Not Mad About Preservation

"MadArt" Houses on Bellevue Ave E, north of E Roy St, Capitol Hill / Photo: Eugenia Woo

MAin2 recently visited the MadArt exhibit in North Capitol Hill where five early twentieth-century houses are being used as blank canvasses for temporary art installations. The exhibit runs through August 7, 2011 (700 block of Bellevue Avenue E, north of E Roy Street). According to MadArt’s website, the goal is to “provide unexpected enjoyment and a distinctive educational experience for the neighborhood and visitors, while providing local artists a valuable and rare opportunity to create artwork.”

The exhibit has received lots of local attention and the focus has been on the art. The five houses have been referred to as “crumbling” or “decaying” by the media. They are slated for demolition to make way for new private residential development by Seattle developer Point32. The residences are next to the BelRoy Apartments—a Lionel Pries designed building that was designated a Seattle Landmark in 2010 (Point32 submitted the landmark nomination.) As part of the larger project proposal, the BelRoy Apartments will be rehabilitated. Some materials from the five houses may be salvaged before demolition and some efforts have been made to try to relocate the houses. Relocating five houses presents a challenge in terms of finding receiving sites and willing new owners; dealing with the logistics of clearing utility lines, street trees and Metro bus trolley lines; and navigating hilly topography. Given these challenges, the houses will most likely not be moved but destroyed (minus whatever materials can be salvaged), adding viable, old housing stock to the landfill and depriving this block on Capitol Hill of its only remaining single family residences. The historic context of what was there will be gone forever given the hodgepodge of multi-family development that exists now.  

The houses have seen years of deferred maintenance but actually retain quite a bit of physical integrity and can be renovated or restored, just like so many other similar vintage houses throughout Seattle’s neighborhoods. The houses were reviewed by the City for their landmark eligibility potential through the SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) process and did not pass muster. No landmark nominations were required for submittal. This presented a clear path for demolition. Not all old buildings in Seattle should be designated as landmarks, but this does not mean they are disposable. The story of a place or a neighborhood should not be important only if it’s of landmark or historic district quality. Everyday (vernacular) houses for everyday people represent Seattle’s neighborhoods. The drive for increase urban density does not always have to come at the price of preservation and neighborhood character.

Using the five houses for art is not the issue. Melding art and the historic built environment can be educational, thought-provoking and provide “unexpected enjoyment.” Some of the MadArt installations definitely achieve this. But who is speaking for the houses here? Preservation is about reuse so how sustainable is it to demolish viable homes? Some say this can’t be helped and that older houses and smaller-scale commercial buildings must be the sacrificial lambs for urban density and more housing. Well, this does not have to be the case. In 1990-1991, a cluster of six houses (built between 1893 and 1902) in nearby First Hill (Belmont Avenue E and Boylston Avenue E, between E Union Street and E Pike Street) were rehabilitated for low-income housing. These houses, known as the Belmont-Boylston Houses, had seen better years in the past and were not in great condition but they had good bones and physical integrity (similar to the five houses on Bellevue Avenue E.) Historic Seattle acquired the Bel-Boy Houses in 1989. After six months of renovation, 47 one-bedroom, studio, and single-room low-income apartments were created. The Bel-Boy project received the National Trust Preservation Honor Award in 1992. Historic Seattle sold five of the six buildings in 2008 and continues to own and manage 1411 Boylston Avenue. The six houses are protected by preservation easements (held by Historic Seattle). A landmark nomination for all six has been submitted to the City’s Historic Preservation Program and will be reviewed later this year. The Bel-Boy Houses are the only remaining cluster of “builder houses” from the turn of the twentieth century on First Hill. Would these structures survive today if they were not already protected? They are located in one of the densest and historic neighborhoods in Seattle and co-exist amid a variety of property types of different scale. They continue to tell the story of the neighborhood.

Three of the Belmont-Boylston Houses on First Hill / Photo: Eugenia Woo