Citing the 1968-built structure’s lack of architectural significance, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board voted 6-5 Wednesday night to deny granting landmark status to a Central District building that once housed what applicants said was the region’s first Black-owned bank.
Petitioners trying to save the former Liberty Bank building at 24th and Union needed seven votes for landmark designation at the emotionally charged meeting. The narrow vote now clears the path for non-profit developer Capitol Hill Housing to continue with its plans to build an affordable housing project on the site of the now empty, fenced-off building.
Prior to the vote Michelle Purnell-Hepburn, a former Liberty employee and daughter of bank co-founder James Purnell, urged the board to think about the risk and bravery it took to open a Black-owned bank in the 1960s.
“Given our collective history, non-white individuals could not walk into any financial institution and expect a loan,” she said.
For a volunteer board that is usually mulling over parapets and facades in sparsely attended meetings, the raw of emotion displayed during the hour-long public comment was, as one board member said, “distressing and disturbing.” Many supporters of the landmark designation invoked the long history of marginalization of African American’s in Seattle.
“To me it feels like were not even talking about the building,” said board member Nick Carter before voting against designation.
Several members were visibly distressed when giving their reasons for their vote on the landmark application (PDF), saying they had difficulty weighing the narrow architectural guidelines that make a landmark against the building’s historical context. Board member Aaron Luoma acknowledged the building’s lack of historically significant design, but decided to vote in favor of a landmark designation.
“I’m not convinced that the story isn’t so big, that by voting for preservation we’re voting for something that would help tell the story,” he said.
Longtime Central District activist Omari Garrett, who filed the preservation petition on behalf of the Africatown community group, told the board the Central District needed Black-led institutions, not more housing.
“We’re not basketball players, and football players, and dope dealers only, we’re bankers, and we have a bank,” he said. “We’re going to build a community around that bank”
While petitioners maintain Liberty was the first Black-owned bank on the West Coast, there were Black-owned credit unions in Seattle prior to Liberty’s opening in 1968. Purnell-Hepburn, who now works for Salal Credit Union, said credit unions at that time could not give mortgages, one of Liberty’s defining legacies. CHH representative Katie Porter said given those earlier credit unions and the building’s failure to represent its history, it did not warrant landmark status.
Architect Larry Johnson, who inspected the building for CHH, said the repairs and remodels made to the building by its last owners, Key Bank, detracted from the building’s architectural significance.
“It would’ve been a lot different if it was built as originally designed,” he said of Liberty’s famed African-American Seattle architect, Mel Streeter. “I think it’s pretty generic. I think you could find banks that look like this just about anywhere.”
The vote came two days after Africatown leaders organized a small rally and march to call for the city’s board to designate the now-empty building a landmark. The nomination of the building was accepted in February by a unanimous 10-0 vote of the board, according to a representative from the Department of Neighborhoods, but board members said they needed to learn more about the building’s cultural significance and, equally important, its remaining architectural significance.
Omari Garrett’s brother, Frederick Garrett, gave one of the most impassioned comments before Thursday night’s vote.
“Jimi Hendrix said ‘a castle built on sand will drift into the sea,’ and that’s what Black people and Black institutions are in this city,” he said.
Capitol Hill Housing has not said when it plans to begin construction on the mixed-use, affordable housing project which still must pass through the city’s design review process. The non-profit has indicated they would preserve the legacy of Liberty within a new development.
The fits and starts of big changes at 23rd and Union appear to be gaining momentum as this apartment project on the southwest corner of the intersection digs in and plans move forward to open development up on the southeast corner to 65-foot-tall buildings. On the northeast corner, the former Med Mix restaurant remains shuttered but paperwork indicates some plans afoot for change there, too.