February 2004: Preservation in Capitol Hill
By Heather MacIntosh

Expansive and diverse, Capitol Hill encompasses a number of smaller neighborhoods with their own identity, and preservation issues. The area bounded on its southeast end by Madison Street, its southwest by Pike Street, its west by I-5, its north by the sinuous Interlaken Park area, and to the east by the Arboretum, contains some of the city's most fantastic examples of residential architecture, many of its historic neighborhood churches, and some of the city's best historic streetscapes.

Capitol Hill is also home to a high concentration of political activists, democrats, sex offenders, halfway houses, coffee shops, as well as Seattle's highest residential property values and rents. The quality of street life and nightlife, restaurants and entertainment venues is substantially aided by the character of its older buildings, some landmarked, most not.

Preservation in Capitol Hill is a sprawling topic, integrally related to why the neighborhood works as it does, and why it continues to develop as a cohesive community of engaged citizens and businesses keen on preservation, without often calling themselves preservationists.

The Community

Though virtually unconceivable today, much of what is considered desirable in Capitol Hill was in disrepair in the late 1960s and 70s. And a lot of its was considered unsafe.

Long-time residents of Capitol Hill remember the days when school teachers could afford to buy a house there, in part because many of the older homes had not been well maintained. During Seattle's lean years around the time of the Boeing Bust, the neighborhood was abuzz with small remodeling efforts and temporary fixes to make the slightly shabby place seem a little better.

At that time, the area attracted many low and middle income residents, and gay Seattlites, who created a strong community there in the late 1970s. Gay Pride Week, declared by Mayor Charles Royer in 1977, was originally celebrated by a parade in Pioneer Square, which was the historic ground zero for gay Seattle in its earliest days (for more on this, read Don Paulson and Roger Simpson's, An Evening At the Garden of Allah: A Gay Cabaret in Seattle or Gary Atkins' Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging). By the early 1980s, the event moved to Capitol Hill where it has been celebrated ever since.

The cumulative efforts of community members helped improve the physical character of the place, and its welcoming vibe, which, along with its close proximity to downtown, helped escalate property values now threatening the neighborhood's many historic assets.

So Many Eligible Buildings, So Few Official Landmarks

Capitol Hill is home to only 22 official landmarks, most of which were designated more than twenty years ago:

-- Anhalt Apartment Building, 1014 East Roy Street, designated in May of 1979

-- Anhalt Apartment Building, 1005 East Roy Street, designation in December of 1970

-- Bower/Bystrom House, 1022 Summit Avenue East, designated in May of 1979

-- Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, 128 16th Avenue East, designated in January of 1977

-- East Republican Street Stairway, between Melrose Avenue East and Bellevue Avenue East, designated in September of 1980

-- First Church of Christ Scientist, 1519 Denny Way, designated in January of 1977

-- P. P. Ferry House/Old Deanery of Saint Mark's Cathedral, 1531 10th Avenue East, May of 1979

-- Hillcrest Apartment Building, 1616 East Howell Street, designated March of 1981

-- Saint Nicolas Russian Orthodox Cathedral, 1714 13th Avenue, designated in December of 1976

-- Ward House, 520 East Denny Way, designated in December of 1976

-- First African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1522 14th Avenue, designated September of 1984

-- Saint Nicolas/Lakeside School, 1501 10th Avenue East, designated in September of 1984

-- Parker-Ferson House, 1409 East Prospect, designated in May of 1987

-- San Remo Apartment Building, 606 East Thomas Street, designated in May of 1988

-- Maryland Apartments, 626 13th Avenue East, designated in March of 1990

-- Harvard Mansion, 2706 Harvard Avenue East, designated in January of 1992

-- Moore Mansion, 811 14th Avenue East, designated in December of 1993

-- Lincoln Park/Lincoln Reservoir and Bobby Morris Playfield, 1000 East Pine Street, designated in December of 2002

-- Saint Joseph's Church, 732 18th Avenue East, designated in 1979 Stevens School, 1242 18th Avenue East

-- Seattle Asian Art Museum at Volunteer Park, 1400 East Prospect Volunteer Park Conservatory, 1400 East Galer Street

The Harvard Belmont Landmark District was designated in 1980, and grew from a resident-led effort. The district's boundaries wriggle around and away from potentially contributing resources owned by unwilling individuals and institutions. The gerrymandering border steered clear of a number of older houses, some dating from the 1890s, owned by Cornish School of the Arts who recently sold their Capitol Hill holdings and moved to landmark buildings in the Denny Triangle area.

The oldest house in Cornish's past portfolio was considered for landmark nomination this year, and was determined ineligible on its own. It has since been demolished.

Tear Downs

Given the popularity of Capitol Hill, and zoning which supports maximizing a building envelope larger than many older single family houses, any house in the neighborhood, modest or ostentatious, might be considered slightly endangered. While many people invest in the historic character of the place by fixing up old houses without landmark protections, not everyone wants "old world charm," or the challenges of rehabilitating an old house, no matter how significant it might be.

