January 2004: Preservation at Fort Lawton and Discovery Park
By Heather MacIntosh

Balancing historic preservation with other community needs, like greater density, is always a challenge for preservation's advocates. In the best possible scenario, preservation satisfies more than one community goal: e.g., the preservation of a cultural asset also preserves open space, or air and light, or helps attract tourist dollars. Once in a while, however, the significance of the cultural versus natural environment at a historic site provokes controversy over what really is the best use. Such has been the case in at Fort Lawton and Seattle's Discovery Park for over 30 years.

Historic Park Politics

Fort Lawton never lived up to the city's hopes of its being a large military operation, which whet local interest in its conversion to a park. In 1917, civic leaders and local newspapers came out in favor this idea, due to the city's need for parks and the military base's underuse, which was chronic. Outside of its role as an active military base in World War II, and during the Korean War, Fort Lawton saw little military activity.

These interests finally got their longed-for opportunity in 1964 when the Department of Defense announced plans to surplus 85% of its acreage at Fort Lawton. With a new park a distinct possibility, community members came together to conceive a viable plan.

In 1968, $3 million for the purchase of Fort Lawton for park land was included as part of the Forward Thrust package for city-wide improvements and amenities. After King County voters approved this bond issue, and despite their earlier announcement, the Department of Defense proposed that the fort become an anti-ballistic missile base. For security reasons, most of the fort's land would be off limits to the general public.

The concept exasperated park advocates who approached US District Judge Donald S. Voorhees and later US Senator Henry M. Jackson as allies. Once the issue of anti-ballistic missiles was resolved in the community's favor, park advocates met another challenge. The federal government's surplus laws made the purchase of Fort Lawton's acreage prohibitively expensive.

The problem led to "The Fort Lawton Bill" that allowed cities to purchase surplused military properties for less than 50% of fair market value. This and other laws related to surplused military land supported a constellation of new parks throughout the country. Sand Point's Magnussen Park was made possible by this legislation.

The struggle for the park as a public space continued into the 1970s with contesting ideas about ownership and use, including a significant claim from the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation who received 19 acres of the site in 1975.

"A People's Park in Magnolia"

In 1972, the US government finally conveyed part of Fort Lawton to the City of Seattle for park and recreational uses. The city renamed the area Discovery Park and began an extensive process to develop plans for the site. The master plan, eventually adopted for the park, outlined the site's primary reuse as a natural open space, a wilderness in the city.

In 1975, the army announced that another 151 acres at Fort Lawton were not needed for its purposes, which sparked controversy about the relevance of the site's historic buildings. The newly-surplused portion of the site included 25 buildings around the historic parade ground. Given the fort's historic significance, a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the City of Seattle, the Washington State Preservation Officer and the federal government was signed in conjunction with this transfer.

As with many preservation-related MOA's with federal agencies, buildings included within this agreement required documentation in keeping with Historic American Buildings Survey standards. The Fort Lawton Historic District matriculated into the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

The National Register is a list of significant properties around the country, established in concert with the Historic Preservation Act of 1966. This list is regulatory only in its connection with the federal tax credits program, and does not have the teeth of a local designation as is the case in the City of Seattle. The degree to which the City of Seattle was willing to regulate the preservation of historic properties at Fort Lawton was tentative at first, even with the National Register listing. Plans for Discovery Park had significant momentum by the late 1970s, which played a part in elected official's evaluation of and rulings related to Fort Lawton's historic resources.

In 1976, the Seattle Landmarks Board and a committee of the Parks Department met to review the 25 buildings considered potentially eligible for inclusion within a landmark district. Limited protections were placed on a few of these due to community concerns that a full-scale district would lead to a less-than-serene number of visitors and commercial rental of properties as is the case at many surplused military bases like Fort Worden.

The debate over what was right for Fort Lawton continued into the next decade. An account of the struggles between Friends of Discovery Park, the citizen's group shepherding the initial master park plan concept, and other interests is described by Bob Kildall in his chapter, "Discovery Park: A People's Park in Magnolia," included within, Magnolia: Memories & Milestones (Seattle: The Magnolia Community Club), 2000.

Legal issues also came into the debate with the MOA, which required the City seriously consider adaptive uses for all of the 13 city-owned historic district buildings. A court case ensued to press the issue, put forward by the Washington Trust and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The study following from this effort proposed very passive uses for the historic buildings -- including a small interpretive facility. This did not come to pass. A day after the study was completed -- one of the most important buildings (a soldiers' barracks) was burnt to the ground.

