Landmark mansion is demolished, quietly

Crosscut archive image.

The Carmack House before its demolition.

A Seattle landmark has been quietly razed, taking preservationists by surprise.

The so-called George Carmack House at 16th and E. Jefferson in the Central District neighborhood of Squire Park was leveled last Tuesday (April 28) despite a seven-year effort to save the structure. George Carmack was one of Seattle’s first millionaires, made rich by filing the claim that set off the Klondike Gold Rush. Carmack later moved to Seattle to enjoy his fortune.

While much attention is being paid to the Edith Macefield house in Ballard as a symbol of stubborn resistance to development, the Carmack House is an important landmark casualty, occurring as a result of some of the same kinds of conditions. The longtime home of an elderly woman, Irene Jewdoschenko, it was located at the edge of the expansion zone of the Swedish Cherry Hill campus, formerly Providence Hospital. Swedish and later its development partner, Sabey Corp., wanted the property for the growing medical center. After Jewdoschenko passed away, her estate put a high price on it — over $1 million — which was more than double its assessed value.

Under threat of demolition by development, the neighborhood and preservationists rallied to save the structure. It was nominated as a city landmark by the Squire Park Community Council. Built in 1902, the Dutch Colonial Carmack House reflected upper middle class prosperity in turn-of-the-century boomtown Seattle. It was Carmack’s last home. The National Park Service, which runs the Seattle unit of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, was intrigued with expanding interpretive possibilities outside of Pioneer Square.

It can be safely said that Seattle would not be Seattle without the impact that George Carmack and his gold discovery had on the city. His home was deemed by many to be a unique part of that story.

Not everyone agreed. The estate hired architectural consultant Art Skolnik to oppose the nomination. Skolnik argued that the home was not special and that Carmack was hardly a role model. Controversies had swirled around whether Carmack was actually the first to discover Klondike gold (many credit his native brother-in-law Skookum Jim Mason), his treatment of his first native wife, the fact that he deserted from the Marines (he jumped ship in Alaska), and other character issues. Still, landmarks can be designated for many reasons, including their association with important historical figures, like them or not, and Carmack was unquestionably one of those.

The nomination was troubled in other ways. In addition to opposition by the owner, the interior of the vacant home was vandalized and stripped of its woodwork and fixtures, harming the house’s historical integrity. The home was labeled as “endangered” by the Washington Trust for Historic preservation in its annual list of threatened heritage properties. Despite the problems, the city Landmarks Preservation Board voted to make it a landmark in 2009.

Various neighborhood and preservation groups scrambled to figure out how to protect the house. Historic Seattle, the public non-profit, looked at buying it to fix and repurpose it (they bought and saved nearby Washington Hall), but the price to purchase the property was prohibitive. The city and the owner never finalized the so-called “controls and incentives” that spell out what a landmark’s specific protections are. So, the property owners remained free to do whatever they’d like. In other words, the Carmack House was an acknowledged landmark, yet never received actual protections. (Another case of this kind was the controversial Manning’s/Denny’s diner in Ballard, demolished in 2008 after being voted a landmark with no protections.)

Within a couple of years, most of the options for the Carmack House were exhausted and it continued to deteriorate and foliage grew up so that it was barely visible from the street. But it maintained a unique position occupying a key corner within the boundaries of the Cherry Hill Major Institution overlay development district.

The expanding medical complex is looking at high-rise office and hotel space around the old hospital (itself a landmark). Some Squire Park neighbors have raised objections to the plan, especially its height and scope, and they worry that it will put too much traffic and development pressure on a community that historically has had a plethora of older, low-income housing stock, many of them character homes if not landmarks.

In late 2013, the Carmack House was sold to Perfect Wealth Investments for $900,000. In the King County Department of Assessment’s online records, nothing indicates that the home on the property was historic even though it is listed as an historic site by Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development and indicated as a landmark in a Swedish Cherry Hill planning map. The “highest and best use” for improvement for the site is labeled “tear down.” That’s what has happened.

It also turns out that the new owner is apparently hoping to turn a quick profit. According to real estate sites like Zillow and Redfin, the Carmack House property is back on the market. The asking price: $1.43 million for the small corner lot. That is nearly $1 million more than its 2014 assessed value of $480,000, and $500,000 more than it sold for a year and a half ago.

The future of the site is up in the air. The real estate listing says that the property is “zoned within Major Institution Overlay, potential uses may include Medical Office, Extended Stay, Recovery Center, Limited Service Hotel.” A spokesperson for Swedish says the property is not part of their expansion plans. Calls to the Realtor handling the property went unanswered.

Eugenia Woo of Historic Seattle told me earlier this year that the group had worked over two or three years to save the building, including talking to Swedish, Seattle University, a homeless shelter and other possible tenants. “We tried about half a dozen plans,” she said, but they couldn’t make any of them work.

One idea was to repurpose it as a small Ronald McDonald-type house for patient’s families, another was to make it into a B&B, but nothing jelled and the price tag remained too high. “It would have made the most economic sense to rehabilitate the designated Landmark Carmack House that was on site, but the asking price was $1 million, which made it unfeasible,” says Woo.

Crosscut archive image.
George Carmack in his car

Chris Moore of the Washington Trust says the Carmack House points up the difficulties presented by “a hot real estate market” on historic resources, and “the effect a major institution can have in an established older neighborhood.” He adds, “Seattle has lost a city landmark directly connected to the Yukon Gold Rush and the era that truly put the city on the map.”

Skolnik believes the whole preservation effort was “misguided.” Carmack, he claims, “was a bastard, racist, fraud, liar and cheap son of a bitch. The old house was an honest, plan-book house, that lasted long but had been abandoned.” But views differed. A representative of the Squire Park Community Council back in 2009 described the Carmack House as “very important” to the neighborhood. “A restored Landmark, placed back into productive use would have been of great value to the community of Squire Park,” says Woo.

One of the interesting aspects of the George Carmack story is the impact his wealth had on his life. Carmack was a celebrity in Gold Rush Seattle and beyond (he died in 1922). He was active in real estate investment, where many of the real gold rush-related fortunes were made. He would certainly have understood the opportunities in Seattle today. He was also involved in mining investments in the area, none of which paid off like his claim in the Klondike. He was an important public face of the fortunes that could be made, and Carmack spent his money liberally. He bought one of the first automobiles in Seattle, a steam-powered Locomobile, and in 1902 he took his new wife with him and the couple drove to San Francisco, a real, months-long adventure at the time.

Though Skolnik opposed landmark status for the Carmack House, he did not hold it in contempt. Hearing by email of its demolition he wrote, “May it rest in peace.”


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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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