January 2004: Preserving Yesler Terrace
By Trevor Griffey

Seattle's first public housing development, Yesler Terrace has been highly successful and a source of pride for its residents and the rest of the city. Its history brings together Seattle's New Deal politics with award-winning mid-century design.

Few experts suspect that Yesler Terrace -- whose buildings and site have undergone a number of serious alterations -- has sufficient architectural integrity to pass muster with Seattle's Landmarks Preservation Board. But its significant history and critically acclaimed design begs for recognition within any redevelopment plan considered by the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA).

Over the past decade, the SHA -- the state chartered, private development company that owns Yesler Terrace -- has used federal HOPE VI funds to demolish each of its other low-income, public-housing garden community sites and redevelop them as mixed-income communities that include market rate and subsidized units.

Though the issue is potentially years away from public comment, it's not too early to begin thinking about just what Yesler Terrace has meant to Seattle. With adequate forethought, preservationists, neighbors, and concerned citizens can play an active role in SHA's adaptation of Yesler Terrace to the changing political and economic circumstances of the 21st century.

Razing Profanity Hill

Since its inception, Yesler Terrace's history has revolved around issues of race, displacement, and debates over the spoils of redevelopment.

The 43-acre site on the south end of First Hill was first developed in the late 19th century as a suburban refuge for affluent Seattle residents to gain distance from the city's growing downtown. Originally called Yesler Hill, the area became more working class in the early 20th century as wealthy residents moved into other, more fashionable neighborhoods further from downtown.

With its mansions falling into disrepair, and an unusual patchwork of small businesses and wood frame homes cropping up in-between them, the neighborhood increasingly accommodated a diverse collection of low-income people and businesses with diverse ethnic ownership and clientele. The nickname Profanity Hill, which supposedly referred to the expletives people would express while making a steep climb to its top from downtown, also came to refer to the underworld economy of drugs, crime and 18 houses of prostitution that flourished there by the 1930s.

The federally funded Real Property Survey of city buildings in 1934 labeled the area as one of Seattle's worst slums. This survey, combined with an additional SHA survey in late 1937, drew attention to Yesler Terrace when local leaders sought federal funds for public housing and slum clearance projects.

Years later, Seattle historian Roger Sale even suggested that during the Depression, Profanity Hill "was replete with abandoned houses and apartments partly occupied, and its major retail business was prostitution. Undoubtedly, if that area had simply disappeared from the face of the earth, few in Seattle would know or care."

The 1,021 people who lived in the neighborhood cared, however. Their displacement, and the demolition of the neighborhood's 158 buildings -- some of whose Victorian mansions and more modest wood-frame architecture could have been preserved -- is the less publicized part of Yesler Terrace's history.

Irene Miller, the SHA social worker hired to help relocate residents out of the neighborhood and make way for its demolition, recalled in her book Profanity Hill that she was almost universally loathed when she first started her work in the neighborhood.

In her 1941 report to SHA, Miller described "an alarming shortage of decent homes at modest rentals" for Seattle's poor residents in 1940. Housing was even harder to find for the many people of color in the neighborhood who were redlined out of most Seattle neighborhoods.

In 1940, the agency's own study found that almost 10,000 "family groups whose incomes are so low that they cannot obtain adequate housing without assistance," yet federal regulations required slum clearance along with public housing construction so that local agencies could provide no net increase in affordable housing.

In this context, rumors abounded among the area's residents that Yesler Terrace's construction would dispossess the poor from their homes so that wealthier people could have nice houses close to downtown.

In truth, SHA required that applicants to live in Yesler Terrace be families with U.S. citizenship, which effectively ruled out many of the immigrant families, single parent families, and unmarried poor who lived on Profanity Hill.

Many of these people ended up moving back to Seattle's Skid Row down the hill, in more cramped quarters without their own private view lots or gardens.

Yesler Terrace's housing catered to defense workers during World War II, and didn't explicitly serve low-income people until after the war.

The existence of a prosperous Japanese community on the future site of Yesler Terrace contradicted SHA descriptions of the neighborhood as a total slum filled only with prostitution and poverty. And most subsequent histories of the neighborhood have only mentioned the Japanese in passing while relying heavily on SHA archival sources.

These archives provide important statistics, however. Of the 359 families living in the south end of First Hill, 127 were Japanese. Yesler Terrace's construction not only displaced these families. It also displaced a number of significant Japanese institutions: three churches, four grocery stores, and four hotels. Japanese internment soon overshadowed this story, and the human side of the Japanese community's displacement by Yesler Terrace still remains to be told.

A New Deal Dream

If displacement is the largely untold history of Yesler Terrace, the often-repeated and just as important history of the site revolves around its significant accomplishments.

At the center of these accomplishments is Jesse Epstein, the idealistic New Deal Democrat who as a graduate student effectively lobbied for Seattle to access federal funds for public housing construction. His efforts earned him the position of SHA's first director. And his tireless leadership helped SHA overcome popular but disorganized opposition to public housing in Seattle.

Epstein promoted Yesler Terrace as a means of stimulating housing construction after nearly a decade of the Depression. The development would revitalize Skid Row, improve the condition of poor people's lives, help the poor eventually afford to buy their own homes, and would promote racial integration.

By bringing five different architectural firms and a number of different contractors on board with the project, Epstein created his own lobbying force of downtown interests capable of gaining the political support they needed to move forward. This design group included some of the biggest names in Seattle architecture at the time: J. Lister Holmes, Willam J. Bain Sr., Butler Sturtevant, and Victor Steinbrueck. The move also committed SHA to creating a quality design and construction rare for any public housing in the United States.

The results were immediately apparent. Instead of hulking modernist towers or shoddy, temporary homes, SHA turned Yesler Terrace's 43 acres into a terraced series of 863 low-rise row housing units, modeled after worker housing in Sweden, meant to last for 60 years.

