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Capitol Hill Mid-Century Modern — Historical Society adds new era to its preservation efforts

(Image: Lana Blinderman)

The Capitol Hill Historical Society has focused its research and preservation efforts on buildings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Now the group can turn some of its attention to a more recent, diverse architectural history: Mid-Century Modern multifamily residential buildings constructed from the post World War II-era up until the late 1970s.

“I’m very excited about this kind of being a step in the direction of closing the historical gap between that auto row-era and today,” said Tom Heuser, board president of the nonprofit. “We have this kind of interlude period between now and then that hasn’t been very well covered and I think this is definitely a springboard for more of that.”

The Pike/Pine auto row-era has been of particular focus, a period in the first part of the twentieth century when the Pike/Pine corridor became the hub of car dealerships in Seattle.

This project is funded with a $10,000 King County 4Culture grant and will consist of a ten-building survey of Mid-Century Modern architecture, including Brutalist and California Modern styles.

Photographer and CHHS member Lana Blinderman initially proposed the project idea to Heuser after noticing that some mid-century buildings seemed to be disappearing.

“You know some of them are being remodeled and not in a way that is accurate or true to the original style and some of them were just being demolished,” Blinderman said. “I thought: ‘Wow, nobody’s documenting these buildings and this is just such a loss, and despite all the mid-century revival that people seem to be crazy about there was no organized documentation happening.’”

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Mid-Century Modern architecture examples around the Hill include Harvard/Harrison’s Roni Lee Apartments and Thomas/14th’s Capitol Crest Apartments.

The project was in the research phase with selection and photography still to come when CHS spoke with Blinderman. The plan is for the work to culminate in walking tours and a public presentation in December 2021.

The history of these buildings is tied to the neighborhood’s mid-century growth, explained Heuser, when housing needs arose during the Seattle World’s Fair of 1962 and when the Broadway High School became a vocational training center, drawing veterans to the neighborhood after WWII.

“There’s a very rich history connected in the neighborhood with mid-century that I had never really considered before,” Heuser said.

The project’s look into mid-century architectural history may shed light on the neighborhood’s social history post World War II as the city, and Capitol Hill in particular, became diversified during the civil rights movement and evolved into an LGBTQ center of Seattle in the 1960s.

“I do suspect, especially if we go into the more social history of this era, we’ll definitely see that significant shift and by default this be kind of a more diverse period of architectural history just based on who is living in the buildings and perhaps who is designing them,” Heuser said.

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13 thoughts on “Capitol Hill Mid-Century Modern — Historical Society adds new era to its preservation efforts

  1. You can try shooting in BW from all angles but these things are still ugly. What we need is to highlight what can be done with modern tech like hardi.

    • Thanks for your comment, but we are a historical society, not a modern tech society. Using our organization to proselytize hardi would go against our mission. Come back to us in 30-50 years and maybe we’ll talk. For the time being though, hardi? I say hard pass.

  2. I agree, most MCM architecture is awful. I lived in a building once that was very similar to the Capitol Crest, which exemplifies perhaps the worst apartment design ever. Picture windows you have to keep covered (unless you’re a true exhibitionist) because people are forever walking by just outside of them. Railings that in many cases were unsafe for small children due to their low height and/or gaps in the ironwork. Bulldoze the lot of them, I say.

  3. The Architecture has been made regressive over the centuries or decades without being earthquake proof, natural disaster resistant, nuclear bomb safe. All the buildings in Japan are earthquake proof. The United States of America does not even have a single high speed rail way. The Architecture of the United States of America relates to it having the worst healthcare system in the western hemisphere aswell. The inequality in the U.S.A has made most parts of the nation are not developed to an internationally famous extent. The U.S.A consciously has the Worlds Largest Military Budget many times over but still remains not developed compared to Japan, Singapore

    • Hello Adam, thank you for your comment. Just to clarify, this is a documentation project, not a preservation project. We will not be pursuing local landmark or national register status. Also, I by and large agree with you, a lot of the motel-esque buildings look pretty awful, but there are so many more interesting styles that I don’t think people realize are there and it’s these that I’m especially excited to highlight. That said, like it or not, both the good and bad examples of mid century modern play a very important role in the history of the neighborhood and the city and for that reason alone I believe they are worth at least documenting before demolishing. We can’t just erase or step over something from our architectural heritage just because we think it’s ugly. And last mention, this is not an either-or situation. Choosing to highlight a small portion of an often ignored architectural style does not mean that we will start ignoring “actual good buildings.”

      • Tom, thanks for clarifying that this is a documentation project. I think that is a worthy thing to pursue. And to your point, there are certainly at least some good examples of MCM that may be worthy of actual preservation.

  4. This is welcome news! Despite the above naysayers, there are many fine MCM buildings on the Hill, and I have written about many of them for CHS over the past decade. It is true that there are examples of poor design to be found in any era; however, dismissing all of the works of any given period because of some bad apples is naive and unfortunate.

    Nice pics, Lana!

    • Thank you for your support John! I’ve read and appreciated your insightful commentary on MCM and other architecture over the past few years. I was once a naysayer myself, but have come to appreciate some of the finer and more outstanding examples of MCM and I’m excited to study them more closely in the coming months.

    • Thanks, John. I generally am not a fan of this period of architecture, as much of it is pretty ugly. But there are exceptions…and the Capitol Crest at 14th Ave E & E Thomas is one of them.

  5. The building in the top photo, the one at Roy and Belmont, I find interesting because it’s the most modern salt-glazed terracotta I know of in Seattle. I believe there was a regional architectural terracotta factory somewhere in the Sound region, with its own sculptors, doing both fashionable and local components. I guess it lasted just into the MCM era?

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