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Originally published January 21, 2012 at 10:00 PM | Page modified January 26, 2012 at 1:04 PM

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Seattle's old buildings: Opportunities, not obstacles

Seattle's old buildings should be maintained and upgraded as the city evolves, says writer Lawrence Kreisman, program director of Historic Seattle. Reusing these old buildings, he says, is one of the best ways to improve the environment. It's much greener than building green from scratch. And it can make good business sense.

See the new Neptune

Historic Seattle will inaugurate its 38th year at its annual meeting 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Jan. 23 at the Neptune Theatre. The Seattle Theatre Group will talk will be about the theater's history and efforts to refurbish it. Informal tours will be offered. Book-It Repertory Theater will do a reading from the new book "The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World's Fair."

For information: www.historicseattle.org or 206-622-6952.

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IN THE ROOSEVELT neighborhood's business district, Standard Record & Hi-Fi presides on Northeast 65th Street as a vestige of 1940s-era commercial Seattle. Opened in 1947 as Standard Radio, it was the post-World War II equivalent of the Apple Store, and its products were as much in demand as the iPhone and iPad are today.

The store's iconic, streamlined facade was outfitted in slick, colored opaque-glass veneer. The curving sheet-metal canopy and neon lighting completed the look. These features set this and other progressive "streamline moderne" retailers apart from the more traditional 1920s brick of their storefront neighbors.

Now closed, the store's display windows announce that it is part of the new Sound Transit Light Rail station. In fact, it will be a casualty of — not a part of — the construction. What a shame. It could have been used as an inviting, novel entranceway that at the same time honored the neighborhood's past.

The Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board decided last March that the building did not qualify as a historic landmark. After people in the community voiced concerns, the North Link project offered at least to try to incorporate the "Standard" sign or other parts of the building into the station design.

In the historic-preservation community, we are frequently trying to get the word out that as cities evolve and push for sustainability, they should acknowledge the value of maintaining and upgrading old buildings that too often are seen as obstacles rather than opportunities. Reusing these old buildings is actually one of the best ways to improve the environment. It's much greener than building green from scratch. And, it can make good business sense.

While Standard-Hi Fi is a case of taking down buildings for a perceived public benefit, more common are the decisions business owners make daily to survive in a challenging marketplace. Some businesses face losing their leases; others struggle with increasing rents or disruptions around them. Still other businesses grow out of their locations. And some who own buildings that no longer suit their original purpose need to redefine themselves. All these scenarios are playing out in Seattle.

BUSINESSES THAT have long been associated with a particular street or neighborhood take some risks when they pack up and move. And even when the move is good for the business, it may be bad for those left behind.

Take the Elliott Bay Book Company's move in 2010 from its founding location at First Avenue South and South Main Street. It had expanded there to become the region's premier independent bookstore as well as a destination for thousands of people and a draw to nearby businesses in Pioneer Square.

The prospect of moving raised important questions: Would the bookstore's loyal clientele follow it up the hill? Could the new location create the same sense of place that the old one had?

Certain characteristics of the original space were acknowledged as important to recall in the new store. It helped to start off with a building graced with exposed-timber trusses and industrial sash windows. It was important to maintain a certain informal, welcoming environment that invited browsing, eating and drinking, attending book readings and starting up conversations with other book lovers. While it was impossible to replicate the old store, the new digs do retain that original vibe.

The store also managed to help energize a part of Capitol Hill that was for a long time home to showrooms, repair shops and services tied to the automobile industry. It is only over the past 15 years that the Pike/Pine corridor, as it's now called, has developed into a vibrant area of eateries, new housing and entertainment venues.

In many ways, Pike/Pine succeeded in reaching that delicate balance between wiping out the neighborhood's blue-collar heritage and finding fresh ways to hang onto its solid, understated building stock.

But Capitol Hill's gain has been Pioneer Square's loss. Those people who once came to Elliott Bay also frequently dropped into the nearby antique stores, patronized the art and craft galleries, shopped in the boutiques and fueled up in the restaurants. So when the bookstore moved, it wasn't as simple as just one less business on the street.

All the more reason for concern over the closure of Masins Fine Furniture and Interior Design, which has left its longtime home at 220 Second Ave. S. Bob Masin cited the lack of parking, particularly during stadium events, and the perceived lack of safety in the neighborhood as reasons for the retailer's decision to leave the building it's been in since 1946.

The move leaves one more piece of historic real estate searching for tenants. Just to the north of the Masins buildings are two signature buildings — the Furuya and Corgiat. They have been successfully renovated, thanks to developer Conover Bond, best known for turning the distinctive Arctic Club on Third Avenue into a boutique hotel. Yet, the Furuya and Corgiat remain empty.

Built in 1900, the Furuya and Corgiat buildings (renamed the Pacific Commercial Building) represent fascinating layers of Pioneer Square's history. Constructed as a two-story substation for the Snoqualmie Falls Power Company, the Furuya Building also housed M. Furuya Co., a Japanese import/export store. Three stories were added around 1905, but the upper two stories were removed after a 1949 earthquake. The adjacent Corgiat Building (originally the Main Hotel) contained single-room units on the upper floors and retail/office spaces on the first floor.

In 2008-'09, the buildings got a makeover that was full of challenges, including a seismic retrofit and new mechanical, electrical and fire/safety systems. Original windows and storefronts in the Furuya Building were restored. New wood windows replaced the Corgiat's deteriorated ones. The developer reconstructed the missing fourth and fifth floors, and the cornice of the Furuya so it closely resembles its historic photos. Both the Furuya and Corgiat now have office space to lease on the upper floors, as well as retail space on the ground and basement levels.

