Alki Homestead review déja vu: Restoration? Reconstruction?

(WSB photo from 1/16/2011)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

It’s come up before, and now it’s come up again:

To reopen the city-landmarked Alki Homestead (originally the Fir Lodge), will it take restoration, reconstruction, rehabilitation, or some combination of all of the above? The scope of the proposal came up this morning downtown as owner Tom Lin and his architect team from Alloy Design Group returned to the Architectural Review Committee of the city Landmarks Preservation Board for a third review, with historic-preservation advocates watching from the sidelines.

The same question arose when Lin and a different architect brought a different proposal to the committee a year and a half ago, as reported here. Back then, they were proposing adding “other uses” to the site – a bar, maybe a bed-and-breakfast – but that plan was scrapped, and the new plan is all about bringing the Homestead back as a restaurant and banquet facility.

But how can it be done, when it needs a new foundation and a new roof – and some degree of replacement inbetween? “Tricky” is one word that was used.

For context: Architectural Review Committee meetings are somewhat-informal consultation-type sessions. Most project teams seek the ARC’s blessing before taking a project to the full board, which must approve alterations to city-protected features of landmark structure/sites (as explained here). In fact, Homestead project architect Greg Squires told WSB before the meeting, they have been trying to return to the committee as often as they can get on its agenda, to get as much guidance as possible as they plan a project that – whatever the scope – was repeatedly described today as “complex.”

Squires said they had hoped to spend their time today focused on the “accessory structure” that is proposed for the rear (western) side of the Homestead, mostly for kitchen space devoted to the restaurant and its envisioned second-floor banquet space, as well as an elevator to facilitate access to the 2nd floor (as well as a roof deck discussed at the last review meeting – here’s our report). But he said they had been told the board wants to hear more sooner rather than later about the actual “restoration” plans for the fire-damaged Homestead, so the discussion of the “accessory structure” was relatively brief.

Nonetheless, that part of today’s meeting yielded a few toplines, and they also gave some insight into the plan for the Homestead site’s landscaping, which had become a point of concern after the fire, with the once-lush front lawn drying out, among other changes visible to passers-by.

Architect Mark Haizlip told the committee that a landscape architect has joined the project and has toured the site “to determine individual plants’ health and well-being,” before developing a restoration plan for the landscaping. They are hopeful, he said, that “the majority will remain intact.”

Regarding the “accessory structure,” they reiterated that they are proposing a two-story structure with roof-deck access, “24 feet to the top of the roof, though DPD code allows 30 feet” – 27.6 feet to the “top of the parapet,” and 34 and a half feet to the “roof-access roof line.” According to Haizlip, the architects have consulted elevator companies to focus in on the “most advantageous” elevator for the site, one that needs only a four-foot pit – the water table is as high as 8 feet, he explained – with 12 feet clearance needed at the top “from the landing to the top of the tower.”

Then to the discussion of how the Homestead might be restored – and how much of it, in this team’s view, needs to be restored.

Back in 2009, the last time the restoration-or-reconstruction discussion came up, consultants suggested only about 20 percent of the structure could be saved. This time around, the assessment didn’t seem to boil down to much more.

The architects referred to multiple reports, including one by log-home expert Mark Fritch, a descendant of the Fir Lodge’s builder, who is still offering guidance on the project, and another one commissioned by Historic Seattle when it was considering buying the Homestead last year. (Historic Seattle‘s Eugenia Woo, who has been in attendance at many Homestead-related meetings, was there today, as was Judy Bentley of the Southwest Seattle Historical Society.)

In the architects’ current view, top to bottom:

*The roof must be replaced; it’s in bad shape, but “we’re keeping true to the dimensions of this roof from the exterior”
*The second floor’s interior walls need to go (and aren’t considered historic anyway – they were mostly to partition off apartment space) to clear
*The second floor’s exterior walls “might also need to be replaced depending on roof loads with new roof”
*The second floor’s framing “had the most significant damage from the fire, burned right through …” and in their view the logs need to be replaced
*The first floor’s interior walls are a mixed situation -some “in really good condition aside from smoke damage,” but one “must be entirely replaced (because of) fire and moisture damage
*The first floor’s exterior walls need “significant repair” because of rot
*The first floor’s framings are also a mixed bag, some in good condition, some rotted out and needing replacement
*The chimneys would likely remain in place, but the architects would “work with masonry experts to determine verify their condition.” Their cobblestone, is believed to have been from the area; Haizlip observed, “a high percentage of this building is sourced very locally.”
*The Homestead’s sign will be fixed up and replaced.

And then the big one – as also had been described in the past, the foundation needs to be replaced. Local soil and sand was used in it originally, the architects say, and with the saltiness from the bay’s proximity, “that could have played a role in rotting” some of the building’s wood. But getting to the foundation is the nearly impossible task – since the building is considered to be not in good enough shape to be lifted – the architects say they even consulted pre-eminent house-lifting/moving firm Nickel Brothers – that’s where the concept of disassembling and reassembling came in.

But they spoke of improvements as well. More so than in the 2009 reviews, they spoke of how many times the building had already been altered – “butchered,” even – before it was protected as a landmark. They also spoke of restoring original features long gone, like a skylight, “unique for the time,” that apparently capped the structure when it was built; that could “give light to the banquet space,” in a “fantastic opportunity for the building to reinvent itself.”

