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With development looming, Capitol Hill’s Conover House considered for landmarks protections — UPDATE

The house in 1937

(Image: King County)

Things were very different in the late 1800s. Capitol Hill, technically, didn’t exist yet. Charles Tallmadge Conover helped build it. Now, his own 1893-built house, sandwiched between E Olive and a parking lot and the Central Co-Op on E Madison in an area then called Renton Hill, will be considered for landmark nomination this Wednesday afternoon during a public meeting and presentation before Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board.

Initially, the preservation hearing for the 1620 16th Ave building was slated to be voted on in March, along with the First Hill/Capitol Hill Knights of Columbus building. The presentation, public comment, and vote on the nomination of the “Conover Residence” were postponed at the request of the building’s owners, the social services nonprofit Jewish Family Services.

The organization hoped to do additional research and respond to items raised in letters of public comment by, among others, the Capitol Hill Historical Society as well as the former owner. Nonprofit group Historic Seattle is also supporting the nomination.

While the nomination of the Knights of Columbus building was advanced by the Board with a 7-0 vote last March, this nomination vote is likely to be more contentious.

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In the Knights of Columbus case, the owners want to refurbish the building through adaptive reuse and actively pursued landmark nomination, which helps its chance of getting the Board’s stamp of approval.

By contrast, Jewish Family Services, who also owns the parking lot to the south of the building and the building across the street, plans to demolish the Conover Residence to make way for a seven-story, 88-unit apartment development with space for a restaurant, and underground parking for 105 cars. Though JFS is the applicant of the nomination, the organization is hoping the landmark board agrees that the building does not meet the criteria for nomination. JFS was required to submit a landmark nomination during the SEPA process.

JFS says the new development is intended to raise money to further their services, which includes a food bank as well as providing emergency services and assistance to refugees and the homeless.

Jewish Family Services was founded in 1892 and has operated from the Central Area or Capitol Hill since the mid-20th century.

“Any revenue generated from the project will be put towards our mission of serving the vulnerable people in our community,” said Will Berkovitz, CEO of JFS. He also added that JFS is not “personally planning on developing that property,” but that they’d be looking to work with a developer to complete the project and keep a portion of the new parking spaces so that they can build out more offices in what is now JFS’s garage across the street. Berkovitz will speak at the public hearing tomorrow, as will the consultants of JFS.

Joan Zegree, who owned the house from 1976 to 2016 when JFS purchased the building and adjacent parking lot for $1,699,500, will be speaking in support of the nomination. In a letter to the Landmarks board, Zegree claims she did not sell the building to developers who were offering “significantly more“ because her broker was told, she claims, JFS would use it for housing for refugee/immigrants and perhaps offices. In another letter, the broker claims that JFS promised him the building would not be torn down, though JFS “strongly disagrees” with that characterization, Berkovitz wrote in his letter to the board.

It remains to be seen how and if the disagreement will impact the landmarks board, which can only make a decision based on criteria for designation outlined in the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Ordinance.

One of the criteria for nomination and designation will inevitably come up in the meeting: a significant association “with the life of a person important in the history of the City, state, or nation.” Some advocates for nomination claim Conover was precisely that.

Conover built his single-family house in 1893, right when Washington was going through what is now known as the “financial panic,” a bank scare and an economic depression with dozens of banks in Washington (back then still a new state) failing. It was a dip after a first development boom that would soon be followed by another boom in the late 19th and early 20th century, notably on Capitol Hill. Conover, who owned a real estate and financial brokerage firm, would profit from it and helped build it.

Conover was also a city editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and is said to have coined “The Evergreen State” as the nickname for Washington.

Conover lived in the house with his family for 24 years, after which he converted it into four rental apartments. The rent? $32.50 for a two-room, $55 for a four-room apartment. Even when adjusted for inflation, that would be around $482 and $817 today, respectively.

Marvin Anderson, local architect, historian, and Capitol Hill Historical Society member says the house was a “highly refined” example of the Colonial Revival style in Seattle and was, architecturally/stylistically speaking, ahead of its time. Tom Heuser of Capitol Hill Historical Society, who support the nomination and have researched the house extensively, said  that the house still features original woodwork, herringbone ceilings, fireplaces and other original indoor and some outdoor features.

Heuser was one of the people who put in letters of support for the nomination, which contained additional research, ahead of the meeting in March. He said that the initial nomination report, prepared by BOLA Architecture + Planning for JFS was incomplete, particularly where it pertained to the neighborhood’s history. “I can see the significance in overlooking that — it downplays how important Conover was to developing the area,” he said.

Sometimes, Heuser said, speaking generally, if an owner wants to demolish a property, it happens that they put in less effort to gather information about the building or omit important things.

In a letter to the members of the Landmarks Preservation Board, Keara Kazanjian, Director of Facilities & IT at Jewish Family Service, argued that the building is not associated in a significant way with Conover, among other arguments.

She also pointed to the fact that Conover converted the building from a single-family home to apartments. “We can imagine this is because Conover was an entrepreneur who understood the need for housing, the value of urban density, and the economic opportunity the conversion presented,” she writes. “He did not appear sentimental about retaining the building as a single-family home.”

The Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board meets Wednesday, May 14th at 3:30 PM in Seattle City Hall, 600 4th Avenue, Room L2-80. Public comment is allowed or can be provided via email.

UPDATE 5/16/2019: The Landmarks Board voted in favor of nomination 6 to 1. The designation session is scheduled for the board meeting on June 19th.

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1 year ago

The lesson here seems to be if you sell / give to a charity you need to put in a covenant to prevent them abusing your trust later. How much is the CEO of JFS making ?

Bob Knudson
Bob Knudson
1 year ago

It seems to me that it is a conflict of interest for an organization (such as JFS), who want to demolish their building, to be the nominee for landmark designation. Obviously, they will create their landmark narrative to put a building in the least favorable light, and even to omit important information, which apparently is what happened in this case.

J Alfred Prufrock
J Alfred Prufrock
1 year ago

Strolled past that house twice a week since Madison Market opened in summer 1999. Beautiful Blue Manse with nice setback always a pleasure to see. Parking lot is camouflaged by a bulkhead with trees/bushes and nice steps to take a break on. Another bloodless 7-story Cube would be a huge letdown. If former owner is to be believed then SHAME on Jewish Family Services (charity work notwithstanding) for their reneging on original purpose. I understand the economics and am not naive but man, this is just another nail in old Seattle. Pathetic.

Yo Daddy
Yo Daddy
1 year ago

@ Bob, don’t be a grumpy old Capitol Hill Property Owner.

Bob Knudson
Bob Knudson
1 year ago
Reply to  Yo Daddy

What is “grumpy” about my comment… is a valid criticism, so instead of throwing darts why don’t you respond to the point that I made?