Thirty five years later, in 1966, the Seattle Municipal Art Commission awarded Yesler Terrace with a Citation of Excellence for its design. In 1976, a Yesler Terrace redevelopment study claimed that its "quality of architectural design and site planning is superior to many multi-family projects built today." Roger Sale's history of Seattle gives four pages to describing Epstein as an important Seattle visionary, and Yesler Terrace as "a shining New Deal achievement" that is "better than most middle-income, privately developed complexes."

Yesler Terrace was more than just a design achievement. It was the first public housing project in the State of Washington. Its cost of construction- $2500 per unit- was one of the lowest in the nation. And, most importantly, it was the first racially integrated public housing project in the country.

In a radical move for a public agency at that time, SHA committed itself to having an integrated staff and fully integrated residential communities. Tenant applications were rejected if SHA believed that the applicant wouldn't support Yesler Terrace's non-segregation policy. Journalists from as far away as the New York Times visited Yesler Terrace to report on whether such a policy could work in other parts of the nation. The publicity photos of children of different races playing together at Yesler Terrace in the 1940s are remarkable for their bold promotion of racial integration, and are still used by SHA today.

Yesler Terrace couldn't reform the rest of society by itself, however. While it has always been racially diverse, the pressures of residential segregation and employment discrimination, combined with increased African American migration during and after World War II, made Yesler Terrace into an important refuge for people of color, as well as immigrants and the disabled. The result is that contrary to Epstein's dreams, Yesler Terrace has traditionally been disproportionately made up of people of color.

Like any public housing project, and like any neighborhood generally, Yesler Terrace hasn't been without its problems. But whether the problem was drugs, crime, racism, or poverty, most were connected to problems throughout Central and South Seattle. Few have suggested, as they have with other housing projects in other cities, that these problems were caused by Yesler Terrace's poor design or administration.

Rehabilitation or Redevelopment?

The Yesler Terrace of today, for all its continued simplicity, is not the same place it once was.

The construction of I-5 in the mid 1960s tore through Yesler Terrace's western flank, demolishing 11 of its 43 acres, and 266 of its 863 units.

Mitigation funds from I-5's construction went to help renovate the remaining Yesler Terrace buildings. But those renovations changed some of the original architectural features of the site- replacing its horizontal cedar siding with vertical wood cladding.

Faced with still more needs for improvement and renovation, SHA commissioned a bold redevelopment study from Bridges/Burke Architects in the late 1960s. The redevelopment was meant to spur the revitalization of downtown while increasing job opportunities for residents and income for SHA.

The $60 million plan would have created a series modernist towers and arcades similar in style to the kind of clearance plans proposed at the time for Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square: 260,000 square feet of office space; a hospital facility; 30,000 square feet of retail; high rise market rate apartment towers, and terrace apartments for medium and low-income tenants.

Boeing's massive layoffs in the early 1970s, combined with President Nixon's order that ended the construction of new public housing, effectively put the kibosh on such ambitious plans.

Instead, from 1978-1982, SHA rehabilitated and modernized 456 of its remaining 607 units, and finished the other units during the 1990s. These renovations were diverse in scope, but their most significant effect from a preservation standpoint was to replace the buildings' modernist flat roofs over stoops with hipped roofs that compromised the original horizontal design of the buildings.

A Preservation Issue?

As president of the Yesler Terrace Community Council, Kristen O'Donnell has considered seeking historic landmark status for Yesler Terrace from the Seattle Landmarks board. But the history of previous preservation efforts with public housing in Seattle haven't been encouraging.

Yesler Terrace was placed on Washington State's honorary Heritage Register in 1981, but the National Register rejected Yesler Terrace for its list because I-5 had compromised the site's original design.

The only requirement that comes with a listing on the Heritage Register is that federally funded redevelopment accompany some form of public comment process, even though acting on those comments is purely voluntary. In the case of Holly Park, another public housing garden community listed on the Heritage Register, its demolition and redevelopment in the late 1990s was barely altered by preservation concerns.

Advocates say that subsequent changes to Yesler Terrace have also made it highly unlikely that it could ever receive landmark status from the Seattle Landmarks Board.

"As a preservationist," says Mimi Sheridan, a freelance consultant who has worked with SHA and Historic Seattle, "it doesn't make sense to preserve what's there, because it's really altered."

Larry Kreisman, a current Historic Seattle staffer who wrote the original application to get Yesler Terrace on the National Register in 1979 while working for the city, agrees.

"Except for the siting, which was a remarkable thing, most of those buildings are so compromised that it would be hard to justify a landmarks designation." He goes on to say, however, that "it's clear when you see Yesler Terrace relative to other area housing projects that none measure up to that level of thoughtful design and orientation and use of public space. It's a shame that it wasn't protected (earlier) and I think it would be a loss to the city if it was demolished."

John Fox, head of the Seattle Displacement Coalition and perennial thorn in the side of SHA, briefly looked into pursuing landmark status for Yesler Terrace in 1997, but dropped it for lack of time and money. Fox, a low-income housing advocate, is less interested in structural integrity, and thinks of preservation in terms of having "no net loss of public housing" from any redevelopment.

"There's enough land there", Fox says of Yesler Terrace, "to do mixed income and even add low income units at a higher density while still meeting mixed income objectives on the site."

That's not technically historic preservation. But how preservationists consider a socially and historically significant site close to Seattle's downtown, one that has lost a good deal of its architectural integrity, remains an open question. Is there an alternative somewhere between demolition and doing nothing?

Or, as Mimi Sheridan asks: "Its history needs to be recognized. The question is what do you preserve?"

View last month's Neighborhoods article

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