Wrecking balls gone wild: Biggest heritage losses of the year

By Knute Berger
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The Kalakala in Tacoma as demolition work got underway.

By Knute Berger

Every year, I collect some of the worst failures in heritage and historic preservation on the Pacific Northwest. This edition focuses on some disturbing trends like rampant demolitions throughout the Northwest, a lack of enforcement of preservation rules, control-freak feds seeking to restrict media access to public lands, and losing yet another maritime icon with a collective shrug. OK, enough intro: It’s Turkey time.

The wreck of the Kalakala

It’s been apparent for years that the 1930s streamlined ferryboat Kalakala — once a Puget Sound maritime icon — was in deep trouble. Its various well-intended saviors could find neither the money nor the patrons to find it a home or a purpose, though many ideas were floated in many ports, from Lake Union to Neah Bay, Port Angeles to Tacoma. Some saw a future maritime museum, others a dinner theater or a conference center. Each iteration to save the vessel seemed to become fraught with confusion, alienation, incompetence and debt, despite the sometimes-heroic efforts to keep her afloat. High cost, unrealistic expectations and creeping deterioration all played a role in her demise.

Historian Alan Stein of HistoryLink, who once worked to save the Kalakala, believes she was akin to the Ring of Power in "Lord of the Rings" — she seemed to suck the life out of all who possessed her. The saga of the Silver Slug, however, has now ended with the Kalakala being hauled to the scrap yard and cut to pieces. The wrecker is selling off bits and the helm will be preserved at Salty’s on Alki, but she will no longer be a navigational hazard in Tacoma, nor a victory for maritime preservationists who imagined her as a sleek dream jazzing up some local waterfront. The blame is collective: In a region that prides itself on imagination and innovation we could not come up with a creative solution to save a vessel whose design reflects that self-image.

Bertha’s breakdown

Seattle’s deep-bore tunnel machine Bertha broke down in 2013 and is still under repair. The repair work itself has had an impact on the city’s premier historic district. The digging of a rescue pit to access the broken-down machine, stuck under Pioneer Square between Jackson and Main streets, has lowered the water table, causing local structures to sink, potentially endangering buildings and possibly damaging basic city infrastructure such as sewer lines. Also of concern: Many of the Pioneer Square buildings are built on old wooden pilings preserved, in part, by being buried in the moist soil. Draining water away can make them prone to rot and insect infestations, problems that have occurred in other historic districts built on wet, mucky, unstable soils when water has drained away (see Boston, Milwaukee and Coos Bay). In short, the flaws in Bertha’s manufacture, unanticipated soil conditions and/or the way the machine has been deployed have posed a significant risk to historic properties and the potential for more collateral damage along the way.

Wilderness control freaks

This last year saw some strange behavior on the part of public stewards to public access to public lands. The Kitsap Sun’s Tristan Baurick, for example, was covering the moving of the historic Enchanted Valley chalet in Olympic National Park. The intrepid reporter hiked in 13 miles in to witness the process, but once there — the only reporter to make the trek — he was stonewalled by the park service’s representative. Despite Baurick's being invited to cover the move, the representative wouldn't allow him to interview workers involved in the process or to get close to photograph the chalet. Baurick had to do stealth interviews with the work crew before he hiked another 13 miles out to file his story.

And The Seattle Times reported on the U.S. Forest Service requiring permits from many news outlets and photographers to film or photograph on wilderness lands that it controls. Such permits can cost up to $1,500. In one case, Idaho Public Radio was told that it had to promise coverage that would be consistent with the Forest Service’s mission — essentially requiring that they do PR — in order to get permission to film. The policy, inconsistently applied, is at worst an attempt of the government to control news coverage on public lands. Media outrage caused the Forest Service to back off the photo fees for the press. The Times quoted Michael Kodas, associate director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, as saying, “Access to agency officials and news scenes on national forest and parklands already is the worst it’s been my entire career. This is yet another reflection of that.”

Bombs away in Alaska

Preservation is tricky everywhere, but Alaska offers a number of special challenges with extreme weather conditions and the remoteness of some cultural resources. Stuff ages fast, neglect is not uncommon and the cost of renovation can be high. A recent victim is the deteriorating Torpedo Building in Unalaska in the Aleutians. Part of a National Historic Register site connected with World War II, the building was where crews loaded torpedoes onto planes to defend the islands against the Japanese. It was not theoretical: Japanese aircraft attacked the military base at Unalaska, located at Dutch Harbor, in 1942, and some of the structures associated with that have been saved and restored. But the Torpedo Building is decaying and is storm damaged — sheets of metal fly off in the wind and have created a hazard for people using an adjacent airport parking lot. Says a story in the Bristol Bay Times, “During World War II, the targets were enemy shipping. Now the victims are adversaries' motor vehicles…”

The way has been paved for demolition of the structure as a hazard, the only thing holding that up, apparently, is the lack of funds to tear it down, complicated by the fact that the building has asbestos. It’s a shame to lose it, in part because it helps tell a little-remembered story of the war in Alaska (you can read about that in a series of recent articles “The Forgotten Battle for Alaska” here and here and here).

Another Thiry bites the dust

It seems like every year, another creation of the man deemed the father of Northwest modernism, architect Paul Thiry, is demolished. My past Turkey lists have included the teardowns of St. Edwards Catholic Church in Shelton (2009), a 1962 modern beach house in Normandy Park (2010) and Thiry’s own office (2012). This year is no exception.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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