It seems impossible lately to walk through Seattle without encountering an imposing, white NOTICE OF PROPOSED LAND USE ACTION sign. Whatever your feelings on the rapid development of the city, as archivists, you probably share at least a bit of my interest in building preservation.
A few weeks ago, I attended the spring meeting of Seattle Area Archivists (SeaAA), hosted at the Dearborn House, headquarters of Historic Seattle. After some brief SeaAA business, Kji Kelly, Historic Seattle’s executive director, and Luci Baker Johnson, manager of volunteers and events, gave an overview of Historic Seattle’s mission and projects, then we were given a tour of the house by program director Larry Kreisman. The Dearborn House is located in the First Hill neighborhood of Seattle, just across the street from another historic residence, the Stimson-Green Mansion, which is owned and managed by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.
I love learning about Seattle’s history, and I’m eager to dig into Kreisman’s book for some inspiration for SAA-UW’s upcoming event for iWelcome Week (stay tuned). Looking into archival documents related to buildings is an interesting way to do that. Along this line, I’d like to focus on director of preservation services Eugenia Woo’s presentation: How to Research a Historic Building.
Historic Seattle is contacted quite frequently by both individuals and groups looking for resources and advice on building preservation or submitting a landmark nomination. Woo’s case study for this presentation, the Greenus building, was a little bit different, as it was research done in-house for a client. The client, a developer in Seattle (which I didn’t catch in the presentation, but appears to be Hunters Capital), was doing renovations to the E Pike Street and Summit Avenue building, and wanted to know its history to preserve what it could of the original qualities.
No matter what the reason for the research, or even the type of building, Woo’s advice begins the same: find the basic building history. Having the build date, the original architect or builder, and the original owner will kick-start your research. Starting online is the easiest, and there are resources at both the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Historic Preservation Program and King County Assessor websites.
After some basic information is obtained, it’s time to dig into your own research, either to confirm or augment what you’ve already found. Make sure to compare information across multiple sources. Here’s where archives and libraries come in handy; The Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle Public Library, and UW Special Collections were all used for this particular project.
The results of some of that research appear on Hunters Capital’s website, which features a nifty timeline feature for many of its properties. The Greenus building was, like much of the Pike/Pine corridor, originally home to an auto manufacturer, changing hands to other manufacturing businesses and eventually becoming retail space.
Obviously, not all building developers take the time to do this kind of research, and some choose to either tear down the building or just keep the facade (which, as pointed out in the meeting, is not the same as preservation). Historic Seattle can help with resources for doing research, renovations, and landmark status applications; though, it was also pointed out that landmark status does not dictate the use of the building, only the maintenance of it.
As Seattle and other cities continue to morph, utilizing our archives and libraries can be a powerful tool in encouraging building preservation and uncovering the history of the city.