With the difficulty of what lies ahead, they may well have to reinvent the concept of how to carry out all those repairs and replacements. “It ultimately involves taking this place apart and putting it back together,” suggested Squires – once they have established criteria for whether components of the Homestead can be saved, and then used those criteria to review it piece by piece. In addition, there are potential complications such as smoke damage and leaded paint.

Once they were done detailing their view of the Homestead’s condition, that’s when the restoration-vs.-reconstruction discussion kicked in. Was this a “worst-case scenario,” suggesting the building was almost a complete loss? they were asked. Another opinion: “I’m really concerned about the amount of material that’s being replaced.”

“We are too,” offered Squires, “but it’s a reality of what’s there.”

Even with that, the concept of more reconstruction than restoration struck one committee member as “shocking.”

Landmarks Board coordinator Beth Chave suggested at that point, “You’re really talking about reconstruction, not restoration.”

“We still believe in the term restoration – it’s just a matter of how that physically happens,” replied Squires. “It might be perceived more as a deconstruction-reconstruction.”

Could that involve shoring up or patching some of the logs? some wondered. Squires wasn’t so sure that would be a “viable solution true to the restoration spirit.”

And yet, it was clear, the concept of restoration was muddied by the fact some parts of the building had already been altered or replaced over the years – “it’s not 1905 craftsmanship”; as the building “really was being butchered year after year after year,” said Haizlip, there was no apparent effort to match the original quality or standards.

Still, one board member pronounced the concept of taking the Homestead apart and putting it back together – with many replacement parts – “shocking.”

There could be an alternative, suggested Historic Seattle’s Woo when public comment was invited; she recounted the process of having a report done while they were considering the Homestead purchase – “We asked about excavating rather than having to lift up the building. By going under, you can actually create a new basement level for mechanical and electrical (features). (The consultants) said there’s enough historic fabric that can be retained and should be restored because of the importance of this building. At no point in our conversations was deconstruction discussed. I’d rather call it a rehabilitation, because that’s what it is.”

With some turnover on the Landmarks Board since the last round of Homestead consideration, which had included a site tour, it was decided that new members should arrange a visit. SWSHS’s Bentley invited them to visit the Log House Museum while they’re there, and – as had happened in 2009 – called attention to the fact that the museum, once an outbuilding for the Fir Lodge (Homestead), was preserved. “Perhaps it was in better condition at the time,” she acknowledged.

Again, no vote was taken today – the committee doesn’t vote, but offers guidance and suggestions, and the applicants are welcome to return for another discussion as time and space allow. Squires said before the meeting that they’ve so far been able to get on the agenda every other meeting, so if that holds true this time, they’ll be back in four weeks.
Earlier WSB coverage of the Alki Homestead is archived here, newest to oldest.

5 Replies to "Alki Homestead review déja vu: Restoration? Reconstruction? "

  • guy April 1, 2011 (8:52 pm)

    I’m so tired of this back and forth. Restore it already. My money is on it being torn down. I mean hurry up already. Its a eye sore now.

  • Edla April 2, 2011 (12:11 am)

    It is kind of shocking to consider a deconstruction and reconstruction of the building. If you stop and think about it, that is what happens any time you rebuild, reconstruct or restore a structure. You have to get into the parts of the building that need to be worked on, you do the repairs and refinish it so that it looks original. All of this has to be done within the constraints of a safe and productive work environment. The place where many people seem to be making a serious mistake is in assuming that frame construction and log construction can be assessed by the same criteria when it comes to repairs. There are a lot of ways to skin a cat, but first you need to make sure it’s a cat that you’re skinning and not an armadillo.

    Another thing to consider is that there is not an endless supply of money for this project and costs have been going up for two years now. Someone needs to come up with a solution that establishes what the structure will produce in revenue and thus what it can afford to invest in itself for the restoration. If it cannot pay its way, either it will not be restored or someone or some group will need to find a way to pay the difference between the cost of restoration and what the building can support. It is pretty simple.

    If this were a publicly owned structure, the taxpayers would be mandated to ante up the funds from tax revenues to do a restoration; end of conversation. This is, however, a privately held property and there is no one to squeeze for the high cost of restoration. What many people seem to be asking Mr. Lin to do is go bankrupt for the sake of satisfying their personal emotional attachment to someone else’s private property. Doesn’t that seem a bit like some people are crossing a boundary that isn’t theirs to choose?

  • onceachef April 2, 2011 (12:23 pm)

    I just want fried chicken…plain and simple. :)

  • BB April 4, 2011 (10:36 am)

    When you buy a landmark property you are not free to do anything you want with your property…he bought a landmarked property so anything he does to it must be approved by the Board.
    Caveat emptor…let the buyer beware!

  • Lienad Yehal April 5, 2011 (8:51 pm)

    It’s worth preserving, for my money. I waited tables at the Homestead Restaurant back in ’85, so I have a soft spot for it, but jeez, it’s like the THIRD building in Seattle or something. Anyone remember Doris Nelson? Woman who ran the place. She was a pistol.

Sorry, comment time is over.