By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
A hearing February 15th is the next major step in determining whether the 91-year-old Hamm Building in the heart of The Junction gets city-landmark status.
The proposal to confer that status reached one milestone this past week, after an hour-and-a-half city Landmarks Preservation Board hearing that included both a strong show of community support and a declaration from a member of the family that owns the building saying the nomination “blindsided” them. The Southwest Seattle Historical Society, leading the campaign for landmark status for this building and the Campbell Building across the street, explained the notification process afterward, saying it had been talking with the family’s lawyer for months.
We reported briefly on Wednesday’s hearing shortly after its conclusion. Ahead in this report are details of how the hearing unfolded, and what happens next:
First, the backstory.
West Seattle’s relatively rapid redevelopment led to community concern that nothing was being done to keep its history from being lost. A survey of buildings in the West Seattle Junction, funded by 4Culture, was conducted. It was announced in March 2015 (WSB coverage here), and a year later, the results were presented (WSB coverage here). Two buildings at California/Alaska were determined to be the best candidates for landmark status – the Hamm Building on the northwest corner, and the Campbell Building on the northeast corner, both shown in the photo below, from the year the Hamm Building was built:
Three days after unveiling the survey results, SWSHS launched a campaign dubbed We Love The Junction (WSB coverage here) that would culminate in seeking landmark status for the two buildings.
The organization’s executive director Clay Eals (right) went through this backstory at the start of Wednesday’s hearing, held at City Hall downtown, as part of a Landmarks Board meeting that, with other, unrelated agenda items, spanned 4 1/2 hours.
Lentz said the building at 4302 SW Alaska/4559 California was completed in 1926, designed by Victor Voorhees. She told “the story of the building” — its significance under landmark criteria C, as it “illustrates an era of historic commercial expansion in West Seattle,” D because of its design and materials, and F, serving as an anchor for downtown West Seattle. (You can see the list of criteria by expanding the “designation process” information section on this city webpage.)
She then told the story of West Seattle and how important transportation was to its development. A photo of the then-new Hamm Building was shown, from May 1926, the same year this one was taken:
Developer William T. Campbell had held this lot (and the one with the building that bears his name) for more than a decade prior. This building was estimated to have cost $60,000.
She talked about Campbell, and about the building’s uses over the years – dental offices upstairs as early as 1928, a rooftop sign lasting as long as 1937, two drugstores downstairs – People’s Drugs for about half a century, ’30s to ’80s. And then, Easy Street Records, for more than a quarter-century now. In other spaces Crescent Dry Goods was an early tenant (which is why it’s officially known in the nomination as the Crescent/Hamm Building), with a millinery in the mezzanine for a while, “a stretch of several grocery stores,” and a jewelry store.
“When the Great Depression hit … Campbell was hit hard,” she continued. He sold the building to Aline Hamm in 1931. The family held the building until 1968, with a headline at the time in the Times reading “Family Sells West Seattle Landmark.”
Martin took over at that point, describing herself as a preservation consultant. She talked about Voorhees, who moved from Wisconsin to Seattle in 1904. Voorhees also built the Admiral commercial building that has been home to Zatz, the Cask, Irashai, and other businesses:
He retired by the late 1950s, Martin said. The Hamm Building is his most significant work in West Seattle, she declared. She showed details of the architecture, including a cornice and rosettes.
She also showed an overhead map from 1929 to demonstrate that its footprint had not changed. She went over its details, including the windows and doors. They don’t know much about its alley-side history, she said. Apartments line either side of its “double-loaded” corridor upstairs. The building’s gone through some changes that have “chipped away at the building’s character,” but despite those, they were certain it meets the requirements for landmark consideration.
Board comments followed, before the building owners’ turn to speak.
First question was about changes to the retail space. The north storefront has gone through the most, Martin said – by the ’50s, a “more traditional storefront” was in place. Is there some original material under the blue trim? Martin was asked. They think so, but aren’t sure. No original windows in the building? they were asked. Answer: Apparently not.