Historic Seattle receives more calls from Capitol Hill residents concerned about proposed tear downs than any other neighborhood in the city. As Historic Seattle's preservation advocate, the first endangered building to enter my radar was the Pantages House, located a block west of Broadway on Denny. Its story was similar to many in the area - a building needing repairs is located on land with values much higher than that of the house itself (true in many parts of the city). This was the kind of house that draws attention from the community, which made it easier to save. The building is now a part of a redevelopment plan for the site that will create over 30 units of affordable housing, with the Capitol Hill Housing Improvement Program as the developer and Historic Seattle contributing a landmark nomination.

Unfortunately, many of the older buildings susceptible to demolition are more modest than the Pantages House, and would probably not, on their own, receive landmark protections. Recently, a collection of small houses, all dating from the early 1900s, were demolished near 12th Avenue East. Historic Seattle received a call about these houses after plans were already in motion for the new development. A small group interested in saving the buildings got together, made some inquiries, and initiated some landmark nomination work, but were not successful.

Protecting older buildings near development corridors like Broadway and 12th Avenue requires comprehensive survey work and proactive landmark and district designation. Moving toward preservation after the white land use sign appears is difficult. It is much better for developers to know what they are getting into prior to their expending money on plans, and potentially land use attorneys to fight appeals from the community.

Something Sacred

Some of the most significant preservation issues of the last thirty years took place in Capitol Hill. First Covenant Church, located at the corner of Bellevue and Pike, fought landmark designation in court and won in 1990. This ruling paved the way for First United Methodist Church's similar action, which precipitated their current plans for a new building on their downtown site, and the demolition of the 1909 sanctuary.

In 1988, Temple de Hirsh, a historic synagogue located at 18th and Union Street, was a designated landmark, but abandoned and in disrepair when the congregation proposed its demolition. In the eleventh hour, the congregation appealed to the community for alternatives, which attracted David Brewster's interest. Brewster, the founder of the Seattle Weekly, formed a consortium of arts interests and members of the Jewish community to investigate using the space for performances. The group ultimately determined the building did not suit this need, but the idea led to the preservation and creation of Town Hall, located in the Fourth Church of Christ Scientist on First Hill. The building suffered fires during the discussions surrounding its reuse, and was ultimately demolished.

Other historic churches in the neighborhood welcomed designation very early in Seattle's preservation movement, and most maintain their historic use. First AME Church, located on 14th Avenue near Madison marks the spot of the historic black community in Seattle, but has seen much of its congregation move to other parts of town. They considered moving, which was publicly announced in 2002. Ultimately, the church decided to stay in its current location.

Capitol Hill United Methodist, located on 16th Avenue, is one of the city's best examples of adaptive reuse. Until recently (2004), it housed architecture offices.

First Church of Seattle, located on Broadway, received over 1 million worth of damage from the Nisqually Earthquake, and has been in a preservation limbo ever since.

Security Issues

September 11 had an impact on many people, and on public policies governing public safety. The attacks propelled many public officials to place public safety above all else. Had this happened, two of Capitol Hill's favorite historic parks might have lost their right for landmarks review.

In 2002, as a part of a water bill, Councilmember Margaret Pageler included language that would have exempted the city from landmarks review of safety-related alterations to Volunteer Park and Lincoln Park. Both contain open reservoirs which are part of the 1903 Olmsted plan. Exempting itself from landmarks review would have reduced design guidance for significant changes to both parks, and would have had implications for any city-owned landmark property. Ultimately, the exemption idea was dropped.

On January 23, the architectural review committee of the Landmarks Board got an update on proposed changes to Lincoln Park's reservoir.

Landmarks, What Landmarks?

Many, many buildings significant to the character of Capitol Hill are not designated landmarks. These include prominent buildings like Odd Fellows Hall on Pine Street, home to the Capitol Ball Room and the Egyptian Theater, as well as numerous extraordinary apartment buildings and single-family houses.

Community pride, and a reasonably strong convention for do-it-yourself preservation goes only so far. The dirt under many of these fine old buildings is worth more, on paper, that the fine old buildings. Opportunity knocks down many would-be landmarks in Capitol Hill and any Seattle neighborhood with zoning supporting building envelopes much taller than the historic building stock. Historic Seattle and the Capitol Hill Housing Improvement Program (responsible for a tremendous number of affordable housing projects within historic properties) can save only so many buildings. Ultimately, its up to the neighborhood to step up as it has in the past, and pitch in with grass roots support for survey, building research and landmark and landmark district nominations.

The will and the way are in place to keep Capitol Hill's unique character intact. The question is, who will step up and commit the time to make it happen before the next demolition permit is approved?

View last month's Neighborhoods article

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