‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’: California Avenue SW historic-survey plan

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Two brick buildings along California SW have been in the news here again recently – Charlestown Court (3811), up again for demolition:

And the former Admiralty House Antiques (2141), recently sold but NOT currently up for demolition, undergoing interior work:

As other development proposals turn up – and as large developments proceed, with 4206, 4730, and 5020 California underway in The Junction and 3210 California in the works for south Admiral – the question is often asked: Is anyone working to save anything before it’s (almost) all gone?

The answer is complicated.

Some West Seattle buildings, of course, are already official city landmarks – but probably fewer than you think; see the list here. The process of getting landmark status is a tough one – the aforementioned Charlestown Court was reviewed when it last faced demolition, in 2008, and the board decided it didn’t qualify.

Even minus a landmark declaration, some buildings might be considered worth saving. But they might not be on your radar until they’re gone, or close to it. So – in the spirit of the song lyric in our headline – to create a record of what remains, there is an early-stage effort to survey (list and photograph) properties along the heart of California Avenue SW – in the works for some time, but virtually without resources, so far.

It’s been in discussion before the Southwest District Council, which includes reps from community councils and other major organizations in western West Seattle – has been discussing a survey. Chas Redmond from the SWDC has been a point person for the potential project, and says the latest plan is to see if the council can apply for a city Small and Simple Projects grant to get the survey going. A one-sheet (see it in its entirety here) explains the project’s purpose:

A collaborative project through the Southwest District Council to survey California Avenue from the northern to southern urban village boundaries to find and identify and capture structures worthy of preservation based on worthiness or notability as a first step in creating a guideline for developers which would serve to advise and inform new development in such a way that the general “look and feel” of California Avenue is preserved, even though the structure height will change.

The project is expected to be “multi-level, multi-year, and multi-dimensional,” with results including:

•Inventory existing structures from California Avenue @ Massachusetts to California @ Othello (Admiral to Morgan Junctions)

•Research parcels to trace development and possible historic or notable use

•See if this ties into or can be associated with Main Street programs

•Identify the aspects which make California Avenue walkable and annotate them as they pertain to the length of the Avenue and its development

•Identify the elements of the neighborhoods which California Avenue passes through and put the Avenue and the neighborhoods in context with each other by characterizing that interface

•Identify how California Avenue has acted as a unification factor for the development which has happened, is happening and will happen in the future, what about California Avenue has tied these developments together

•Determine if it’s possible and (if so) work toward creating an overlay along the spine of California Avenue which protects structures

•Identify and create a visual context for developers to use which helps preserve the visual viewscape of California Avenue SW as informed by the outcome of the previously-cited actions (inventory, identification, assessment) above

Redmond says they hope to make the June application deadline to put in for a Small and Simple grant, and possibly to apply for a 4Culture grant, to get the survey going. SWDC reps are almost all from all-volunteer community councils, and they meet only monthly; if you’d like to get involved, best bet is to check out the SWDC at one of its meetings – first Wednesdays, 6:30 pm, now at the Senior Center of West Seattle (California/Oregon in The Junction), next one two weeks from today, February 5th.

26 Replies to "'You don't know what you've got till it's gone': California Avenue SW historic-survey plan "

  • David January 22, 2014 (2:03 pm)

    I personally think the roof line on Charlestown Court is kinda cute. But, so? Is that enough to tell a private land owner what they can do with it? Is it actually “historic” and really up to the public not the owner because of the cute roof line? There ARE historic buildings. The Homestead is one of the very few log cabin buildings in the entire city, one of the oldest structures. There’s not 50 other log cabin buildings like that in West Seattle. I can understand that having historic significance. But outside of that, and general zoning rules, we have private property (much to the annoyance of many people it seems). The people/public don’t own Charlestown Court and every other building in town…individuals own them. And they can tear them down and replace them with an ugly building if they want. I hope they don’t. But it’s not my building. If you want to preserve a (non-historic) building, buy it. Otherwise you don’t have any say in it. I would hate to see Charlestown Court torn down and replaces with a boring box apartment building. But I don’t hate that outcome enough to BUY the property personally to preserve it, and I don’t think the fact that it IS “cute” qualifies as taking away the rights of the owner and forcing no changes to the structure. I kind of appreciate the original plan to replace it that utilized part of that cute roof line/shape, hopefully the new one will too. But if not, so be it. If you care enough, buy the property and feel free to not change it. :)

  • Alphonse January 22, 2014 (2:16 pm)

    Thank you for the information to help people get involved. A sense of outrage without accompanying action doesn’t do much good.

  • A. January 22, 2014 (2:49 pm)


    Your logic has no place here.

    (Thank you for a well thought out and rational post.)

  • Betsy January 22, 2014 (2:55 pm)


    You are exactly right. We live in a country that values property rights (for the most part) and therefore, we cannot impose our taste (whatever that may be) on our neighbors. And thankfully, they cannot do the same to us.

