by Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times –
As of this writing, Capitol Hill has more buildings nominated for historical landmark preservation than any other neighborhood in Seattle, with South Lake Union close behind. Four structures are under consideration for landmark status: the Victorian House Office Building, the Great Western Motors Building, the Melrose Building and Pineview Apartments. The nominating parties all believe these properties have high enough historical value to qualify for government protection from alteration. If the Landmarks Preservation Board approves these nominations, they will enter into negotiations with the buildings’ owners to craft agreements about what can and can’t happen to the historically relevant aspects of the structures.
Anyone can nominate a site for landmark status, but not all buildings qualify for consideration. The site – whether a building, object or other discreet plot of land – must be at least 25 years old to be considered. It must also meet at least one of six criteria: landmarks can be outstanding works of architecture, a distinctive feature of a neighborhood, a lasting example of a particular architectural style, tied to the life of a notable individual, the site of a significant historical event, or otherwise indicative of a time in a neighborhood’s development. The site must also have some way of visually conveying its significance. A site rejected for landmark status cannot be nominated again for five years, except by the building’s owner.
Many of these criteria are pointedly subjective, which is why the nomination and hearing process involves both written and spoken arguments for preservation. These hearings are public and announced through various city platforms, e.g. the City of Seattle website newsfeed. In addition to initial hearings, approved landmarks require a second public hearing to negotiate the controls and incentives the city offers to the building’s owner for preservation.
The smallest structure among Capitol Hill’s landmark nominations pulls most of its arguments from a mix of sheer age and previous public interest. The Victorian House at 1523 E. Madison St. is among the oldest buildings in Seattle. The official nomination documents suggest it was built some time between 1893 and 1898, just a few years after the Great Seattle Fire obliterated much of what is now the downtown core.
The Victorian House, now an office building, received a “no-alter” status rating from the Department of Neighborhoods in 2001, indicating that there have been no additions to its original appearance significant enough to consider it irrevocably changed. The most significant alteration to the Victorian House is a single-story extension dated to 1937. The previous attention from the DON establishes a strong precedence for the building’s architectural value.
Most of the buildings on the Capitol Hill slate for preservation come from the industrial beginnings of the neighborhood, most commonly identified as the Auto Row era, though most of these structures predate Capitol Hill’s status as a hub for Seattle’s automotive industry. The documents for the Great Western Motors Building capitalize on this perception most prominently, devoting several subsections to overviews of Auto Row history. Indeed, the building in question was originally constructed to be an automobile showroom and service center. Great Western already had a presence on the Hill at that time, making their first home at the Tyson Building at 903 E. Pike St. Since the auto industry mostly left Capitol Hill, the Great Western Motors Building has been used a showroom, warehouse and retail space. It is currently vacant and the nearby Polyclinic uses it for storage.
The Madison Development Group will integrate the last two sites on the list, the Melrose Building and Pineview Apartments, into a large project. Advocates for preserving these two buildings, both commercial structures dating back to the 1910s, believe they represent both the history and the character of Capitol Hill. They are pushing for city-backed protections to enforce the promises of the Madison Development Group to keep the original buildings in the construction of an eight-story mixed-use building with 205 apartments above first-floor restaurant/retail space and a large underground parking lot.
The Landmark Preservation Board will hear arguments for the Victorian House on Aug. 21, then meet two weeks later on Sept. 4 to consider the case for the Great Western Motors Building. Because the development agreement for the site of the Melrose Building and Pineview Apartments includes incentives for the preservation of the original buildings’ character, landmark status may no longer be relevant according to Preservation Board standards.