Other questions ensued about historical details of the building, and the Junction. “Back in that time, California/Alaska had, and has to this day, a four-way walk,” pointed out Eals – not unique but rare in the city.
Ownership representatives then came to the front of the room. The first to speak was Larry Johnson of The Johnson Partnership. He began, “We’re here mainly to focus on one thing …the integrity of the building,” and discussed more-specific details of the building – windows, for example – and canopies. Photos and sketches were used to show how things had changed – these are the details of which landmarking decisions are so often made.
He spoke of a 1991 remodel that affected the interior mezzanine. Also noted: The combination of two storefronts into one for Easy Street explains some of the elevation change inside the store/café.
“Over the years, the building has remained significant on this corner – I don’t think anyone can argue with that.”
And then he made way for Greg Yen (right), who described himself as the youngest of the four children in the family, a fourth-generation Chinese-American, father of kids who go to school in West Seattle. Then some more family history – recalling how the building was acquired:
“Nearly 40 years ago, my father called a family meeting and brought us together at the kitchen table. He said he was going to buy this beautiful building in West Seattle, and it was going to be expensive …he was telling us of the worthwhile investment …for going to college and school.”
Decades later, Yen said, his family learned about the nomination at a street fair in West Seattle: “We were essentially blindsided by this. … This whole proceeding took my family by complete surprise.” The building “is part of our livelihood,” he said, saying landmark status would cost his family time and money particularly if it covers the building’s interior. “As a native of Seattle, I realize the massive building and demolition that’s going on, and the transformation of the city and its architecture,” and the community concern about that – but, he said, while his family has “no desire for change,” they could “pay the price for fear.” He said his family hopes to pass their building on to the next generation.
After the hearing, we asked SWSHS’s Eals how SWSHS had communicated with the Hamm Building’s ownership. His reply:
The Southwest Seattle Historical Society is grateful to have been a major participant in the five-organization West Seattle Junction Historical Survey that was completed and released last March 2 and to be the organization behind the Junction landmark campaign that began March 5 and is ongoing. In both cases — the historical survey and the landmark campaign — we have consistently striven to be transparent and courteous in communicating with building owners prior to any public announcements. With landmarking, we operate on the principle of working with building owners to answer any questions, to address any concerns and to seek their support at every stage of the process.
In line with that principle, at several key points throughout 2016 we were in communication in person and by e-mail with the attorney for the Hamm Building, who advised us that he was the appropriate person for such communication. We provided him with information and answered questions about the landmark process and the timing and substance of our nomination. Wednesday’s hearing was our first opportunity to meet Greg Yen. He and I had a good, brief conversation immediately after the hearing, exchanged contact information and agreed to meet again.
After Yen spoke, the board asked for public comment, requesting that speakers limit themselves to a minute each, because the meeting was running so long.
First to speak was Peder Nelson, SWSHS vice president, leader of the “We Love The Junction” campaign. This building and the Campbell Building are essential to The Junction, he said, asking those who support the nomination to stand up.
Crystal Dean, co-chair of WLTJ, spoke next, saying this building is “The Junction’s North Star” and saying that the Hamm and Campbell Buildings are to West Seattle what Pike Place Market is to downtown.
Next, a task-force member who said many describe the building as “precious,” followed by a commenter saying the building is part of “a powerful sense of place” in The Junction – “a broad and commanding building, an anchor.”
Fifth speaker, Brad Chrisman from SWSHS, called this landmarking effort “one of the most important heritage efforts we’ve ever undertaken in West Seattle,” due to the Hamm Building’s 90-year history. He recalled working on the seminal local-history book West Side Story and discovering the history of “how The Junction got its name.”
Sixth, Brooke Best from Historic Seattle, who said the Hamm and Campbell buildings “physically and strongly claim their sense of place related to the district’s 1920s development. … If we don’t have these two buildings, then we don’t have The Junction any more.”
