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In December 2013, I wrote in this space about Bill’s Off Broadway, the legendary Capitol Hill pizza joint and bar.
It had just closed earlier that month. Its building at Harvard and East Pine was going to be replaced by a fancy new mixed-use development.
Now, Bill’s is back.
It’s got the same owners, much of the same staff, and the same menus.
It’s got the same interior color scheme.
It’s at the same corner.
But it’s not the same place; and it’s not in the same space.
Only the street-facing outer brick walls remain from the old building. Everything else, including the Bill’s interior, is all-new. Above the brick front, modern steel and glass construction rises six stories up.
This sort of thing is going on all over Pike, Pine, and Union streets on Capitol Hill. Everything from printing plants to luxury-car dealerships has been removed except for the skins. A few blocks away, even the beloved Harvard Exit Theater is being razed-and-rebuilt like this.
It’s going on all over South Lake Union. The massive Troy Laundry building has already been hollowed out. The former Seattle Times building, its interior recently defaced by squatters, will probably also vanish except for its art-deco frontage.
In these and other places around town, you can see forlorn exterior walls of brick and terra cotta, artificially braced up, standing in front of nothing but construction holes.
In the frontier towns of the Old West (including pioneer Seattle), main streets were full of “false front” architecture. Grand, pompous storefronts stood proudly as signs of civic ambition, drawing people into the little one- or two-story stick structures hiding behind them.
Today’s “façadism” (yes, that’s a term some people use for this phenomenon) attempts an opposite aesthetic goal.
It seeks to mask the harsh, brutal, hyper-efficient modernity of a structure by offering a make-believe connection to the funky old building it replaced. Long-time residents can drive past it and imagine that the historic old building is still there, as long as they don’t look too closely.
But that’s about all it does.
It doesn’t preserve the spaces within, or their diverse uses.
Eugenia Woo, a local historic-preservation advocate and current director of preservation for Historic Seattle, writes about “What Price Façadism?” in the latest issue of Arcade, the local architectural/design journal.
Woo decries the practice, as an aesthetic travesty that fails to preserve the old buildings’ “authenticity”:
“Stripped of everything but its facade, a building loses its integrity and significance, rendering it an architectural ornament with no relation to its history, function, use, construction method or cultural heritage. With only its primary facades saved, the original structure is gone, including the roof, interior features and volume of space.… Further, the scale and massing of the new building change the rhythm and feel of a block and neighborhood.”
Crosscut.com’s Knute Berger recently noted that property owners have sometimes manipulated the façades they’re supposedly preserving.
Berger writes that preservation advocates “have accused developers of damaging the historic integrity of building exteriors to ensure their building won’t be made a landmark, yet preserving the building’s skin as a ploy to win approval for more height for a new project. In other words, façade protections could actually be undercutting true preservation.”
Berger also notes that, at least in the Pike/Pine Corridor, current regulations have the effect of encouraging façadism instead of true preservation: “If an old building’s exterior is deemed to have architectural and contextual character, a developer can get additional height for a new structure in exchange for saving the façade. In other words, extra density and square-footage is dangled as an incentive to save an original exterior.”
The current tech-office boom, a legacy of city officials promoting urban development at almost any price (except in “single family” zones), and popular trends that see urban life as more attractive than suburban life have combined to create a “perfect storm” of development fever. This has put pressure on the continued existence of old commercial and industrial buildings, throughout Seattle.
Growth, say pro-development “urbanists,” is inevitable.
But façadism needn’t be.
There are other ways to keep Seattle’s built history alive, while accommodating new residents and new uses.
Instead of false façades, Woo would rather see a form of “smart planning” that either preserves historic buildings whole or replaces them whole with “new projects that are well designed, perhaps the landmarks of tomorrow, cohesively knitted into the streetscape.”
(Cross-posted with City Living Seattle.)
bloomberg.com called amazon’s under-construction hq complex a ‘geek zone, cursed by dullness’ (sean airhart/nbbj via bloomberg)
A few months back, I gave a presentation to a group of retired teachers about my 2006 book Vanishing Seattle.
At the talk, I mentioned how, at the time the book came out, the city seemed to be losing its most beloved people, places, and things at a rapid rate.
