The Booth Building is not a landmark, but it should still be saved.
The 1914 Booth Building on the southeast corner of Broadway and Pine was, until recently, a Seattle Central College owned building that has a long and important history. Perhaps most notably, it was the first location of the Cornish School, and founder and namesake Nellie Cornish lived in the building as well. The Cornish School was Seattle’s first major music school and grew to become Seattle’s first major art school. Cornish had a significant and broad impact on music and arts culture in Seattle, something the city is known for.
If you are landmarks wonks like we are, you know that a building only needs to satisfy one of six criteria to be honored and protected with landmark designation. We see strong evidence that the Booth Building fulfills almost all of them. Its association with Nellie Cornish is one. Association with social history of Seattle is another. It embodies an architectural style: Spanish revival; and it’s a major work of noted Seattle architects Thompson and Thompson. And to round out our list, the Booth Building is the most notable building at one of Seattle’s most notable intersections. The Broadway Crossing building across the street echoes the shape of Booth, and the two buildings work in visual tandem.
The city of Seattle’s landmark process for the Booth Building recently ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. Its designation failed by a hair. It only needed one more positive vote, and that vote was present for most of the meeting. However, in a heartbreaking twist that altered what seemed a clear impending outcome, that member stepped out of the room for an emergency call just seconds after expressing clear, vocal support for designation and just seconds before the official vote.
To designate a building as a landmark, a majority of the board members need to approve. Not a majority of those present at the meeting, but instead a majority of the appointed and confirmed members. Effectively then, not attending a meeting is the same as voting “no”. The Booth Building needed 5 “yes” votes but got 4 due to this unlikely and entirely preventable circumstance. This decision contradicts the expressed wishes of the majority of the board itself.
Therefore, we are encouraging two shifts in the process. First, in the event something like this happens again, Landmarks Board members and staff should delay votes when there are very close margins like this. Such a norm is especially vital during the current pandemic, when it is difficult for board members to attend even virtual meetings that span half a day. Second, we believe that the standard agenda order needs to be flipped, with designations up first while the most members are present, so that any early departures don’t result in incidents such as what happened in this case.
However, a shift in the process moving forward still leaves the Booth Building with an uncertain future. The new owners, YouthCare and Community Roots Housing (formerly Capitol Hill Housing), have said they value the history of the building and “anticipate” saving the facade in their new project. The building is also part of the Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay, so they’ll be rewarded with extra height if they do. However, without landmark protection, they can still decide not to keep the facade, and even if they do, it will always be at risk of being altered beyond recognition, either in this project or in years to come.
We are looking forward to having YouthCare in the neighborhood and to working with them and Community Roots on their final plans, and we encourage you to join in the conversation. Their missions in the neighborhood dovetail perfectly with the Booth Building’s legacy as an educational center. Youthcare works to end youth homelessness and ensure that young people are valued and empowered to achieve their full potential. Community Roots Housing envisions Seattle as a place where anyone, even artists and teachers, can afford to live and thrive. We can think of no better way for them to honor these missions than by settling into and preserving the very building where "Aunt" Nellie Cornish - artist, teacher, ground breaker, and single mother to an adopted, orphaned child - established a home, a school, and a thriving Arts community at a time when women could not legally vote.
There will be a point where the new owners will need to weigh priorities, and it will be important that they know and understand how much the surrounding community cares about neighborhood history. Money comes and goes, but once you destroy a building, it is gone forever. So please join us by reaching out to YouthCare and Community Roots and letting them know how important this building is.
Thank you for your support.
Capitol Hill Historical Society