May 2004: Preserving Pre-Regrade Belltown
By Reuben McKnight

Located at 2224 Second Avenue, the Wayne Apartments is a dilapidated Victorian 3-bay frame apartment building plopped ungracefully atop a single story retail building.

Featured in Paul Dorpat's 1984 classic Seattle: Then and Now as one of the last remnants of pre-regrade housing in the Belltown neighborhood, it has been researched in fits and starts for decades.

An incomplete landmarks nomination form written for the Wayne in 1981, entitled Last House on Denny Hill, sits buried in the Historic Preservation Office's Denny Neighborhood files. In it, the author wrote:

"Seen in its hybrid state perched above the one-story storefront building, the composition represents the Denny Regrade itself; a meld of the vanished Victorian residential character of Denny Hill with the commercialism that both replaced it and caused its demise."

Oldest Building in Belltown?

The Wayne may be the oldest building in Belltown, but not without a few near misses over the years. Most likely built between 1889 and 1891 by pioneer Lewis Rowe, one of the first grocers in the City of Seattle, the Wayne was originally situated above the hilly dirt road cut that passed for Second Avenue in the 19th century. Through the end of the 19th century, the neighborhood was characterized by small commercial structures, detached residences and townhouses.

In 1903, when City Engineer Reginald Thompson hired contractors to hydraulically sluice most of Denny Hill between Second and Fifth Avenues into to the bay, it looked as though the Wayne's days were numbered. The outer edge of the proposed civic center of Virgil Bogue's City Beautiful-inspired plan, defeated by voters in 1911, would have missed the Wayne by mere yards. For some reason, however, the Wayne survived when most of the surrounding streetscape above Second Avenue was flushed into Elliott Bay.

By 1911, Second Avenue was the wide, flat street we know today, and new owners Mr. and Mrs. Charles Schneider hired architect Charles Haynes to design a retail storefront to be built beneath the existing apartments. The scope of work for the remodeling contract included "raising the old building" so that construction of the new building could commence.

We might never know what made the owners decide to keep the old apartments instead of building a completely new structure, but it may have been related to the Denny area's slow redevelopment. In 1917, years after the razing and leveling of the neighborhood, a birdseye map shows that most of the vacated lots had yet to be built out. In doing so, however, the Schneiders froze the moment in time in architecture, when Denny Hill became the Denny Regrade.

Hybrid Building Type

It's not as strange a phenomenon as it sounds. A quick drive around Seattle's older neighborhoods, including Ballard, Beacon Hill, Capitol Hill, Columbia City, Fremont and the University District, yields dozens of similar buildings, where a residential structure has been given a new lease on life with the addition of a commercial front.

And it's not just a Seattle thing. A survey of historic neighborhood commercial strips in similar cities will often locate two or three examples of this type of building, where the zero lot line development begins to overlap with the residential blocks that surround it.

Many of these "new" additions are actually quite old, dating from the 1910s through the 1940s. A particularly striking example is the apartment building at 12th and Pike on Capitol Hill: the apartment on top dates from 1890, whereas the commercial spaces below are likely twenty years younger. What makes these buildings important is not just their age, but that they embody the dynamics of change in a neighborhood.

Before major development expanded throughout the urban core, there were likely many more examples of these "hybrid houses." I once happened to see an old photograph of Main Street hanging on the wall of the Paradise Café in the International District, which showed a row of "hybrid houses" wedged into the side of the hill near Sixth Avenue. The retail spaces constructed beneath these houses, much like the Wayne, took advantage of the otherwise wasted volume between the street and the house above it.

At the turn of the century, there were scores of later Victorian homes and apartments on the flanks Seattle's steep downtown streets leading to First Hill and Capitol Hill. As the edges of urban development ebbed and flowed and street cars ferried increasing numbers of passengers out to the newly formed suburbs, it is easy to imagine homeowners along the peripheries of the city and around the trolley stops converting their houses to a more profitable use.

But back to the Wayne. Could the Wayne be eligible as a landmark? Maybe so, maybe not.

