Boeing Plant 2’s Place in History: Gone?

Rendering of Boeing Plant 2 from Asahel Curtis Photo, ca. 1936 / Source: UW Special Collections

QUESTION: What do you get when you combine a powerful private corporation (Boeing), a City government that has no preservation ordinance (City of Tukwila), and a hulk of a utilitarian structure that happens to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places (Boeing Plant 2) but is proposed for demolition?

ANSWER: You get a City agency declaring a “Determination of Non-Significance” through SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) that the proposed demolition of Boeing Plant 2 does not have a probable significant adverse impact on the environment. How is it possible to propose that a National Register-eligible historic property be demolished, and yet not have this action be considered a significant adverse impact? It just doesn’t make sense.

What is Boeing Plant 2 and why is it important to our heritage? Located at 7755 East Marginal Way S. in Tukwila on the banks of the Duwamish River, its significance is multi-layered but it is best known for its association with the defense industry in Washington state and the U.S. during World War II. Plant 2 was where the B-17 (the Flying Fortress) and the B-29 (the Super Fortress) planes were manufactured—they played a pivotal role in the Allied victory in Europe. Plant 2 was so important during the war that the roof of the massive 754,000 square-foot structure was camouflaged to appear as a normal residential neighborhood in the air (to make it a less obvious target for enemy air bombers).

Diana Painter’s recent article from July 17 in Crosscut is a must-read because she tries to wade through the complicated morass related to the proposed destruction of Boeing Plant 2 and asks a lot of questions that have yet to be answered or have been answered inadequately. Ms. Painter is an architectural historian. Her father, a World War II veteran, worked as an engineer for Boeing for 27 years, including several years at Boeing Plant 2 on the B-52 bomber.

The proposed demolition of Plant 2 brings up the larger issue of what to do with historic utilitarian structures that are no longer used? How can they successfully be adaptively reused? Old mill sites and breweries across the country have been converted to commercial and/or residential spaces that offer unique places to work, live and play. Granted, Boeing Plant 2 has soil and ground contamination issues, but so do most industrial sites. Industrial and utilitarian structures are often not valued as much as other types of design. They are important for their function and utility and often, the designs are fine examples of structural engineering or a particular method of construction which are just as significant as architectural style or ornament on buildings—they’re just not as “pretty.”

In addition to Ms. Painter’s article in Crosscut, the Seattle Times broke the story on the proposed demolition of Boeing Plant 2 back in January 2010. For more on the significance of the site and photos, see the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation’s Blog. When news of the proposed demolition hit the streets in January, most of us in the preservation world were taken by surprise. The process, such as it is, continues to this day and we await the final death knell to sound on Boeing Plant 2. There is no mitigation for demolition.