Wrecking balls gone wild: Biggest heritage losses of the year

By Knute Berger
Crosscut archive image.

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.

Crosscut archive image.
The original Thiry MOHAI building in 1951 (Courtesy of MOHAI)

The Washington State Department of Transportation’s SR520 bridge project doomed the Thiry-designed Museum of History and Industry at Montlake. The museum moved its operations to a more visible location on Lake Union, but it was sad to see the old museum obliterated —along with some “ramps to nowhere”—as the highway expansion entered its Montlake phase. The site of the old MOHAI will be used as a staging area to build a new off-ramp, then returned to a natural state. Still, many history buffs were sad to see the old museum go and prefer to remember it as an example of sleek, mid-century modern architecture (1952) that, while it had been modified over the years, was the place where Seattle came to know itself in an elegant structure by the lake for more than 60 years.

Shucking History in Oysterville?

You may have read about Oysterville, that charming village on Willapa Bay near the tip of the Long Beach Peninsula that was founded in 1854 to help feed to public’s appetite for shellfish. You might have read Willard Espy’s lovely memoir of the same name, where he wrote about “grandpa’s village,” as he was descended from its founder. In 1976, Espy wrote, “Even today, we of Oysterville are at a far reach from the rest of the world.” That same year, Oysterville earned its place on the National Register of Historic Places — a gem of an early Northwest coastal town that was nearly intact, a quiet community — post-oyster boom — with an old cannery and cabins, 19th-century homes and churches tucked off the beaten track. It is recognized by Pacific County as an official Historic District and its buildings are unique, its community and natural fabric are fragile, according to the district’s 1992 design guidelines. But the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation is concerned about some recent events, enough that it put Oysterville on its endangered list for 2014.

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Oysterville (Credit: Washington Trust for Historic Preservation)

The issue, reports the Trust, is that some property owners have ignored the design process when making additions or modifying homes, even in demolishing a contributing historic structure. “[T]he idyllic setting and small town feel has drawn a comparatively high volume of new construction within the district,” says the Trust. Such changes, if they continue, could eventually jeopardize the district’s historic status. When residents have ignored the design review process and made alterations that harm the integrity of the district, according to the Trust, county officials “have neither the budget nor the staff needed to address the violations.” That is, Oysterville has rules without enforcement, a precarious situation of a one-of-a-kind historic treasure that generates, but has not yet been wrecked by, tourism. Pacific County’s pearl must get better protection.

Rampant Wrecking Balls

Maybe it’s the fact that recessionary times have, well, recessed, but the destruction of wonderful homes and buildings throughout the Northwest seems to be rampant now. I recently talked with someone at the Space Needle who said they had counted 60 cranes visible from the top. The danger isn’t just in Seattle or limited to landmarks, but impacting the common structures that add so much character to communities. In response, preservationists are using Facebook and other media to get alerts out to mobilize community action.

In Oregon, for example, there’s Restoreoregon.org, which is seeking a way to manage the teardown tendency that hurts community and sustainability. “In 2013 alone, 279 residential buildings applied for demolition permits in Portland — double the number of house demolitions from just three years ago,” they report. Another Facebook page, Demolition in Portland and Beyond, puts out notices of endangered homes and at-risk commercial structures, looking for people to buy them, move them, save them. Rampant demolitions are seen as a social justice issue as traditional black and poor neighborhoods become gentrified. In 2014 Preservation Idaho gave an “Onion Award” to the general loss of historic fabric in Boise, and in Vancouver, B.C., a Facebook page called Vancouver Vanishes tracks important homes that are being demolished or dismantled. The CBC reported a claim in 2014 that “old homes are being knocked down at an alarming rate of three or four per day, noting last year 1,086 demolition permits were issued in Vancouver, mostly for homes built before 1940.” The short of it is, keeping up with booming demolitions is now a 24-7 activity for many preservationists.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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