That’s the question members of the city Landmarks Preservation Board will want to see sorted out, as became clear during this morning’s meeting of the board’s Architectural Review Committee. This was the first public meeting at which Tom Lin, owner of the fire-damaged landmark, and his consultants have discussed its status and its future since a comprehensive presentation before the Alki Community Council two months ago (WSB coverage here). The meeting also provided a reminder of the fact the historic building’s future is of interest outside West Seattle – those who offered comments included representatives from the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, which five months ago declared the Homestead among the state’s most endangered buldings, and Historic Seattle; the Southwest Seattle Historical Society was represented as well. Read on for details on what was discussed and what the landmarks board – which has jurisdiction over the site’s future because of its landmark status – will do next:
The presentation was meant to brief the committee on the state of the historic structure as a result of damage from the January fire sparked by Christmas lights – although, as was the case at the Alki briefing in September, consultants also described non-fire-related deterioration, which led to a few questions. Two of the consultants who accompanied Lin also spoke at that briefing.
Architect Jeffrey Smith recapped the fact they’d originally hoped to repair the fire damage, but then found “extensive and comprehensive” damage throughout the structure from rot, “bad remodeling … and bad maintenance” in preceding decades. (Lin bought the Homestead in 2006.)
“So,” he said, “what we thought to be a restoration project with other uses added is what we are calling a reconstruction. The idea is to rebuild the Homestead and add other uses to the site.”
Also speaking, Mark Fritch, a log-home builder whose great-grandfather helped build the Homestead (aka Fir Lodge) a century ago.
“I would like nothing more than to save something my great-grandfather built in 1906, but I can’t see how you can save this structure … it’s been compromised by years of neglect.” Fritch also described the site as being so cramped, work would be difficult to do – “We’d have to remove the entire roof structure and second-floor level; there’s no way to access the log work without getting all of that out of there.”
According to Fritch, only 20 percent of the logs are “sound enough to salvage.” He noted that the log structure means that the same piece of wood – a log – is part of both the interior and exterior wall.
The verbiage used by meeting participants was important to note – as it is also called out in the U.S. Interior Department guidelines relating to historic preservation. Committee members – a subgroup of the full Landmarks Board – repeatedly asked for clarification on what the project team was seeking. Answered Smith: “The goal is a certificate of approval to demolish the structure and to rebuild it,” with the caveat, “we are trying to be really careful about that word, restoration and reconstruction.” He said they’d first thought they could “restore” the area damaged by fire, but when the third consultant present, Todd Perbix, expanded the study to the entire structure, they reached the conclusion that 80 percent of the building was “not intact to use … (so) this is not a restoration, this is a reconstruction of the structure. That’s the goal, to rebuild the structure, versus the impossibility of restoring it, because so little of it is left.”
A board member pointed out two consultant reports seemed to contain inconsistencies, with one of them saying the Homestead structure did not have “significant difficulties” pre-fire. Perbix explained, “My first visit was to look at the fire damage – that’s what’s in that statement – the fire damage is fairly significant but confined to the center of the building … Mark went in several months later,” and, he explained, a more comprehensive survey followed.
The problems detailed by the consultants include areas of the logs where they say the deterioration is so bad, “you could drive any implement through the walls with hand pressure … There is also significant settlement away from the fireplace, due to the compression from the ongoing deterioration of the logs.” In the end, the only parts of the building that are “intact enough to save as their original logs and wood” are the ground-level floor, two original exterior walls on the noth and west “that were enclosed at some time in the past,” and the fireplaces, described as “appear(ing) to be largely intact.”
But even the salvageable logs, they said, would not be reused in the same place post-reconstruction/rehabilitation. Fitch elaborated, “The best possible path is to salvage what we can and reuse it somewhere in the building. … If there was an unlimited budget and no limit to time, you might be able to restore this. But there’s got to be a pragmatic line of feasibility, and I think we’re well beyond that.” Further explaining the nature of how damage affects a log, he said, “To say you have a 10 percent compromised log is to say you have a 100 percent compromised log – you can’t just cut the (damaged) part off” because of the prominence each log holds in the structure.
Since the committee was running late after an earlier item ran long, they didn’t spend much time looking at or asking about Lin’s proposal for the property; what was mentioned wasn’t much different from the presentation on Alki in September – add an “Auto Club“-themed lounge, an “events space,” underground parking, new structures wrapping around the west and south sides of the lot, maybe a bed-and-breakfast, though Smith acknowledged current zoning doesn’t permit that, and said “a little bit of residential” might be an alternative. He also said they would seek to have the “reconstructed” Homestead further north and east of its current location.
