On place

The first time I was in Seattle, I fell in love with a place. Not with the city as a whole, but a particular spot in the city. This is the way that love happens, I believe; we fall for details, for characteristics, either one at a time, slowly, or in such a huge rush that it seems we are falling for the entirety of person, place or thing.

On my first visit to Seattle, I fell in love with Kerry Park, a small urban park on the south slope of the hill where I now live. Certainly the view – a view captured in countless tourist snapshots, local advertisements, and TV news stand-ups – is breathtaking. It encompasses the skyline at its best angle, Space Needle front and center, and a sweep of Elliott Bay from the docks out to the nearby islands. And on clear days, Mount Rainier is visible, either starkly cut against the bluest skies you’ve ever seen, or shimmering ghostlike, as it was yesterday morning. Oh yes, it is a view for waxing rhapsodic, for sitting and staring and contemplating.

But for me, this place is not just about the view. The view is only one side of the place. The park is surrounded on its other sides by several of the grand houses and old-fashioned brick apartment buildings that make up one of Seattle’s oldest neighborhoods. I am an architect, daughter of an architect, granddaughter of a builder. Buildings are in my blood, are part of my earliest memories. Houses and housing are for me both life blood and my life’s work. What I fell in love with at Kerry Park was a house.

black houseThe Black House, designed by Seattle architect Andrew Willatsen, was built in 1914. Willatsen was an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Wrightian influence is evident in the house’s horizontal lines, bands of windows and deeply overhanging roof. The rows of boxwoods along the terraced front yard of the house reinforce the horizontality of the design. If I were putting together a case study on buildings as perfect backdrops, the Black House would be on my list. Spare and elegant, the design says to me Yes, I am here. I am a part of this hill, this neighborhood, this city. But look! Turn around and look out at this amazing view with me.

When I saw the ‘For Sale’ sign in front of the Black House a couple of years ago, I was covetous. Oh, to be the caretaker of that gorgeous house, to live in that place, to have that glorious view. The house did not sell for months, but eventually the sign came down. I was envious of the people who had the financial wherewithal to buy a part of one of Seattle’s landmarks.

Sadly, the new owners appreciated only the view, and not the place of which their house was a part. Just over a year ago, they had the beautiful 90-year-old house that they had just purchased demolished. They did so as stealthily as possible, acquiring the demolition permit during the week between Christmas and New Years. The demolition crew told passersby early in the day that they were doing maintenance work. There was no attempt made to salvage any of the materials from the house.

It has been 14 months since the Black House was demolished. While the owner of the property stated that he intended to build a new house, there has been no application for a building permit, no sign of any activity on the property. I can’t imagine that, should he build, his new neighbors will be welcoming. There is a chain link fence around the old foundation. There is a ragged hole torn in the fabric of this place. I cannot imagine how it might be mended.

Not every old house is worth saving. Some old buildings are ugly, are poorly built, are culturally worthless. Some buildings, however, have value above and beyond their worth as property. The Black House was one such building. Kerry Park is not the same without it.

Note: I’ve attached an article from the Seattle PI regarding the demolition of the Black House. Click to read:

Queen Anne reels after Wright-style house is torn down
Friday, January 23, 2004

Lois Soiffer’s daily walk along Queen Anne Hill’s West Highland Drive lost some of its charm last weekend, when the architecturally significant J.C. Black house at 222 W. Highland Drive, across the street from Kerry Park, was demolished. The street offers a sweeping view of the city and is a draw for tourists and residents alike. “I don’t believe neighborhoods should never change, but change takes place in context,” she said. “That house was part of the bones of the neighborhood and needed to stay. It was too beautiful to tear down.”

Another neighbor, artist Cathy Sarkowsky, said she felt betrayed. “They tore it down without any notice or communication with people who live here,” she said. Saturday morning, she noticed a crew of people working around the house and asked what they were doing. After being reassured they were doing maintenance, she left and came home in the afternoon to find the house partially torn down. “No effort was made to salvage material,” she said. Inside were 1914 tiles from London and long plank oak floors, the kind almost impossible to get now, among other things, she said. When she alerted the demolition crew to the interior riches, work stopped and some attempt at salvage took place, but Sarkowsky was amazed at what she called the secretive nature of the operation.

Ken Woolcott, a Seattle investor who grew up in the Northwest, bought the property last summer for $2.3 million after it had been on the market for 10 months. “It isn’t true that there was no attempt at salvage,” he said. “We tried to remove the glass tile on the fireplace, and it crumbled to powder. I told the previous owners they could remove it if they wanted, and they declined.”

Woolcott said the house was full of asbestos and mold, and his wife didn’t want to raise their baby there, and he agreed. “I did everything legally. Anyone could have bought that house and saved it. Nobody did. It’s my dream to live there with a view of Seattle. We’re not talking about a commercial space. We’re talking about a private home, where I go to bed and get up in the morning. I want to build something that will be an asset to the community and makes sense for the neighborhood.” He estimated it would have cost at least $3 million to restore the house to its original splendor and added that he could easily spend that much on his new home.

“The Black house was one of the 10 or 15 most significant houses in the city,” said Jeffrey Karl Oschsner, who teaches in the school of architecture at the University of Washington and edited a 1994 book titled “Shaping Seattle Architecture.” The house was designed by Seattle architect Andrew Willatsen in 1914. Because he had worked in Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio in Illinois during Wright’s most creative period, the house showed the Wright influence, with an overhanging roof, horizontal design and wide expanse of closely linked windows.

Larry Kreisman, program director of Historic Seattle, said there is no historic district on Queen Anne Hill. “We hope for good stewardship of important houses,” he said. There were unfortunate alterations in years past to the house’s design, both inside and out, that might have raised questions if landmark status had been proposed, he added.

P-I architecture critic Sheri Olson thinks there’s no question about the house continuing to be a treasure. “It was a significant house by a significant architect on a significant site,” she said. “It was very modern for its time and still looked modern.”

Oschsner noted there is a strip of historic properties on West Highland Drive, and the loss of the Black house will damage the neighborhood. “Sometimes the whole character of a place gets destroyed when key properties are lost,” he said.

Karen Gordon, head of the city’s historic preservation office, said the demolition was a travesty, especially as her office had numerous conversations with the seller about designating the house as historic. “There is no protection for single family houses unless the property is designated a landmark,” she said. “I’m sorry the sellers and the buyer were not more appreciative of the house in their care,” she said.

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