Once upon a time in 1920, former Queen Anne resident Frederick L. Boyd built the Boyd Building on Westlake Avenue North.
Just this spring, to the apparent dismay of the building’s owners, it was designated a Seattle landmark. The story of the designation has fairy-tale qualities with a prince of a building and some strange goings on. Coincidentally, it provides a good lesson about how historic buildings become designated landmarks.
It helps to know that this relatively simple warehouse/factory building (995 Westlake Ave. N.) sits close the shore of Lake Union on the eastern edge of Queen Anne in South Lake Union. You’ll find it facing generally north at the spot where Eighth Avenue North splits off from Westlake heading south. Most of us know it as the American Meter & Appliance building.
Boyd, who was known for real estate speculation, constructed this warehouse, immediately adjacent to and north of his door and window manufacturing plant. At the time, the building shared the western shore of Lake Union with many similar industrial buildings. The neighborhood is due east of pioneer Thomas Mercer’s homestead and part of the tract on which Mercer settled with his daughters in 1853 just before he gave Lake Union its English name. In 1920, not many people lived nearby and most of the adjacent buildings had heavy wooden framing and exterior wooden facades. Unlike them, Boyd’s building has plain exterior walls of concrete while retaining heavy wooden framing supporting wooden floors.
Until alterations last year, it also sported large wooden sash windows that Boyd probably made in his next-door plant. The absence of the windows created a big problem during the nomination and designation hearings. The current owners, who had indeed ordered the removal of the windows, argued that their loss compromised the building’s integrity and disqualified it, therefore, from landmark designation.
The building’s owners purchased the building in 2015 and subsequently hired a well-known Seattle architect and architectural historian to prepare a landmark nomination. Like many people who own old buildings, they were anxious to remove all impediments to the redevelopment (i.e. demolition and resale) of the site. They understood that buildings over 25 years old have certain protections and that consideration and rejection of a nomination would give them a free hand. In fact, at the time of the nomination, they had already commissioned or were aware of drawings for a hotel there.
The landmark process has two stages: nomination and designation. If a building is nominated by the Landmarks Board, it is automatically considered for designation 45 days later. The nomination involves the preparation of a report and its presentation in a public meeting. The report addresses in a dispassionate analysis all six criteria for landmark status of which a building need meet only one. None of them address aesthetic qualities such as ‘beauty’ or ‘attractiveness.’ The presentation of the nomination began with an explanation by the property owners of why the building did not merit landmark status. They contended that their removal of the historic wooden window sash denied the building the integrity required for designation under the law. Their plea allowed the presenting consultants to be pretty even handed in their own discussion of the building’s characteristics.
The replacement of the windows occupied a significant portion of the consultant’s report as did dismissal of its association with Henry Bittman, one of Seattle’s most influential and prolific architects of the 1920’s. They claimed that Bittman (Eagles Auditorium, Terminal Sales Building, Troy Laundry) was insignificant in this case because he hadn’t yet opened his architectural practice at the time of the Boyd Building and because he signed the drawings as the building’s ‘Engineer.’
There was also an attempt to reject the building as an easily recognized building type characteristic of its neighborhood, its period of construction or its historic use. The consultant pointed to factory buildings by celebrated American architect of the time, Albert Kahn, noting that the building didn’t resemble anything the Detroit-based designer might have produced.
To everyone’s great surprise and following testimony by the Queen Anne Historical Society and Historic Seattle, the Boyd Building was nominated by the board. In response, the owners, having already invested in drawings for the replacement building and in the nomination and not wanting to relinquish future profit, effectively dismissed the local architectural historian and hired Heritage Consulting Group, a Portland firm — out of town consultants are always more credible they say — to present arguments at the designation hearing.
Heritage Consulting staged an assertive in-your-face presentation. Arguing one-by-one against each of the city’s landmark criteria. The firm seemed to misunderstand that nearly all the criteria were irrelevant and that only criteria VI was in play: Because of its prominence of spatial location, contrasts of siting, age, or scale, it is an easily identifiable visual feature of its neighborhood or the city and contributes to the distinctive quality or identity of such neighborhood or the City.
It would be unfair to members of the Landmarks Preservation Board to suggest that the assertive style of presentation by the out-of-town consultant caused them to designate the Boyd Building a city landmark. Their appraisal was balanced and honest. For now, the Boyd Building is a protected city landmark whose demolition, while still possible, will be much, much harder.
MICHAEL HERSCHENSOHN is president of the Queen Anne Historical Society (qahistory.org).