Here’s why Capitol Hill’s Galbraith House is being demolished

(Image courtesy John Fox)

Officials at Sound Mental Health tell CHS the decision to demolish a landmarked Capitol Hill mansion comes in the midst of planning about how the property owner can best serve the more than 20,000 people it helps each year struggling with addiction and mental health.

“The number of folks who need support help in our community has increased exponentially,” Sound spokesperson Steve McLean tells CHS.

“Our challenges are myriad — one of our challenges is space.”

CHS posted Tuesday about salvage underway on the 1904-built Galbraith House at 17th and Howell. An application to fully demolish the building that has been used as a Sound — formerly Sound Mental Health — facility and its neighboring carriage house has been approved by the city.

McLean tells CHS that Sound has been evaluating its options for the property for the past several years even before it became unusable in 2017 due to safety and structural issues. “At this stage of this process, we are assessing what we are going to do with that property,” he said.

Capitol Hill landmark-protected Galbraith House readied for demolition

In December, Seattle’s landmarks review board voted 7-1 to lift controls on the historic home of Seattle merchant James E. Galbraith which had been designated for protections in 2005. According to the memo on the request from Sound, the organization began raising development options with the board in 2009 with one plan including “moving the Galbraith House to the northeast corner of the combined site, and building new structures to the west and south to serve its internal operations.” By 2015, according to the landmarks board document, Sound notified representatives that it no longer intended to preserve the building. Analysis provided to the Department of Neighborhoods prior to the landmarks board’s December 2017 vote showed that preservation was an iffy financial proposition. Taking into consideration the current upward volatility of the local real estate and construction markets that is changing rapidly over the course of a few months, it was difficult to conclude the Galbraith property could generate a rate of return necessary to attract capital for investment,” the landmarks board memo reads.

While Sound officials are reluctant to discuss plans at this point, the memorandum makes it clear that the nonprofit provider has planned to utilize the property to build expanded facilities for its services on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, outcry from preservationists continues as this area of the Hill is seeing its turn of the 20th century building stock dwindle. During the same meeting the landmarks board voted to allow controls to be lifted from the Galbraith House, the group approved this house a few blocks away at 15th and E Olive St. to move forward in the process toward landmark status despite objections from the landowner who has hoped to sell the property for redevelopment.

For Sound, preservation did not pencil out. “It took some time to get here,” McLean said. “We have done our best to maintain it. The cost to maintain the building was considerable.”

“We had to balance that for what is best for the folks we serve and the community that is the beneficiary of that service.”


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11 thoughts on “Here’s why Capitol Hill’s Galbraith House is being demolished

  1. So what I am hearing is that the “solution to your problem” if you own a landmark status building is to simply let it fall apart to the point at which you can say it’s unusable and cannot be fixed…

  2. Thanks, I appreciate this reporting.

    I guess I’m left wondering why I or the Landmarks Board, or the Dept of Neighborhoods should care that Sound Mental Health couldn’t make preservation “pencil out”. Maybe they should have sold it, then. Isn’t that the point of having the building landmarked? So it can’t be demolished, even if the current owner would prefer to demolish it?

    Also, has it somehow been determined that this is an appropriate site for a larger mental health facility? How large will it be to “pencil out”?

    • I wonder the same thing- what’s the point of historic preservation if the landowner can just say “I can’t afford to fix it, or don’t want to afford to.”

      My guess would be that the public good (mental health services) overrode the historic designation and so this was the excuse. And it’s easier to develop land you already own than buy new.

      It does concern me when “good purposes” are the excuse for not honoring historic preservation laws. There are a lot of good purposes and not that many historic buildings.

    • I agree. The comments by Sound Mental Health are pure spin, intended to mute the outrage many are feeling as a result of their decision to demolish this beautiful house. Why couldn’t they just sell the property (it would bring millions) to someone who would rehab/reuse it, and they could use the proceeds to build what they need somewhere else? But it’s too late for that now. Shame on them and shame on the Landmarks Board who approved this process!

    • I don’t think it’s wise to leave preservation up to the private market. You’re just massively inconveniencing people who’d want to demolish a property. Normally, they’d just get permits and demolish it, but if you landmark it, it’ll have to go through a long process of intentional neglect before it can get demolished, apparently.

      We’ve got to have NGOs or something picking up the slack, or only having property owners who are willing to maintain their landmark property be given the status/associated tax breaks

  3. Historic preservation seems mostly meaningless. I remember when the Ford dealership at Mercer was demolished – and that had landmark designation I believe.

  4. Sadly, this isn’t the first time and I doubt it will be the last – wasn’t the incredible Fox Music Hall downtown landmarked too?

    • Those patients could go to the new location for Sound Mental Health, which the agency would build instead of demolishing this beautiful old house.

  5. I live right down from that so called historic place. It was horrible, the rats were everywhere, the smell coming from the place was like something died and got buried in a piled of rotten oatmeal. I’m all for preservation; but it was neglected far too long. The condition was deplorable when they scraped off the first layer of rotten wood.