December 2002: Historic Preservation in Georgetown
By Heather MacIntosh

Many of Seattle's neighborhoods have strong identities and a distinctive "feel" that distinguishes them from other parts of town. Ballard is like this. The International District and Pioneer Square are definately like this. One of Seattle's less talked about, but nonetheless significant and unique neighborhoods is Georgetown. This community is home to dozens of official and unofficial landmarks, and is becoming a "bedroom community" for many local artists priced out of downtown.

What is Georgetown?

Georgetown is one of a number of Seattle neighborhoods that vie for the title of "oldest in the city." Pioneer Square, First Hill, the Cascade Neighborhood are all in the running.

Georgetown did not start off as a neighborhood, but rather, was platted in 1871 separate from Seattle. Incorporated as a town in 1904 and annexed by Seattle in 1910, Georgetown maintains a character reflecting its autonomous roots, and its historic focus on work and industry.

The Duwamish River once ran through Georgetown, between Front and Fidalgo Streets. The river frequently overflowed, which made the land around it extremely fertile. Hops grew especially well. In 1883, the five-acre Seattle Malting and Brewing Company opened, and became the sixth largest brewery in the world. Part of this building is currently home to artists' space.

Georgetown's concentration of historic and cultural resources provoked a city-funded curated walking tour that provides a good introduction to the neighborhood's many points of interest. More historical information on Georgetown can be found at HistoryLink.

Threats

Like many neighborhoods with blue collar roots, Georgetown's unique character has seen its fair share of threats. Communities with few high-end houses, much industrial history, and no fabulously wealthy residents often have to work hard to prevent unwanted intrusions, devastating rezoning and large scale transportation projects. Georgetown has had to stand up against all these threats over the past several decades.

As Seattle's industrial zone south of downtown grew, the City attempted to rezone Georgetown's residential and commercial areas so that industrial growth could continue through the neighborhood. The City's efforts outraged Georgetown residents, who effectively blocked the rezoning.

The construction of I-5 and associated ramps significantly and negatively effected the neighborhood by visually separating it from the rest of the city and destroyed business and historic resources. The community experienced an economic depression starting after World War II which continued into the 1990s. In 1990, over a quarter of Georgetown's population lived below the poverty level.

More than a Silver Lining

The saying "what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger" applies to many historic communities like Georgetown. Economic hardship often removes internal development pressure that brings old buildings down for new building projects. Hard times help residents pay attention to small things, including gardens and preservation projects. The wall of I-5 kept home prices low, and created an enclave of still-affordable, historic housing. This character has attracted new residents, and has increased preservation activity.

Historic preservation is a key component of Georgetown's neighborhood plan. The plan cites the significance of the neighborhood's residential character as well as its distinctive single buildings or complexes like the historic Rainier Brewery and Seattle Brewing and Malting Complex. Historic buildings, according to the plan, serve to "reinforce Georgetown's image as a quality place to live, work, raise a family, and/or own a business."

Historic preservation as a key community value is not new in Georgetown. In 1980, the Georgetown Steam Plant was declared a National Engineering Historic Site and is now a museum and teaching facility. In 1984, the building became a City of Seattle landmark. Other officially-recognized landmarks are Georgetown's City Hall (built in 1904, designated in 1983) and the Rainier Cold Storage and Ice and Seattle Brewing and Malting Company Building Complex (built in 1893, designated in 1993).

Its most recently designated landmark, the popular Hat n' Boots, was originally a gas station and will soon provide the pop-art centerpiece within a community park. For more information on this project, visit www.hatnboots.org. Everything about the Hat n' Boots project reflects the diligent and creative community behind it.

Georgetown is poised for even more preservation successes in the future. As a part of its plan to survey the historic resources of its many neighborhoods, the City of Seattle sponsored an inventory of Georgetown in 1998. This was the first in what preservationists hope will be a successful series of neighborhood inventories. Surveys help preservation in a number of ways, including providing quantitative information about types of resources (like how many houses predate 1900, and what shape are they in?), which buildings might qualify for landmark status, and where the boundaries of a potential landmark district might lay.

With continued engagement from Georgetown residents, and a little help from the community at large, the neighborhood may become a model preservation success.

View last month's Neighborhoods article

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