My neighbor, Michelle Kellett read my post, Another Seattle Craftsman Comes Crashing Down, about the destruction of a neighboring historic home. As often happens when someone comes along to review your ideas, her meditations on the subject produced a more thoughtful and well-rounded perspective than my own earlier post. She adds great nuance in her discussion of the issues of historic preservation:
I, too, was distressed to see the Craftsman house on 38th torn down. It was a terrific shock to see the demo dogs there last week, though they clearly were salvaging everything salvageable.
But my reaction was nuanced by some neighborhood history as well.
We bought our house around the same time that the previous owners of the 38th St. house did, and like them, had to undertake repairs so extensive that the two houses were uninhabitable for months. They spent a great deal of money shoring up their house, and repairing it. Like our own house, it was determined to throw itself into the lake, and was prevented from doing so by the painstaking and expensive application of pipe piers, house-raising, etc. In addition, I believe they also replaced the foundation. They, like their next door neighbor, were young people made wealthy in the technology industry. In fact, after restoring the house to a degree of splendor it may never have possessed in the first place, they decided it was too small, and bought a bigger house elsewhere.
The house next door to the late Craftsman may not be to everyone’s taste, but it is an important bit of Seattle’s architectural history in its own right. Built in the teens or twenties, it is one of our rare stucco Romantic fantasies, compounded of equal parts French chateau, Italian villa and Spanish castle in miniature. This style was adopted by the wealthy of the era between the wars, especially in the West, and can be found in the work of Julia Morgan and, here in Seattle, of Fred Anhalt. It is characterized by its orientation to a courtyard rather than to the street, like its European antecedents (hence the small windows at the front); also by elaborate and very fine finishes throughout. Like the Craftsman style, it is more a meditation on an idealized past than the recreation of a style that once actually existed. I guess that’s a form of originality. The owner has meticulously restored its former glories (including a private chapel!), and has resisted needless and jarring “modernization” throughout.
I should say here that I have never met the owner, and know most of the preceding through my own interest in Seattle architectural history, and a tour of the house kindly given to me by one of the craftsmen working on the house shortly before she was able to move in. I do know that only a person of extraordinary means could afford such a restoration, and that only a person truly in love with her house would endure it.
I have very mixed feelings about the way in which the Craftsman was acquired and demolished. I am especially surprised that the demolition was permitted. I myself owned two neighboring houses on Phinney Ridge, one little better than a shack, and was told that the City would not permit the demolition of viable housing unless it were replaced — that is, I could not join the properties and tear down the shack to enlarge my yard. Perhaps she has had to expiate the demolition by replacing housing elsewhere in the city.
I also have very mixed feelings about the nexus of wealth, housing and history currently working itself out in our neighborhood.
Madrona has had its ups and downs. Very fine housing stock was built in the oughts through the teens here, sometimes replacing and sometimes side by side with more or less attractive and often very shoddy farmhouses. Were money and a lack of historical perspective a good or a bad thing then?
In good times the housing stock was repaired, restored and sometimes replaced. In bad times, it was left to rot, or left to whatever the inhabitants could afford in the way of repairs. In the sixties and seventies, most of these houses fell into the latter predicament. On the one hand, a shame. On the other, many families of very modest means were raised in these lovely houses with lovely views. Our own house endured hideous cabinetry, dreadful repairs and, mostly, criminal neglect. But that neglect and lack of means also did much to preserve the existence of these houses — their owners could not afford to tear them down and replace them. Would money have been a good thing or a bad thing? Some houses became so decrepit that, in fact, they had to be torn down — a particularly wrenching recent example was the Italian consulate south of us, whose owners, bless their hearts, donated the land for a public park.
The Craftsman on 38th had its own complicated history. Its former owners had the money and the will to restore a nearly uninhabitable structure. What if that money had not come along? The house would eventually have been condemned and ordered demolished. Or what if the “wrong” money had come along? We have all seen horrible re-muddles in our neighborhood, at every point along the economic scale: from the pathetic cheap fixes we continue to uncover in our own house to expensive horrors that are not easily undone by a later owner (walls added or removed, soul-destroying additions, weirdly wrong-headed roofs or siding or windows). In the Craftsman’s case, the right money came along to effect a beautiful restoration, and then even more money came along after that and took the whole thing down.
I have long admired your house — I especially love your unique roofline, with its pagoda reference, which seems to me to be an inspired conflation of styles for a Craftsman house sited in a city with such a strong Japanese (at the time it was built) presence. I am very grateful for your committment to your house and its neighborhood. If you’ve read this far, thank you for considering a few tangential thoughts on our neighborhood.