Seventh, SWSHS past president Marcy Johnsen: “When a building is gone, it’s gone, and people don’t remember it,” and that’s why preservation matters. She grew up in the carriage-house building that is now SWSHS’s headquarters, the Log House Museum on Alki.
Eighth, Husky Deli proprietor Jack Miller, who hosted the events announcing the Junction survey and its results. As a property owner, he said, he “feel(s) the (building owners’) pain,” but added that he believes the Hamm Building “has to be preserved.”
Ninth, a man who said he was disappointed to hear Greg Yen say the family was not notified, but, he continued, historic preservation is vital.
Tenth, David Peterson, an architect who had worked in the Hamm Building at one time and said he didn’t feel the architecture had been discussed enough – “that level of quality of terra cotta, you don’t see” most places, particularly outside cities’ downtowns.
Letters of support submitted by the Historical Society and received by the board were considered as well. We saw those that had been collected by SWSHS – they included one from former Mayor Greg Nickels, writing “… one of the things we must take care to protect, even as we change and grow, is the soul of the community we call home.” The building “needs lots of love, not a wrecking ball,” wrote R.D. Moody.
From former City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen came a letter saying the building “has been and continues to be important to the economic health not only of its current tenants but also to the economic health of the other nearby smaller businesses in the Junction.” Wrote Shannon Joyce, “That corner just wouldn’t be the same without that building. I’m glad The Junction has experienced such growth, but would love to know that some of the history of the city would be preserved.” Peggy Suehiro wrote, “You know you are home when you see that building.” Meredith Mills wrote, “… I hope we can be wise enough to keep its history and charm intact!”
Many people also pointed out the importance of the building’s longtime anchor tenant Easy Street Records, including that it “…has also hosted in-store performances by local legends Pearl Jam and The Sonics,” as Lars Swenson noted.
BOARD DISCUSSION: Deb Barker, a West Seattleite, said she supported nomination, and echoed the interest in the terra cotta details. The next member to speak said the same thing; he also expressed disappointment that the community hadn’t made contact with the family, said he supported nominating just the exterior.
Third member also said he supported it. He pointed out the street clock visible outside this building in a 1930s photo – the same one that is currently outside Menashe and Sons Jewelers (WSB sponsor) nearby. He addressed the family members, noting that the landmarking process tends to more often happen with a development proposal that catches a community off-guard, with a preservation process to follow, rather than the way it is playing out in this case.
Fourth and fifth members said they would support nomination on criteria C, D, and F. One said she hoped the family would come to appreciate the community’s love for their building. She also said she hoped that all the people who voiced appreciation of and support for Easy Street Records in the building are aware that the Landmarks Board has no control over what business is or isn’t in a building, noting that “the only way to ensure (a business’s continuation) is to support it.”
Another board member said she realizes the decisions they make have economic effects and they hope this won’t be so onerous on the family.
Finally, board chair Aaron Luoma wrapped up – calling the Hamm Building a “jewel” and observing that “the crossroads that is the West Seattle Junction” is a gateway, a boon to business, and saying he too supported nominating the building under criteria C, D, and F.
With that, the board voted unanimously to approve the nomination. But that’s just one step toward landmark status.
WHAT’S NEXT? The board’s February 15th meeting is currently scheduled for consideration of whether to designate the Hamm Building as a city landmark. There will be a public-comment period during that meeting too; we won’t know until the agenda comes out, at least a week ahead of the meeting, where the item will be, but the meeting itself will start at 3:30 pm, in the Boards and Commissions Room of City Hall (600 4th Avenue downtown). If they vote to designate it as a landmark, it would require Seattle City Council approval to be finalized.
WHAT DOES LANDMARK STATUS MEAN? Once designated, as explained here, “any alterations to the features that were approved for nomination require a Certificate of Approval.” This page of the city website explains the incentives for building preservation. They’re also summarized in this city-prepared brochure.