When the committee invited public comment, that’s when they heard from reps of three groups focused on local history. First, Chris Moore, a West Seattleite who is field director for the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, who said he’s wondering “how important is it to parse out the damage done by the fire versus what we might call existing conditions prior to the fire, and how does that actually, through the process, inform what can be allowed or not allowed … do we use the fire as the reason to get rid of an entire building? Really, to me, it sounds like reconstruction.” He also pointed out that while Firch had made a point of saying it would be difficult to work on the site in terms of restoration, “if you are talking about a reconstruction, you need to have the same dimension of logs brought in – if you demolish the building and rebuild it according to its plans, that’s a reconstruction, according to the standards, so if you need to bring in logs, that’s the same site – I don’t quite follow how new construction is suddenly easy.”
Next, Judy Bentley of the Southwest Seattle Historical Society, which is based at the Log House Museum, West Seattle’s other surviving historic log structure, barely a block from the Homestead: “I want to point out that (the LHM) was built by the same bulider, in the same style, and was successfully rehabilitated in 1997. Some of the same difficulties were mentioned, access wasn’t easy, new logs were needed on the second floor, a whole wall was replaced … we have a video that shows the restoration.” She mentioned the video was on YouTube, where we found it tonight:
“If you’re looking for a comparable structure and wondering if it can be restored,” Bentley concluded, “I encourage you to look at the museum and see what we did.”
Committee member (and Landmarks Board chair) Stephen Lee asked Bentley her opinion about the situation in general.
Bentley said she’d been inside the Homestead since the fire, adding, “I’m not an engineer but I don’t know that I can answer that … I know there was similar rot at the Log House Museum … I would hope that (the Homestead) can be restored.”
After her, Eugenia Woo of Historic Seattle, who disclosed that she had worked for a consulting firm before joining HS in June and, in that job, had been offering advice to Lin and his consultants, “talking to them about the process, directing them to the standards … I’ve become really familiar with the project … we have always encouraged looking at alternatives to demolition from the beginning, and looking at what possibly can be done to rehabilitate the building, looking at the potential costs of rehabilitating it … The existing condition isn’t great, I understand; it’s important, as Chris (Moore) said, to distinguish the difference between after the fire and pre-fire – if the fire hadn’t happened, the building would still be there right now, the restaurant probably open, and people would still be eating the fried chicken dinners.” She suggested the pre-fire deterioration couldn’t, or shouldn’t, have been something Lin only learned about after the fire: “He bought it just three years ago knowing it’s a city landmark, knowing it’s a historic structure – I’d think somebody buying the building would want to assess it. We’re interested in looking at alternatives to demolition, and what are they. I know he’s got a good team, but it’s like asking for a second opinion. Maybe there could be another review of it, peer review, perhaps?”
Then Tom Lin spoke: “I think it is important for everybody to come to the site and take a look. I have been to the site and looked at every log. Ultimately, to form a really good opinion, it’s important for you to come and take a look firsthand.”
Committee members agreed, with Vernon Abelsen telling Lin and his team, “I don’t think anybody’s questioning your assessment — it’s our responsibility to see what can be saved. One of the things we may suggest as a next step, more of a careful marking of where the damage is, maybe through that process you can determine more closely what can be saved, so if you do demolish to do reconstruction, you have materials left. Right now it’s a pretty good assessment but not piece by piece. I agree that going to the site will be very helpful for all of us – there are many interested parties, not the least of which is you, the owner.”
Lin: “Yes – for eight, nine months it’s been a living hell.”
In addition to the committee members agreeing to visit the site. Fritch also urged speed, saying “If anything is going to be done this coming year, we have to move immediately and harvest the timber” – for the logs – “when the sap is down – Either we harvest by February, end of March, or we wait a year.”
Landmarks Board coordinator Beth Chave said dryly, “I think you also have to check with DPD [which grants construction permits], because I don’t think they are tuned in with the harvesting schedule.”
WHAT’S NEXT: The Landmarks Board’s visit; a determination whether the Architectural Review Committee will meet with Tom Lin and team again before the Landmarks Board itself decides whether to grant the Certificate of Approval required for the proposed reconstruction of the Log House Museum. Lin also would have to apply for city permits to build the project itself; here’s the city page where any such applications would show up.