In Bellevue, few protections exist for older buildings
When Puget Sound Energy sold its old Bellevue headquarters to a company that planned to demolish the building and put up condominium towers...
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
When Puget Sound Energy sold its old Bellevue headquarters to a company that planned to demolish the building and put up condominium towers, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation was quick to act.
The same day the deal was announced, the organization placed the half-century-old building at the top of its list of most endangered historic sites.
The preservation group was trying to make a point: The four-story remnant of post-World War II architecture may not look like much to developers and city officials, but it's one more vestige of local history that's about to disappear in a city that already has lost a lot and seems poised to lose many more.
Unlike most cities in the region, Bellevue has no law to help preserve historic landmarks and no preservation board or commission.
The absence of a legal process, combined with soaring property values and lack of interest on the part of city leaders, means historic landmarks like the Puget Power building have little chance of being protected.
A list of 50 historical city landmarks compiled for the city 12 years ago already has shrunk by seven, with several others currently threatened — including the 82-year-old building that houses the Bellevue Barber Shop, scheduled for demolition in July.
Bellevue Barber Shop building,10251 Main St.
Significance: Reflects original character of the Old Bellevue business district. One of few businesses that has continued to house the same use.
Status: Scheduled for demolition next summer, although supporters are hoping to raise money to save and move the building.
Puget Power building, 10607 N.E. Fourth St.
Significance: Good example of Eisenhower-era architecture. Predates most other buildings in downtown Bellevue.
Status: To be demolished to make way for condominium towers.
Winters House, 2102 Bellevue Way S.E.
Significance: One of few buildings associated with the past agricultural activity in the Bellevue area that remains on its original site and has retained its architectural integrity.
Status: On National Register of Historic Places. Part of Bellevue Parks Dept.
Fraser Cabin, 13204 S.E. Eighth St.
Significance: One of Bellevue's oldest structures, built for pioneer Daniel William Fraser.
Status: Moved to its present site in Kelsey Creek Community Park in 1974 by the Bellevue Parks Department.
Bovee House, 1532 108th Ave. N.E.
Significance: Home of Bellevue's first mayor, Charles Wesley Bovee Sr. The first two City Council meetings were held in this house.
Status: Torn down several years ago.
Washington State Bank, 123 Bellevue Way N.E.
Significance: Known as the Glass Bank, it was designed to take advantage of solar energy and represented a major break with tradition.
Status: Torn down in the late 1990s.
Source: Bellevue Historical and Cultural Resources Survey "Landmarks"
Concerned citizens and history buffs have managed to save a few structures over the past several decades, but they are finding their hands tied, legally and financially, as deep-pocketed developers sweep up many of the city's larger and more costly properties.
"The problem with preserving these buildings is that they're worth a lot of money. So you run into a huge property-rights issue," said Mike Luis, former interim director of the Bellevue-based Eastside Heritage Center.
Yet other cities, both smaller and larger, have set up laws and procedures to help preserve historical structures. So why not Bellevue?
"It's never been a huge issue," said Matt Terry, Bellevue's director of planning and development. "Politically, it's never really aroused great interest on the part of the community. Most of the buildings built in the '50s, '60s and '70s weren't built to last 100 years. And frankly, we have not been sad to see some of them go."
It's unusual for a city with the size and prosperity of Bellevue not to have some kind of preservation program, said Charlie Sundberg, a planner for King County's Historic Preservation Program, which contracts with many cities to preserve structures.
"It's surprising, and it's too bad," said Sundberg, noting that Bellevue "has no incentives, no protective authority, no staff expertise to recognize historical significance."
City Councilman Don Davidson said the lack of interest may be just a matter of timing.
"Bellevue is a relatively new incorporated city," he said. "Kirkland has 100 years, they're twice as old. From a city-government perspective, it's not been that long."
After being inhabited by Salish tribes for hundreds of years, the land that is now Bellevue became a frontier settlement for immigrants in the 1860s. A handful of those homesteads have been successfully preserved.
By the late 1940s, Bellevue was modernizing into a sprawling, car-centered suburb. When the city incorporated in 1953, it was characterized by low-slung shopping centers and subdivisions. Commercial buildings followed, dotting downtown with modernism's sharp, minimalist angles of concrete, glass and steel.
It's these types of structures that have been hardest to save, acknowledged Luis. "It's not a style of architecture that's warm and fuzzy," he said.
Terry agrees. "If we had a Pioneer Square in Bellevue, we'd probably think differently, but we don't," he said.
That's not a good excuse for allowing historical structures to disappear, observers say. Buildings from the '50s and '60s "tell the story of the evolution from an agricultural area into a modern suburban city," said Eugenia Woo, board member and representative for the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, which releases an annual list of endangered sites.
"Unfortunately, sometimes the whole historical debate gets bogged down in a building's style," said Andrew Phillips, an architect and member of the local chapter of Docomomo, a group that helps conserve Modern buildings worldwide. "Whether anyone likes it or not is not always important. For Bellevue, which is a modern city, both a building's style and its story is historical."
That's the thinking behind the Eastside Heritage Center's current effort to save The Bellevue Barber Shop, a still-operating community landmark on downtown's Main Street slated to be replaced by a $45 million condo-retail project next year. Once Bellevue's commercial and community heart, Main Street has slowly been losing its Old Town flavor as new development has taken over sidewalks and revamped storefronts.
Though short on cash and lacking any legal backing, the Heritage Center hopes to find a suitable new location for the wood-frame barber shop, once one of the street's most popular gathering spots.
But it's a tall order for the center, a nonprofit that has problems of its own. The center was created in 2001 through the merger of the Bellevue Historical Society and the Marymoor Museum of Eastside History. The following year, King County Parks evicted it from the Clise Mansion in Marymoor Park, forcing it to pack up and store 35,000 local artifacts.
Now, offices and research materials are housed in cramped quarters in two Bellevue Parks Department historical buildings — the Winters House and McDowell House. With a bare-bones budget and two new directors in three years, the center has chosen to focus on school and community outreach programs and compiling oral histories.
Historical Society efforts
Even without a legal process, Bellevue has managed to preserve some of its architectural history, mostly through the efforts of the former Bellevue Historical Society and the city's Parks Department. Among the successes: The 1920s Sharp Cabin, which was relocated to the Bellevue Botanical Garden; the 1888 Fraser cabin, moved to Kelsey Creek Park; the Spanish Revival Winters House at Mercer Slough Nature Park; and the McDowell House on Main Street, which was sold to the city in 1988 and now is used by the Heritage Center.
"We've put a challenge to the community to save the barber shop but haven't gotten any response," said Heather Trescases, new executive director of the Eastside Heritage Center.
Meanwhile, the chances of saving the Puget Power building are slim, Phillips acknowledges. He said the group plans to talk with Bellevue residents and push for a formal landmark ordinance in the city.
Interest could be there. Docomomo hosted a Bellevue Modernism tour in 2003, and tickets for the event, which started at the Puget Power building, sold out. There was a lot of energy, said Woo, who also sits on that group's board.
"Just because the public doesn't regularly say, 'I love this building,' it doesn't mean that the interest isn't there," he said.
But in the face of major development, the city remains unapologetic for its lack of commitment to preservation.
"We set out to transform downtown many years ago. We contemplated wholesale change and moved forward on it; that's what people wanted," said Terry, the development director.
Besides, he added, many of the city's new structures will one day be historical themselves, and those, Terry predicted, will be saved.
The downtown under development now, he said, "That's what we want to see here in 100 years."
Times Eastside bureau reporter Sherry Grindeland contributed to this report. Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or firstname.lastname@example.org