Seattle's facadism fetish makes fools of history & progress

By Knute Berger
Crosscut archive image.

The facade of Capitol Hill's Foley Sign Company at 12th and Pine. Credit: Flickr user seaturtle

By Knute Berger

Is Seattle history becoming skin-deep?

You could be excused for thinking so. Efforts to preserve local “character” while accommodating massive development have seen a revival of what’s called “façadism” where old building exteriors are used as a kind of ground-level wrapping on new structures. Façadism is not a new phenomenon, but it’s booming in Seattle these days.

You can see dramatic examples of it in the Pike-Pine corridor and South Lake Union where the exteriors of blue-collar buildings — old auto garages or commercial laundries — are skinned to add a veneer of history to neighborhoods undergoing rapid growth and reinvention.

Take the Troy Block in South Lake Union where scraps of the exterior of the old Troy Laundry building surround a massive hole that will soon be 800,000 square feet of high-tech office space, touted by the developer as “the perfect blend of modern and classic.” It’s a nod by the new to the old, and the hope of planners, heritage advocates and developers is that it can maintain a kind of urban story and connection that would be lost otherwise.

“Façadism is NOT preservation,” insists Eugenia Woo, director of preservation for Historic Seattle, the non-profit that saves and manages unique heritage buildings, like the Good Shepherd Center and Washington Hall, and finds new uses for them. “It’s a design compromise between demolition and preservation that does not serve the original building or the new building behind the façade well. The result of façadism is often a strange hybrid building that does not meld the new and the old in a coherent manner.”

Façadism doesn't happen by accident. In some cases, it is actively encouraged. In the Pike-Pine Conservation Overlay District, for example, saving pre-1940 “character” façades was written into the rules. If an old building’s exterior is deemed to have architectural and contextual character, a developer can get additional height for a new structure in exchange for saving the façade. In other words, extra density and square-footage is dangled as an incentive to save an original exterior.

City council member Tom Rasmussen defends the façade-saving approach, arguing that Pike-Pine did not have enough support from property owners to become a full-fledged historic district, like Pioneer Square. The development potential is too great, what with its proximity to downtown and being in the heart of Capitol Hill. Yet the old structures in a neighborhood that was the early 20th century’s Auto Row gave Pike-Pine much of its hipster appeal, providing ample room for clubs, small local businesses, studio and practice spaces for musicians and artists. Some of that feel is being preserved — at least at the street level — but the substance of the neighborhood, that might be a different matter.

“Architecture is not skin deep," says Woo. "What is often forgotten about the impact of façadism is that the heart of a building — the interior plan, features, structure and ability to convey historic significance is taken away as a result.” That means the façades often mask more fundamental shifts.

People are already discussing the huge changes on Capitol Hill and the attendant cultural, social and economic impacts, such as gentrification. But when developers choose to build new buildings instead of, say, adapting and re-purposing an older structure, fundamental changes occur no matter how much terracotta is saved. Studio spaces disappear, rents rise, expensive penthouses crop up and large trendy retailers and chains replace small businesses.

Not all Pike-Pine development is going that way. The Chophouse Row project near 11th and Pike saves a building façade, much of the building’s interior and links it to a new structure. The goal is new office space, including affordable co-working space and a walk-through alleyway. Still, development in Pike-Pine is significantly changing the scale of the neighborhood.

Homogenizations, says Chris Moore of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, is part of the price for growth of this kind. “Land values are high, so is pressure on historic buildings, but also on local merchants," he says, "Someone’s got to pay a premium for the site, charge more for the people who use the site. That’s what changes neighborhoods. That prices people out.”

In other words, façades aren’t much more than a “cosmetic nod,” says Moore, that soften the blow of major change.

Historic Seattle’s Woo emphasizes the important distinctions between façadism and preservation: “No amount of historic photographs, display panels or salvaged artifacts can tell the full story of a place as well as an intact building," she says, "particularly one that is in good condition and can be restored.”

The treatment of building façades has also been a subject of controversy. Some have accused developers of damaging the historic integrity of building exteriors to ensure their building won’t be made a landmark, yet preserving the building’s skin as a ploy to win approval for more height for a new project. In other words, façade protections could actually be undercutting true preservation.

Last December, councilmembers Rasmussen and Sally Clark wrote the city Landmarks Board on behalf of two nominated buildings asking that the board consider them for landmark status on their merits despite recent alterations. Both buildings — Kelly-Springfield Motor Truck Company (also known as the Value Village) building and the White Motor Company building (currently home of The Stranger) — had their landmark nominations unanimously approved thanks, in part, to public activism motivated by a mini-rebellion against façadism. Others, like the Bauhaus building, haven’t made the landmark cut and façade-saving was an option to total demolition.

In other cases, landmark status has protected building exteriors, such as the old Seattle Times building in South Lake Union, while their interiors are up for grabs. In the case of the Times building, tall residential towers will sprout above its 1930’s Art Deco entryway. As the Puget Sound Business Journal put it, “Soon you will be able to live above an old newsroom.”

Not sure that’s ever been anyone’s dream, yet it does suggest how façades are like ghosts, neither wholly of the old world or the new. True preservationists don’t like them, architects and developers often feel hampered by them, the public sometimes feels cheated by them, yet many would argue that façades are better than the total destruction alternatives, like a past that has been entirely erased.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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