People in Preservation: A Look Behind a Landmark Nomination
But, do you know how nominations are initiated in the first place? Nominations come from a range of sources. They can be a requirement triggered by a permit application or submitted by property owners, consultants, or organizations like Historic Seattle (to name a few examples). Perhaps most inspiring of all are those that come from citizen advocates.Meet Dr. Ruth Fruland and Cynthia Mejia-Giudici, the team who recently presented a nomination for the Shearwater Community School/Decatur Annex (7725 43rd Ave NE) in the Wedgwood neighborhood. What inspired these two women to nominate this place?
If you think this building lacks the beauty you might envision in a landmark, you are not alone. However, a place does not necessarily need to possess remarkable architecture to qualify as a city landmark. What it does require is to: 1) be over 25 years old, 2) possess integrity or the ability to convey its significance, and 3) meet at least one of the six criteria for designation outlined in the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Ordinance. Ruth and Cynthia’s Decatur Annex nomination focused on the cultural and historic significance of the place, which is too rich and complex to do justice in this short piece. To get a better idea of the scope of that significance, read their landmark nomination and explore related blog posts in Wedgwood in Seattle History.
To summarize, the Shearwater Community Center, now called Decatur Annex, is the last remaining building from the Navy’s Shearwater Housing Project, which was built in 1945-46. The Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) was contracted by the Navy to build the housing project (which included the community center) for military families at Sand Point NAS. The Shearwater Housing Project was unique in that it strategically and successfully implemented racially-integrated housing during a time when discriminatory housing policies were systemically enforced both at the federal level as well as in Seattle in the form of neighborhood covenants, exclusionary redlining, and “sundown” laws. The onset of WWII prompted the Navy to establish a policy of racial and gender integration of its service. The Shearwater Housing Project was the Navy’s first integrated housing project under this new policy, which happened to coincide with the equalitarian vision of Seattleite Jesse Epstein, a lawyer who created the SHA to qualify for federal funds for low-income housing under the Wagner-Seagull Act of 1937.
According to Dr. Fruland’s nomination, “The Shearwater Administration and Community Center embodies a fascinating, but under-reported history, not only of the Navy’s new policy of racial integration, but also of how it leveraged Seattle Housing Authority’s integration policies under Jesse Epstein (and vice versa). One might say his appointment as the first Executive Director of the SHA in 1939 was ‘just in time.'”
There is much more to the Shearwater story, but the question still begs: how did these citizen advocates come to spotlight this significant piece of history? The answer is history, education, and – in part – geology!
With a PhD in Education Science and Technology and a background in geology, Wedgwood neighborhood resident Dr. Fruland’ s interests lie both in education and in “the passage of time and its effects on things.” Her inclination to preserve the Decatur Annex was initially sparked by a postcard she received in the mail from the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) regarding demolition of the annex. SPS, which now owns the property, redeveloped most of the former housing lot into a large new public elementary school and is seeking approval to demolish the annex for “outdoor education use.”
That same postcard landed in the mailbox of another Wedgwood resident, Cynthia Mejia-Giudici, an oral historian and special education teacher at nearby Roosevelt High School. Cynthia lived in Shearwater housing as a child, and her Filipino family has lived in Wedgwood since 1956. She was driven to preserve the Decatur Annex not only because she remembers it vividly from personal experience, but also to honor and represent its broader meaning in a larger cultural context, and to raise awareness about the historic ties the Wedgwood neighborhood has to the former Navy base, now Magnuson Park. Cynthia is “passionate about honoring the multi-cultural community that Sand Point created with the Housing Project, and about paying tribute to the US Navy.” To quote Ruth’s words in their nomination, “It is Cynthia who knows the feeling and meaning of racial discrimination, and the true significance of Decatur Annex in Seattle’s history.” Again, Cynthia’s family’s story and the significance of the community that formed at Shearwater warrants much more space than this piece allows. Read more about Cynthia’s story here.
On January 2, 2019 the Shearwater Community Center/ Decatur Annex came before the Landmarks Preservation Board (LPB) for designation determination. Landmark designation requires a majority vote among the 10 seated LPB members. So, although 4 of the 6 LPB members present voted in favor of landmarking, the annex failed to receive the requisite 6 votes required for designation and The Decatur Annex will likely be demolished in the coming months. Ruth and Cynthia are now working to hold SPS accountable to promises made for a plaque or statue to honor the significance of Shearwater – a significance many SPS representatives denied in their public comments opposing designation.