Restoring office and business blocks in the midst of a severe economic downtown is a major challenge. The market will change eventually, but for the business owner and developer, it remains a big risk.

In the meantime, areas in or near downtown that a decade ago were dormant are now sought-after addresses, South Lake Union being the poster child of this renaissance. People tend to forget the small industries that were here and had to relocate or simply close. They were expendable for the broader redevelopment of the neighborhood. However, they provided practical, affordable products and services in buildings that were themselves useful — if not so beautiful.

As an example, Seattle Building Salvage, forced out of the central business district in the 1990s, found affordable showroom space on Westlake Avenue North. When its fate was sealed by plans to raze it for a new office building, the company moved to Everett and has since closed its shop to focus on online sales.

Other buildings (some of them designated landmarks) that were used for commercial laundries, warehousing and manufacturing are undergoing what preservationists label "facadectomies." Developers incorporate only the facade in redeveloping an entire block. This was the case of the Richmond Laundry at 224 Pontius Ave. N. and the Van Vorst Building at 413-421 Boren Ave. N. It remains to be seen what will happen with the Troy Laundry at 311-329 Fairview Ave. N. and the Art Deco Seattle Times Building at 1120 John St. in the coming years.

Given that the alternative to facade preservation is likely demolition, we need to rely on the sensitivity and design talents of the current crop of architects and developers to find solutions that respect the historically significant features of these structures.

When it was determined that the widening of Mercer Street would require razing the Pacific McKay automobile showroom, a building that was settling and would have been challenging to move, Vulcan Real Estate took an extraordinary step. The developer preserved the significant terra cotta facade by carefully "deconstructing," cleaning, repairing and storing it, along with stone, carved-wood window frames, leaded glass, the central stair, marble — even a terra cotta fountain — to reinstall on a new building at the site.

Putting up new buildings in this part of town invariably has an impact elsewhere, and no more so than Amazon.com's move to the neighborhood. The company's former headquarters — an exquisite Art Deco brick skyscraper crowning Beacon Hill — has been left in limbo.

Designed by a partnership of local architect John Graham Sr. and Bebb and Gould, and built in 1930-32, the former U.S. Marine Hospital is part of an intact Art Deco campus that includes the principal medical building that forms the north enclosure of a lush commons around which cluster two-story brick clinics and residential buildings.

The hospital's dramatic hilltop location and the skyscraper's multicolored brick and terra cotta make this one of the most exciting buildings on the skyline.

A north addition by the firm of ZGF in 1999 functioned as a buttress to help the original building meet seismic requirements. It was wrapped in a new brick facade that closely resembles the original. Ironically, plans were drawn for sympathetic additional office development and parking on the north part of the site for Amazon, but were not pursued.

AMAZON'S GROWTH has been extraordinary. But even small companies faced with the need for expansion have no choice but to lift up stakes. In the case of Sutter Home & Hearth, which had become a fixture on Ballard Avenue, a designated city historic district, the location was no longer capable of accommodating its needs. While the company had to move, it was also clear that Ballard was still home. A larger shop has opened on Northwest Leary Way only a short distance from its founding space.

In a news release last summer, co-owner Mike Duval laid out the trade-offs:

"We will miss the buzz that has developed on the avenue," he said. "However, our customers will benefit from the easier access as well as the convenience of an adjoining warehouse."

Given that Ballard Avenue has become one of those gentrified areas with "the buzz," it's not likely the old location will remain empty for long. The vacancies in Pioneer Square may be more prolonged. But hopes were raised with the recent news that CenturyLink Field's long-delayed north lot development is moving forward. The first phase includes a distinctively modern 25-story apartment tower that could bring much-needed residents into the area. Initial reviews by the Pioneer Square Historic District Board have been encouraging.

Progress often leaves history in its wake, hidden and awaiting rediscovery.

Last summer, I was invited to have a look inside the former Rite-Aid store on University Way Northeast, where a new tenant had removed false ceiling and sidewalls to reveal remnants of the original Egyptian Theatre that opened with silent films there in 1925. One of a number of popular exotic motion-picture venues that thrived in the city's neighborhoods before the Great Depression, the Egyptian couldn't compete with television and big-screen multicinemas and closed in 1960.

While much of the former theater's elaborate interior had been sacrificed to turn it into a Pay 'n Save drugstore back then, I was amazed to be surrounded by turquoise, red and gold-trimmed column capitals, scarabs, winged sun discs, hieroglyphics and friezes that would have been seen in the tombs of the pharaohs. Overhead was a painted night sky sparkling with stars.

But the splendid view was temporary. The current tenant, a Dollar Store, has covered it back up with new surface treatments. At least this piece of Seattle theater history will be protected until the next remodel.

Nearby, we can all enjoy another theater's successful transformation. At Northeast 45th Street and Brooklyn Avenue Northeast, the 1921 Neptune Theatre managed to dodge demolition while a Sound Transit light-rail station goes up next to it. Seattle Theatre Group, which also operates the Paramount and Moore theaters, stepped in to preserve the Neptune by reinventing it into a live arts space.

Here's a case where a business also has a passion for theaters and what they can bring to a community. STG was willing to take some risks on a space it is only leasing to invest money for basic repairs, improved restrooms, theatrical lighting, dressing rooms and a reconfigured auditorium that can accommodate concerts, dances and catered events.

All that remains is to see if the former cinema will appeal to a new audience under the watchful, illuminated eyes of King Neptune.

Lawrence Kreisman is program director of Historic Seattle and author of "The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest." Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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