These disappearances have only accelerated since then. (Most recently, the Harvard Exit on Capitol Hill, one of the city’s pioneer “art house” cinemas, which closed forever following this year’s SIFF.)
Everywhere you look, funky old buildings are giving way to enormous new buildings.
And it’s all to be blamed, if you believe some wags, on a company that’s more interested in incessant growth than in such business-world niceties as, you know, actually turning a profit.
Late last year, Jeff Reifman posted an essay on GeekWire.com claiming everything we now know and/or love about Seattle could quickly become lost to what he calls “Amageddon,” the total takeover of the city by Amazon.com’s self-styled “code ninjas.” Reifman warns that, unless Amazon’s corporate culture (or its rampant growth in town) is stemmed, the result could be “an unaffordable, traffic-filled metropolis dominated by white males and devoid of independent culture.”
Reifman claims there are three things Amazon could do (other than crashing in a WaMu-like stock bubble) to become a better corporate citizen. It could “advocate for an appropriate tax system in Seattle and Washington state,” commit to hiring more women and minorities, and support programs to help “lower income, lower skilled Seattleites” stay in the city.
But those moves, as noble (and unlikely) as they are, would not change the trend of Amazon (and many smaller dotcoms) importing waves of hyper-aggressive “brogrammers” from out of state, with no knowledge of or affinity toward Seattle’s heritage, only to replace them after an average of one or two years.
(The NYT recently described Amazon as “a bruising workplace,” where “code ninja” programmers are worked into the ground, maternity and illness are treated as treason to the corporate cause, and a hyper-aggressive atmosphere makes it nearly impossible for women to advance.) (A high-ranking Amazonian wrote a long rebuttal to the NYT piece at GeekWire.)
No, what we need is a training program. A crash course in why this city, this place, is something to be celebrated, cherished, nurtured. To encourage our newer citizens to care about more than just their own narrow cliques and their own material existences.
With enough people taking a more active part toward making things here better, we can still be the city that rose from challenge after challenge.
A city that respects its heritage, in its highest and lowest aspects.
A city that could create great things.
Whose engineers and deal-makers brought about the Jet Age, and later “de-fragmented” the chaotic early home-computer business.
Whose progeny have repeatedly pushed the boundaries of art, music, and performance.
A city that’s constantly remade itself; that moved mountains (well, hills), raised streets, lowered lakes, created islands, and planted parks in the most improbable spots.
A city that pioneered in public power (City Light) and public health care (Group Health).
A city that can both love and laugh at itself, creating great comedians and cartoonists along the way.
A city that comes together, not apart, in moments of sadness (the public rallies after 9/11) and sweet triumph (the first day of gay weddings at City Hall).
A city that always took pride in its buildings and other structures, whether sublime (the Olympic Hotel), playful (the Hat n’ Boots), tasteful (the many Craftsman bungalows), or both spectacular AND populist (the Central Library).
Indeed, the library building is a great example of Seattle at its best. Yes, the building qualifies for that hoary overused expression, “world class.” But it’s also a place that simply works. It invites everyone to relax, read, listen, and learn.
It’s a building that’s more than “world class.” It’s Seattle class.
And it’s what we need more of.
Not just in our buildings and construction projects, but in our people, our attitudes, our ambitions.
More than half a century ago, the Century 21 Exposition depicted a Seattle on the move toward a great tomorrow.
Our real life Century 21 might never have flying cars; but it can still become an age built on wonder, optimism, high art, low kitsch, and shared joys.
Reifman has since gone beyond merely complaining about the Big A.
He and artist Kali Snowden have just started a site called Flee the Jungle.
It’s got short essays reiterating Reifman’s complaints about the company, and about its actions (or lack of same) as a local corporate citizen:
“…Amazon’s run by a wealthy libertarian who’s shown only modest concern for his home community as his company’s growth has dramatically impacted the city—good in some ways, but largely problematically in many…”
And it has dozens of links to other e-commerce sites, in many of the umpteen product and service categories in which Amazon’s now involved.
The thing about “disruptive” companies is that someone else can always come along to disrupt them.
To date, Amazon’s been able to crush (or at least hold its own against) the competition in all these lines on its sheer size and muscle, and on its ability to operate unprofitably thanks to loyal shareholders.
But none of those advantages are necessarily permanent or exclusive.
