Knute Berger (aka "Mossback") covers heritage issues for Crosscut in Seattle. He is also is editor-at-large and columnist for Seattle magazine and a regular guest of Weekday with Steve Scher on NPR affiliate KUOW-FM (94.9). Knute will lead a wide-ranging discussion on sustainability and preservation at the Closing Plenary Luncheon of the National Preservation Conference on Saturday, November 3, 2012. Register and buy tickets at the conference website.
Every year for the last two decades, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation has issued its Most Endangered list of historic structures. It's a useful exercise for raising public awareness before the wrecking ball has swung. The properties are nominated and their endangered status decided on an individual basis, but sometimes the list carries a general message.
Scanning 2012's listees, it's clear that while private development can pose a threat to historic properties -- see the recent Capitol Hill outcry over the Bauhaus block and old homes being knocked down for apartments -- the trouble is often caused by government, public entities, and public projects.
There are many reasons for this. One is that such entities often believe that their will embodies an unquestioned public good, and the bulldozers should roll because they are serving a higher purpose. It's a kind of institutional arrogance that often loses sight of other values.
Another problem is that sometimes government departments are simply overwhelmed by responsibility because they are underfunded by the public. They have a duty to protect historic properties under their care, but lack the means to do so.
That last point is made very clearly on this year's endangered list, which breaks a bit with its usual custom to generally designate the "Resources of Washington’s State Park System" as endangered, instead of a single property. But such trendspotting is useful. The parks system has more than 600 historic properties under its care, ranging from lighthouses to WPA picnic shelters.
According to the Trust, the state parks department "is the single largest owner of historic buildings in the state. Recent economic woes, however, have made it increasingly challenging for the agency to sustain the needed level of maintenance at parks statewide, let alone address mounting capital needs."
Parks funding has been cut by two-thirds since the 2007-09 biennium. The parks budget is being slashed and off-loaded by the state legislature, and parks pass sales are coming in under projection. Washington is faced with converting to a pay-for-use system for parks (most states already do this). Like toll roads, it's a shift in public expectation. But the fact is, with staff and budget cuts, hundreds of historic buildings are threatened with neglect, deferred maintenance, increased vandalism, and decay unless solutions to the state parks' collapse are found.
Another endangered site: the King County-owned Harborview Hall, the fabulous Art Deco former nursing school on First Hill. Harborview Medical Center has a master plan which calls for knocking the building down for a plaza, but preservationists are fighting that and King County Executive Dow Constantine has rightly jumped in and asked for an assessment of redevelopment scenarios that save the historic structure.
Haborview Hall is not the only structure on the hill jeopardized by hospital development: a number of wonderful old apartment houses are at risk from Virginia-Mason's master plan process. They include The Baroness, the Cassel Crag, the Chasselton, and the Rhododendron, which the Trust says "comprise a cluster of historic apartment buildings along Boren Street near Madison Avenue significant for their architectural styles and their association with multi-family residential development."
Yes, single-family dominant Seattle also has a wonderful multi-family housing tradition, of which these fine buildings are all a part and they add much to the heritage of what is one of the city's densest neighborhoods. Density advocates would be wise to get on the preservation bandwagon here, because the success of these buildings and their character could do much to sell the concept to a city that is skeptical.
The list also has an example of a historic hospital building threatened by a major public highway project: The Post Hospital at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Reserve. This wonderful old structure sits empty right along I-5, and locals hope to convert it into an arts center. While it is not slated for demolition, the Columbia River Crossing project is slated to widen I-5 and would bring the freeway from the hospital's front yard to four-to-six feet from its doorstep. Noise, fumes, and structural challenges would all worsen.
Yet another project on the list with a public threat: Washington State University's decision to sell the historic Jensen-Byrd warehouse in Spokane to a private developer that intends to destroy it. Local preservationists are fighting hard still for a last-minute reconsideration; the building is slated for demolition in 2013. A delay has offered a sliver of hope.
This year's list brings to mind the Pogo line, "We have met the enemy and he is us." On the one hand, public policy has enshrined heritage concerns into law; on the other, public purpose often chooses to ignore the spirit, and often the letter, of historic preservation. The good news is that with the help of groups like the Trust, we can also meet the saviors in these situations. He or she is us, too.