you’d recommend to someone new to the area wanting to learn more about the historic art and architecture of Seattle?

For many years, Sally Woodbridge’s “Guide to Architecture in Washington State” was the go-to place to learn about buildings in the area. Unfortunately, she relied upon student volunteers and there were a number of inaccuracies that have taken years to remedy.

I’d recommend “Seattle Architecture: A Walking Guide to Downtown,” by Maureen R. Elenga, for an exploration of downtown buildings. And without modesty, I’d recommend my own “Made to Last: Historic Preservation in Seattle and King County,” about our significant buildings and historic districts. For a photographic view, you can’t go wrong with Paul Dorpat’s books, and for a broader perspective, “Washington Then & Now” by Paul Dorpat and Jean Sherrard.

Are there certain books or other sources you depend on to do your job?

“Shaping Seattle Architecture,” edited by Jeffrey Ochsner, was a milestone in documenting the architectural heritage of the area and I’m looking forward to a new edition coming out shortly from University of Washington Press.

I am a devoted reader of Paul Dorpat’s photographic “Now and Then” column in Pacific Northwest magazine. He and his revealing photographic documentation are truly a Seattle treasure. And the late Walt Crowley managed to capture both the physical development of the city and its spirit in his books and corporate histories and his inspiration to establish HistoryLink.


Unfortunately, the two most interesting ones, “Style 1900” and “Modernism,” quit publishing this spring. “American Bungalow” and “Arts & Crafts Homes” have a narrower focus centered on American work and on buildings rather than decorative arts.

What were your most cherished childhood books? Can you name a childhood favorite that influenced you?

I am sure that my early exposure to picture books resulted in my predilection to live with thousands of picture books, albeit these days they show buildings and decorative arts instead of ducks and rabbits and elephants.

I do recall that growing up in New York, my favorite experience was looking at buildings and interiors of buildings. As a child I had repeated dreams of being locked in the Metropolitan Museum of Art overnight and wondering at will through the American Wing’s reconstructed rooms.

I definitely recall the book that influenced me to switch my career goals in the 1970’s. I dropped out of a PhD program in English literature at the University of Washington after reading Bernard Rudofsky’s critique of cities, “Streets for People: A Primer for Americans.” It led me to the graduate architecture program at UW to explore architecture, urban design, planning and historic preservation and, ultimately, to write about topics that were not being discussed in regional histories. And it led me to work at the city’s Urban Conservation office doing landmarks research.

Do you ever read novels?

Not usually. But a friend gave me “The Historian” by Elizabeth Kostova and I enjoyed the exotic locales, rare books and libraries. I was taken by the chapters on Paris and Istanbul, places I’ve been or want to go.

I liked the detail and thorough research in "Clara and Mr. Tiffany" by Susan Vreeland. It’s a fictionalized account of Clara Driscoll, who worked for Tiffany in New York in the late 1800’s. Her department developed the idea of stained glass lamps.

I do occasionally enjoy mysteries that focus on the antique business and collectors. Jack Gunter, a Camano Island antique dealer, has written four mysteries in the Wally Winchester Adventure series that have locations around the world, but always find their way back to Camano Island and Puget Sound country. I sometimes cringe at the lead character’s inappropriate behaviors and language and the amount of blood spilled on the trail of an antique. But I’ve found they are handy escapist fare on long plane flights.

When and where do you settle down to read?

My favorite reading spot is the sofa in our living room — literally a Mission oak “settle,” where I settle in late afternoons on my return from work. Unfortunately, the tradeoff is that I get comfortable, read a bit and end up napping for 45 minutes to an hour, even if the book is interesting. I enjoy books with relatively short chapters, as I was — and still am — a slow reader and like to at least complete a chapter at one sitting. I also rarely read books without dense illustrations. If there was an award for “heaviest book collection,” I’d probably win the prize!

And the new book you’re working on?

I’m playing General Editor, working with several contributing authors on a social, cultural and architectural history of First Hill that Historic Seattle will publish next year as part of its 40th anniversary celebration. Since no one has really stepped forward to write the history of Seattle’s first residential neighborhood — and the locus of its health care — it seemed important for us to take it on.

What Val’s Reading This Week: “Mr. Chartwell” by Rebecca Hunt was recommended by Peter Miller in Book City a couple of weeks ago. Usually I avoid any book described as “quirky,” but how can you resist such a well-written and cleverly conceived first novel? The protagonist is Winston Churchill’s “black dog of depression” come to talking, furry life as a big Labrador who answers an ad to rent a room in a young London woman’s home. And it goes from there….


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.