Is there an endgame to all this?
Of course there is.
As I always say, things that are hot now just don’t keep getting even hotter forever. (Except, perhaps, actual climate-related hotness.)
Financial/accounting exec John Spaid, writing at GeekWire, believes Amazon will eventually have to change itself to become profitable, and that those changes will likely include lotsa layoffs in Seattle.
And when that happens, a lot of locals (merchants, landowners, homeowners, etc.) will get burned.
(Cross-posed with City Living Seattle.)
Here is a story about the world’s largest “shop from home” company, and the time it started an experimental business operation in Seattle that grew and grew.
The company was Sears, Roebuck and Co. (“Cheapest Supply House on Earth”, “Our Trade Reaches Around the World”).
The time was 1925.
The experiment was to expand from its famous “Big Book” mail order catalogs into what are now called “brick and mortar” retail stores. Urbanization and automobiles (two trends that now seem contradictory) had come to threaten Sears’ biggest market—rural families who wanted prices and selections they couldn’t get in small-town stores.
Because this was a new direction for a company that had grown huge on its existing business model, Sears management chose to save money by placing its first two retail stores in buildings it already owned—its catalog warehouses in Chicago (the company’s headquarters) and Seattle. (The Chicago flagship store closed a few decades back, leaving the Seattle store as the company’s oldest.)
The Sears Seattle warehouse building had been built a little over a decade before, in 1912. The Industrial District (later christened “Sodo” by local boosters) had just been created a few years before, from tide flats filled in with dirt from the city’s massive regrading projects. It was built for the company by the Union Pacific Railroad, whose freight tracks hugged its back side. It was built from solid old growth local timber, with handsome brick cladding and a clock tower (still the neighborhood’s tallest structure, other than container-dock cranes) on top.
It also happened to be two miles south of the city’s traditional retail core. This meant the store would rely less on foot traffic and more on folks driving expressly to go there. That meant it was a forbearer of suburban malls and big-box stores, trends Sears would ride on nationally in the post-WWII decades.
The store housed a subset of the catalog’s almost-everything selection (but not cars, or entire houses in kit form, or non-perishable groceries, three of the catalog’s once-popular sections). It had “soft goods” (clothes and linens). It had “hard goods” (appliances, hardware, auto parts, furniture). For a while, there was even a farm supply department.
In 1951, the new Alaskan Way Viaduct meant Sears was just off of the main highway through the city. A little over a decade later, I-5 would pass nearby.
Generations grew up with our own local version of the store advertised as “Where America Shops,” a chunk of middle class materialistic heaven surrounded by warehouse and small factories.
Perhaps the escalators were narrow and rickety, and the ceilings shorter, compared to newer stores in the malls; but Seattle’s Sears had its own charms. The popcorn machine and the candy counter. The cool pastel colored walls in the women’s department. The Saturday morning cartoons or Sunday afternoon sports games on the wall of TVs.
Meanwhile, the warehouse part of the building grew over the years to 2.2 million square feet, making it Seattle’s largest building by volume.
But the Sears catalogs were phased out in the mid 1980s. The building was put up for sale in 1990. It was first retitled SoDo Center, then Starbucks Center when the coffee giant moved its head offices into it.
The Sears retail store remained but shrank. Part of its space was taken up by by an Office Max. Home Depot opened a huge store across South Lander Street, competing with many of Sears’ “hard goods” departments.
The company wasn’t doing too well nationally by this time either. Walmart had overtaken both Sears and Kmart to become the nation’s top retailer. The 2004 merger of Sears and Kmart failed to revive either chain’s fortunes.
Thus, the end of the Sodo Sears store became inevitable.
Only 79 employees remained with the store when its closure was announced in February, 13 of them in the “Auto Center” department.
The store had become forgotten before it was gone.
(Cross posted with City Living Seattle.)
In early October, crews began tossing abandoned personal belongings out of the former Palladian Apartments at Second and Virginia, across from the Moore Theatre/Hotel.
Everything that the building’s former tenants chose not to take with them, along with all of the building’s interior walls and fixtures, was originally sent down the building’s not-always-reliable single elevator, then later by chutes attached on the building’s south side. It all got tossed into truck-sized Dumpsters parked outside.