Landmark Issue

It's not really a pretty building, to be sure, and there are certainly one or two better examples of late Victorian apartments left in Seattle. Missing are most of the defining decorative elements, including its patterned shingles, finials, and stickwork. Stovepipes now protrude from the façade. Most of these features were still visible in the 1930s, as evidenced by the earliest clear photograph of the building from the 1938 King County Building Survey.

What remains are the barge boards, modest window casing, and some of what appear to be original sashes. Inside, the apartments exude the patina of age, from the crusty medallions in the casework to the battered newell posts at the bottom of the stairs.

The two three-story light wells on the alley side, jumbled areas of rickety stairs and ventilation piping, are sheltered from the elements by corrugated fiberglass panels and enclosed by 2 X 4 framing and wire mesh. The entire structure is clad in composite tarpaper siding in a faux brick pattern.

The storefronts below are also in so-so shape. The transom windows are covered (although they still exist), the wood has been replaced by aluminum or plywood, and the entire structure has been clad in what appears to be painted marblecrete. There is also a disconcerting sway in the ridgeline of the apartments, though the current owner, John Lindgren of Seattle, assures me that engineers have examined the structure and given it the thumbs up.

Though current standards recognize changes to buildings as potentially significant, the tendency in the past has been to view a Craftsman Bungalow with a storefront added to it, such those seen along North 45th Street in Wallingford, as merely an adulterated house. However, a broader view might consider these buildings as a historically significant "type" of development, and the addition of a storefront an important marker of historical processes, rather than an adverse effect.

In a recent survey report of historic commercial properties for the City of Seattle, the report's author chose to include commercially adapted houses as potentially eligible for historic listing if both portions of the building met the criteria for significance and integrity.

Other cities have listed similar buildings on their local landmarks registers -- the City of Berkeley, CA, for example, designated a 19th century house with an early 20th century storefront as a significant example of "early adaptive reuse in the downtown commercial core." And at least one architectural historian I have spoken with considers them a type of architecture, worthy in some cases of National Register listing.

The Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board has in the past designated certain modest structures, known as "borderline landmarks," for Seattle's register based upon their importance to the neighborhood, visual prominence, or importance to the heritage of the city.

But other buildings have failed to make the cut because of their lack of physical integrity, including an 1893 Queen-Anne style house on the Cornish College of the Arts Capitol Hill campus, and Woodland Park Zoo's 1911 Primate House. Even if the Wayne were to be nominated, whether the Landmarks Board would vote to designate it is debatable.

The Wayne lacks many of its original architectural features, both on the addition and on the original storefronts. Yet within the Belltown area, it is not only one of the oldest structures, but also the only one of its kind and therefore, arguably, a pretty good example. Such buildings are important testimonials to the development of neighborhoods and urban areas.

What the Owner Says

Because of its physical condition, Mr. Lindgren doesn't think it's a potential landmark, and citing previous experiences with city government, says he has "absolutely no interest" in having his building designated. Among his concerns are costs associated with code-required upgrades triggered by major work, and the cost of restoring the building's original fabric. "We're providing very affordable housing in the middle of Belltown," and according to him, this doesn't leave much room for big-ticket remodels.

Since purchasing the building in 1998, Mr. Lindgren says he has invested thousands of dollars into the building, including new roofing and a sprinkler system, and says he has no plans to redevelop the property. "The previous owners had it in their family for generations," he says, "Another buyer planned to demolish it, so they sold it to us."

Mr. Lindgren has explored restoring certain characteristics of the building, such as the transom windows in the historic storefronts, but has found it to be infeasible thus far. "This building just doesn't make that much money," he explains. Incentives such as property tax abatement wouldn't help much, he says, because most of the Wayne's expenses are written off.

Regardless of the property's listing in Seattle's landmarks register, the practice of adapting older residential buildings for commercial frontage is an established pattern that should be recognized for its potential historical associations. The building's importance to Belltown, and the city, is clear with or without landmark designation.

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