I have long been interested in historic preservation since a friend introduced me to the work of Gustav Stickley in the 1980s. Stickley was one of the founders of the American wing of the Arts and Crafts movement (begun in England by John Ruskin and William Morris).
Seattle has wonderful old housing stock along with charming historic neighborhoods. My Craftsman home was built in 1906 and there are still many homes remaining from the 1850-1920 era. But they are falling at a rapid clip.
Two blocks from my home, a young woman moved into a faux Gothic redoubt a few years ago, which looked like it belonged on a Beverly Hills lot or the set of a Vincent Price movie. It has two tiny windows in front and these are the only ones in that portion of the house. Every window is encased in black wrought iron bars. From the outside, it looks like a dark, forbidding edifice. The owner of course was a Microsoft employee and well heeled (it goes without saying) to boot.
She must’ve had her heart set on a big garden that wouldn’t fit in the lot she owned so she approached the next door neighbor, who owned a gorgeous 1904 Craftsman home, about selling her property. The potential buyer wouldn’t promise not to tear the house down so the owners said no. Then the young woman did something sly and crafty. She hired an attorney to represent her in the real estate sale. He created a separate company which approached the owner about selling. Since they did not know the real buyer, they sold. The Craftsman fetched $1.7 million (and it was assessed at less than half that!). That’s the speculative influence of Microsoft money in the local real estate market!
The young woman then proceeded with plans to tear down the house and replace it with a swimming pool, cabana and garden. To her credit (and this may’ve been influenced by the neighbors who may’ve felt that she deceived the previous owners into selling), she hired a Portland home relocation specialist who moves historic homes in order to save them. He’s a very nice guy and expressed heartfelt regret at the fate of the Craftsman. He told me he’d tried for a year to figure out a way to move the house but the narrow, steep streets, low utility wires and mature trees hanging into the street made this unfeasible. In consolation, he’s recycling every major piece of the home so that they can be used in Craftsman home restorations. This is very little consolation, but I guess the most that can be mustered given the circumstances.
The problem with some of Microsoft’s generally young, coddled technowizards is that they often have little sense of history, appreciation for what is old or what came before them. They want to realize their dreams but don’t want to let reality (or an old Craftsman) get in their way. In a few decades, this woman may (if we’re lucky) look back on this horrendous act of historic vandalism and wonder whether she could have done something different to save this house from its terrible fate.
Which brings me to Seattle and the issue of historic preservation. Seattle has a woeful record of preserving historic homes. Seems to me that a home buyer can do just about anything he/she wants with their new home except build a meth lab (I’m exagerrating a bit of course). Seattle needs similar preservation regulations to those of Portland, which has lavished great attention on its historic buildings, which are one of the most charming aspects of the city. What about Seattle? In our headlong rush toward prosperity and progress, we are destroying a critical portion of our historic heritage and culture. Once one of these grand dames falls, you can’t put the pices back together. All the hard work it took to make it, all the beauty craftsmen managed to invest in their creation–all this is gone, forever.
Cornish College for the Arts, whose Capitol Hill campus has stood at that location for decades, decided to move to a larger campus. It sold at least five historic Craftsmen homes on a gorgeous tree lined street to a developer who just tore them down. They will be replaced by luxury condominiums. When will we learn?
Since I wrote the above post, I’ve contacted the Seattle Department of Community Planning and Land Use and the Department of Neighborhoods Historic Preservation Office. They tell me that a home owner can tear down any home as long as they will create a ‘use’ for the property after demotion. And a swimming pool, garden or pretty much anything constitutes ‘use.’ The only excpetions are if:
1. the home is in a designated historic district or;
2. the home possesses unique and distinctive architecutral qualities making it worthy of preservation
Maybe it’s time to get Madrona a historic neighborhood designation?