CHS Pics | Landmark status can’t save the Carmack House

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(Image: CHS)

(Image: CHS)

To call the battle to save the Central District’s George Washington Carmack House a seven-year fight isn’t quite right. Last week, the one-sided end of the tussle came quickly for the more than 100-year-old mansion once home to George Carmack, the Seattle pioneer and prospector credited by most with setting off the Klondike gold rush:

When Carmack and his wife disposed of their holdings in the Klondike, they moved to Seattle where they took residence at the prestigious Hotel Seattle. Kate Carmack did not enjoy living in Seattle and returned to her northern home. [46] Carmack soon thereafter married a woman named Marguerite. Carmack eventually left the Hotel Seattle, but continued residing in the Pioneer Square area. From 1905 until 1909, he lived in a house at 3007 East Denny Way, which has since been removed. By 1910, Carmack moved to 1522 East Jefferson. According to Seattle City Directories, Carmack lived at this address until he died in 1922. Marguerite Carmack continued living in the house until the 1940s. A considerable amount of development has occurred around this house, which is still used as a residential structure.

By the end of last week, all that was left at the corner was a cleared lot. Despite being an official Seattle landmark, the Carmack House was finally torn down. The land is on the market for $1.43 million.

In 2015, the demolition was mostly an epilogue. The battle to save the house — documented by our now-retired site the Central District News — really ended in the years after the dilapidated 1902-built 16th and Jefferson mansion was designated for protection by Seattle’s landmark board in 2011. The property’s owner held out for a high price for the land, buoyed by the voracious appetite for development around Swedish’s growing Cherry Hill campus.

Crosscut describes what happened next:

Various neighborhood and preservation groups scrambled to figure out how to protect the house. Historic Seattle, the public non-profit, looked at buying it to fix and repurpose it (they bought and saved nearby Washington Hall), but the price to purchase the property was prohibitive. The city and the owner never finalized the so-called “controls and incentives” that spell out what a landmark’s specific protections are. So, the property owners remained free to do whatever they’d like. In other words, the Carmack House was an acknowledged landmark, yet never received actual protections. (Another case of this kind was the controversial Manning’s/Denny’s diner in Ballard, demolished in 2008 after being voted a landmark with no protections.)

UPDATE: We reviewed the minutes (PDF) from the 2012 landmarks board meeting where the controls and incentives agreement for the project were discussed. That day, the board voted unanimously to impose no restrictions on the property. Basically, the property was too expensive to preserve.

“Ms. Sodt explained that no controls were recommended on the Controls and Incentives,” the minutes read. “She said that the decision was not made lightly and is extremely rare and was based on information provided by the owner and Historic Seattle.”

According to the testimony recorded, the board believed “it was unreasonable to expect the house to be purchased even at assessed value and to invest 1.25 million dollars into it.” The minutes record that “the condition of the house was documented in the nomination report which included a police report of the architectural theft that had occurred” but that the theft was not a component of the recommendation for no controls.

Despite the 9-0 vote, the board and attendees at that May 2012 meeting were worried about the precedent. “Kji Kelly, Historic Seattle, thanked the Board and estate for giving so much time,” the minutes read. “He said that they worked on many scenarios and expressed concern that it could set precedent for developers looking for a way to get around landmark designation.”

Google Maps captures recent years passing by at the corner of 16th and Jefferson

In 2013, real estate investors bought the property and the “protected” old house. It’s illustrative of the true power of the landmark designation process that last month, with no group willing or able to pay the market price to preserve the old house, the Department of Planning and Development finally approved the demolition of the structure.

The demolition, of course, won’t end the debate over development in the neighborhood. CHS talked here with Squire Park neighbors pushing back on the Swedish growth plans. Though the Carmack House is gone, neighbors in the area continue to push back on the pressures of Swedish development plans and related projects in the area as the streets of Cherry Hill shift from old homes to multifamily and commercial developments.

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7 thoughts on “CHS Pics | Landmark status can’t save the Carmack House

  1. You left out a fascinating chapter. The woman who inherited the property reported that the house had been looted one night and the house interior stripped of its beautiful, architecturally significant features, including banisters, stained glass windows. This must have taken many hours, on a busy street… Funny thing, she was opposed to the historic preservation ruling because it would limit buyers. We neighbors thought it he theft claim was dubious at best.

  2. San José, CA created a park south-east of downtown where they relocated many of their historic homes/buildings from the downtown district when more modern, capable and capacious buildings were deemed more important than leaving the buildings in their original locations.

    The “old main street” they created in the park was adjoined to a small children’s zoo, large picnic areas, and a renovation barn and test tracks for old trolly systems. The city was able to grow, and a concentrated interpretive historical park was created.

    • San Jose has a strong sense of historic preservation. Seattle does not. In fact people like myself who have restored old Seattle houses have been demonized by the City (and this blog) for years as standing in the way of “progress.”

  3. Sadly, there was no reason to save this Squire Park house after it was looted of its architectural details, as I’m sure the looter/homeowner understood. The Squire Park Community Council is putting up a good fight to save the integrity this historic residential neighborhood—one of Seattle’s oldest—but talk about an uphill battle. As a previous commenter noted, this city isn’t keen to preserve or celebrate its own history. I happily moved here from the East Coast 25 years ago, but I’ve always found Seattle’s lack of historic interest very strange.