Among the toss-outs: CRT TV sets. Cheap Ikea shelving. Old clothes in varying degrees of rattiness. Pots and pans. The detrius of more than 60 human lives, detrius left behind and destined for either recycling or dumping.
In 1909-10 (shortly after the the Moore, and a little late for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition tourist business), attorney/businessman Scott Calhoun built the Calhoun Hotel for $175,000. Its block had recently been lowered as part of the massive Denny Regrade project. (The intersection of Second and Virginia is the highest remaining point in what had been the Denny Hill neighborhood.)
Like the nearby Moore, Commodore, St. Regis, and New Washington hotels (the latter two are now nonprofit housing), the Calhoun was the product of a frontier city trying to prove it had come of age.
Its facade incorporated elements of Art Nouveau and Beaux Arts architecture.
Its 152 guest rooms were small by modern standards, but its lobby, mezzanine, and dining room were posh.
There was even a “rathskeller” beer tavern in the basement (which became a Prohibition-era “speakeasy”).
Over the decades, the Calhoun (like its neighbor hotels) got steadily less posh. It essentially became a single-room occupancy residence.
Developers turned it into the Palladian (after a style of window dressing on its exterior) in 1984. The lobby was walled off into two storefront spaces, a building office, and an alcove/mailroom for the residents upstairs.
The storefronts first housed a bookstore and coffeehouse. Later tenants included the Poor Italian Restaurant and Corner Bar; then the Buenos Aires Grill and the Whisky Bar.
The upstairs contained 69 apartments (all studios and 1-brs; some with Space Needle views) and an art studio. It was affordable housing without public subsidies, except a city tax credit for preserving existing affordable housing stock.
However, there were hidden costs within those relatively low rents. The units and hallways were bland looking. Stairwells were poorly maintained. The elevator often stalled.
And it had noise issues, particularly the units that faced the alley entrance to a men’s homeless shelter. This alley became a 24-hour hangout for street people, including drug dealers and users.
In 2011, the city granted historic-landmark designation to the building and its exterior.
The following year, the Buenos Aires Grill’s owners signed a lease on the Whisky Bar’s space. The Whisky Bar’s owners took out all the furnishings and fixtures, which the Buenos Aires people almost completely duplicated to create the new Corner Bar. (A new Whisky Bar moved one block up the street, opening in October 2012.)
Then this past March, notices appeared in the mailroom and the ground-floor office door, asking tenants to personally meet with landlord David Cohanim. They learned that Cohanim, whose family had owned the building for more than a decade, was turning it into a boutique hotel.
City relocation assistance checks arrived in mid-May. Even before that, residents had begun to seek new homes, pack up, and move out. They scattered to places near and far—to commercial and non-profit apartments, to senior buildings, to rooms in relatives’ homes.
The Buenos Aires and the Corner Bar closed by the end of May.
The last resident officially moved out of the Palladian on Aug. 17.
Once the residents’ abandoned trash is removed, workers will take out the appliances, plumbing fixtures, cabinetry, and anything else that can be sold or recycled.
Then, the building’s roof will be knocked open. A crane will drop a small bulldozer onto the top floor. With that machine, crews will knock out the entire interior of each floor, top to bottom; flooring, wiring, and all.
It will take at least a year for what’s tentatively being called the new Calhoun Hotel to open. (Its operation may be contracted out to an established management company, which may want to stick its own name onto the place.)
The last Palladian residents will each get one free night in the hotel.
A long-delayed batch of randomosity (the first in more than a month) begins with the discovery of the newest local “mainstream microbrew.” Underachiever Lager appears to have begun as a promo vehicle for Tacoma designer-casual-wear company Imperial Motion, but is now being rolled out as its own thang in select local bars.
charter construction via ronald holden, cornichon.org
Gosh, has it really been more than three weeks since I’ve done this? Time flies when you’re desperately looking for paying work (i.e., absolutely not “for the exposure”).
We have forgotten what this country once understood, that a society based on nothing but selfishness and greed is not a society at all, but a state of war of the strong against the weak.
pelican bay foundation via capitolhillseattle.com
First, another “sorry folks” for not getting something up to the site lately. I know some of you enjoy these li’l linx, even when I don’t have a major essay about something.
For now, back to Randomosity:
art_es_anna at flickr via kplu
erika j. schultz via twitter