Character Flaws

History’s Not a Facade

The fight for the Showbox has begun. Yet many such disputes have already been resolved in a strange sort of compromise: facade preservation.

By Stefan Milne September 11, 2018 Published in the October 2018 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Joshua Huston

In July, when BC-based Onni Group announced plans to demolish the Showbox and build a 44-story luxury apartment building, Seattleites took to a Save the Showbox petition on (tallying some 90,000 signatures in two weeks) and to City Hall.

At council meetings in August, musicians, including Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, pled their case before lawmakers. Music is integral to the city’s identity and for 79 years the venue has stood as an epicenter. Duke Ellington, the Ramones, Pearl Jam—all played the Showbox. Prince held his final Seattle shows there. Even council president Bruce Harrell voiced support with an intentioned ignorance: “I don’t even know who owns it. I don’t know who’s developing it. I don’t even care.” On August 13, the council voted to temporarily extend the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the venue. It’s a stopgap measure, not a solution, and the fight will likely roll on.

This sort of struggle isn’t new, but the battle for the Showbox has moved so swiftly and prominently that it distills some current antagonisms. It pits artists against developers, preservationists against urbanists. Lately the outcome in many such disputes is a strange compromise: integrating an old, sometimes landmarked facade into an otherwise new and generally much taller structure. Proponents call it retaining a “character structure.” Detractors call it “facadism.”

In Capitol Hill’s Pike/Pine District, the method is explicitly encouraged in the design guidelines, and South Lake Union is home to some of the city’s most Frankensteinian designs, sites like Troy Block: a pair of glassy towers wedged into two landmarks—the Troy Laundry Building and Boren Investment Building. Currently, downtown examples are less prevalent. But Eugenia Woo, the director of preservation services for Historic Seattle, says that may be changing. Various plans for the Terminal Sales Annex landmark at Second and Virginia show a contemporary tower swallowing the 1916 building from above. So with the Showbox under threat, it’s instructive—sentimentally, aesthetically, metaphorically—to see how the city has already interpreted “landmark preservation.”

The fate of The Showbox, opened in 1939 and a cultural touchstone for generations, was the focus of preservation talk for much of August.

Image: Sunita Martin

Less than a mile north of the Showbox lies a cognate project: the old Seattle Times Building. In 1995 the city approved it as an official landmark, noting the 1931 building’s cultural significance, its embodiment of architectural styles (Art Deco, Moderne, Beaux Arts), and named it an “outstanding work of a designer or builder” (Robert C. Reamer).

The original Seattle Times building in the 1970s.

Image: Wikimedia

The newspaper moved out in 2011 and two years later sold the old building and a lot across the street to Onni Group (the same developer behind the Showbox). Onni plans four towers on the sites. While the Times building lay empty before development, it became a hotspot for squatters, and in 2016, after numerous fires, the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections ordered it razed, save two facades.

Eventually, the development should look much like Troy Block across the street, where landmarks were largely demolished because the soil was too contaminated for developers to occupy. Now offices tower over old facades.

What do preservationists think? Woo calls Troy Block a “poster child of facadism,” a method that she generally derides. “While not outright demolition,” she wrote in a 2015 Arcade article, “facadism is less preservation and more a begrudging compromise between past and present.” She argues that it’d be better to build new, architecturally significant buildings instead of working in a historical scrap. Not that preservationists want to halt all development. “Just because they’re old,” she says, “doesn’t necessarily mean they’re historic.”

The firms behind Troy Block (Touchstone) and the Times project (Onni) didn’t respond to inquiries. The language on Touchstone’s website, though, seems telling. Among its attributes, the developer lists “dealing with landmark status” after “negotiating with the Department of Ecology to develop clean up plans for contaminated sites.” Which isn’t surprising: Preserving landmarks is costly and adds bureaucratic layers. But Andrew Clinch—who worked on the Troy and Times projects for architecture firm Perkins and Will—says architects like the challenge. “We love reactivating and reinvigorating these buildings.”

The city, it seems, sees facades as good compromises. Neighborhood guidelines invoke character—the idea that facades maintain an area’s past vibe. But frequently the projects entail such radical recontextualization of this character that they stand less as preservations of identity and more as testaments to the dominion of the new over the old.

The Pike/Pine guidelines argue that the character structures are “critical to the area’s economic success because it is this unique identity that has helped local businesses to succeed." The problem is that Pike/Pine’s “unique identity,” much like South Lake Union’s, has shifted. The auto row buildings no longer house auto dealers. Change is the way of things, certainly the way of this city—why come up with architectural shorthand to pretend it’s not?

The Showbox is a different matter. Aside from an iconic marquee, the outside is nondescript. Its history lies within, architecturally and aurally: a musical lineage, a cultural throughline that runs back nearly 80 years. On August 8, Historic Seattle, along with Vanishing Seattle and Friends of Historic Belltown, submitted the landmark nomination for the Showbox. But even if designated, the venue’s future is uncertain. That marquee may become merely, woefully, another sign of the times.

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