Capitol Hill’s Sullivan House voted for landmarks protections

Its owner says it is dilapidated, rotted in places, infested by bugs in others, and she had plans to sell it to a developer with plans to tear it down, but the 1898-built Sullivan House at 15th Ave and E Olive St. has new life after the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted Wednesday night 6-2 that the old house is worthy of its protections.

“We think it still is a castle on the Hill despite its poor condition,” said neighbor and architect Jim Castanes who was reduced to examining the house from afar using “a zoom lens and binoculars” but successfully led the effort to win the landmarks designation.

“The board has the power to keep the wrecking ball from this well-loved residence,” Castanes said.

In reaching their decision, board members focused on the old house’s “distinctive visible characteristics” of Queen Anne-style architecture as well as its prominent place at 15th and E Olive St. as one of the last of its kind in an evolving residential area of Capitol Hill. “You can see a lot of what makes it beautiful,” one board member said. “We are landmarking what exists today.”

A representative of Historic Seattle also spoke in favor of protecting the house during public comment before the vote.

Wednesday’s landmarks board session on the house was divided into two opening presentations giving the non-owners who nominated the property for protections as well as representatives for the owner who opposed those protections opportunities to make their cases for the house. While both sides agreed on the basic history of the home built by Seattle businessman Patrick Sullivan and his wife Joanna Sullivan, the owner’s representative David Peterson of NK Architects made the case that the Josenhans and Allan-designed home was not particularly exemplary of their work — nor were the Sullivans particularly important, nor was a Queen Anne-style mansion particularly rare. There are “turrets all over the place,” Peterson said. “Turrets down the street.” The board was not swayed.

CHS reported on the start of the nomination process in December as the property’s owner hoped to convince the board that her aunt’s old house and its apartment units were no longer worthy of preservation. Listing the property this fall for $2.2 million, Ann Thorson said she opposed the effort to protect the house. According to a filing with King County for the property, Thorson had a “memorandum of agreement” with a townhome developer for the property.

While landmarks protections can help preserve the city’s oldest, most impressive structures, the process doesn’t always work out. Last month, CHS reported on the demolition of the Galbraith House just blocks away from the Sullivan House at 17th and Howell as Sound Mental Health successfully argued that the property had become unusable due to safety and structural issues.

Following the landmarks decision, an attorney representing Thorson said it was too early to say what her client would do next or if there were plans to challenge the board’s decision. Following the vote, the property must be approved by the Seattle City Council for its final protections. That process usually takes around a year before a council vote. The property remains on the market.


SUBSCRIBE TO CHS:  Appreciate CHS's breaking news? SUBSCRIBE HERE TODAY. Subscribers help pay for the writers and photographers who provide CHS's daily coverage and help us swing into action on BREAKING NEWS. Join NOW to become a subscriber at $1/$5/$10 a month to help CHS provide community news with NO PAYWALL. You can also sign up for a one-time annual payment. Why support CHS? More here.

Subscribe and support CHS Contributors -- $1/$5/$10 per month

14 thoughts on “Capitol Hill’s Sullivan House voted for landmarks protections

  1. It is exciting to hear that this beautiful old gem was landmarked. Hopefully it will be bought and restored to it’s former glory.

  2. does this landmarking come with any funding, or does the owner just have to sit tight and wait til it does fall apart before demolishing it?

    • She can still sell the house, just not to a developed who wants to teat it down. I hope to see more of this in the future

    • It’ll come down in the next big earthquake regardless. It’s a terrible building to actually live or work in, and it’s not actually visible from most angles most of the year. This is all just a particularly stupid kind of nimbyism

    • The property can be landscaped and the house can be made beautiful again. Someone who loves old house will take it on and when it is back to it’s former glory it will be a gem in the neighborhood as opposed to all of these characterless boxes being built now.

    • I’m pretty sure rents presently cover the taxes and a little more. So the owner doesn’t have to sell at all, they can just continue to mostly defer the maintenance. This will generally have bad impacts on the tenants. Being tossed out by a restorer would also have bad impacts on the tenants, especially if (as is very likely) they get in over their head financially or prioritize the “prettiness” aspects of the exterior over the boring functional and safety issues with the building. Nobody would restore this building for ordinary Cap Hill residents though… it’d only pencil out as a vacation rental or something instead of the actual housing that’s there or the actual housing that could be built there, especially if the rezone goes through.

    • I’m glad I don’t live in your world, guest…

      Where nothing has any worth over it’s practical applications…. Yes, let us paint over the Mona Lisa – it’s just an old painting after all and that canvas can go to a much better use being given to a poor art student… in fact why should we have art museums, heck any museums at all – they are just taking up space – let’s put a bunch of homeless people in there and let them burn the exhibits to keep warm… in fact we should rezone the National Parks – all that good timber in Redwoods is going to waste – think of all the people we could house if we cut it all down and built shacks on the resulting stubble…

  3. There seem to be some holes in the landmarks law that are letting landmarked buildings have no controls and be demolished, to wit, the demolition of Galbraith House as described in the post. There needs to be a better and more creative approach to adaptive re-use of landmark buildings – Seattle is excessively handy at destroying our built legacy instead of weaving it into the new city.

  4. If they had thought about it, they could have arranged an ‘accident’ to take care of the building. Now they are trapped in the 19th century

  5. I have no real issue with landmarking properties we feel are e exemplary examples architecturally, etc., but i would prefer the city reimburse the owner for the diminished value to the property. Landmark status clearly restrains the owner’s ability to sell the property because it restricts the market of buyers to those who would pay for the house and then embark upon an expensive renovation. And this renovation would be even more exoensive because it would have to comply with whatever city requirements apply to altering historical buildings. Finding a buyer willing to do this, knowing the market for resale after renovation would be similarly restricted, would be difficult. In short, this designation robs the current owner of the value of their property.

    If we choose as a community to take this action because we value the historical significance of the property, we should reimiburse the owner it’s diminished value. That said, i have little patience with owners who defer maintenance on their properties intending to sell them to developers in a ramshackle condition as this longtime owner clearly did. Although i would prefer they maintain properties such as this throughout their term of ownership, I still believe lost value should be reimbursed by the city.

    • The way Seattle panders to developers causes this – land is very highly valued here, buildings are not… Look at the tax appraisals for this property – the land is valued at nearly $1million… the house at $146,000. Giving this house landmark status just reels it’s value back into what should be reasonable for a property of it’s condition by removing the artificial value that it has only to a land developer.

      I’m not so sure that we should reimburse the owner for diminished value – because the value is artificially high in the first place… but it’s taxes should definitely be reassessed to come in line.

  6. If the city designated your property a landmark, thus reeling it’s value back to what it should be for a house in it’s condition, you would probably feel as if you had been robbed. The very least that should be done is to dramatically lower the property taxes on the property. The owner will not be made whole by any means but at least the community will have paid some price for the values and esthetics it purports to hold dear.

  7. So… we’re reserving the property for one millionaire’s family instead of allowing several families that work for a living to get housing in a new building? Just great.

    • Haha you mean for several millionaire’s families? That is how much townhomes in this area are going for, a million give or take. Really.