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Capitol Hill Modern: 2nd update

After taking some time away from this project to focus on the successful production of our first coloring book and on urgent personal matters, at long last, I have returned with an update. The project has been quietly progressing in the background. Slowly, but surely. Let's take a look.

The reconnaissance survey is complete.

Area surveyed. Approximately 1200 acres.

Over an area of approximately 1200 acres (including parks) I identified 247 buildings. This is much less than our initial estimate of 450+ as indicated by the Atlas of Reurbanism. Looking back at the atlas (pictured below), t is pretty easy to see how an accurate count could be hard to reach. It is a heat map broken down into squares and when clicking a square it only tells you how many of the buildings in that square were built prior to a certain date. Even worse, when going through and taking the count, I noticed many buildings overlap more than one square, making it possible that some were counted more than once.

Be that as it may, the count currently sits at 247. Six of these have been demolished and two are pre-1910 buildings that were extensively remodeled to a Mid-Century Modern style. Nine were built in the 1940s. 102 were built in the 1950s. 125 were built in the 1960s. Eight were built in the 1970s. Most of these buildings are entered into the Washington State Dept of Archeaology and Preservtion's WISAARD database. Those that have yet to be added were ones I discovered accidentally during the research process for the context statement, which I will discuss in detail below, but first...

For those who don't use social media, I continued to pick out and spot light some of the more interesting buildings I encountered along the way by writing commentary on them accompanied with professional photos provided by my project partner Lana Blinderman. I not only found this a particularly useful preparatory exercise for researching and writing the context statement, but also for understanding the architectural forms themselves and maintaining the project's public presence.

Now lets talk about the context statement, the first draft is also complete.

I shared the draft last week with state architectural historian Michael Houser who very generously agreed to review it and offer feedback despite not being officially involved with the project. (Though he kindly wrote us a statement of support when we applied for the grant!) His impression was overall positive and included some helpful suggestions and edits. Before I work on incorporating those into the draft, I'll share my own impressions on the process of putting it together.

Drafting the context statement was both incredibly challenging and fascinating. For starters, the grant contract with 4Culture required that I write a context statement up to one page in length or about 500 words instead of the typical tens of thousands of words--even for a single building. Now you might be thinking, 500 words seems really easy, not challenging, right? Wrong. I discovered during research that the subject was too broad and complex for a single page to possibly do it justice. And yet, I knew I couldn't write a complete document because there was neither the time nor the funding from this grant to do it and even if there was, COVID-19 continues to restrict access to the records I would need to complete it. So I had to strike a compromise.

I wrote a statement that touches on the many complex factors I encountered, provides some preliminary analysis, and reaches tentative conclusions. In a word, it's a boilerplate. A roadmap offering many possible avenues for further research and development. You could also say it's a living document--and many thanks to the California Preservation Foundation who emphasized this in their webinar on preparing context statements. So I ended up with a 3600 word statement, which is little over 8 pages. This count excludes citations, visual aids, methodology, disclaimer, acknowledgements, and project goals. So the document will certainly grow in the coming weeks.

So how did I get here?

After completing the reconnaissance survey and submitting the building entries to the WISAARD database, I decided I needed something easily adaptable and browse-able to analyze everything I had just found. So I created a spreadsheet. I took the images of each building I had already captured from Google Street view and dropped them in. I then created fields for name, address, date built, original owner, builder, architect, and notes.

Lana and I then browsed the spreadsheet and first discussed selection criteria for the 10 buildings we plan to highlight in greater detail and then selected candidates. Our criteria were Era/Construction Period, Architectural Style, Construction Method, Visual Interest, location, Demolition Risk, Integrity, and Documentability.

Hereafter, I then conducted some surface level research on some of the buildings in order to get a rough idea for themes and patterns over time. Keyword searchable digitized newspapers were an enormously helpful resource here. The newspapers often promoted new construction projects and typically cited the owner, builder, and architect. During this process, I learned that you have to get VERY creative with keyword searches to find what you are looking for. Not just variations like "Fifteenth" and "15th" or "Av", "Ave", and "Avenue", but rather searching for the nearest intersection like "15th and Denny", a single street name, and variant addresses and building names. For instance the Melrose Terrace Apartments used to be named "Rochdale House" and has FOUR variant addresses 300 & 308 E Republican Street as well as 500 & 516 Melrose Avenue E. And note well that the article pictured below gives no address, but instead describes it as "Melrose... between East Republican and East Mercer."

For buildings I had a particular interest in, but could not find a promotional newspaper article, I reached out to the enormously helpful folks at the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections Microfilm Library and asked for some original construction permits. Here's one example for a minimal traditional building completed in 1948 at 514 E Roy St.

As you can see, bureaucratic handwriting can be a bit messy. So in cases like this where I couldn't read a contractor and/or architect's name, I captured a screenshot and posted it to social media for help in deciphering it. The amount of interest was surprising and it also resulted in the successful identification of Earl W. Morrison as the architect and W.H. Sharpe as the builder.

After a certain point, I started to get a sense for how many buildings were constructed each year, which architectural styles were used and when and how these styles changed over time. This really helped in defining the the Eras or Construction Periods I would eventually use to structure the context statement.

Number of multi-family buildings constructed per year

It also helped tell me where and when to look for potentially causal or correlated historical events. I then returned to the digitized Seattle Times and Seattle PI to start searching for these events. I searched for things like "veterans," "Edison Technical," "apartment construction," "apartment program", "federal housing", "garden court", "short term rental", "rent control", and so on. Below are examples of some of the first things I found:

From here I would take note of additional keywords found in these articles to start searching for as well. Wash, rinse, and repeat. One keyword, or phrase rather, stood out in particular, specifically the "Seattle Planning Commission." Since 1946 it has advised "the Mayor, City Council and City departments on broad planning goals, policies and plans for the physical development of the City." The commission is often mentioned in local newspapers providing key metrics on annual construction activity and as a mediator and advisor in permitting and zoning disputes and changes. They also produced annual reports, the most detailed of which was published in 1950 and is now instantly available here (click the image below) thanks to the fast action of City Archivist Anne Frantilla who scanned and emailed to me all the available reports between 1946 and 1963.

This then inspired to me to see what other kinds of broad demographic reports I might be able to find from similar entities. If you aren't familiar, is an enormously helpful resource in this regard. Check it out if you haven't done so already. I use it all the time and here are just a few of the reports I found for this project (links provided below).

Restrictive Covenants in Seattle: A Study In Race Relations (hosted by University of WA, not hathitrust)

I then paired these primary sources with contemporary sources such as:

(I also spoke with Susan, Mimi, and Michael on the phone once or twice throughout the process. They all offered very helpful advice.)

I scanned through these reports for any useful info I could find and again slowly but surely, put together a context statement. The final draft along with our selection of 10 buildings will be released in the coming months so stay tuned.

In the meantime, here are a handful of interesting items I encountered along the way.

Excerpt from the 1947 Annual Report of Seattle Planning Commission. Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives
First Black architect to set up an office in Washington State right here on Capitol Hill. He openly challeged racist housing practices here. We'll share more next month. Article and Photo from Seattle Times, 1950

Construction of this massive apartment building was struck by two tragic disasters. Various articles from Seattle Times and Seattle PI published between 1960 and 1961.

Capitol Hill Modern is funded by 4Culture.

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