In 1988, the value of Fort Lawton's oldest historic military resources was acknowledged by City of Seattle landmark district status. That year, Seattle's City Council also voted in favor of an ordinance that restricted the reuse of six buildings included within the district. The ordinance (114013) stated:

"Whereas, the historic character of Fort Lawton will be better enhanced by the exterior preservation of six buildings than by the adaptive reuse of the two buildings designated in Resolutions 273229 and 27399; now, therefore be it ordained by the City of Seattle subject to the availability of funding from the State Endangered Landmarks Fund the Superintendent of Parks and Recreation shall preserve and maintain the exteriors of the following buildings and structures in the Fort Lawton Historic District: the Administration Building (Building 417), the Post Exchange Gymnasium (Building 733), the Band Barracks (Building 734), the Civilian Employees Quarters (Building 755), the Guardhouse/Jail (Building 759), and the Stables (Building 916). Only the exteriors of the above building (sic) shall be preserved. There shall be no interior use or finish of any of the buildings listed other than that required to protect the structure from deterioration and decay, fire, vandalism, and similar hazards "

Restricting the reuse of Fort Lawton's designated structures may have helped maintain the serenity of the site, but without new uses, and no dedicated stream for funds for their upkeep, the buildings within the historic district have deteriorated. Exterior improvements immediately following these ordinances are now over a decade old.

Gunning for the Chapel

Controversy has been a constant at Discovery Park, spurred by the many contesting voices and interests engaged in its reuse since the site became surplus. The most recent preservation concern and the City of Seattle's response to it continue the story of preservation's struggle at Fort Lawton.

Wastewater treatment at West Point has been a major community concern for over 30 years; this issue is discussed in Magnolia Memories, in a chapter dedicated to the controversy by Scott L. Smith. In 2003, King County agreed to pay for improvements to Discovery Park to mitigate for the large sewage digesters that eat up a sizable track of beach. In September of 2003, as a part of these mitigating improvement, County Executive Ron Sims asked the Metropolitan King County Council to release $5 million to the City of Seattle to remove buildings and roads and restore native vegetation.

This decision was the result of over a decade of investigation into alterative wastewater treatment solutions at Discovery Park, and a 1991 agreement that promised mitigation funds should no alternative solution be found. In keeping with this agreement, the West Point Advisory Committee was created in 2001 to outline how mitigation funds should be best spent. This committee looked to the vision of the 1972 plan for Discovery Park, with preservation taking a decided backseat.

The group recommended $100,000 for the historic district's landscaping, but none for the rehabilitation of the buildings. They also proposed the demolition (costing $250,000) of a World War II era chapel, an idea that provoked some community concern, featured in a Seattle Post Intelligencer article by Kathy Mulady, published on October 6, 2003.

The chapel's configuration and condition makes it a difficult reuse project, but not impossible. Concern about the reuse of the chapel isn't new. In the mid-1970s, the General Services Administration looked for a religious organization to purchase the chapel due to federal guidelines requiring that religious organizations be given first dibs on acquiring any surplus governmental religious property, such as a chapel, a memorial or a shrine.

The Seattle Parks Board, after feedback from the community at large, took the chapel's demolition off the department's slate of recommended projects, but the ultimate decision will be made by City Council.

History in the Balance

In most cases, nature and culture can coexist quite nicely. Seattle is fortunate to have many examples of hybrid landmark-park sites, thanks in part to the Olmsteds' legacy park system.

In specific cases, like Capitol Hill's Volunteer Park, historic built resources and cultural institutions (the Seattle Asian Art Museum and the greenhouse) work together toward the public's general benefit. In the case of some projects, like the preservation of the Good Shepherd Center, park aspects are maintained as a part of designated historic sites. The Good Shepherd Center's adaptive reuse as a hub of nonprofit and community activity has helped activate the green spaces on this 11-acre site.

Other community-based landmark projects, like the Belltown Cottages, help create new, active open space (in this case, a community P-Patch). In the case of the Egan House, located on Lakeview Boulevard, preservation of a historic resource and maintenance of the city's greenbelt are shared jointly by the city and a nonprofit (in this case, Historic Seattle).

The coexistence of the restored natural environment and better stewardship at Fort Lawton is complex proposition, but certainly not impossible. And recent initiatives within the Seattle Parks Department are promising. The agency now has a comprehensive improvement plan, which includes upgrades to many historic places. Within the past few years, the Department has nominated several of its properties as potential City of Seattle landmarks.

Even though the World War II chapel has been spared demolition for the time being, the question of stewardship solutions at Fort Lawton remains, as does the role of history within a man made wilderness at the city's edge.

More on the Magnolia Neighborhood, visit HistoryLink

View last month's Preservation & Environment article

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