    When the City or any other entity tries to impose excessive restrictions on private property it is often called a ‘taking’, meaning that value is being taken from the property. To say an individual property owner can’t ever change a building because the roofline is ‘cute’ is to sap the value from that property.

    Imagine if the day after you bought your house your neighbors came over and said “Thanks for buying that house. We like it the way it is; it makes us feel good when we walk by. So you can’t change anything. We don’t care if you want to paint it or add on to it or whatever. We live near it and we like it so we’re telling you not to change it.”

    I also really like the building in question. But the reality is the owner is the one who decides what happens next. Kinda makes more sense that way.

  • Old Timer January 22, 2014 (3:22 pm)

    Always loved the look of this Apartment. I walked by it everyday on the way home from West Seattle High … always thought it would be a great place to live.

  • JanS January 22, 2014 (4:05 pm)

    a shame they can’t incorporate somehow parts of the facade/roofline, etc. into the new building/s instead of more boxes. They need to use some imagination.

  • Bruce January 22, 2014 (4:41 pm)

    Is any thought given to the financial burdens placed on building owners once a structure is declared a landmark? What about owners who cannot afford to maintain a building deemed worthy of landmark designation? Who helps the owner maintain it? Who helps pay the fine if the owner cannot bring it up to code due to its ‘historical’ significance?

  • metrognome January 22, 2014 (5:01 pm)

    not sure I’d mind so much if they were planning to put up a ’boutique, a pink hotel and a swinging hot spot’ not to mention a ‘tree museum’ as long as they don’t ‘charge the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em.’ A parking lot wouldn’t be such a bad idea either as long as they don’t completely pave our little corner of paradise. Kudos to Joni Mitchell for writing such a great song.

  • Genesee Hill January 22, 2014 (5:07 pm)

    I imagine that piece of property looked best in 1844.

    How far back should we go? 1860? 1890? 1917? 1925? 1955? 1963? 1980?

    1991, when I arrived in West Seattle?


  • Deb January 22, 2014 (5:11 pm)

    A past development proposal for Charleston Court incorporated the brick facade and the existing courtyard within a multi-storied apartment complex. I recall that the architect worked really hard to retain the unique character of the courtyard complex even though it did not qualify as a city landmark. They used their imagination; will the new architect do the same???

    • WSB January 22, 2014 (6:29 pm)

      Deb – In the story that is linked in this one, it links in turn (sorry, things get nested that way) to that 2008 concept that ultimately didn’t get built. The current proposal is with a different landlord and for a totally different project – townhouses. This building would be demolished to build them from scratch. No design review required so there’s nothing on record with a full-front/side look but the site plan appears to be relatively conventional. It’ll face the 30 townhouses/live-work units at 3824 California (ex-Charlestown Café) across the street (they go to design review next month).
      Bruce – For the landmark-designation process, which isn’t what this is – there are incentives such as tax breaks: http://www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/preservation/incentives.htm
      Overall, if I had had another hour to work on this, I would have mentioned some of the areas of the city where there are overlay districts, the kind of thing that could be a possibility several steps down the line from this. Capitol Hill – which is going through a ton of redevelopment right now, for example:
      As our friends at CapitolHillSeattle.com report, though, there’s a lot of room for interpretation and development proceeds:

  • Gatewooder January 22, 2014 (5:19 pm)

    “A nation that forgets its past has no future” (Winston Churchill)… the same might be said for our WS community.

  • Mike January 22, 2014 (5:55 pm)

    I recommend to anyone with an inquisitive historical mind to check out the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation’s website located here: http://www.dahp.wa.gov/
    Their WISAARD mapping program has a some of information on historical houses and buildings. Just make sure to click the historic property inventory box.

  • wsn00b January 22, 2014 (6:00 pm)

    The linked document says:
    “the general “look and feel” of California Avenue is preserved,”

    Yay! That sounds like a good-old HOA.

    It also says:
    “helps preserve the visual viewscape of California Avenue SW”

    What does that even mean? The definition of viewscape in the footnote of the doc is highly redundant and pretty arbitrary.

    What a waste of time and city money instead of something productive like fixing a road or old water main instead. Leave that property owner alone unless there is a hazardous violation of basic DPD code.

  • redblack January 22, 2014 (7:08 pm)

    see, the thing is that – while ownership has its privileges – no one really wants to live in a community that has no memory.
    sure, the owner(s) of charlestown court are not limited by landmark status in developing that property to their wildest fancy. but my question to them would be:
    “what kind of person wants to see his community diminished by demolishing a quaint, historic-looking building in favor of an ugly, money-making sh-t box/hotel/condominium?”
    as i said in the previous article on this subject, anyone with any sense of community would upgrade the structure with systems and architectural updates that modern renters would pay good money for[sic].
    for example, i used to love hanging out at OK hotel in pioneer square. and, while (for example) fresh bistro is nice, it doesn’t have half of the character of the older buildings.
    just my $.02.

