Friday, February 25, 2005

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, duaghter 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.

The Black House was designed by Seattle architect Andrew Willatsen, 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 that 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 more.