Thanks to a confluence of history that includes Pike/Pine’s auto row and the nascent era of one of the best known companies in the Pacific Northwest, advocates for better preservation of Capitol Hill’s remaining auto row buildings got more than they could have hoped Wednesday night. The Seattle Landmarks Board voted unanimously to nominate *both* the exterior and — thanks to the three-story structure’s impressive upper-story truss — the interior of the White Motor Co. building at the corner of 11th and Pine for consideration for the city’s official historical protections.
A hearing that began with the representative for the property owners noting she was speaking to the body “in the hope that this not be nominated,” ended with a vote to examine the building’s worthiness for protection despite those hopes. The official nomination hearing is now slated for January.
Last week, CHS featured a letter written by neighborhood resident Andrew Haas advocating for full preservation of the White Motor Co. building and the neighboring Kelly-Springfield Motor Truck Company structures home to Value Village, the Rhino Room club and The Stranger alternative weekly newspaper. Haas spoke up again Wednesday night during the public comment portion of the hearing, calling the White Motor Co. building “remarkably intact” and making the case for the significance of REI’s decades in the building as the workplace of the company’s first full-time employee, outdoor enthusiast Jim Whitaker.
The head of government and community affairs for REI also spoke in favor of the nomination. Marc Berejka said his company was unaware that the buildings that made up its onetime headquarters were being considered as landmarks until learning of Haas’s advocacy. The Kelly-Springfield building had previously advanced to the next round in the landmarks process following its late November hearing.
“Our members have expressed a deep sense of connectedness to the smell of creosote,” Berejka quipped about the legendary odor inside the building now home to Value Village.
A more regular contributor to the conversation about preserving the history of Pike/Pine’s auto row, neighborhood activist Dennis Saxman used his time in front of the board to express dismay that the presenters had downplayed the building’s significance and the work to remove the elements from the building’s exterior. “I was astounded,” Saxman said of watching workers removed the decorative elements in 2013. “What are they doing to that building?” he said he asked himself at the time. Saxman, a prolific photographer and writer, told the board he had extensive evidence of the changes. Nobody on the board seemed likely to doubt him.
During the hearing, the representative for the Ellison family and real estate developer Legacy Commercial said she was concerned members of the public had “accused” her clients of “removing elements” and that allegations in written comments received by the board that the building’s owners had acted to damage the structure’s possible standing as an official landmark were “patently false” and “without any evidence or basis in fact.” In January 2014, CHS reported that workers had removed decorative rosettes the previous fall and that representatives for the property owner and developer told the Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council that the elements were removed so that they could be preserved and restored to the building as part of a new 75-foot-high, nearly-100,000 square-foot office project planned for the land at the corner.
Wednesday night, a letter from PPUNC, a community group made up of many architects and developers who live and work in the area as well as residents interested in the neighborhood’s built environment, was also entered into the record in support of the nomination of the White Motor Co. building. The group had previously supported the Kelly-Springfield nomination.
The landmarks board also received a letter from City Council members Tom Rasmussen and Sally Clark voicing their concern about the removal of the historic decorative elements:
Though he said he mostly felt the building should fall short of nomination status, Larry Johnson, who prepared the report for the building on behalf of the owners and developers, said “there are instances of people removing terra cotta” from buildings in Seattle in an effort to damage the historical significance of a structure. In this case, however, Johnson said this did not appear to be the case at 11th and Pine and “there’s enough integrity in this building” to overcome the alterations. Johnson still maintained that the building should not be a landmark, however, even in the traditional sense. “Do people give directions by this building?” Johnson asked in one of the more rhetorical moments of the night.
In Wednesday’s 8-0 vote, the board members said the auto row era building’s fantastic condition, history as both an early home of REI and as an important part of the neighborhood’s automobile industry, and the outpouring of community support were enough to qualify the building to be officially considered for protections that would preserve the building’s historical elements and possibly curtail future development plans for the land.
“It’s really great for us to see members of the public come out and participate in this process,” one board member said, adding that she loves how the building stands out in Pike/Pine. “It absolutely glows,” she said.
Another board member said that she had just moved to Capitol Hill and, indeed, had asked for directions recently in a set-up of the rhetorical query pondered earlier in the hearing. “I’m recently moved,” the board member said, “and I did get lost and somebody directed me by this building.” Case closed. The nomination process for the White Motor Co. continues on January 21st. The Kelly-Springfield building takes its turn on January 7th. You can find more about how to get involved with the community effort to win landmarks status for the buildings in this CHS post.