  • Enough January 22, 2014 (7:51 pm)

    I like it redblack and gatewooder.

  • WS gal January 22, 2014 (9:47 pm)

    David, absolutely!

  • G January 22, 2014 (10:04 pm)

    It’s funny, when I was growing up in West Seattle no one ever talked about preserving the “charm” of West Seattle. “Charm” and West Seattle usually weren’t used in the same sentence. The Junction was quiet, even dull. Interesting how these same buildings are suddenly worthy of landmark status. That’s not to say I don’t have a fondness for the Charleston Courtyard, which is just down the street from me.

  • datamuse January 22, 2014 (11:38 pm)

    redblack, that the Nisqually quake essentially destroyed the OK Hotel makes that citation a bit ironic, it seems to me. Old buildings are cool but all that charm requires considerable maintenance just to keep it from falling down.
    If people want to save this building, by all means have at it. How many of us remember that before that building–well before–was old growth forest? Is it the community’s memory you’re preserving–or your own?

  • redblack January 23, 2014 (4:30 am)

    datamuse: either. both. i don’t know. i do know that i like west seattle’s tree-lined neighborhoods. nice blend of history and pre-history, don’t you think?
    anyway, ever notice how portlanders make the effort to preserve and restore old brick buildings? here in 206, all of our coolest new hangs and domiciles are kind of sterile-looking. almost like they were all designed by the same colorblind robot.
    yea. here comes another mixed use/condo box. and not because that kind of building looks nice. they’re prevalent because they’re cheap to build and they garner high rents with little regard for aesthetics.

  • WestofJunction January 23, 2014 (7:05 am)

    It could be pretty – I wonder about the condition of the brick. Yes, brick is not a no-maintenance siding. Additionally, earthquake insurance is very expensive – prohibitive if it is structural brick.

  • Anne January 23, 2014 (7:41 am)

    I am a 4th generation West Seattle-ite & while it’s hard to see these charming homes/buildings go I fell property owners have the right to do what they want with their property. I mean most-buy property as an investment-right? We don’t nor are we entitled to know the reasons the owners have decided to sell-or who they sell to. Once the property is sold-that person/entity has the right to do/build what they want. Would it be great if the developer had some insight into the character of the community/ neighborhood-instead of just slapping up another modern-cheap to build big box? Of course-but that is not the way it works.

  • NeighborMom January 23, 2014 (8:57 am)

    LOVE that the community is doing some thoughtful work around keeping the charm and cohesiveness of California Ave. Thank you — I’ll try to attend!

  • datamuse January 23, 2014 (1:40 pm)

    I love brick–grew up in a brick house in a neighborhood full of brick houses on the east coast–but its tendency to shatter into its component parts during a major earthquake, coupled with a fault running right under the city that has caused subsidence and landslides in the past, well, much as I love brick I can’t really fault people for not using it here. I have no idea what Portland’s seismic vulnerability is like compared to ours, so. I can’t say I’ve noticed Portland’s preservation because I haven’t been there for close to ten years, so I’ll take your word for it.
    I’m having a hard time thinking of a neighborhood of West Seattle that I’d consider tree-lined, myself. I mean, we have trees in Highland Park, but they’re pretty young still (and some of them are invasive). In any case there’s no reason you couldn’t have a multi-story building with trees in front of it, just don’t run the thing all the way up to the street (which I agree is unpleasant and claustrophobia-inducing).
    What I’m getting at is that when most people talking about preserving community memory, what they mostly seem to mean is their *own* memories of how the community used to be. It doesn’t seem to occur to a lot of people that what they remember necessarily changed what was there before it, probably with similar upset on the part of at least some residents of the time. I was thinking of this the other day, because not a single bar or nightclub that my old band played in in the late 90s is still in existence. (Well, the Offramp, but it’s changed names several times since then.)
    Anyway. I’m all in favor of development taking place in a more thoughtful and intentional manner that takes the wishes of nearby neighbors into account.

  • anonyme January 23, 2014 (2:38 pm)

    RB nails it as usual.

  • redblack January 23, 2014 (4:57 pm)

    datamuse: i hope that brick remains an integral part of seattle’s architecture; it’s my bread and butter. and it’s perfectly viable in earthquake country. while it’s not maintenance-free, it is cheaper to maintain as a veneer than wood or metal.
    funny side note: the root of “archtecture” is “arch.” the first arches were brick.
    the biggest reason that you see fewer brick houses is the up-front cost of installation. but there’s plenty of it being laid in south lake union right now.
    thanks for the discussion.
    i wonder if i ever saw you play live…

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