Fifty years ago, just as the establishment of Fort Lawton took many years of tug-a-war among various interests and individual wills, so did the undoing of it when the property and buildings were surplused in the 1960s. This controversy pitted interests against each other about the creation of a historic district.
The proposal to preserve some of the original buildings and grounds was met with anguish by the Friends of Discovery Park and with joy by some city officials and citizens.
This debate came on the heels of a long list of other debates regarding private and public interests wanting the land before and after it became Discovery Park.
The Friends became staunch and unwavering defenders of not allowing this park to become another Central or Stanley Park. They continually referred back to the Discovery Park Master Plan that prescribes that the park “should…provide…open space of quiet and tranquility…a sanctuary…[to] escape the turmoil of the city and enjoy the rejuvenation, which quiet and solitude and an intimate contact with nature can bring.”
In 1975, a proposed golf course in the park was put to a city vote. The Friends made a compelling case against it, and citizens agreed. Shortly afterward, the city proposed that the original Army buildings be preserved in a historic district.
The Friends again contended that to keep and use historic buildings would be a breach of the park’s master plan. Many others wanted to preserve the buildings as a testament to its Colonial Revival architecture and the fort’s place in history. Still, others saw the buildings as a resource for more park opportunities and reuse.
Activist Bob Kildall stated, “It would be very difficult to carry out the master plan if parts of the property are cut up as islands earmarked for other uses…and if various buildings are used in such a way as to attract larger amounts of traffic into the park.” Some disagreed. One proposal was for a low-income district for artists who could use the buildings as homes and studios.
There were more ideas, debates and rebuttals. On Dec. 1, 1975, Herb Robinson, on the editorial page of The Seattle Times, called it “the long-running ‘battle of Fort Lawton,’ an effort that began a decade ago.” Robinson further expressed that the fight was not yet over.
Plans were proposed; studies for reuse were called for. Preservationists wanted to keep and use 24 buildings. In the meantime, one of the buildings proposed as an environmental learning center burned down under “possibly suspicious circumstances,” according to The Seattle Times on May 15, 1983.
The fight went on. On April 29, 1984, Robinson again weighed in: “Deciding what place, if any, the ancient Fort Lawton buildings have in the park’s future has been at an impasse for far too long. While the issue was simple enough, its resolution has been stymied by a variety of factors…government bureaucrats, historic preservationists and park purists…. The prolonged pulling and tugging…is typical in the public policy arena these days…too cumbersome, too expensive and too vulnerable to political manipulation.”
But there was more to the story. Federal law required that the Army consider impacts on historic buildings when turning over the property. In 1980, the city had signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) requiring it to “take any action required to prevent further deterioration” of the historic buildings and to enact an ordinance to manage the historic district. The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, sued to enforce the agreement.
In February 1988, the federal District Court halted demolition, finding that “irreparable harm would occur if demolition of the historic buildings proceeded and the MOA remained unfulfilled (Washington Trust for Historic Preservation v. City of Seattle, No. C87-1506C).
City Council members continued to disagree. Councilmember Jim Street argued to save six buildings, without uses, while Councilmember Dolores Sibonga wanted just two saved, but with uses.
On June 14, 1988, the City Council finally voted, and, in the words of a Seattle Times article of June 14, 1988: “Six historic military buildings surrounding the Fort Lawton parade grounds will stand as empty-silent memorials to the old Army base.”
The historic buildings have been left to languish, unused. The World War II chapel (added to the district in 2005) needs refurbishing, new paint and landscaping. The other buildings have peeling paint and need repairs.
The recently surplused Officers’ Row and non-commissioned officers’ houses are now also protected by local historic district status. The exteriors are being restored and will be sold to individual private owners, who will be in a homeowners association bound by city historic guidelines.
On Thursday, April 16, the Magnolia Historical Society will hold its annual meeting with a presentation by historian and preservationist Mimi Sheridan on the history of the fort and the historic district. Sheridan did the excellent program on the history of the Magnolia Boulevard at last year’s annual meeting.
This year’s meeting will start at 7 p.m. in the Fireside Room at Magnolia Lutheran Church (2414 31st Ave. W.).
THRIVE Communities will also speak about plans for the privatization, rehabilitation and restoration of Officers’ Row and the non-commissioned officers’ houses in the historic district.
This program is free to the public and refreshments will be served.
For more information on the meeting or to buy Magnolia’s award-winning history books on the history of the fort and Discovery Park go to www.magnoliahistoricalsociety.org.
MONICA WOOTON is a board member of the Magnolia Historical Society (www.magnoliahistoricalsociety.org). Mimi Sheridan, also a board member, contributed information to this column. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.